The office of magistrate traces its development through centuries of English and American history. Many of the duties now performed by magistrates were once carried out by justices of the peace. However, the office of justice of the peace was phased out in 1974 and the Virginia magistrate system was established as part of a statewide court reorganization plan. While magistrates are not judges possessing trial jurisdiction they are an integral part of the judicial system and are judicial officers of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The principal function of the magistrate is to provide an independent, unbiased review of complaints brought to the office by police officers, sheriffs, deputies, and citizens. Magistrates are not police officers nor are they in any way connected with law enforcement. Instead, magistrates are issuing officers who serve as a buffer between law enforcement and society. Most magistrates are not lawyers; however, they are specially trained to perform such duties as issuing search warrants, subpoenas, arrest warrants, summonses, and setting bail. In addition, magistrates may assist the public by providing information on the judicial system processes and procedures.