International Women’s Day (IWD) is a time to celebrate the achievements of women across the globe and raise awareness of the many issues they still face every day. So, we’re taking this opportunity to celebrate the progress that’s been made towards greater equality in the magistracy and take stock of the work that’s still to be done to ensure that women from all walks of life can become magistrates and progress to senior positions within the magistracy.
It is important that the magistracy reflects the people it interacts with daily so that victims, defendants, witnesses and wider society feel the courts are accessible to everyone seeking justice. Women magistrates bring their lived experiences and gendered perspectives to court when dealing with women victims and defendants. This diversity is beneficial to magistrates’ core responsibility of making swift but fair decisions.
Although the magistracy has existed for over 650 years, it was only in 1919, when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came into force, that the first women magistrates were appointed. Only a quarter of the magistrates were women when Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II became our patron in 1953. By 2022, 57 per cent of sitting magistrates were women, so women magistrates are now leading the way in a globally male-dominated sector.
Women contribute tremendously to their communities every day as magistrates. As of 21 February 2023, 68 per cent of family court magistrates, 59 per cent of youth court magistrates and 63 per cent of adult court magistrates were women.
However, there’s still much room for improvement. In line with this year’s IWD theme—#EmbraceEquity—it is vital that women feel supported once they are appointed to the magistracy. Embracing equity means that there should be no glass ceilings preventing women magistrates’ progression, and they should be provided with resources and opportunities needed to achieve full equality.
Our landmark report on the costs of volunteering as a magistrate highlighted the potential for indirect discrimination against those with childcare responsibilities—the majority of whom are women. Magistrates returning from maternity leave are finding little support and guidance to help them navigate the expenses rules. Some magistrates also reported that the expenses shortfall and not feeling valued may well drive them to resign before the mandatory retirement age of 75, so these issues must be effectively addressed to help strengthen morale, mitigate resignations and improve diversity.
We’re also actively encouraging more women from underrepresented groups—young people (those under the age of 40), LGBT+ individuals, Black, Asian and minority ethnic people, and individuals living with disabilities—to become magistrates and apply to take up more senior roles when the opportunities arise. However, there are great data gaps that need plugging to inform our discussions about intersectionality. There’s virtually no data on magistrates and presiding judges who identify with more than one diversity and inclusion category. With our diversity and inclusion networks, we are working with policymakers in government to change this.