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Diversity matters in the youth and family court too

Penelope Gibbs
04 Mar 2014

When I decided to apply to be a magistrate, my passion was family justice.  I had worked on radio programmes about divorced and separated fathers who felt the courts contributed to their not seeing their children.  I wanted to be part of the system.  As I started the (very long) application process, I realised that I could not apply to be a family court magistrate – I had to apply to be a magistrate and sit on adult criminal cases for three years before I could apply to sit in the family court.  And if I wanted to sit on family, I would still have to do 13 days sitting on adult criminal cases first.  I thought then and I still think this is a crazy system, and one which is a recipe for making the youth and family bench even less diverse than the bench which sits on adult criminal cases.  It is mostly more experienced magistrates who have time to sit on both the adult and the youth/criminal bench.  No-one is allowed to just sit on the youth bench, and very few allowed to do the family bench alone.  So the magistrates presiding over cases involving children are likely to be even older, and less likely to be employed, than the average magistrate.  So the crisis in magistrate diversity is probably even greater in the youth and family courts.

One of the answers would be to change the application and sitting rules.  So someone could apply just to the family or youth court, if that is what interested them, or so that a sitting magistrate could opt to do just to do family/youth work.  A change in the regulations would really help competency as well.  At the moment, youth court magistrates do their sittings in addition to adult criminal sittings.  Many are sitting only a couple of days a year – partly because youth court business has shrunk considerably.  But sitting so infrequently means youth court magistrates may be unused to deal with children, and with youth justice current law and practice.  I have no desire whatsoever to increase the amount of work available to youth courts, but some hard thinking needs to be done about the implications of the system for magistrates’ diversity and competence.