The role of the magistracy Contents

1Background to this inquiry

The role of magistrates

1.Established over 650 years ago, the magistracy is recognised as an integral part of the judiciary of England and Wales. As of April 2016, there were 17,552 serving magistrates,1 also known as ‘justices of the peace’ or ‘lay justices’. They are unpaid volunteers, although they may receive allowances to cover travelling expenses and subsistence. Magistrates deal with over 90% of criminal cases and a substantial proportion of non-criminal work, including family law cases. In court, they usually sit as a panel of three—an experienced chair and two ‘wingers’—supported by a trained legal adviser, who is an assistant to the justices’ clerk.2 In addition to sitting in the adult criminal court, magistrates may be appointed to the Youth Panel, enabling them to sit in the Youth Court which deals with defendants aged 11 to 17. Similarly, magistrates may be appointed to the Family Panel whose members sit in the Family Court. Once appointed, a magistrate is allocated to a particular Local Justice Area, sitting as part of the ‘bench’ of magistrates. The local bench is led by a Chair who is elected annually by the members to act as their leader and representative.

2.Traditionally, the linked principles of ‘local justice’ and ‘justice by one’s peers’ have underpinned the role of the magistracy. For many magistrates, these principles remain crucially important today. For example, Corby Magistrates’ Bench told us: “We believe in local justice, for local people, delivered in the heart of the community.   Of course, it needs bringing up to date, but the principle is sound and has worked for hundreds of years. Why change it?”3 Susan Furnival JP commented: “Magistrates should provide the link between the community and the judiciary … . maintaining the concept of judgement by our peers.”4 According to Peter Chapman, a retired magistrate, magistrates “make their assessments of fairness and justice based on the normal standards of ordinary members of the public.”5

3.Despite the centrality of its place within the criminal justice system, the role of the magistracy has not been reviewed for many years. In 2001, Lord Justice Auld’s comprehensive review of the criminal courts recommended no major changes to the magistracy other than taking steps to increase diversity and improve training.6 In August 2013, the then Justice Minister Damian Green MP announced that the Government would be working with magistrates to maximise their responsibilities and modernise their role; three informal consultation events would lead to a formal consultation.7 The following March, he announced that magistrates would be given new powers to return offenders to custody as part of the Government’s reforms of rehabilitation.8 However, some six months later, in a response to a Written Parliamentary Question, the then Justice Minister Mike Penning MP stated that: ‘The Government has no plans to publish a White Paper on magistrates’ reform before the General Election. The role of magistrates will be reviewed again once our rehabilitation and summary justice reforms have bedded down.”9 The report of the Leveson Review of efficiency in criminal proceedings, published in January 2015, dedicated a chapter to the magistrates’ courts which mainly considered how to improve case management and case progression.10 Meanwhile, a marked reduction in magistrates’ court business, fundamental restructuring of the courts estate and a range of initiatives designed to modernise the criminal justice system have combined to impose significant changes on the context in which magistrates now operate.

Our inquiry

4.Taking into account all these factors, and in response to representations we received on the future of the magistracy in England and Wales, we announced an inquiry into the subject on 6 November 2015. We invited views on any matters relating to the current or future role of the magistracy, but particularly welcomed submissions on the following questions:

5.In the course of our inquiry we received 80 written submissions and held three oral evidence sessions. Witnesses at our oral evidence sessions were Penelope Gibbs from Transform Justice; Peter Dawson from the Prison Reform Trust; Jo King JP and Alwyn Lloyd Ellis JP from the National Bench Chairmen’s Forum; Richard Goold JP, Luke Rigg JP, Nicola Silverleaf JP, Dr Jenifer Harding JP, Christine Holmes JP and Dr Simon Wolfensohn JP—all of whom gave evidence as individual magistrates; Malcolm Richardson JP and Sheena Jowett JP from the Magistrates Association; The Right Hon Lord Justice Fulford, Senior Presiding Judge; Senior District Judge Riddle, Chief Magistrate; and Shailesh Vara MP, the then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Courts and Legal Aid. We are grateful to all those who provided written and oral evidence to our inquiry, and would like to record our appreciation of the senior judiciary’s agreement that individual magistrates could provide evidence to us. It was particularly helpful for us to hear the personal views of a range of magistrates from across the country, each with their own experience on which to base their opinions and proposals.

6.Our report is set out under a series of chapter headings which broadly reflect the inquiry terms of reference. In drawing our conclusions and making recommendations, we have considered what changes might be made to the role of the magistracy and to the support available to magistrates within the current court structure and within existing arrangements for criminal trials. Many of our recommendations in this report are directed at the Ministry of Justice (which for these purposes we take to include HM Courts and Tribunals Service) and/or the senior judiciary in the first instance, but we recognise that for effective implementation many of them will require consultation, discussion and agreement with other bodies such as the Magistrates Association, the National Bench Chairmen’s Forum and the Association of Lord-Lieutenants, and the recommendations should be read with that proviso in mind. We have not taken evidence on the decision to unify the criminal courts under a single leadership structure, announced in the joint statement from the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice, and the Senior President of Tribunals on 15 September 2016,11 nor on the other policy proposals in that statement with potential relevance to the magistracy. Neither have we taken a view on potential reforms to the mode of trial rules for particular criminal offences.


1 Serving magistrates statistics, April 2016 https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/publications/judicial-statistics-2016/

2 The Lord Chancellor, in consultation with the Lord Chief Justice, assigns a justices’ clerk to each Local Justice Area. His/her functions include giving advice to magistrates on law and procedure.

10 Review of efficiency in criminal proceedings, The Right Hon Sir Brian Leveson, January 2015; Chapter 5

11 Transforming our justice system - joint statement from the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chief Justice, and the Senior President of Tribunals, 15 September 2016. The idea of a unified criminal court was originally put forward in the report of the Auld review of criminal courts (2001) and endorsed by the Leveson Review of efficiency in criminal proceedings (January 2015) as allowing for “greater jurisdictional flexibility in the allocation of cases, and the ability to match judicial resources to caseload”.




© Parliamentary copyright 2015

17 October 2016