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Are the best magistrates voting with their feet?

Penelope Gibbs
23 Jun 2016

“Sarah” was a magistrate for over fifteen years, and had many years left to serve.  But she has resigned. I fear there are many more like her, who have voted with their feet.  She is not leaving through nostalgia for a past, golden age. She welcomes change, but feels that many of the changes recently imposed on the magistracy have been negative ones.

1) Bench amalgamations mean people no longer know everyone on their bench.  There used to be c 100 people on her Bench, but there are now over 300. Sitting with people you have never sat with before was like arriving at work to find a new team every day.  It made it much more difficult for her as Chair to help the panel make effective decisions.

2) “Sarah” felt that the Bench was becoming less diverse and more punitive – more “hang um and flog um”. There had always been a few of these, but the balance had shifted recently towards magistrates (including brand new recruits) less inclined to give people a second chance, but who were unfamiliar with the lives many offenders lead.  When “Sarah” first started sitting, they were lots of magistrates who had been recruited through the trade unions, and/or worked in the public sector. They understood their communities and how ordinary people lived. That is less the case now.

3) She was fed up with being controlled by HMCTS officials.  Previously magistrates had quite a lot of autonomy but, recently, it felt as if they expected her to just turn up in court and do as she was told. When magistrates’ courts were run by the magistrates’ court committees there was a realism, and a humanity, that is missing now.

4) “Sarah” felt the court operated double standards.  The idiosyncratic practices of some district judges were not challenged, yet magistrates who deviated from official pronouncements, who tried to act with humanity and ensure that court users left court understanding exactly what was happening to them, were criticised for going ‘off-script’.

5) Altogether she worried that the courts were no longer even handed.  The standard of prosecution had gone down, and some legal advisors seemed to see it as their role to make up for deficiencies in the prosecution.  Magistrates no longer had the agency they had been trusted with in the past, and there was little outlet for those with creativity and imagination.

“Sarah” summed up her concerns: “financial pressures on the Court Service, the CPS and the Probation service are destroying the system of lay justice that has served this country well for hundreds of years. Justice is not well-served by turning courts into sausage machines. We are dealing with human beings, be they victims, witnesses or defendants, and the system needs to reflect this”.

A great, humane magistrate has left the bench early.  But no-one in the Ministry of Justice or the Judiciary knows why.  Hundreds of magistrates resign every year.  Those who resigned because of the criminal courts charge hit the headlines.  But no official exit interviews are ever done.  The whole criminal justice system could learn so much if they asked good magistrates why they were resigning.