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The invisibility of magistrates – in fact and in policy

Penelope Gibbs
09 Jul 2015

How often do you see magistrates – in plays, the news or in documentaries? I was asked to talk on the image of the magistrate for the judicial images programme which looks at how images of the judiciary are created, managed and consumed.  I was hard put to find any images of real magistrates except the Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association.  There was one film produced by the MoJ in 2013 to accompany a consultation on the reform of the magistracy. But this showed magistrates in empty courtrooms and unfortunately slightly undermined the point of the consultation by showing only ethnic minority magistrates.  The take out of the film was that many JPs are BAME. But in fact not enough JPs are from ethnic minorities and lack of diversity is one of the challenges facing the magistracy.  The reality is that most magistrates are “poorly trained, old and white, increasingly unrepresentative of the rest of us“. 85% of magistrates are over 50, and only 8.7% are from ethnic minorities compared to 14.1% in the population.   Transform Justice produced a report on this in January 2014.  But there seems to be little governmental or judicial interest in future of the magistracy, of which diversity (in its widest sense) is a key issue.  The green/white paper written by civil servants a year ago on the future of the magistracy has been shelved, because “we have yet to see the full impact of changes brought about by our rehabilitation reforms, the Transforming Summary Justice Programme and the new Single Justice Procedure. These are already changing the way that magistrates work.” (Lord Faulks 1.7.2015).  None of the issues mentioned by Lord Faulks touch on the fundamental crisis facing the magistracy – shrinking numbers, poorly funded training, low morale and less diversity.  So I’m still not clear why these issues remain so firmly on the back-burner, while high level attention continues to be paid to the diversity of the paid judiciary.  Lets hope the new Lord Chancellor grasps the nettle.