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Can you and should you manage the performance of magistrates?

Penelope Gibbs
11 Jan 2015

Volunteers are not employees. They are working for an organisation because they want to help.  Should they then be subject to the same performance management techniques are employees?  Many would say not, though I would argue that all volunteers taking on a responsible role need their performance managing.  Magistrates are a case in point – incompetent magistrates can make decisions which affect people’s lives profoundly.  Magistrates get some performance management but as our latest report suggests, it could be vastly improved.  Magistrates are appraised every three years by one of their colleagues.  The magistrate who is going to be appraised is told when the appraisal will take place and the appraiser sits with them on the bench. After observing the magistrate for half a day, the appraiser feeds back to the subject of the appraisal and the report is sent to the local bench training and development committee.  There are many problems with the system

  • Appraiser and appraisee often know each other, so the appraiser may feel reluctant to say anything negative
  • The appraised magistrate may behave differently because they know they are being observed
  • Half a day every three years is too infrequent
  • Even where an appraisal suggests a magistrates’ skills need improving, the training they need may not be available and, if the magistrate doesn’t improve, it’s incredibly difficult to remove a magistrate

In the report, we recommend that magistrates should be appraised via a 360 degree appraisal.  This means that feedback is gathered from a variety of people who work with the magistrate, including other magistrates, court staff and lawyers who appear in front of them.  In the context of the judiciary these are radical thoughts, particularly given that there is no compulsory appraisal for paid judges.  District judges are expected to be appraised, but don’t have to be, and other paid judges are not.