Shortfall in magistrate numbers ‘as frustrating as it was foreseeable’

18 June 2019

  • A national strategy for the magistracy is urgently needed;
  • Magistrates are struggling with reduced support and feel undervalued;
  • Court closure programme creates additional challenges;
  • Greater funding needed for magistrates’ training.

Failures in Government planning have left England and Wales short of magistrates to deliver local justice, says the Justice Committee in a report published today.

This shortfall in magistrate numbers is ‘as frustrating as it was foreseeable’ and it has taken a near crisis to prompt the Government into belated action, the Committee adds. It is renewing previous calls on the Government to develop and adopt an overarching strategy to recruit and train sufficient magistrates, and fund the system adequately.

In October 2016, the Committee published a previous report, concluding that magistrates faced unresolved issues related to their role and workload and identifying serious recruitment and training problems. The Committee then called for the development of a national strategy as a matter of priority.

Magistrates are volunteers who sit in court in panels of three and may sentence offenders to up to six months in prison. The number of them has fallen from more than 25,000 in 2012 to around 15,000 last year, and the high average age of magistrates, who have to retire at 70, could mean future gaps unless recruitment of new magistrates improves.

Today’s report, ‘The role of the magistracy – follow-up’, raises continuing issues around magistrates’ morale, their role, recruitment, training and appraisal and court closures. It also recommends the Government make it easier for working people who want to volunteer to be magistrates to get time off to perform that public service.

And it suggests the Government consider increasing magistrates sentencing powers to up to 12 months – at present, magistrates have to refer cases likely to deserve more than six months’ imprisonment to the Crown Court, and increasing their own powers could reduce Crown Court congestion and delays in sentencing offenders.

Chair's comments

Chair of the Justice Committee, Bob Neill MP, said:

“Magistrates and the criminal justice system as a whole have been badly let down by the failure of the Government to take action and provide appropriate funding to tackle the major issues we flagged in our 2016 report. Many of those issues remain.

“Morale is not improving, despite the Minister’s efforts to reassure us. The court closure programme has made things worse and the shortage of magistrates could have been avoided had the Government adopted our initial recommendation on recruitment.

“The action promised three years ago has failed to materialise, and we again call for an appropriate national strategy. Merely identifying the magistracy as a component within the Government’s wider strategy for the judiciary is inadequate to recognise the distinctive and pivotal role of 15,000 magistrates working as unpaid volunteers within the criminal justice system.”

In summary, the Committee:

  • Repeats its 2016 recommendation, that the Government should consult the senior judiciary and leadership magistrates to develop and adopt a national strategy for the magistracy at the earliest opportunity. This should include workforce planning and recruitment, promotion of the role to employers and applicants, resources for training, and mitigation of the impact of court closures. The strategy must be supported by adequate funding.
  • Does not share the then Minister’s assessment that that magistrates’ morale “is on the up”. They are dealing with reduced support and an apparent under-valuation of the time they give as volunteers.
  • Finds that 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 that the Committee recommended in 2016 has led to the current predicament. It is to be regretted that it has taken a near crisis to prompt the Government into belated action.
  • Recommends a wider and more proactive approach to recruitment. MPs voice concern about the barriers facing employees who want to become magistrates, undermining efforts to widen the age profile of the magistracy.
  • Concludes that magistrates’ training falls short of what is required. The MoJ should increase its funding to HMCTS to allow additional investment.
  • Acknowledges the challenges that the programme of court closures has presented for magistrates. Since the 2016 report, there has been surprisingly little progress in developing alternative court venues to mitigate the impact of court closures. HMCTS must put the principle of identifying supplementary venues into practice urgently with a focus on where court closures have had the greatest impact.
  • While short custodial sentences are less effective than community sentences, in cases where custody is unavoidable that would otherwise be sent to the Crown Court for sentencing, magistrates should have the power to impose custodial sentences of up to 12 months. The Government should implement this measure, after testing it through a suitable modelling exercise.

Further information

Image: MOJ

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