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4 October 2023
Diversity, disparity and inclusion

To mark Black History Month, Des Smith, one of our retired members, takes stock of his four-decade-long contribution to administering justice in his community.

The text reads: member blog, Des Smith. It is accompanied by Des' photo.

Serving as a magistrate for nearly four decades was one of the most satisfying and rewarding voluntary experiences of my life. During this time, I witnessed many changes to the magistracy—especially as a Black magistrate.

I hadn’t actually met anyone who was a magistrate until I became a race relations officer for Sheffield in 1977. I had heard, however, of the kind of sentences given to many young Black defendants by magistrates and stipendiary magistrates.

As a race relations officer, I often received complaints, mainly from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, about the treatment received at the hands of the police. These issues spanned the entire criminal justice system—a disproportionate number of young people from these communities were entering the criminal justice system and felt that they were being given disproportionately lengthy custodial sentences.

A period of civil unrest in 1980s prompted many in the public sector, including the judiciary, to review their policies, procedures, and practices to address institutional racism. Although Sheffield wasn’t one of those cities, I arranged a meeting with Anthony Sweeney, chair of the Sheffield bench, and John Richman, clerk to the justices. They were very welcoming and accommodating, and reassured me that they, too, wanted a bench that reflected the diversity of our community.

Back then, magistrates and criminal justice professionals knew very little about the diverse cultures of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities, and the racial discrimination they experienced daily. So, we discussed providing race awareness training for magistrates and court staff, and recruiting more magistrates from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds—little did I know that I’d be one of them!

We established a working group comprised of the Community Relations Council, community representatives, and magistrates’ court representatives. We delivered a series of training events and other activities over the years. Our initiatives were extremely successful—the number of minority ethnic magistrates increased significantly within a short period. Many of them went on to chair proceedings, served on special panels and committees, and sat on appeals in the crown court.

I was also encouraged by the bench chair to apply to become a magistrate. As a race relations officer, I was already committed to promoting racial equality within our society and to ensuring that the most vulnerable people had access to justice. I was also prepared to be instrumental in striving for the changes that I wished to see. That’s why I applied to the magistracy. I was appointed to the bench in 1983, and joined the Magistrates’ Association (MA) at the same time.

Many within the Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities knew very little about the magistracy, and they couldn’t understand why someone from their community would want to be part of a criminal justice system that had been seen as racially biased against them. As the years went on, they accepted my role as a magistrate as positive step, and were even referring me as ‘The Judge’.

In my early days, not all presiding justices consulted their wingers before announcing the decision of their bench. As a Black magistrate, I was made to feel that I would mainly contribute to the decisions related to Black defendants. Therefore, I had to be very assertive in order to have my views heard and taken into consideration. The situation is very different now. Consulting your colleagues is an integral part of the process in retiring rooms.

Early on in my role as magistrate and after training in Oxford, I was appointed as a presiding justice and, in 2006, I became the first Black chair of the youth panel. Around that time, I also became a coordinator for Magistrates in the Community, the MA’s community engagement programme that educates the public about the work of magistrates.

I additionally served as the deputy chair and subsequently the chair of the Sheffield bench.

Throughout my time as a magistrate, I was encouraged to share my skills, knowledge and experience with other courts and several committees, locally and nationally. I was a member of Lord Chancellor’s advisory committee, sitting in the crown court, and mentoring and appraising other magistrates.

I encouraged others from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic communities to apply to become magistrates, and established engagement opportunities between them and judges. I talked about related issues at Home Office conferences and I was a member of the Leaders Officer’s Group, which included the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, Chief Executive of the Sheffield City Council, and clerk to the justices. I was also a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Roles and Responsibilities of the Police.

In 2017, I contributed to the Lammy Review—an independent review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian, and minority ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system. The review found that that many of those defendants “neither trust the advice that they are given, nor believe they will receive a fair hearing from magistrates.” It was this view that had originally motivated me to apply to the magistracy.

Today, the magistracy is the most diverse part of the judiciary. However, there’s still much to do to ensure that benches are more representative of the communities they serve, and that everyone seeking justice feel that courts are accessible to them. I’m very pleased to see that the MA’s diversity and inclusion networks are working hard to fully remove barriers to recruitment and magistrate development. I would highly recommend that Black, Asian, and minority ethnic individuals consider applying to be a magistrate—and join the MA.

I retired in 2021, and I will always cherish my time as a magistrate. I’m really grateful to the MA for all its support over the years, and particularly appreciate the certificate of recognition I received upon completing 20 years’ service.