The role of the magistracy: follow-up Contents

2Magistrates’ morale

Our predecessor’s main conclusions and recommendations

7.The 2016 Committee concluded that there was a risk of magistrates’ morale being undermined by changes imposed on them without consultation and by a reduction in administrative support to unsatisfactory levels. There was sufficient evidence of low morale within the magistracy to cause the Committee concern.10 The Committee also recognised the difficulties in balancing the work of magistrates with that of salaried District Judges but considered it important to retain magistrates’ competence and to value their time as volunteers.11 The Committee recommended that magistrates be consulted on any further changes to the criminal justice system and that research be conducted into relations between magistrates and District Judges to identify good practice.12

How magistrates feel about their role

8.We were keen to establish whether, and to what extent, magistrates’ morale had improved since 2016. The then Minister, Lucy Frazer QC MP, told us that “morale is up”, on the basis that fewer magistrates were resigning and more being recruited. Duncan Webster JP, the National Leadership Magistrate also told us:

One of the indicators of low morale was the high resignation rate of the magistracy for a while. [ … ] I think a lot of that was to do with the introduction of technology into the courtroom that they were not up to speed with at that time. In some areas—in fact nationally—the training for magistrates in the new technology left something to be desired, and therefore their confidence in the technology perhaps was not as high as it should be. All those things have now been overcome, and therefore we do not have that high resignation rate now.13

9.Other evidence suggested, however, a more mixed picture. A survey of all sitting magistrates conducted by the Judicial Office and HMCTS in December 2017, to which around 2,750 magistrates responded, found that 80% of respondents had a strong feeling of satisfaction with their role, but 54% felt undervalued. Dissatisfying aspects of magistrates’ work were found to be the time spent waiting for court sittings and lack of training and information relevant to their role. 14 Mrs Jo King JP, Co-Chair of the Magistrates’ Engagement Group, spoke about the survey findings:

Magistrates reported very high satisfaction with certain aspects of the role, particularly giving back to the community and the work that they do in court. But they also expressed frustrations with certain parts of the process—delays in courts, inefficiencies in court hearings, frustrations with CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] disclosure issues and suchlike. [ … ] We are also in an environment where there is a lot of change, which is causing some disquiet for magistrates because change is a difficult process to bring people through.15

10.Ian Clarkson JP suggested that low morale had “mutated into the form of a resigned approach that whatever representations are made by magistrates, or the Magistrates’ Association, the MoJ will do what it originally intended if it enables short term costs savings”. He gave an example of regional HMCTS staff “unilaterally” deciding to stop sending Family Court bundles to magistrates in advance of hearings because of concerns under the General Data Protection Regulation.16 He explained: “Now we either have to travel miles to court to collect them by hand on another day [ … ] or delay the start of the court day by reading bundles on the morning of the hearings.” This, in turn, would keep advocates waiting—creating additional legal aid costs in public law family cases. 17

11.Our informal session with magistrates also identified mixed views on morale. There was evident frustration about poor organisational structure, inadequate support and failing IT, as well as concerns about a difficult relationship between magistrates and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS); one participant described magistrates being treated like “commodities”. Participants thought that support from Justices’ Clerks and legal advisers had become less available because individuals in these roles had to cover wider geographical areas than previously. There had also been experiences of hearings being adjourned because of inadequate CPS resources, with magistrates wasting time as a result—a particular issue for those who had taken time off work to sit in court.

12.John Bache JP, the Chair of the Magistrates Association, told us that court closures “have a big effect on the morale of individual magistrates”, many of whom consider that local justice has “effectively disappeared.”18 This view was echoed by participants at the informal evidence session, who considered that the concept of local justice had largely been lost; they pointed out, for example, that magistrates sitting in an unfamiliar court lacked knowledge of the area where the alleged offence took place. Some participants were unhappy about being expected to travel long distances to sit in court, giving examples of round trips of more than 150 miles. Larger benches created by bench mergers were also thought to have had an adverse impact on magistrates’ attendance at bench meetings.19

13.Lady Justice Macur, the Senior Presiding Judge, recognised that anxiety could be generated at times of uncertainty. Her experience of speaking to magistrates affected by court closures suggested that they were more concerned about the effect on court users than the effect on themselves.20 She said:

