The role of the magistracy: follow-up Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Magistrates’ morale

1.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. (Paragraph 14)

2.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. (Paragraph 17)

3.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. (Paragraph 28)

4.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. (Paragraph 29)

Recruitment and diversity

5.The current shortfall in the number of magistrates is as frustrating as it was foreseeable. The Government’s failure to undertake the workforce planning exercise the Justice Committee recommended in 2016 has led to the current predicament. The new three-year strategy for magistrate recruitment and other initiatives to speed recruitment are welcome, but it is much to be regretted that it has taken a near crisis to prompt the Government into belated action. (Paragraph 39)

6.We are disappointed that the Government’s acceptance, in 2016, that “the time is right” to consider carefully its approach to recruiting magistrates and its acknowledgement of the need for more proactive encouragement of applicants from all backgrounds has led to little progress so far. We remain unconvinced that the various steps mentioned by the then Minister amount to a sufficiently strategic approach. We recommend that the Government, working with the senior judiciary, revisit as a matter of urgency the 2016 Committee’s recommendation of a wider and more proactive advertising strategy for potential applicants to the magistracy. (Paragraph 46)

7.We recommend that the Judicial Diversity Statistics be expanded to include data relating to the professional, social and educational background of magistrates, and that data collection be resumed on magistrates who declare a disability. (Paragraph 47)

8.We are greatly concerned about the barriers facing employees who want to become magistrates, which undermine efforts to widen the age profile of the magistracy. We recommend that the Government introduce a kitemark scheme for employers and bring forward proposals to legislate for mandatory employee release for magisterial duties. (Paragraph 54)

9.We are disappointed by the delay in reviewing the Financial Loss Allowance, leading to a situation in which some magistrates are effectively subsidising HM Courts and Tribunals Service. This is clearly unacceptable. The Government must fulfil its commitment to completing the review of the Financial Loss Allowance by the end of 2019. (Paragraph 55)

10.We welcome the decision in principle of the Judicial Executive Board to allow magistrates to sit beyond the age of 70, subject to business need and continuing competence. We see no reason for a distinction to be made between magistrates and the paid judiciary in this regard. (Paragraph 58)

Training and appraisal

11.We are concerned by the suggestion made by leadership magistrates that, taken as a whole, magistrates’ training—however funded and delivered—falls short of fulfilling the training needs of the magistracy. The importance of adequate training in supporting magistrates’ morale and building their confidence cannot be underestimated. (Paragraph 69)

12.We recommend that the Ministry of Justice increase its funding to HMCTS and the Judicial Office to allow additional investment in magistrates’ training. We further recommend that, when considering staff resources for courts, HMCTS give greater recognition to the important training role that Justices’ Clerks and legal advisers fulfil in relation to magistrates. We also recommend that attendance at evening or weekend training sessions should qualify for expenses and Financial Loss Allowance on the same basis as sitting days. (Paragraph 69)

13.We are concerned by evidence indicating that the new appraisal scheme for magistrates has shortcomings similar to those of the previous scheme and we welcome the steps being taken by the Magistrates’ Leadership Executive to align appraisals with training. In particular, we believe appraisal should focus on good or improved performance rather than the maintenance of minimum standards of performance. We recommend, as did our predecessor Committee in 2016, a mandatory scheme for continuing professional development linked to the scheme for magistrates’ approval, and we request, in the response to this Report, an indication of the range of CPD that might usefully be provided and the funding that might be required for these options. (Paragraph 73)

Court closures and court reform

14.The programme of court closures has created challenges for magistrates that have not necessarily been recognised and has led many to worry about the impact on other court users. We intend to return to this issue in our forthcoming report on court and tribunal reforms. (Paragraph 87)

15.We recommend that, as soon as practicable, the Ministry of Justice begins quarterly publication of national data on “failure to appear” rates in magistrates’ courts, broken down by region and by individual courts. (Paragraph 88)

16.Our evidence suggests that, while magistrates do not object in principle to the introduction of digital processes and video hearings, many have important concerns relating to access to justice, as well as concerns about the effect of reducing HMCTS staff at courthouses. We will consider these issues in more detail in the course of our inquiry into court and tribunal reforms. (Paragraph 94)

17.Since the 2016 Justice Committee report, there has been surprisingly little progress in developing alternative court venues to mitigate the impact of court closures, with the exception of limited pilot projects. We recognise that certain types of case may require the security standards of a conventional court room, but that many do not, and we believe that a triage system could identify suitable cases, particularly those where a vulnerable party is involved. The new principle for identifying supplementary venues is a valuable starting point, but we recommend that HMCTS take urgent steps to put this principle into practice, with a particular focus on locations where court closures have had the greatest impact. (Paragraph 101)

Expanding the role of magistrates

18.Our report on Prison population: 2022 welcomed the Government’s change of direction on the use of short prison sentences. We consider that short custodial sentences are less effective than community sentences, but in cases where custody is unavoidable we consider that magistrates should have the power to impose custodial sentences of up to 12 months in cases that would otherwise be sent to the Crown Court for sentencing. As part of its review of sentencing, the Government should implement this measure, subject to establishing a positive evidential basis for doing this from a suitable modelling exercise on the effects of such a step. (Paragraph 109)

19.We are pleased that the Government’s response to its consultation on probation services acknowledges the need to improve the confidence of sentencers in probation delivery. We expect the Government to clarify, by the autumn of this year, its strategy for increasing sentence confidence in community sentences. (Paragraph 113)

20.The potential value of magistrates’ involvement in problem-solving approaches is well illustrated by the Northamptonshire example drawn to our attention. We welcome the Government’s willingness to explore whether elements of a problem-solving approach, including court progress reviews, might be used to contribute to better outcomes for offenders in appropriate cases. (Paragraph 119)

A strategy for the magistracy

21.We welcome the initiative of leadership magistrates in developing a national strategy. However, their strategic objectives are unlikely to be achieved without the backing of HMCTS funding. We doubt that this initiative can fill the gap created by the Government’s failure to develop an adequately funded, overarching national strategy for the magistracy. Merely identifying the magistracy as a component within the Government’s strategy for the judiciary as a whole is inadequate to recognise the distinctive and pivotal role of 15,000 magistrates working as unpaid volunteers within the criminal justice system. (Paragraph 126)

22.As in the 2016 report, we urge the Government, in consultation with the senior judiciary and leadership magistrates, to develop and adopt an overarching strategy for the magistracy, to include workforce planning and recruitment; promotion of the role to employers and to a diverse range of potential applicants; resources for magistrates’ training; and mitigation of the impact on magistrates of court closures. The strategy must be supported by adequate funding. We further recommend that the Ministry of Justice establish a dedicated policy team to oversee all aspects of its support for the magistracy. (Paragraph 127)

Published: 18 June 2019