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March 6, 2014

Is the magistracy too middle class? a difference of opinion

Transform Justice’s new research on the make-up of the magistracy was launched at the end of last week.  This research included new figures and quotes from qualitative research with sitting magistrates.  The launch event featured some great speakers: Richard Monkhouse, Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, Dr Charles Willie, Chief Executive of Diverse Cymru, Professor Rod Morgan and Sharon Jandu, a magistrate.  Dr Charles Willie, a magistrate who used to sit on his local advisory committee, felt the whole recruitment process needed overhauling – that those on the committee tended to recruit in their own image.  He felt this was particularly true in the case of referees – that the recruitment panel knew the referee, they would tend to think favorably of the candidate.  Charles was also concerned about the criterion that every candidate had to show an understanding of the wider community.  He felt that many of those from ethnic communities (who could have made great magistrates) knew their own community well, but not necessarily other communities.  Richard Monkhouse was not convinced that some aspects of diversity were as bad a problem as suggested in the report. He pointed out that the proportion from ethnic minorities was rising and felt that the magistracy had a good mix in terms of class.  I pointed out that the Magistrates Association members who took part in the research were themselves concerned that the bench did not represent working class people.  Professor Rod Morgan was concerned that lay magistrates were being sidelined altogether, and that the decrease in diversity was a symptom of a wider neglect of the health of the magistracy.  I agree that the issue should be seen in a wider context but am not convinced politicians want to see the end of lay magistrates.  Minister Damian Green is due to bring out government proposals on the future of the magistracy in April.  It will be really interesting to see how radical they are.