Justice Committee publishes role of the magistracy - follow up report

MA responds to the publication of the follow up report into the role of the magistracy by the Justice Committee

19 June 2019
Justice Committee publishes role of the magistracy - follow up report

The Justice Committee have published their report into the role of the magistracy - follow up inquiry. The MA contributed to this inquiry with a written response as well as oral evidence given by our Chair, John Bache. We welcome this timely and vital report that highlights many of the important challenges facing the magistracy as well as what needs to be done to address them.

The MA support the report's recommendation that an overarching strategy is needed for the future of the magistracy. We are working on a strategy with senior judiciary, but for it to be truly effective it will require demonstrable support from the Ministry of Justice.

The MA shares the report's serious concerns regarding the shortage of magistrates, as well as the importance of working to improve the diversity of the magistracy, especially in relation to age and social background. We agree that the current steps being taken to resolve these issues are not sufficient and resources must be invested in recruitment and attracting a diverse cohort of applicants, with a particular focus on unrepresented groups. We are pleased to see that the report shares the MA's call to increase the retirement age for magistrates to bring it in line with the paid judiciary and allow magistrates to sit beyond the age of 70 where this is necessary to address a shortage in magistrate numbers. To improve recruitment and retention, the MA agrees with the report's recommendation to encourage employers to support their employees to be magistrates. Employers already have to release employees to sit as magistrates, but much more can be done to raise awareness about this, as well as educating employers to understand the value that magistrates can bring to their workforce. We support the proposal of a 'kite-mark' for employers and call upon the Ministry of Justice to do more to recognise the contribution employers make in enabling magistrates to take time off to perform their duties.

We also agree with the committee that there should be a greater investment in and better co-ordination of magistrates' training so that they can get the training they need in a format and at a time that suits them.

The MA believes that addressing the issues of too few magistrates (which puts pressure on existing magistrates to sit more frequently) and training would have a significant and positive impact on the low morale amongst magistrates highlighted in the report.

The MA supports the report's recommendation that the jurisdiction of magistrates' courts should be increased so that they are able to retain more serious cases. This would mean magistrates could deal with more cases without having to send them up to Crown Court if a custodial sentence of over 6 months but under 12 months was necessary. This would relieve much pressure on the Crown Court. We also endorse the report's recommendation that magistrates should have review powers for community sentences; this would both improve confidence in sentencing and help ensure that offenders are appropriately supported and monitored.

The MA shares the report's concerns about the current Reform Agenda, as well as the potential negative impact of court closures. Resources must be used effectively and if courthouses are underused or outdated then it should always be reviewed whether they are still required. However, it is important that justice is administered locally wherever possible and the MA is concerned that, with half of all magistrates' courts having closed since 2010, many courts are remote from the communities they serve. In relation to the Reform Agenda, while video technology has a role to play, it is essential that all court users must be able to physically access hearings. We share the report's concerns about whether the court reform programme can be delivered to the set timescale in a way that is fit for purpose and that maintains access to justice.

John Bache, National Chair of the MA, said: "The MA welcomes the report, which provides a strong and timely reminder of the challenges facing the magistracy and what needs to be done to address them. We believe the fact that the Justice Select Committee prioritised this issue by carrying out a follow-up review only three years after their initial report indicates the seriousness and urgency of many of the problems set out in the report. We therefore urge the government to take note of the recommendations, and respond promptly."

The MA welcomes direct enquiries for comment on any specific details of the report.

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