What is the future of the magistracy? This was the stark question put to me by Joshua Rosenburg from Radio 4’s Law in Action.
Magistrates currently play an important role in the administration of justice in England and Wales. The magistracy, made up of 15,000 volunteers, is a key institution in how justice is delivered. Yet, one of its founding principles, that of local justice— the fact that it is drawn from local communities and represents a powerful symbol that citizens are judged by their peers— has, over the past twenty years, been undermined.
Under New Labour, their role in overseeing their local courts through magistrates’ courts committee was abolished, as administration was centralised in the new court service. Since 2010, the purposeful neglect of the Ministry and HMCTS has allowed the number of magistrates to dwindle, from around 30,000 to around 15,000 today. That lack of recruitment has meant that the magistracy has struggled to be as diverse as it needs to be. Moreover, the impact of a court reform programme intent on closing courthouses and merging magistrates’ benches now means that the connection between magistrates and ‘the patch they serve’ has receded into the distance. As I said to Joshua, the principle of local justice has been dying the death of a thousand cuts.
So what do we do about this? One option is for Government to seriously review the role and purpose of our lower courts and ask whether a lay magistracy has a future within them. It is notable that a number of other countries which inherited a system of lay magistrates have over time removed them from sitting in court and now have lower courts presided over by paid judges alone.
The more positive option, in my view, is for the magistracy to redefine its role. We have long argued that many cases that currently come to court don’t need to be there in the first place. We can see a role for magistrates in which they can both oversee enhanced and evidence-based community resolutions but also in which they can participate (for example, by delivering light touch restorative justice through community panels).
Secondly, one of the strengths of the magistracy is that it can bring non-legal skills to bear and help the lower courts develop more specialised responses to complex and high-harm and complex cases, through the adoption of a ‘problem-solving court’ approach. It is welcome to see hints that the Government is open to endorsing such a role in their recent report on the future of the magistracy.
An expansion of the role of magistrates – making them overseers of community resolutions and specialists in complex cases– can ensure that the magistracy retains its vital role as the link between the community and the justice system. In short, at a time when the challenges facing the criminal justice system are changing, the magistracy must adapt to survive.
Director, Centre for Justice Innovation