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10 May 2022
Wider justice system

Tom Franklin took up the role of the CEO of the Magistrates' Association at the end of May 2021. As he approaches his first anniversary in post, he reflects on the last 12 months and shares what's on the horizon for the year ahead.

I can’t believe I’ve almost been in post a year. It feels like it has gone incredibly quickly, though they do say that time speeds up as you get older so that might have something to do with it! I’ve had several CEO roles over the last two decades, but starting this one was very different because of Covid-19. There were not many opportunities to travel and meet people in person; I’m hoping to be able to do more of that in my second year. Although we’re lucky to have the alternative of Zoom and Teams these days, nothing beats chatting with people face-to-face.

What has struck me most this year is the sense of real momentum for the magistracy and the Magistrates’ Association. In the past few months alone, we’ve had three pieces of very good news – some of which we’ve been waiting for a long time.

Firstly, the extension of magistrates’ sentencing powers to 12 months for a single offence. The MA has been calling this amend since it passed a motion at its 2010 AGM. Although enacted in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, it was never actually implemented; there always seemed to be a reason not to. Last year – in the context of concerns about crown court backlogs and, particularly, the delays in cases involving violence against women and girls – we wrote to the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, urging action. This time, we had a breakthrough and, as of last Monday, these new powers are now in force. I’ve been impressed by how, through its influencing work and backed up by solid research, the MA keeps pressing its case for the better administration of justice for all.

Secondly, and again after years of lobbying, the mandatory retirement age for magistrates has been raised from 70 to 75. This was the subject of a motion at the MA’s 2018 AGM, and the organisation has been working hard on it ever since. The case was that, at a time, of shortage of magistrates in many parts of England and Wales, it made no sense to be losing some of the most experienced magistrates – especially those who are more likely to have the time to sit more frequently. While 70 might have made sense in the past, society has changed and people are living active lives for longer. Finally, our pressure has borne fruit, and hundreds of magistrates aged 70-75 who wish to return to the bench will be able to do so in the coming months.

Thirdly, a national recruitment campaign for magistrates from all walks of life is underway. The MA has long argued that the level of recruitment has been dangerously low; magistrate numbers have been mismanaged and it’s all too easy to see the consequence of this in the shortfall of magistrates in many parts of the country. Our rough estimate is that we need about 17,000 magistrates in total – an increase of 4,000 to 5,000 on today’s number. Our message got through. In January, the government launched an MA-backed recruitment drive and more than 30,000 people have already expressed interest. As we champion diversity in the magistracy, it’s pleasing that a quarter of these have come from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. To avoid future shortfalls, we will now focus our efforts on pressing for quick follow up on those expressions of interest and for recruitment to be sustained.

These successes show the vital importance of having an independent voice for the magistracy: that is, the MA. We’re able to say things that others aren’t able to. We’re able to speak truth to power. And, we don’t give up!

So, what’s coming up next?

Firstly, following a motion on the costs of volunteering passed at our 2021 AGM, we’ve just completed a major survey of 1,400 members – collecting information about the costs of being a magistrate (expenses, expectations around computer equipment, and the time commitment beyond the actual court sittings). Members will know that we reacted very strongly last year to the changes in magistrates’ expenses that left some magistrates out of pocket, especially with travel costs. We’ve written to HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) recently about the 35 per cent increase in petrol costs, asking for the expenses rate to be raised to allow for this. We’ll be using the evidence from our survey to make the case that it shouldn’t cost to volunteer as a magistrate – and that there should be greater recognition of the role.

Secondly, we’ll be working alongside our magistrates with disabilities network over the next few months to document the state of our court houses for people with disabilities. We hear horror stories about how inaccessible so many courtrooms are for people in wheelchairs, with limited mobility, or hearing loss. This is unacceptable in the year 2022.

Thirdly, we’ve been working with our young magistrates’ network to secure uptake of the six recommendations made in its report about the lack of support for employed magistrates. Discussions are underway with HMCTS and the judiciary.

Influencing on behalf of our members is a vital part of the MA’s mission, but it’s not the only thing we do. I’ve been so impressed by the dedication of members working on our Magistrates in the Community programme. Despite Covid-19, since 2019 they have run 5,000 sessions reaching 120,000 people. Most of these took place at schools, but 700 were delivered to community groups: mosques, synagogues, rotary clubs, farmers’ clubs and more. I’ve spoken to so many members who love this part of the work. We’ve recently launched some new materials, on knife crime, and many MA branches are kick-starting activities post-lockdowns. Our four diversity and inclusion networks are keen to help our branches reach other communities in their areas. For example, our Birmingham branch had a stall at the city’s Pride event recently, and the deputy chair of our Black, Asian and minority ethnic network held a workshop at an event for Black women to encourage them to step forward as magistrates.

The MA also keeps members informed – through our excellent MAGISTRATE magazine, eNews newsletter, and website. The latter needs a bit of an overhaul, and we look forward to re-launching it later this year.

Additionally, we develop our members – through excellent learning and development materials. There are fantastic resources available in the members’ area of our website. And, so far this year, we’ve hosted more than 20 events for members on subjects ranging from cybercrime and gambling to women in prison and rural crime. Later this year, we’ll be launching a new members’ Learning Hub, putting all of our learning materials into a single, accessible and easily-searchable online repository.

I’ve been struck over the past year at how many members look to the MA to provide support when things go wrong. We receive a constant stream of correspondence from members who are concerned or confused about something, and we respond with sage advice from experienced members. Later this year, we’ll be launching a support line to make it easier for members to get in touch with queries and to have them answered by a panel of experienced magistrate members. We can’t take up individual cases, but we can provide a friendly ear and sign-post to support. Members helping and supporting other members in this way is the essence of the MA.

Finally, I’ve found it heartening to hear about the social events put on by many of our branches, bringing members together either in-person or online. The MA is often the ‘social glue’ of the magistracy, and we’re going to be working with our branches over the next year to strengthen this element of our work.

I hope from what I’ve written above that you get a sense of how we’re building on the enormous strengths of the MA and are developing it for the future. Our role is to help our members be the best magistrates they can be – through our work to develop, inform, influence for, support and connect our members.

Members are at the heart of what we do and if I have one ‘ask’ for you this coming year it is to help us recruit more members so that we can be even more effective. That’s why we’ve launched our Member-Get-Member scheme, with a small thank you to members who help to recruit other magistrates to the MA. Please email Lisa Whitehead for further details.

I’m very much looking forward to my second year at the MA.