I personally think there is a real issue about the community having ownership of certain events, particularly in youth offending where there needs to be a knowledge of the steps that could be taken to divert, hopefully, young people away from the courts. There is an obvious need for familiarity with a setting for those who access the courts for family reasons. When we get down to environmental causes and public interest causes, there is a real local interest … .21

14.We do not share the then Minister’s assessment that magistrates’ morale is “on the up”. Magistrates are dealing with reduced support and an apparent under-valuation of the time they give as volunteers, against a background of continuous change that many believe to be undermining the principle of local justice. This emphasises the urgent need for a national strategy for the magistracy. We recommend that the Government consult the senior judiciary and leadership magistrates to develop and adopt a national strategy for the magistracy at the earliest opportunity.

Relationships with District Judges

15.The evidence that we received suggested that relationships between magistrates and District Judges has improved—although some participants at our informal session thought there were still occasional problems with the allocation of cases. John Bache JP told us that magistrates enjoy working with District Judges, describing it as a “symbiotic relationship”.22 Jo King JP also described the relationship as “strong” and told us that District Judges are often to be found training magistrates formally and informally.23 This was corroborated by evidence from our informal session with magistrates. Senior District Judge Arbuthnot also took the view that relationships between the two groups were “much, much better.”24 She told us about the initiative she had taken in using meetings with lead judges as an opportunity to encourage District Judges to sit with two lay magistrates, reminding them that the magistrates had perhaps taken a day off work to sit in court only to find that their case was not being heard.

The judge is there and, obviously, has to go on sitting; they are paid, at the end of the day. I say, “Why don’t you sit with the justices? You can’t sit with all three, but sit with two.” [ … .] I am not saying that it is happening everywhere, but it is something that I am encouraging and it is happening more than it was.25

This arrangement had been well received by magistrates, according to the participants at our informal session.

16.Lady Justice Thirwell, the Deputy Senior Presiding Judge, spoke with equal enthusiasm about the co-operative relationship between District Judges and magistrates in relation to the court reform programme:

In the end, we are all searching after the same goal, which is access to justice and the administration of justice, and doing it better, where we can, than we do it now. From the people I meet, I do not have any sense that there is an issue of remoteness any more or that magistrates feel in some way disconnected from District Judge magistrates. I would have said that it was the contrary.26

17.There has been a significant improvement in the relationship between the magistracy and District Judges since 2016. We welcome initiatives taken by members of the senior judiciary to promote collaboration between District Judges and magistrates by, for example, encouraging them to sit as mixed panels.

The leadership structure of the magistracy

18.Local Justice Areas (LJAs) create geographical boundaries for the work of magistrates’ courts. They determine which court is used for initiating and listing cases and the enforcement of fines and community orders, as well as the leadership and management arrangements for the magistracy. Following a series of mergers, there are now 77 LJAs in England and Wales, as compared to 104 in February 2017. Each LJA has a “bench” of magistrates. Bench Chairmen, elected annually by their colleagues, provide leadership and pastoral support to their bench, as well as representation at regional level.

19.A new governance structure was introduced for the magistracy in 2018. Previously, the National Bench Chairmen’s Forum (NBCF), consisting of an elected representative from each of seven regional forums, provided support to Bench Chairmen and a voice at national level. Following consultation with magistrates, the NBCF was replaced by the Magistrates’ Leadership Executive (MLE), which has eight members appointed by the Lord Chief Justice after expressions of interest were invited. The MLE is headed by the National Leadership Magistrate, currently Duncan Webster JP. The rest of its membership is based on circuits, the six geographical regions in England and Wales on which the organisation of the courts is based.27

20.Sitting above the MLE is the Magistrates’ Liaison Group (MLG), which was established to consider “matters of policy and implementation relating to the operation of the magistrates’ courts”, as well as welfare and guidance for magistrates. 28 It is responsible for consulting magistrates on proposals for changes in business or governance. The MLG is led by the Senior Presiding Judge and members include the Senior District Judge (Chief Magistrate), the Chair of the Magistrates Association, the National Leadership Magistrate and HMCTS officials.29

21.By sitting on Judicial Business Groups (JBG), regional representatives from the new MLE are also involved in the governance of circuits. The JBG for each circuit is responsible for advising the relevant Presiding Judge (who chairs the Group) on the exercise of his or her delegated responsibilities for ensuring effective conduct of the business of the magistrates’ courts in the region. In addition, the JBG is responsible for ensuring that all magistrates undertake appropriate training and receive regular appraisal.

