Magistracy heading for morale crisis – and then retirement
The findings of a new report into the magistracy does little to challenge the long-standing stereotype that it mainly comprises people who are ‘white, middle class, middle-aged people sitting in judgment over young, working class and often black defendants’. According to the House of Commons’ justice committee published earlier in the week, over the last decade the number of magistrates has collapsed from 30,000 to 17,552.
Morale was also identified as an issue. ‘Although evidence does not indicate a universal problem, there is sufficient evidence of low morale within the magistracy to cause concern,’ Bob Neill, chair of the House of Commons’ justice committee said. According to the MPs, some 7,000 magistrates will hit the 70-year retirement age within the next five years. Some 30% of magistrates on the Worcestershire bench are due to end their judicial careers over the next three years. More than eight put of 10 magistrates are 50 years plus (86%), and only a tiny number are under 40 (4%) and almost none are under 30 (just 1%).
Magistrates deal with over 90% of criminal cases as well as a substantial proportion of non-criminal work but, according to the new report, nine out of 10 magistrates are white (89%) and many benches have ‘no, or very few’ Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic magistrates. The MPs are calling on the government to advertise more widely; increase funding for the ‘Magistrates in the Community’ project; and consider a kitemark scheme to encourage employers to back staff taking time out for judicial work.
‘It is unfortunate that the Government’s evident goodwill towards the magistracy has not yet been translated into any meaningful strategy for supporting and developing it within a changing criminal justice system.’
Bob Neill, chair of the House of Commons’ justice committee
The justice committee reckoned that the magistracy was facing ‘a range of unsolved issues relating to its role and its workload, together with serious problems with recruitment and training’. The report highlighted the impact of court closures – 93 magistrates’ courts have been closed since the Coalition came to power and there are a further 43 closures proposed – should be taken into account when devising a new strategy. They recommended that the MoJ should ensure that at least 90% of users could reach their nearest court by public transport within an hour. They also called for ‘low cost, practical solutions’ to potential security risks when alternative court venues lacked a secure dock.
Swimming in a fog of ignorance
The MPs have given their backing to proposals to increase magistrates sentencing powers to 12 months. However, they called on ministers to publish any modeling of the potential impact on the prison population of extending such powers. One magistrate told the MPs that the risk of magistrates’ sentences being more punitive was ‘a legitimate public policy concern’ and raised the prospect of more appeals as a result. The charity Transform Justice has made a freedom of information request to the MoJ for information on the impact of a change in sentencing powers because without such information, as its director Penelope Gibbs told MPs, ‘we are just swimming in a fog of ignorance’.