The Magistrates’ Court System is Out of Date – Conservative Article
The magistrates’ courts date all the way back to around 650 years ago. They officially came into fruition in 1285, during the reign of King Edward I. The intention was to keep costs down and to commission ‘good lawful men’ to keep the King’s peace. Local people dealt with local problems. Currently, magistrates undertake the majority of the judicial work in England and Wales. Around 95% of criminal cases are dealt with by magistrates. It is shocking that our justice system remains so ancient.
The magistrates’ court system perpetuates racism and classism. There is a severe lack of diversity amongst magistrates. A limited demographic of people who are often extremely privileged are making life-changing decisions for a range of people who have not been so fortunate.
In 2013, 55.5% of magistrates were over 60 and 15.9% were under the age of 50. More recently in 2019, only 12% of magistrates declared themselves as BAME. There is a disproportionate number of white, upper-middle-class magistrates running our justice system. Surely such a limited demographic of people does not even reflect the reasoning of having a magistrates’ court.
There is no sense of social awareness, understanding or compassion when extremely privileged people are deciding whether underprivileged people should go to prison. Diversity amongst magistrates is key if we are to tackle the fairness of our justice system.
There are very specific requirements for magistrates to fulfil in order to volunteer. They must demonstrate six key qualities: good character, commitment and reliability, social awareness, sound judgment, understanding and communication, maturity and sound temperament. There is a significant fixation on voluntary work throughout the process. Applicants must provide evidence of their contribution to their wider community.
What I find most frustrating about this element of the application is the prioritisation of community service over skills such as critical thinking. Magistrates only have 21 hours of training before they are able to fulfil their duties. They also do not require any formal legal qualifications or training before being appointed.
Professionals who have strong critical thinking skills, such as lawyers, are highly unlikely to be appointed as magistrates. This is due to the large focus on voluntary work which they simply do not have time for. This results in a system where a person who has set up a local coffee morning is more likely to be deciding somebody’s sentence than a trained critical thinker.
A common argument promoting the magistrates’ court system is the limited sentences that they are able to give out. Magistrates can only give a maximum of 12 months in prison, and six months for only one offence. However, I see this as a large contribution to the cyclical nature of our criminal justice system.
Around 95% of court cases will be completed in a magistrates’ court. This is largely due to the risk that defendants face if they want to appeal the decision. If a defendant were to appeal the outcome of their case, it would be taken to the Crown Court, where there is a risk of a significantly longer sentence. It is very unlikely that people would be willing to take that risk.
We have a criminal justice system that allows people with very limited training to take away a year of a person’s life. This is extremely damaging. Yes, this system allows for the courts to keep the costs down, but at what cost?
Written by Junior Conservative Writer, Rebecca Selt
Point of Information
Reforms are needed, but they won’t be easy – A Liberal Response
I do agree with a lot of what Rebecca has pointed out here. It is difficult to argue that our justice system is fair when it is heavily populated with one subset of society. Like the legal system as a whole, the lack of inclusion for ethnic minorities and women adversely impacts the decisions that the courts impose.
I also think that our courts could do with an overhaul. However, Rebecca’s characterisation of magistrates being let loose with the full force of the law they have no training in is not technically true. Each magistrates’ court has a Court Clerk who is legally trained and advises the magistrates of the best course of action and the laws that are applicable. Secondly, magistrates’ courts can be headed by a District Judge, who is legally trained. However, admittedly, this still does not fix the representation issue as they too are mostly old white men.
We could look towards the County Courts as a model for replacing magistrates, but this brings with it its own issues. The county courts deal with civil disputes – basically anything financial, family, or reclamation of damages. They do not deal with crimes, but rather the enforcement or dissolving of contracts. Major cases have juries, usually those involving actions against or by the police. Whereas minor offences often just have a District or Circuit judge sitting alone. Still no trial by jury, but at least the one with power knows the rules better.
The issue with adopting the structures of County Courts is that it still does not address the underrepresentation issue. Nor have we necessarily altered the powers of the court in imposing punishment. There are several ways to improve magistrates’ courts; such as increasing the number who sit on a bench, improving the pay and training they receive and outreach to improve the representation of minorities in the legal body.
With COVID-19 and the immense backlog of cases, now might not be the time to restructure our legal system. Instead, concerted efforts should be made to bolster the pool of magistrates available in order to ensure justice is served.
Written by Junior Liberal Writer, Daniel Jones
Reform is the only way to improve the diversity of the magistracy – A Labour Response
Rebecca highlights a very important topic in this article that I have, perhaps naïvely, never really thought about. After researching further, I too agree that the magistrates’ system is somewhat “out of date” and needs to be reformed. In fact, as does the entire justice system, but that would require a more lengthy response.
Taken from one of Rebecca’s links, I too believe that “the magistracy should reflect the diversity of the community it serves”. At the moment, it doesn’t do this. There are a number of factors involved in this: race, class, gender, age – the list goes on. To be frank, the entire justice system needs to be diversified across the board if we want it to work as it should.
Although diversity has not yet improved to the level I wish it would in any of these areas, I want to take age as a specific example for now. It is seen too often in the UK that the voices of the younger generations are ignored. Whether this is down to little knowledge of the opportunities on their part, or they are restricted by the recruitment process, it still remains true that there are not enough young voices in the magistracy.
Outreach and inclusivity needs to improve. In a system that claims to work for the people, we can’t afford to lose the voices of an entire group within a community; this isn’t only applicable to age.
For me, reforming the recruitment process is the best option. Not reforming it to any extremes, but rather to a fair process that will improve outreach and diversity across the board, while maintaining the quality of magistrates.
I am not naïve enough to think that reform will be easy; reform to a system that is designed to “keep the costs down”, as Rebecca says, could ironically prove to be very costly. But, only by reforming and subsequently improving the system will we see a necessary change for the better in the diversity of the magistracy.
Written by Co-Chief Labour Writer, Abi Clargo