The upsides and downsides of being a magistrate today
“I have been a magistrate for 26 years and I’m as enthusiastic as the first day I sat. I think it’s a wonderful thing. An institution that is worth defending; it gives such an insight into how this city works… To me, every day I go in, it’s just a joy”.
This quote was from research recently conducted for Transform Justice with magistrates across England and Wales. All the interviewees were asked about the “job satisfaction” of being a magistrate.
Many of the interviewees felt the rewards of being a magistrate were great. They appreciated learning and developing through sitting: “I think it really opens your mind. Because most of us live in our world…. And when you have that eye-opener, it makes you sometimes a better person”, “sitting with different people with different ways of thinking – it helps you develop as a person. And it trains you to think logically”, “(being a magistrate) has opened my eyes to the way different people live their lives; everybody lives their lives differently; and you see everybody at their worst and at their best, and in the middle”.
Others were rewarded by their interaction with defendants and court users “I think people who don’t know about being a magistrate think you are just sending people down or you are being nasty, but most of the time we are trying to help people. The family court is a real eye-opener. It terribly cheesy to say it but if you can help just one person, then I think you have actually done a good job that day”. “One of the satisfying things is you get the sense that the defendant feels that they’ve been dealt with fairly….That might mean they are going to prison and it might mean something else but they can feel that they’ve been given a fair hearing. That feels good.”
Magistrates were passionate about their role but many had concerns about how they were treated and the way the courts were being managed
“The rate of change is probably too fast so that people feel undervalued….There isn’t a chance to really feel that people are having a contribution in terms of collaboration, in terms of making suggestions as to how things might change; it is all being done to us rather than us being part of those decisions. There are lots of letters on the board in X court saying ‘we value your work’ but it is just words on paper.”
Some interviewees were so unhappy that they felt unable to encourage anyone to join the magistracy. Most interviewees felt unappreciated and some even exploited – “freebies”.
Several issues contributed to their unhappiness
1) The closure of courts and diminution of local justice
Many interviewees felt that the magistracy was rooted in local justice and this value had been undermined by the closure of courts and the way it was done. This was particularly heartfelt in the Welsh focus group
“what you have is a civil service approach, imposed from England…in an office in London looking at a map saying ‘why on Earth are there loads of courts next to each other?’ No understanding whatsoever of the topographic, the tribal differences between those valleys and communities or the difficulty in getting from one of those areas to the next because they are valleys areas. That is pure and simple bureaucracy gone mad.”
“at one time, justice was seen to be done locally. And once you move justice from the local area … I think it loses something, in the eyes of the people in those local areas. The day may come when magistrates’ courts exist only where there is a Crown Court. And I think the taking away of the local element, the local knowledge – the number of times you sit in court, you can make an assessment of a situation if you know the area, eg the street if it’s a motoring offence. Whereas, without that, it could be Timbuktu, when you don’t know the area; you don’t know the environment – it makes justice much harder to grab hold of …”
“it is no longer local justice, it’s something rather more brutal than that”. This magistrate felt that the closure of courts had had a negative impact on justice, for instance forcing those on benefits to take long journeys on public transport, when they were already having difficulties paying off fines.
Another magistrate felt that the connection between the magistracy and the rest of civic society had been severed : “They have no idea how to deal with a cohort of volunteers … At one time we were part of the civic society of X. We’re more and more divorced from that. At one time the actual Mayor was the chair of the magistracy. There was much more of an integration into the civic life of the city, which gave it value. And I think that value has certainly been eroded”.
2) The inefficiency of the system
Magistrates resented wasting their precious time in the retiring room, while trials collapsed and they waited for CPS or defence practitioners to be ready. A woman described a day in court, which she had taken off work : “ today I sat at X and spent most of the time doing nothing, because of the administration of the courts. I had five trials, but it was shambolic, and only two were kind of done. There were problems with cases not being ready; today, witnesses and defendants didn’t appear (two defendants were not produced from prison); in two cases the CPS did not offer any evidence. At 11 o-clock I was shopping because we were sent home”. Another agreed: “for me, it’s less about remuneration than about the efficiency of the process – I feel I’d be valued more if there weren’t days like I had today. …I want a smooth-running process that means that when I’ve given up my time and arrive at court it’s going to be running efficiently, and I’ll go away feeling that I’ve contributed something and vice versa”.
Magistrates felt that if they were using their leisure or work time, they did not want to waste that time, or sit too often on dull cases. They resented often sitting on traffic and transport cases, boring work which they thought could be done by other judges: “When you have magistrates with high skill levels in life, often high skills academically and in work – to give them the ‘rump end’ of work can’t sustain their interest…you’re not told when you’re interviewed that you’ll end up doing the crap”.
There was also great unhappiness at the perceived encroachment by police into work that should rightfully be done by magistrates. Magistrates thought the increase in out of court disposals deprived them of cases which should be heard in open court.
3) Being treated like employees
“When you were in your individual courts they all knew you, your personality, your reliability. They knew what they could get you to do and not to do. That’s all changed. There’s been a turn-over of staff. Now you are just a number. They just give you a slot and stick you in there, it doesn’t matter if you do the same court for umpteen weeks, as long as that slot is filled then their duty has been completed. That’s why I think a lot of magistrates have left”.
Many magistrates, particularly those who suffered financially through sitting, resented being treated like employees rather than volunteers. Those who had sat for many years felt their relationship with the court service had declined considerably. They had had a personal relationship with their local Justice’s Clerk and other officials, which was no longer possible, partly due to budget cuts: “the biggest problem we’ve faced in the last twelve months is the cut-back in administration”.
Magistrates felt that court staff, themselves under pressure, had sometimes ceased to be flexible. One magistrate told the manager that he did not want to sit with a colleague, because they had fallen out. The manager threatened the magistrate with a disciplinary process.
4) Having no autonomy or influence over resources
“I find all the interference behind the scenes which blocks us from doing what we want to do totally and utterly irritating. This interference means the lack of influence of magistrates as a body; the magistracy is being run by the civil service. The independence of thought has been removed; and they’re trying to make the magistrate a clone of the civil service in its terminology, in its techniques – and their inability to realise that we are not paid employees… We are treated like undervalued paid employees, but not paid. We find this increasingly difficult to accept”.
Interviewees were unhappy that they had very little influence over the running of the courts, what cases they sat on and how the rota worked. Many felt that central government wanted to take over the magistracy and them to be simply “hired hands”, who turned up when they were told to and never spoke up. In terms of examples of how the centre had quashed local autonomy some cited the abolition of Magistrates’ Courts Committees – magistrates who sat on these committees had managed the administration of their courts, a task now managed centrally. Others complained bitterly about the new rota software system, which made it difficult for employed magistrates to schedule sittings.
A number of magistrates complained that the pace of change was swift and that the training was inadequate. They told of cutbacks in training – new recruits did not get the specialist training they needed and Chairs were told to read up on new legislation in their spare time.
“We are treated by the senior management in HMCTS as commodities to be moved around. Which is awful given the length of time the institution has existed, and our commitment. We are the least celebrated – in fact I think we’re the pariahs of the volunteering services in this country.”
Above all magistrates felt undervalued. Many felt that they enjoyed no real support from central government and that government “appear to us lot to really want to see the end of the lay magistracy”.