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A pro magistrate government?

Penelope Gibbs
25 Mar 2014

Damian Green, Minister of State across the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice is pretty pro lay magistrates.  He assured an audience at Policy Exchange today that he had no desire to replace lay magistrates with district judges and that he is committed to local justice. But the government has a huge challenge – how to keep magistrates motivated, diverse and happy while court work shrinks.  In a sense the government has caused it to shrink even further by proposing in new legislation that half the workload be presided over by one not three magistrates – cases like fare evasion where defendants seldom turn up.

Most people think the reduction in court work is a good thing, reflecting the reduction in crime, but it leaves government with a conundrum.  How to give existing magistrates enough sittings to stay competent, and how to free up places for new magistrates.  In the last two years, recruitment has come more-or-less to a halt and diversity of age has suffered as sitting magistrates have aged.  The government is clearly keen to reverse this trend, but not sure how to do it.  They proposed one solution today – ten year tenure for magistrates, which presumably means all magistrates have to step down after ten years.  There was some dissent to the proposal this morning from a magistrate who pointed out that it discriminated against those who sat the least each year.  He is right, but it would be possible to institute tenure based on the number of sittings done up to maximum of 15 years.

I think the tenure idea is a good one but I’m not sure about the other policy idea – to provide magistrates with lots of other non court work in order to prevent them feeling unoccupied and to facilitate a slight increase in numbers.  I think it is important to give magistrates proper expenses and recognition for non court work (training and this community engagement should be counted as sittings) but I think the government is making life really complicated by creating other opportunities for magistrates.  As a bench Chair pointed out, she already spends 30-40 hours a week managing her magistrates – she doesn’t have capacity to also organise and trouble-shoot their non court work.  Magistrates sometimes want to be active in other spheres of the justice system.  They should be allowed and facilitated to become involved in the wider system and with local criminal justice agencies.  But the problem of how to boost recruitment can be solved without a major effort to organise extra work for magistrates.  Introduce tenure, ban applications to the magistracy from those over 55, reduce the minimum and the maximum number of sittings per magistrate – this would free up places for new magistrates and keep existing magistrates sufficiently occupied.