The role of the magistracy: follow-up Contents

1Background to this inquiry

The role of the magistracy

1.Magistrates, also known as ‘justices of the peace’ (JPs) or ‘lay justices’, are unpaid volunteers whose role is central to the justice system of England and Wales. They deal with more than 90% of criminal cases and a large proportion of non-criminal cases, particularly in the Family Court. Established more than 650 years ago, the magistracy’s role is traditionally underpinned by the twin principles of ‘local justice’ and ‘justice by one’s peers’. As of April 2018, there were approximately 15,000 magistrates in England and Wales—a reduction of some 50% over the preceding decade1 and an annual decline of about 1,000 in each of the past two years, as magistrates who have retired tended not to be replaced.

2.Every magistrate is allocated to a Local Justice Area (LJA) as part of the local ‘bench’ of magistrates. Each bench has a Chair, elected annually, whose role is to provide leadership and support to the bench membership. Magistrates sit in the adult criminal court, the Youth Court—which deals with defendants aged between 10 and 17—or the Family Court. They generally sit as a panel of three, led by an experienced chair and supported by a legal adviser, who is an assistant to the Justice’s Clerk assigned to the particular LJA.

3.There has been no government review of the magistracy for many years, in spite of the centrality of the magistracy’s role within the justice system and a backdrop of constant change, including a marked reduction in magistrates’ court business,2 restructuring of the courts estate and various initiatives designed to modernise the criminal justice system. The report of the Auld Review, published in 2001, did not recommend changes to the magistracy other than steps to improve training and increase diversity.3 In 2013, the then Justice Minister, The Rt Hon Damian Green MP, announced that the Government would work with magistrates to modernise their role, but that did not in the event lead to any substantial review or proposals for change.4 The Leveson Review of efficiency in criminal proceedings dedicated a chapter of its 2015 report to the magistrates’ courts, but this mainly considered how to improve case management and case progression.5

The Justice Committee’s 2016 inquiry

4.It was in this context that our predecessor Committee published its report The role of the magistracy, in October 2016.6 Evidence to the inquiry had indicated that the magistracy faced a range of unresolved issues related to its role and workload, and identified serious problems with recruitment and training. Concluding that it was “unfortunate that the Government’s evident goodwill towards the magistracy has not yet been translated into any meaningful strategy for supporting and developing it”, the Committee went on to recommend that, as a matter of priority, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), together with the senior judiciary, should develop a national strategy for the magistracy.7

5.The Government response to the report (December 2016), including the views of the judiciary where relevant, did not expressly address the Committee’s recommendation for an overarching strategy for the magistracy. 8 In subsequent correspondence, the then Secretary of State for Justice, the Rt Hon Liz Truss MP, stated that her department was working on an overarching judicial strategy within which magistrates would be a “key component”, but she was determined that magistrates should not be set apart from the wider judiciary.9

Our inquiry

6.In October 2018, we decided to conduct a short follow-up inquiry to allow us to gain a broad understanding of the main issues now facing the magistracy and establish what progress had been made since October 2016. We held two public evidence sessions, details of which may be found on p.52. We are grateful to all those who provided evidence then and in writing. We also held an informal seminar with 15 magistrates, many of whom had given evidence to the previous inquiry, and an informal note of those discussions is appended to this report. We particularly thank the Judicial Office for assisting us in setting up the informal evidence session and the magistrates who travelled to Westminster from all regions of England and Wales. We are also grateful to members of the senior judiciary for assisting in our inquiry.

1 In April 2008, there were 29,419 magistrates in England and Wales.

2 In 2007, an estimated 1.74 million defendants in criminal cases were proceeded against in the magistrates’ courts in England and Wales. In comparison, the magistrates’ courts received 1.51 million criminal cases in 2017.

3 In December 1999, the Lord Chancellor appointed Lord Justice Auld to conduct a review of the criminal courts in England and Wales. The report of his review was published in September 2001.

4 On 25 February 2015, in response to Written Question 224617, the Government said it had no plans to publish a White Paper on magistrates’ reform before the General Election, and that the role of magistrates would be reviewed once rehabilitation and summary justice reforms had bedded down.

5 Review of efficiency in criminal proceedings, The Rt Hon Sir Brian Leveson, January 2015: Chapter 5. The review was carried out at the request of the Lord Chief Justice after discussion with the Lord Chancellor.

7 Ibid, paragraph 127

Published: 18 June 2019