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The new recruitment process for magistrates has failed

Penelope Gibbs
31 Jul 2023

A few months ago, a “whistle-blower” contacted me about the new magistrates’ recruitment process. They knew Transform Justice had advocated for greater diversity of the magistracy and said that the new process was doing exactly the opposite. In 2020 and 2021 the judiciary and the magistracy designed a major new recruitment drive and a new application process. Their aims were to recruit a lot of new magistrates, to diversify the magistracy and to make the new process speedier. But the bones of the old recruitment process remained. Applicants still had to observe the magistrates’ courts, work out whether their area had vacancies, fill in a long application form and do an interview in front of a panel.

The whistle-blower had sat on a magistrates’ recruitment panel for a long time and shared our passion to get a broader range of magistrates. But their experience last year suggested that the new recruitment process was alien to people who were not professionals. It was based on a set of competencies – as many professional jobs are. People who applied had to provide evidence they met these competencies both in the form and in the interview. My whistle-blower said professionals and managers knew the rules of the “game” and so played it better. I vowed to investigate. There was no exemplar application form I could look online but I started to apply myself to get access to the questions. The form was very long and formidable. I was asked to give the name of two referees, one an employer, another whom I’d known for at least three years and whom I didn’t not live with. I think this would be an intimidating ask for many people, particularly as they would then have to get their employers’ agreement to take the time off to be a magistrate without even having got an interview. Why can’t the demand for referees come a bit later? Then to the competencies and many demands to “give us an example of how you demonstrate the attribute of “working and engaging with people professionally”, “making fair, impartial and transparent decisions” etc. These are incredibly difficult questions to answer (partly because they are so abstract) and I’m not convinced that they get to the heart of the qualities of a good magistrate.

The form was off-putting to anybody, particularly those without university education. I couldn’t believe it had been properly tested as working equally well across classes. I could find very little in the public domain about the design of the new recruitment process so I sent a freedom of information request to the Judiciary. In their response they couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me exactly how they had tested the new process, particularly for impact on diversity.

Scroll forward a few months and the government published the annual judicial diversity statistics which show who has been recruited. The figures suggest my whistleblower was right.

  • Only 18% of those who showed interest in being a magistrate filled in the application form.
  • An even smaller proportion succeeded in becoming magistrates …only 829 in 15 months
  • A higher proportion of white applicants than those of colour were successful. A smaller proportion (12%) of not white ethnic minority candidates were appointed than there are in the population (18%).
  • Candidates were more likely to be successful if they had been to a private school, and less likely to get through if they didn’t go to university.
  • Those who were in managerial or professional positions had greater success and applied in greater numbers than those in other occupations such manual, clerical.
  • Despite a desire to make the magistracy younger, the majority of those appointed were 50+

Though well intentioned, this new recruitment process seems to have failed on many counts. The greatest success was in inspiring interest. Over 33,500 people said they were interested in becoming a magistrate. But this was flame was extinguished by an off-putting form and an interview process which was just too difficult.

I’m not against a screening process for magistrates. But it shouldn’t be akin to a camel getting through the eye of a needle. Magistrates should be sensible people with reasonable judgment. But we need to test that in a way that is not biased against black, brown and working-class people. If magistrates are not representatives of the people, they will lose their justification for presiding over courts.

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