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Magistrates: crisis what crisis?

Penelope Gibbs
26 Aug 2015

No-one wants to publicise bad news. New figures on the number of magistrates show serious declines and there is no mention of this anywhere. The number of magistrates overall has sunk below 20,000 for the first time since official records published – this represents a fall of 10,000 in less than ten years. Given the fall in numbers, it is not surprising that the age profile has got even older. Now 86% of magistrates are over 50, up 1%. Ethnic diversity has crept up to 9.3% of all magistrates, but this is still way off the 14% of the population reflected in the most recent census.

When the judicial statistics were published yesterday, no mention at all was made of trends in the magistracy. Yet action urgently needs to be taken if magistrates are to remain representatives of the people. Conspiracy theorists among magistrates think that the decline in numbers is part of a central government plan to abolish the lay magistracy. I think not. There are certainly people in government and the judiciary who are not convinced magistrates are fit for purpose, but they are few and far between. Its more that magistrates are victims of the divide of responsibilities between the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service and the Judiciary. Magistrates themselves are represented by the Magistrates’ Association, an independent charity, and the National Bench Chair’s Forum, an organisation run by HMCTS. Decisions on numbers of magistrates recruited (and for that matter the number of new District Judges) are made behind closed doors, with no consultation. The bodies concerned are faced with difficult decisions given that the amount of court work is declining. I understand why they have let numbers decline, but still feel some kind of open debate about the viability of the magistracy would be worthwhile. Huge efforts are being made to improve the diversity of the paid judiciary, but the magistracy needs the same. The danger of letting the situation drift is drift undermines the very credibility of the magistracy – that it is to be representative of the people.