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January 31, 2014

The importance of gay magistrates

Transform Justice’s recent report on diversity made no mention of sexual orientation. This was not because it isn’t an important aspect of diversity, but because there are no statistics whatsoever on how many magistrates are LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transexual). Its one of the many gaps in the data about magistrates – all we know with any certainty is their age, gender and a very rough idea of their ethnicity.  This means we have to guess about other aspects of diversity, but I would guess that our lay benches do not reflect the proportion of LGBT people in the population.  A gay magistrate in a recent focus group we did said

“I’ve met a few gay people sitting on the bench, and as far I’m aware there’s not enough – because we are representing the community, and we get gay defendants…When three men sit together it can sometimes become a bit of a club, and I think that is very detrimental to the magistracy and to decision-making”.

Stonewall agrees.  Their report Gay in Britain found that half of lesbian, gay and bisexual people would expect to face barriers to becoming a magistrate because of their sexual orientation, and one in six would expect worse treatment than a heterosexual person if appearing before a magistrate for a minor criminal offence.  Because of this, Stonewall recommended that  advisory committees should actively encourage applications from gay candidates.  I agree, but the problem is that magistrate recruitment is more or less frozen and there is no budget for promoting the magistracy.  To increase magistrate diversity, recruitment must be somehow unfrozen.  Otherwise, the magistracy will remain too white, too old, too middle class and probably too heterosexual.