Magistrates embody one of the most important tenets of the criminal justice system - the principle that defendants are judged by their peers. Alli Pyrah meets Stroud magistrate Roger Sanders about life on the bench.

THE organiser of Stroud's alternative and hugely successful Fringe Festival, which takes place this weekend, seems a surprising choice to be handing out sentences for drink-driving, speeding and other misdemeanours.

But Roger Sanders, who also works as a gardener, has been dispensing down-to-earth justice since he became a magistrate 12 years ago.

"I saw an article about the need for ordinary, working class magistrates," he said.

"My wife said, go on, you could do that' and off I went."

Roger is a fascinating character.

Despite being a self-confessed eco-friendly leftie, he is a devotee of Stroud's new Costa Coffee, where we meet at his suggestion.

Given his infectious and seemingly perpetual cheerfulness, it is hard to imagine him pouring over legal tomes and delivering stony-faced verdicts.

But as Roger points out, shattering the stereotypes surrounding magistrates is perfectly consistent with judicial principles.

"I think more young people should become involved," he said.

"Defendants are supposed to be judged by their peers but how can that work when you're in your 60s and there's a 25-year-old in the dock?"

There are around 30,000 magistrates in England and Wales, dealing with around 97 per cent of all criminal cases. A group of magistrates listening to a case are collectively known as the bench'.

Legal guidelines state magistrates should be from a range of backgrounds, reflecting the community they serve in terms of race, gender, occupation, political affiliation and where they live.

But because of the time commitment involved and the fact that the role is filled by unpaid volunteers, the majority of magistrates are middle-class retired professionals.

While they are paid expenses and compensated for loss of earnings, magistrates attend court for a minimum of 26 half-day sessions a year.

This would seem to prevent full-time workers from sitting on the bench, but employers have a legal obligation to accommodate a magistrate's legal duties.

Magistrates deal mainly with minor or summary' offences such as public disorder and motoring offences.

This involves setting the timetable, deciding bail, hearing the evidence and deciding on a verdict. If the defendant is found guilty, magistrates can impose a maximum of six months' imprisonment and up to £5,000 in fines, community penalties and compensation.

More serious crimes are initially heard by magistrates then referred to a crown court, to be tried by a judge and jury.

Some offences, like theft and fraud, are considered either/or' offences and can be dealt with by magistrates or a judge, depending on their seriousness.

Again, these will initially be heard by a bench before a decision is made.

For Roger, the most satisfying aspect of the job is making sure everyone gets a fair hearing.

"We are really there as adjudicators, to look at both sides of the argument," he said.

"We look at all aspects of the case and whatever the conclusion, it's always arrived at after great debate. When we make a decision, it's a structured decision."

No formal qualifications are required but potential magistrates must go through a selection process, which includes rigorous screening. Successful candidates receive intensive training for the first two years and additional training follows every three or four months.

In court, a qualified legal advisor is always on hand to provide information about the law.

Ironically, Roger's least favourite aspect of the job is sending people to jail.

"Usually it's done as a last resort," he said.

"Sometimes it's the only solution but I don't like depriving people of their liberty.

"Some people are caught in the social trap.

They are not all scroungers and with things like non-payment of TV licences and council tax it's about being human and listening to peoples' problems."

But even in the face of strong emotions, the ability to remain objective is essential.

"We have to try to set aside our feelings," said Roger.

"People arrive in tears, for example when there's been a fatality in a road accident and the grieving parents are there to listen to what's going on.

"It affects me but it doesn't affect my decisions.

"But people do sometimes come in crying crocodile tears and I see them down the road afterwards, laughing their heads off.

"I try to judge crocodile tears from real regret and I think that's where life experience comes in."

* * * Fancy becoming a magistrate?

* Magistrates are volunteers appointed by the Lord Chancellor. They are unpaid but receive allowances to cover expenses.

* Anyone 18 and over can apply. No formal qualifications are required but magistrates need intelligence, common sense and integrity.

* Employers are obliged to give magistrates time off work under the Employment Rights Act 1996, and if they choose not to pay them the state will refund their earnings.

* Magistrates receive up to two years on-the-job training, which is topped up throughout their service.

* For more information and an application form, visit