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26 June 2023
Diversity, disparity and inclusion

For Pride month, we sat down with Rish McDonald, an LGBT+ member who has just been elected to sit on our newly established diversity and inclusion policy committee, to find out more about his journey to the bench and why he believes an inclusive magistracy is so important.

Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what do you do outside of volunteering as a magistrate? 

My name is Risteard (Irish Gaelic for Richard), but I go by Rish. Outside of volunteering as a magistrate, I am the Head of Equalities, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (EDIB) for HM Prison and Probation Service’s Probation Workforce Programme. I ensure that the programme complies with public sector equalities duties, and support all our probation regions to deliver on their EDIB strategies and goals for the benefit of the public in our care.

I am also a masters student at the University of Cambridge (Applied Criminology, Penology and Management), an academic with a book chapter on Paganism and radicalisation in English and Welsh prisons forthcoming, a governor for a school in Sheffield, and a non-executive director for a community centre located in the most deprived postcode in the UK, where I was proudly born and raised.

Finally, I collect Japanese woodblock prints (particularly kabuki prints, which are some of the oldest examples of drag in the world), enjoy weightlifting, and am a practicing Norse Pagan. So, I attend a lot of extremely fun events that involve speaking in Old Norse and drinking mead. Don’t get me started on the strong history between the Vikings and the courts…

How long have you been volunteering as a magistrate and what motivated you to apply?

I’m as new and green a magistrate as you can be as I’m yet to sit!

Eventually, I’ll sit in South Yorkshire, with Sheffield as my home base—something I’m really looking forward to as I believe that one of the best ways to tackle disproportionality in the criminal justice system is to ensure that the magistracy is diverse. As a magistrate from an underrepresented background, I want people who come before us to see themselves, their backgrounds and their communities reflected in decision-making.

Also, having seen my late father arrested and sent down, I’ve personally experienced the impact of sentencing and I fully understand the seriousness of every decision made on the bench. So, I’m keen to support the courts in making those decisions fairly.

Finally, my faith encourages its followers to be active participants in the laws and governance of the places in which we live.

Did you have to overcome any barriers to become a magistrate?

Nothing more than the inordinately long wait between each phase of the application process. This was challenging as I moved between civil service departments several times during that period and had to seek agreement for the time off in each. I suppose the barriers I overcame happened earlier in my life, and these were more existential barriers to social mobility imposed on me due to my mixed-race and working-class upbringing.

Why do you think it’s important to have a more inclusive magistracy and what would you say to other LGBT+ people considering applying?

People have biases, let’s be frank. We’re asked to speak about this at the interview, and it’s a part of why we politely challenge and talk through our decision-making as magistrates. Having a diverse cadre of people is on the bench is, therefore, vital and LGBT+ magistrates are essential to fostering that demographic diversity.

I would ask LGBT+ people, many of whom have experienced different forms of biases—perhaps also within the justice system—to put their experience into practice as a magistrate. It can be in fashion to point at institutions we think need improvement, rather than rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in. I’d prefer that, instead, we all put effort into making progressive change.

How long have you been an MA member and why did you join the organisation?

I joined as soon as I was appointed as a magistrate. I’m a passionate trade unionist and while the MA is not a union, it fulfils a similar role in representing the voice of magistrates.

I joined because the MA is genuinely brave, evidence-based and action-oriented in its championing of the magistracy, and I wanted to be an active voice in the direction of the justice system. I’ve been eminently impressed by the MA’s leadership, so I was proud to join.

What do you value most about your membership?

Without a doubt, the ability to learn from the expertise of my fellow magistrates, who are some of the most intelligent, empathetic, driven and ludicrously talented bunch of people I’ve ever met. I’m constantly humbled to be surrounded by such a great group of people.

Why did you apply to join the MA’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) policy committee and why do you think it’s important to have LGBT+ representation therein?

As a current head of D&I within the justice system, it felt like a natural move. My motto is ‘multi-agency by default’; only by working as one can the criminal justice system seek to bring redress to the most enduring disparities within it. I’m keen to use my experience as a leader within the criminal justice system and act as an interface between the MA’s D&I committee and the MOJ to understand how we can better collaborate.

LGBT+ people have a range of protected characteristics as laid out in the Equalities Act 2010. It’s crucial that all these, in addition to socio-economic background, are reflected in any high-level governance that sets a strategic direction on D&I policy for the magistracy. We need to maintain a diverse and eclectic debate within that governance framework and a strong LGBT+ presence supports that.

What do you hope the D&I policy committee will achieve in its first year?

I’m a reformist, so I’m excited at the prospect of working with fellow committee members to enact real, big and structural changes. However, what I’m most thrilled about is the building of new multi-agency relationships across the criminal justice system that will see us work in partnership with D&I leads across the MOJ and its agencies to move forward together. I believe in taking the time needed to make substantial changes as opposed to lots of quick, smaller and shallow ones. I hope we’ll establish a clear way of collaborating with other MA policy committees and some basic principles around project management to help us be accountable to our members. That might sound boring, but it’s absolutely critical to actually delivering tangible outcomes! I’d hope for the D&I policy committee to publish a strategic document outlining our aims/objectives in our first year.

Any closing reflections, perhaps about Pride month?

Well, it’s nice to finally be able to marry, even if there’s still much to do to eradicate structural and informal bias throughout our society! Progress is a constantly unfolding story with peaks and troughs, and, during Pride month, I’m excited to celebrate with my fellow LGBT+ magistrates the incredible gains we’ve made in LGBT+ equality.