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Magistrates: representatives of the people?

Penelope Gibbs
26 Feb 2014

Magistrates are no longer seen as “ladies and gentlemen bountiful”, as they were in last century. But misconceptions still abound about the volunteers who deal with the vast majority of criminal court work. Many believe magistrates are paid, have to be legally qualified or to have a degree. New Labour, spurred on by the Auld report (2001), determined to demystify and diversify the magistracy through reforming recruitment and using new ways to promote opportunities. The programme made some headway, but had little sustained success.

Magistrates interviewed for this report were concerned that magistrates were increasingly unrepresentative of their community -particularly of some ethnic communities, of working class, gay and disabled people. Magistrates were convinced that targeted and innovative recruitment techniques could increase applications from under-represented groups. But they also perceived structural barriers, including the opposition of employers and a recruitment process unsuited to working class people.

This report outlines how the profile of the magistracy has changed, and calls for a new drive to increase diversity. It recommends better retention of magistrates from under-represented groups, revising the application process, replacing advisory committees as recruiting bodies and reviewing magistrates’ “terms and conditions”. Since the publication of this report, progress in diversifying the magistracy has been glacial. In 2022 the government launched a new recruitment campaign and a new application process. It remains to be seen what difference this will make.