Skip to main content


The Wild West? Courtwatching in London magistrates’ courts

Fionnuala Ratcliffe and Penelope Gibbs
22 May 2024
Read the full report
Read the full report Download
Clear that defendant could not properly understand English (despite chief mag speaking loudly! LOL).

How are defendants treated in the magistrates’ court? And what do public volunteers think of the justice delivered there? 

This report summarises courtwatchers’ observations of the court process and decision-making in London magistrates’ courts. It is based on data from CourtWatch London, a mass court observation project where citizen volunteers observed magistrates’ court hearings and reported what they saw. 

People cannot have a fair trial without a clear understanding of what they are accused of, what is happening in court, and the implications of the court process. Our courtwatchers observed magistrates’ courts often falling short. They were unsettled by the ‘invisibility’ of defendants, tucked away in the secure dock (or on video), ignored for much of the hearing. They saw defendants without lawyers struggle to comprehend what was happening to them. Defendants who required interpreters were not always given one. 

Despite these concerns, courtwatchers more often than not agreed with the judgments meted out by the court. What mattered most to courtwatchers was that sentences were sensible and considered, and for the most part they felt magistrates and judges delivered this.They disliked sanctions that seemed counter-productive, for example fines given to people who were already in dire financial straits. Courtwatchers were also shocked by what they perceived to be the inefficiency of courts. They were concerned that the valuable time of the many professionals in the room was being wasted. 

The report sets out recommendations for how to make our courts fairer and more effective, including simpler court proceedings, a support service for defendants, reduced use of court fines for people whose poverty was a contributing factor to their offence, research into court delays and greater use of out of court resolutions.

Read the full report
Read the full report Download
Transform Justice