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12 April 2022
Practicalities of being a magistrate

Following the publication of our report on Covid-19 and magistrates' courts, our National Chair, Bev Higgs, discusses what the justice system can learn from the experiences of magistrates.

The pandemic pushed the justice system into the deep end of conducting hearings remotely and relying more heavily on technology. It was necessary to rapidly accelerate and expand the use of video links and benches of two due to restrictions aimed at containing the spread of the virus.

Now that pandemic restrictions have eased, it is crucial that the justice system learns from the experiences of magistrates during this period. Over 800 MA members responded to the survey which forms the basis of this new report. This evidence provides a snapshot of the experiences of magistrates in the criminal courts during the pandemic. From this evidence base we can begin to determine what improvements need to be made and work with stakeholders – such as HMCTS, the Judicial College and the Ministry of Justice – to ensure that the opportunity to improve is not missed.

We asked members about video links and benches of two and how these impacted aspects of the court processes including:

  • The effect on magistrates themselves such as morale and confidence
  • Communication in the court
  • Effective participation of court users such as witnesses and defendants

The responses revealed that technology was frequently problematic in courtrooms. Communication was more difficult, and magistrates had to develop new processes to ensure that witnesses and defendants understood proceedings. It was also apparent that magistrates were concerned about the quality of justice delivered by remote links. These findings probably won’t come as a surprise to many of you reading this blog – but the value of this report is to have the experiences of magistrates properly documented, so that they are not forgotten with the passage of time. There was a strong sense that hearings conducted using a video link were taken less seriously. It was also clear that some decisions could appropriately be heard by a bench of two where there is a shortage of magistrates. However, for the majority of hearings, it is essential to have three perspectives to ensure diversity of opinion and enhance the decision-making process.

Members’ views about the courts during this period were mostly negative. However, members also frequently identified areas where technology could be implemented in a beneficial manner provided that quality improved and there was clear guidance available.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC Bill), which is reaching the end of its journey through Parliament, aspires that technology will be used to deliver justice efficiently. For it to be effective as well as efficient, it is vital that the experiences of magistrates are taken into account. To ensure this is the case the MA will use the evidence in this new report to continue to urge the smarter use of technology.

In the coming months we will:

  • Call for comprehensive guidance to be issued on the use of video links. We want this guidance to incorporate the lessons learned, particularly for court users who have underlying vulnerabilities
  • Call for magistrates to have access to training on the use of video links, how links change communication and how magistrates can use their discretion to decide when remote links are, and are not, appropriate for particular hearings

One of the strongest themes emerging from the report is the dedication of our members to ensuring that justice continued during the pandemic. Despite encountering difficulties, it is clear that the contributions of the magistracy kept justice going, for the huge benefit of society.

To read a summary of the full report click here.

To read about the experiences of family magistrates during the pandemic click here.