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8 March 2022
Diversity, disparity and inclusion

To mark International Women’s Day, our National Chair, Bev Higgs, shines a light on what the Magistrates' Association is doing to foster greater diversity on the bench and challenge disproportionality in the broader criminal justice system.

It was my very great privilege to begin my term as chair of the Magistrates’ Association (MA) in 2019, the year we celebrated 100 years of women in law. 1919 saw the Sexual Disqualification Act receive royal assent, and the first seven female magistrates appointed. Many other milestones followed, and today the magistracy fares well, with women comprising 56 per cent of its members.

However, there’s no room for complacency. Research tells us that diverse teams make better decisions up to 87 per cent of the time. So, where should our attention be focused?

At the MA, we’ve established diversity and inclusion networks that ensure the lived perspectives of underrepresented groups are embedded in all that we do. They also carry out their own work to identify problem areas, with the aim of breaking down bias and barriers.

Currently, 82 per cent of magistrates are over the age of 50. So, during this year’s campaign to recruit more 4,000 magistrates, we’ve been encouraging applications from people under 40. Financial compensation towards childcare and care of the elderly opens this opportunity to many women.

We’d also like to see representation that more accurately reflects the communities we live in. So, we’re especially urging more women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, with a disability, and/or of varying sexual orientations to apply. People from all backgrounds are welcome because of the huge range of perspectives they bring.

It’s said that the magistracy has a stuffy, middle-class stereotype, and we work hard to dispel that notion. While we have come a long way—I have sat on the bench with hairdressers, midwives, farmers, teachers, and women from many backgrounds—we could still do better. And so, in its 2020–2025 Judicial Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, the judiciary committed—among other actions—to using its annual diversity statistics to develop and roll out targeted activities to ensure the widest and most diverse pool of candidates for judicial office. You may have seen some of these in the media or on social media recently.

Once women are appointed to the magistracy, we’re fortunate to have a wealth of materials that help us in our role—such as the Equal Treatment Bench Book and unconscious bias training. There are steps we can take before and during cases to challenge previous decisions or the thinking on which those were based. We’re highly aware of disproportionately issues in the wider criminal justice system and seek to challenge contributing factors where we can.

At the MA, we actively promote a diverse magistracy to over 80,000 people every year through our Magistrates in the Community programme. Speaking with all ages, from children in primary schools to adults, we highlight the benefits of a magistracy that reflects communities in all its guises to deliver the best quality of justice.

On this International Women’s Day, I call on you to join us in helping #BreakTheBias. In another blog, we’ve shared five actions you can take.