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February 26, 2014

Magistrates: representatives of the people?

Transform Justice’s new report is published today.  Its about the make-up of the magistracy today and the lack of diversity.  For which no-one, including me, blames magistrates themselves. Many magistrates make great sacrifices to sit.  Particularly, some magistrates with jobs.  For the report, we spoke to magistrates in four areas of England and Wales.  They were committed to the magistracy, but desperate that it should be and appear more diverse: “I’m often on the bench with people like myself who are white, retired, women – a bench of three women all like me in the adult court when the majority of offenders are young Pakistani men, Polish people, young Romanian people. Our bench is 450 magistrates. Maybe across the board some of that reflects the diversity of the population, but it’s not my experience of the bench.”  Magistrates are also too old – 55% are over 60, and a quarter of new recruits in 2013 were also over 60.  But potential younger magistrates face conflicts between work and the magistracy.  One Chinese magistrate we spoke to approached his employer (a bank) to ask if he could apply to the magistracy.  He was told he could, but only if he never used a working day to sit.  Amazingly he accepted this, and has agreed to use his annual leave for all of the thirteen days he has to sit.   He will have hardly any holiday left. I don’t think this would have happened ten years ago.  Then the government was wooing employers and advertising for new magistrates on buses. Now potential and actual magistrates feel totally alone in dealing with difficult employers.  The government needs to ensure people have a legal right to sit as magistrates, or recompense employers properly for their absent magistrate employees.  The present situation is unsustainable, if we are to have a younger magistracy.