22.Lady Justice Macur, the Senior Presiding Judge, told us that “[i]t was determined that we needed to be ready for the change that would be brought about by the reform process, with the change in Local Justice Areas and the change in advisory committees.”30 The Prisons and Courts Bill, which fell when Parliament was dissolved in May 2017, would have abolished LJAs, leading to magistrates being appointed nationally rather than allocated to a specific LJA. The Bill would also have allowed magistrates’ time to be allocated more flexibly and contained provisions to remove restrictions on allocating and transferring cases between magistrates’ courts. The then Minister, Lucy Frazer QC MP, when asked whether the Government still intended to abolish LJAs, said, “That is something we are still looking at.”31

23.Leading magistrates have offered positive views of the new leadership structure. Duncan Webster JP, the National Leadership Magistrate, said the structure aligned with that of the rest of the judiciary and spoke of “a very good working relationship” between the MLE, the Magistrates Association and the Chief Magistrate’s Office.32 John Bache JP, Chair of the Magistrates Association, said communications were helped by the fact that key members of the MLG—the Senior Presiding Judge, the Chief Magistrate, Mr Webster and himself—”know each other very well and we see each other an awful lot.”33

24.Lady Justice Macur told us that the proposal to appoint rather than elect the National Leadership Magistrate was made after a debate in the MLG, which decided that an election might not give the role the required status:

It was the status of the role—the status of having the approval of the salaried judiciary in the new role that was being created. It was not something that was a popularity contest. It was something that required skills, to be demonstrated to those who demonstrated them in their salaried positions.34

She acknowledged that that idea was “debated quite robustly” at the Annual General Meeting of the NBCF, where there were differing views, but said the prevailing view was that the new position should be “free from any taint of groups banding together” in an election process.35

25.By contrast, Penelope Gibbs, Director of Transform Justice, thought the new recruitment process for leadership magistrates lacked transparency and that the specification of duties and responsibilities paid insufficient regard to diversity. She also reported that, when the NCBF surveyed magistrates on this question in 2017, more than half of respondents thought that leadership magistrates should be elected.36

26.On 26 March 2019, we invited David Lammy MP to tell us about progress made on race equality issues in the criminal justice system since the publication of the report of his independent review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals in the Criminal Justice System in September 2017.37 At this evidence session, Mr Lammy raised concerns about transparency in the magistracy system, observing that “[t]hey now have leadership magistrates, but the way they found them was not transparent. It feels like the same old people.”38

27.Some magistrates participating in our informal seminar felt that the new leadership structure was remote from ordinary magistrates, and that they had experienced better communications under the former NCBF. However, the positive intentions behind the changes were recognised, and it was accepted that more time was needed to allow the new avenues of communication to bed down. Some detected a reluctance among magistrates to put themselves forward for local leadership roles: in one area, the bench had resorted to a lottery to select its chair, although in another there had been several candidates, leading to a ballot.

28.We accept the senior judiciary’s rationale for changing the leadership structure of the magistracy and recognise that these changes have had insufficient time to bed down, but stronger effort is required to improve channels of communication to engage with magistrates at ground level.

29.Local benches provide local leadership and important pastoral support for individual magistrates and help them make their voices heard regionally and nationally. Any operational efficiency to be gained from abolishing Local Justice Areas must not negatively affect that position.

10 Paragraph 11

11 Paragraph 18

12 The relevant Chapter of the Committee’s report, including recommendations, can be found here.

13 Q5

15 Q2

16 The General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679 (“GDPR”) is an EU regulation on data protection and privacy for all individuals within the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EEA).

18 Q9

19 However, participants also suggested that bench mergers could encourage a more professional approach through magistrates sitting with unfamiliar colleagues, offsetting any tendency for a local bench to develop “bad habits”.

27 For the Southeast circuit, there is an additional MLE member representing London.

29 The Judicial Oversight Group, which sits alongside the MLE, is responsible for the arrangements for judicial business in the magistrates’ courts, in accordance with the principles of the Criminal Procedure Rules and the principles of Transforming Summary Justice.

30 See Chapter 3 on advisory committees and Chapter 5 on the court reform programme

Published: 18 June 2019