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29 March 2023
Practicalities of being a magistrate

Alexa Halabi, one of our Muslim members, shares her journey to the bench and looks back on her first year as a magistrate.

I’ve been a magistrate since November 2021 and have loved every minute of it—bar a few difficult cases or cold courtrooms. I studied politics at university and was initially interested in doing a law conversion course, before stumbling across governance and embarking on that as a career. My interest in law was renewed when a female magistrate gave a speech at my mosque about how important the role is and how Muslim women should be more visible in society. I didn’t apply straight away, but it was in the back of my mind, and when another year passed without me being selected for jury service, I decided it was time. I’m strong believer in representation and diversity in the widest sense and that the magistracy needs to reflect the communities that it serves.

The application process

I applied in April 2019 and had my second stage interview at the end of the year. It took a while to find out if I was successful—the global pandemic didn’t help—but one day in 2021 I woke up to email referring to me as ‘JP’.

My swearing in ceremony was online and, while being at the Old Bailey would have been better, I happened to be on holiday in Crete so was sworn in while in my hotel room wearing flip flops and then went off to a buffet dinner! The dream.

A magistrate at last

Apparently, some magistrates find it hard to be called “your worship”, but this came very easily to me. I’ve even (unsuccessfully) tried to get family and friends to call me that too.

The night before my first sitting, I barely slept. I was very aware of it being an important and difficult day for defendants and I didn’t want to negatively impact on that by being very obviously new, awkward, or unhelpful. I was worried I’d say something so silly that I’d be evicted from court, and would find out it had all been a complete mistake. I reminded myself that I’d gone through a relatively exhaustive application and interview process, training and observations, and succeeded. Still, my sister likes to remind me of all the things I have done that she considers to be “un-magistratey”, such as accidently flicking my pen lid when in court or buying a Tesco meal deal with Nik Naks for lunch.

I’ve been very lucky with my mentor who has encouraged the asking of all questions, no matter how silly they seem, and I also had a great chair at my first sitting. In my experience, everyone has been very supportive and happy to help, whether that’s magistrates in the retiring room, legal advisers or clerks.

The experience so far

I work full time, so I sit the minimum sittings and then pick up additional sittings during my annual leave or on a bank holiday. As I work in governance, I’ve found a lot of similarities between the two roles and many skills can be transferred both ways. I normally take minutes for meetings and sit next to the chair anticipating issues. Translated into the court setting, this means getting the fine calculator or the sentencing guidelines up and ready.

I always look forward to my sittings and I’ve been able to see a variety of cases so far. I’ve often heard “this doesn’t normally happen” or “I haven’t seen this kind of case for years” during my days in court.

One of my favourite things about being a magistrate is meeting the other magistrates that I get to sit with. Someone once suggested having a book in my bag for the inevitable delays, but I’ve always spent the time talking to the rest of the bench instead. You get to meet such a mix of people and I thoroughly enjoy listening to their stories and experiences.

I always try to encourage others to apply—friends, family and colleagues have all heard my speech, “Anyone can be a magistrate, you don’t need to be a lawyer…”. People are generally surprised that you can be a magistrate up to the age of 74 and that there aren’t required qualifications. Others assume it’s a lot of work and don’t realise it could just be 13 sittings a year as a minimum.

Sadly, not everyone is as swayed by free biscuits as I am and I don’t think I’ve actually got anyone to apply yet. But I will persevere!