The role of the magistracy Contents
In this Report we consider the role of the magistracy within the criminal justice system in England and Wales. Our report looks at the method and rate of recruitment for magistrates, their training and development, and the effect of court closures on their work. In addition, we consider whether the role of magistrates should be expanded. Our recommendations are mainly directed at the Ministry of Justice and/or the senior judiciary, recognising that effective implementation will also require agreement with other bodies such as the Magistrates Association and the National Bench Chairmen’s Forum.
We conclude that the magistracy faces a range of unresolved issues relating to its role and its workload, together with serious problems with recruitment and training; these must now be addressed as a matter of urgency. We consider it 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.
We therefore recommend that, as a matter of priority, the Ministry of Justice, together with the senior judiciary, develop an over-arching strategy for the magistracy—to include workforce planning, magistrates’ training and the wider promotion of their role, especially to employers. The strategy should also take into account the impact of court closures and consider whether the role of magistrates could be expanded, in particular within any proposals for problem solving courts.
Our other principal conclusions and recommendations—many of which would relate to a wider strategy—can be summarised as follows:
- There is sufficient evidence of low morale within the magistracy to cause concern. We recommend that magistrates be consulted on any further changes to the criminal justice system, especially those likely to have an impact on their role.
- We recommend that the protocol to support judicial deployment in the magistrates’ court be amended and that consideration be given to allowing magistrates to sit without legal advisers when sitting with a District Judge.
- We recommend a number of steps to increase the diversity of magistrates, including wider and more proactive advertising, a streamlined recruitment process, additional funding for Magistrates in the Community and consideration of the introduction of ‘equal merit’ provisions for magistrates’ recruitment.
- Rebalancing the age profile of the magistracy is unlikely to happen unless more is done to overcome the barriers facing employed magistrates. We recommend the creation of a kitemark scheme that recognises and rewards employers who support the magistracy.
- We recommend a comprehensive review of magistrates’ training needs, maintaining a balance between different ways of learning. We also recommend more funding to support training and the introduction of a Continuing Professional Development scheme.
- We do not consider that introducing fixed tenure is a satisfactory way of reducing the number of magistrates in areas where there is insufficient work available. However, we recommend a more robust appraisal scheme which can identify inadequate performance and review the future of magistrates who are insufficiently committed to their role.
- The Ministry of Justice should ensure that at least 90% of users can reach the nearest magistrates’ court venue by public transport within one hour, and should urgently explore low cost, practical solutions to potential security risks in alternative court venues lacking a secure dock. Full access to physical courts should be maintained until facilities such as video links are fully operational.
- We support increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers to 12 months’ custody and recommend that the Ministry of Justice provide a timetable for implementation. We recommend that the new Allocation Guideline be given time to bed down and the Sentencing Council be given an opportunity to review its impact and that the Ministry of Justice publish any modelling of the potential impact of increased sentencing powers on the prison population.
- Magistrates will play an essential role in ensuring the success of any future Government strategy for problem-solving courts and we recommend that they be fully consulted on the approach that is taken. In any event, legal restrictions should be lifted to allow them to supervise community orders in all courts, where consistent sitting can be arranged.