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Why have a lay magistracy? The magistrates’ view

Penelope Gibbs
01 Apr 2014

‘It’s sort of like the community elder. You sit on the bench, and you live the same lives as the people who come in front of you. So you’re in a better position perhaps to say what’s fair and reasonable – what the rest of the community wants…. And I think it’s important to have representatives of the community making community decisions”.

Transform Justice commissioned a number of focus groups in inform the report on the make-up of the magistracy.  Magistrates from four areas of England and Wales were also asked about why we should have “ordinary people” as judges.

Interviewees were passionate advocates of a lay magistracy.  They felt that justice by peers brought a breadth of experience and understanding to decision-making:  “the big attribute is that you bring the realism of what life is outside and you bring common sense.” “You’re being judged by your peers; you’re not being judged by people who’re purely looking at something through the lens of the law. And that you’re getting that combination of the law and the view of other people  who are just trying to take a very pragmatic and fair view”. Magistrates thought of themselves as representing the community: “as local citizens, I think what we bring is: how would the community feel about this sentence. I think that’s one of the things we have to consider. Will they think it’s fair – has justice been done?”

They felt that they brought common sense and local knowledge into the courtroom  “Because it’s local people. And it’s people who are known in their community, who are involved in it. It’s that local knowledge we bring to it », “It’s knowing your local people, knowing what they are like. Not just local geographical knowledge but a local social knowledge”.

Many of the interviewees pointed out that the lay magistracy makes decisions in groups of three, whereas District Judges, who also sit in magistrates’ courts, make decisions alone: “its’s so important that three people sit on a trial…that there’s a bench of three – and you’re from different backgrounds, different experiences and knowledge. You see things in different ways”.