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Are magistrates facing a diversity crisis?

Penelope Gibbs
17 Jan 2014

Magistrates are less diverse now than in 1999.  They are on average older and less representative of our ethnic minority communities.  Even in 1990s, campaigners were concerned that the magistracy was not diverse enough.  Geoffrey Robertson in 1995 described them as “ladies and gentlemen bountiful”, politically unbalanced and unrepresentative of ethnic minorities and women.  Transform Justice’s new report Magistrates: representatives of the people? examines how diversity has declined and how that decline can be reversed.

Now 55.5% magistrates are 60 and over (up 1.6% vs a year before) and 15.9% are under 50 (down 0.9 vs previous year). In 1999 a third were in their 60s and a quarter under 50.  The proportion of ethnic minority magistrates has grown (to 8.4%) but the ethnic minority population of the country has grown at a much greater rate (to 14.1%).  Gender is no longer an issue, with representation of men and women more or less equal.

How has magistrate diversity declined?  One of the main reasons is that magistrate numbers have come down considerably, partly due to a decrease in court work.  This means few magistrates have been recruited in recent years, in some areas none.  Even when an area does recruit, they often avoid advertising, since they are flooded with applications anyway.  Most areas restrict the number of applications they even look at, so that the time taken to process and interview applicants is contained.  On the government website, the only area open for applications at the moment is Hampshire.  There, only the first 20 applications will be considered for South Hampshire, 28 for North and West Hampshire and 40 for South East Hampshire.  This means that if all 20  people who apply first in South Hampshire are over 50 and white, all those recruited will come from that pool.  This application process is counter-productive to increasing diversity.

A greater problem is that under-represented groups either don’t understand what JPs do or, if they do, are not motivated to apply.  A youngish Chinese JP I met the other day became aware of the magistracy when he did jury service and saw a poster about applying to be a JP. He was intrigued and, after researching, enthused about the idea of becoming one.  But before that point in the jury room, he had never heard of lay magistrates, despite living in England for many years.  His experience may be typical of the Chinese community who are very under-represented in the magistracy.

If magistrates are to remain trusted representatives of the people, we need to make strenuous efforts to make them more representative.  Email or tweet me with your ideas how.