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Do magistrates need more TLC…and management?

Penelope Gibbs
23 May 2014

There is low morale on many magistrates’ benches.  This is due to budget cuts, a reduction in court work, a feeling that government does not support the lay magistracy and numerous more mundane issues.  Magistrates resent the bureaucracy involved in reclaiming expenses, penny pinching on tea and coffee and the attitude of some court staff.   At its worst they feel they are treated as hired hands: “When you were in your individual courts they all knew you, your personality, your reliability. They knew what they could get you to do and not to do. That’s all changed. There’s been a turn-over of staff. Now you are just a number. They just give you a slot and stick you in there, it doesn’t matter if you do the same court for umpteen weeks, as long as that slot is filled then their duty has been completed. That’s why I think a lot of magistrates have left”.

There are few people specifically tasked to look after magistrates’ day to day concerns.  Hard pressed HMCTS staff organise rotas and deal with expenses claims, and bench chairmen deal with a myriad of personnel issues.  When Minister Damian Green recently suggested that magistrates should fulfill other roles than sitting in court, a London bench chair suggested people like herself were already overworked looking after over 300 magistrates each, and would be unable to manage more.

Everything points to me to a missing role in the courts service – someone whose paid job is to look after the needs of magistrates.  In nearly every big organisation which uses volunteers, there are a team of volunteer managers.  They manage volunteers – their time, training and expenses – and try to resolve their problems.  There are qualifications available in volunteer management. Thousands are employed across the country.  A glance at a charity employment website revealed over 50 vacancies for volunteer managers.

Great though most HMCTS staff are, many do not have qualifications in managing people or in HR, let alone managing volunteers. Introducing people with these skills into the mix of those who “look after” magistrates won’t resolve all magistrates’ concerns, but may address some of them.