COMMONS

Government must develop over-arching strategy for magistracy

19 October 2016

The Ministry of Justice and senior judiciary must, as a matter of priority, develop an over-arching strategy for the magistracy, says a report by the Justice Committee. This should include workforce planning, magistrates' training and the wider promotion of their role, especially to employers. It should also take into account the impact of court closures, and consider whether the role of magistrates could be expanded, in particular within any proposals for problem-solving courts.

Role of the magistracy

Established over 650 years ago, the magistracy is recognised as an integral part of the judiciary of England and Wales. There are just over 17,000 magistrates, all of whom are unpaid volunteers. They deal with over 90% of criminal cases and a substantial proportion of non-criminal work including family law cases. Traditionally, the linked principles of 'local justice' and 'justice by one's peers' have underpinned the role of the magistracy, and for many magistrates these principles remain important today.

Matter of urgency

Committee Chair Bob Neill MP said:

"It is unfortunate that the Government's evident goodwill towards the magistracy has not yet been translated into any meaningful strategy for supporting and developing it within a changing criminal justice system. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency".

Despite its central place within the criminal justice system, the role of the magistracy has not been reviewed for many years. The Committee's inquiry considered: the role of the magistracy; whether any changes should be made to magistrates' powers and responsibilities, including sentencing powers; the impact of court closures; and recruitment, training and support.

Risk of undermining morale

The Committee endorses the principle behind initiatives designed to streamline and modernise proceedings in the magistrates' courts, but believes there is a risk of undermining morale by imposing changes without consultation and by reducing administrative support to unsatisfactory levels. 

Bob Neill said:

"Although evidence does not indicate a universal problem, there is sufficient evidence of low morale within the magistracy to cause concern. Magistrates should be consulted on any further changes to the criminal justice system, especially those likely to have an impact on their role."

Increasing sentencing powers

The Committee supports increasing magistrates' sentencing powers to 12 months custody and recommends that the Ministry of Justice provide a timetable for implementation. It recommends that the new Allocation Guideline be given time to bed down, the Sentencing Council be given an opportunity to review its impact and that the Ministry of Justice publish any modelling of the potential impact of increased sentencing powers on the prison population.

Magistrates will play an essential role in the success of any future Government strategy for problem-solving courts, and the Committee recommends that they be fully consulted on the approach that is taken.

Recommendations

The Committee's main recommendations include:

  • The protocol to support judicial deployment in the magistrates' court should be amended and consideration should be given to allowing magistrates to sit without legal advisers when sitting with a District Judge

  • Steps should be taken to increase diversity, including wider advertising, more funding for Magistrates in the Community and consideration of the introduction of 'equal merit' provisions for recruitment. A kitemark scheme that recognises and rewards employers who support the magistracy would help to rebalance the age profile.

  • Magistrates' training needs should be reviewed, with more funding and a Continuing Professional Development scheme

  • A more robust appraisal scheme should be introduced to identify inadequate performance and review the future of magistrates who are insufficiently committed to their role

  • The Ministry of Justice should ensure that at least 90% of users can reach the nearest magistrates' court venue by public transport within one hour, and should urgently explore low cost, practical solutions to potential security risks in alternative court venues lacking a secure dock. Full access to physical courts should be maintained until facilities such as video links are fully operational.

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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