Magistrates are not representative of the people. They never have been. Things were improving in the 90’s, but they are now getting worse. Part of the problem is the culture and image, part that the magistracy is not recruiting, and part that the recruitment process leads to the same type of people being recruited. But the story I recently heard of a would-be magistrate shows just how antiquated that recruitment process is.
“Mary” applied to be a magistrate and got an interview last year. Like others, she was interviewed by appointees of her local advisory committee (an NDPB, administered by local HMCTS staff). She was interviewed by three “white, grey-haired men in advancing middle age” which, she was later told, “reflected availability on the day”. Mary mentioned the prevalence of autism amongst defendants, but no-one on the panel engaged with the issue. She spoke about her knowledge and experience of crime in other countries including the West Indies, where she sometimes works. But she got turned down as a magistrate and one of the reasons given in her rejection letter was that she was “submerged in [her] Jamaican experiences”. She felt the panel’s remark was both inaccurate and racist.
She decided to appeal her rejection – a brave move since, despite a process being set out, it appears it was never followed. Her appeal went to the Judicial Office twice and was rejected twice by the Senior Presiding Judge. According to Mary, the process was a farce. The Judicial Office admitted that the reasons given to her for her non-appointment were “insufficiently detailed”. Yet, when they instructed her interviewers to provide more detailed feedback, they were unable to, which begs the question: if the reasons for non-appointment were insufficient, on what basis was the appeal turned down? Not once, but twice? Mary submitted a Data Protection Act request which revealed that the Judicial Office didn’t hold the original feedback letter sent to Mary. It also emerged that the Committee secretary handling Mary’s interview had ‘left’ HMCTS earlier in the year and that no-one could access any of her emails about the appointment. In the end, Mary was told that the Judicial Office couldn’t help any further – she could reapply in three years’ time. Mary is not even allowed to see the panel members’ feedback sheets since judicial appointments are exempt from the Data Protection Act.
Not every potential magistrate who applies will get through, but this story suggests that the whole process is not fit for purpose. In “Magistrates: representatives of the people?”, I suggested we should consider transferring responsibility for magistrate recruitment from advisory committees to the Judicial Appointments Commission. This many sound like a bit of bureaucratic tinkering, but the JAC is an independent body, subject to public scrutiny and with expert advice on equal opportunities and fair recruitment. The JAC has a dedicated complaints team, and a proper process. The alternative to letting the JAC recruit magistrates, is to do a root and branch reform of advisory committees and the way they work. The status quo will lead to a less representative magistracy and an increasing number of applicants who are alienated by the process.