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26 October 2023
Practicalities of being a magistrate

To mark Black History Month, Abiola Onatade shares why she’s been giving back to her community by volunteering as a magistrate for over two decades.

I’m Abiola Onatade—also known as Abi to my friends, family and colleagues. I’m a daughter, sister, an aunt, a loyal and trustworthy friend, and a diligent operations manager in the national data service team at Health Education England. I’m reliable, have a great sense of humour, am a participant and avid follower of track and field athletics, and enjoy travelling. I’m also a long-standing magistrate in southeast London.

I am a British-born Afro-Caribbean, with a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father. When people ask me about my ethnicity, I always say that I am British by birth and Afro-Caribbean by right. I was born and went to middle school in the UK, but I moved to Nigeria with my family in 1975. It was a complete and utter cultural shock, but I effectively grew up there—I went to school there, completed teacher training college, taught History, English Language and English Literature, and Yoruba is my second language. I returned to live in the UK in 1988.

Journey to the magistracy

I was appointed as a magistrate in 1998 to what was then known as the Greenwich bench. Aged 33, I was the youngest person on my bench, which felt quite surreal. Since then, at least two colleagues have joined at an even younger age than me—which is important for ensuring that diverse perspectives are present on our bench.

You may ask how I became a magistrate? Well, it’s my twin sister’s fault! She worked in the then Lord Chancellor’s department, in the section that appointed magistrates, and came home one evening complaining that there were not enough female or Black magistrates.

When she suggested that I apply, my automatic reaction was no! Not because I was not community minded—I was already a school governor at the time—but because I did not feel I met the criteria for being appointed. My sister ignored my protests, got me the form and literally stood over me while I filled it out. I was lucky to get the full support of my then employer the National Union of Teachers.

It took me two years to get appointed and I will always remember my swearing in—I wore an orange suit, as my view was that if I was going to have to wear sombre clothes to court when I sat, then I should wear something bright for my swearing in.

I spent ten years as winger, before being appointed a presiding justice—a role I undertook for eight years. 

Helping the community

My early up bringing in London shaped the way I am today. I can clearly remember my mother volunteering to teach typing at my middle school, while my siblings and I would merrily play in the playground. It was my first and most long-lasting impression of someone helping their local community—something that she continued doing throughout her life and that instilled in me and my siblings the need to give back.

As well as being a magistrate, I’ve also volunteered as a school governor for a decade and I’ve been heavily involved with the South of England Athletic Association for over 20 years. 

Facing challenges

Overall, my time as a magistrate has been incredibly positive. However, there have been a few hurdles to overcome. As well as being asked by one legal adviser and solicitor whether I really was a court chair and being told by another legal adviser that they did not like my pronouncements, I’ve had to work hard to achieve an adequate work-life balance. Being a magistrate alongside work, my other voluntary roles, and my field and track hobby has, at times, been a struggle.

However, despite the challenges I consider being a magistrate one of my biggest personal accomplishments and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the role to others.