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8 November 2023
Practicalities of being a magistrate

This month we sat down with Marianne Sunter, a new(ish) adult court magistrate, to find out more about her experience on the bench and what tips she has for newly appointed recruits.

Can you please tell us about yourself and what motivated you to apply to the magistracy?

I’m Marianne Sunter and have been a magistrate on the Merseyside bench for three years. I absolutely love being a magistrate. It’s fascinating, sometimes challenging, and always rewarding.

I’ve always been interested in the law and the administration of justice. In fact, I might have trained as a lawyer if it wasn’t for my overwhelming love of science. I thought about becoming a magistrate many years ago, but I had no idea how to go about it and I saw it as a rather exclusive club—a view that is more widespread, albeit inaccurate(!), than I thought.

What was your journey to the bench like?

After I retired, I saw an advert on CBS Reality—I’m an avid watcher of Judge Judy—that piqued my interest. I decided to look into how one becomes a magistrate, and good old Google led me to advisory committees. I discovered that my local committee was recruiting but that the window would soon close, so I just went for it.

Due to Covid-19, I think I was probably among one of the first group of new recruits to train online only. It worked very well, and we were able to interact with each other—though sadly never got to see our whole cohort on screen. I was sworn in at Liverpool Crown Court, with seven other magistrates and the Recorder for Merseyside present at the ceremony.

What do you find most rewarding and challenging about the role?

I love the fact that we see all human life and meet many new people from different backgrounds. The best and most rewarding times are when you feel like you’ve helped someone find their way back, either by knowing that they won’t reoffend or by putting in place rehabilitation programmes to help.

The challenging times are when, as a bench, you must make collective decisions that you wish you didn’t have to make, such as sending someone to custody. I’ve found myself being a great deal more empathetic than I thought I would be.

Are there any moments that particularly stand out?

As a magistrate, I’ve experienced sad, good, funny, and even scary moments in court. In the courtroom, we’re always serious, focused and effective. In the retiring room, we can often find the humour in a situation which can help release some of the stress of the day.

I remember one case in which a man was summoned to court and his wife finally had to admit her speeding offences in his car, which she thought she had dealt with but had not. I was pleased that they left together and were hopefully not heading to the family court!

In another, in fact during my very first sitting, the case lasted just ten minutes (it was a trial that collapsed) so I thought “this magistrate stuff is a doddle; you turn up, prepare, then sit in court for ten minutes and go home!” Needless to say, that is not the norm.

I’ve found the amount of crime that is tied in with drugs and the havoc that they cause truly shocking, even more than I could ever have expected. It’s an issue that we need to urgently address as a society.

Do you have any tips for new magistrates?

I would say get straight in and be part of the team from day one. If, by any chance, you find yourself not included—I have never found this to be so—then speak to your mentor.

I’d also advise you to keep talking to your mentor and other colleagues about how you think and feel and never stop asking questions. I still seek clarification when needed. No question is too silly to ask.

Lastly, join the Magistrates’ Association (they didn’t put me up to this, I promise!) I became a member early on in my voluntary career and have found it a great support. The magazine contains excellent articles, and the learning and development webinars are equally useful and enjoyable. It’s always good to have a support network for any role we take on, and the association certainly serves this purpose for magistrates.

I’ve also participated in its Magistrates in the Community programme, judging a Schools’ Mock Trials Competition in March. It was an enthralling Saturday morning, and I was most impressed with the young people all aged between 13 and 15. They were stunningly good and their teachers had prepared them very well.

Have you taken on any additional judicial responsibilities?

As well as being a mentor, I’ve recently become a member of our local advisory committee. This has been fascinating because I’ve been able to share ideas on how to encourage applications to the magistracy and get involved with interviewing potential recruits. It’s good to see a range of people applying, but there are so many more out there who would be great. The biggest misconception, I think, is that a lot of people who would be marvellous magistrates don’t believe that they would fit.

Next year, I will apply to be a presiding justice. At 67 years young, I have a limited amount of time available so I intend to make the most of every opportunity. Some people think that voluntary roles are hard work for no reward, but I think the more you put in the more you benefit from the experience.

Becoming a magistrate has been one of the best decisions of my life, along with going into education as a career and marrying my lovely husband, Jim.