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25 March 2022
Diversity, disparity and inclusion Practicalities of being a magistrate

To mark Neurodiversity Celebration Week and to raise awareness that anyone with the right qualities can be a magistrate, one of our members, Justin, shares his experiences of being a neurodiverse magistrate.

21-27 March marks Neurodiversity Celebration Week, a global initiative that aims to bring about worldwide acceptance of neurodiversity in schools and workplaces by challenging stereotypes and mistaken beliefs about neurological differences.

As an organisation committed to ensuring diversity and inclusion in the magistracy, the MA was keen to get involved. To help raise awareness that anyone with the right qualities can be a magistrate, we asked one of our members, Justin, some questions about being a neurodiverse magistrate.

How long have you been volunteering as a magistrate?
I was appointed in 2013. It was my second time applying to be a magistrate. I found that I struggled with the application process when I first applied because, at that point, I was undiagnosed and so didn’t have reasonable adjustments.

How does being neurodivergent impact your role?
There are positives and negatives. By sharing my experiences and perspectives with my non-neurodiverse colleagues, I can educate others and help increase accessibility. On the other hand, the volume of information I’m give at pace in court can be difficult to process. So, I rely on cross checking my understanding with my colleges to ensure I haven’t missed anything.

Have you received any support in your role that has been particularly helpful?
My colleagues on the bench are the best examples I have of support. One of my diagnoses means I can struggle with fine motor control tasks, so a colleague once helped me tie a tie before going into court. I normally rely on help at home for things like that, but my colleague stepped in; no questions asked and no judgment made.

Some of the technology solutions we have are also a help. For example, Microsoft has embedded some accessibility tools in the applications we use as magistrates.

Is there anything you feel makes it harder for you to do you role? 
Lots of things! To list just a few:

  • Courts don’t have a sunflower scheme, which would allow neurodiverse people (and others) to signal their hidden disability. This, in turn, would enable court staff and magistrates to know to ask about how they could help accommodate their colleagues’ needs
  • There isn’t enough awareness of neurodiversity or the different ways this affects individuals
  • Stigma about disability within the judiciary—I have personally experienced this
  • Endless technology changes and a preference for screen-based work—I’d appreciate more training on how to use the technology we’re given and would appreciate printed copies of materials/court papers.

The big one is that the magistracy needs to be fully representative; sometimes diversity-related activities can feel like they’re tick-box exercises.

What do you most enjoy about being a magistrate? 
The greatest attraction for me is that when you go to court you’ve got three people from different walks of life sitting on one bench who often have three different perspectives on the cases they hear. You’re unlikely to notice it if you’re sitting in the public gallery because the magic happens in the retiring room. That’s where we come together to represent society; we share our opinions, experiences and observations on the evidence we’ve heard and we come to a conclusion. To me, that’s the magic.

Why did you decide to join the Magistrates’ Association’s magistrates with disabilities network?
I actually re-joined the MA because it recently launched a magistrates with disabilities network. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what more the MA can do in this space as there is definitely work to be done!

Why do you feel that moments like Neurodiversity Celebration Week are important?
Because they’re a chance for us to raise public awareness about neurodiversity in all its forms and to advance progress towards true global equality and diversity. I’m passionate about this because I think the very nature of the magistracy is to be representative. All our court users have diverse backgrounds, which is why it is essential that the three magistrates on a bench have their own, different perspectives. That is why there are three of us. I think of the bench as a prism and when you look at something through a prism you’ve got all these wonderful colours shooting off in different directions. That is what a bench of magistrates is, with all of the different approaches and perspectives.

By celebrating our neurodiverse magistrates, we’re showing that disability is not a barrier serving your community. Magistrates are appointed solely on their qualities. Being dyslexic or dyspraxic or having ADHD are just some of those qualities that form part of who I am as a magistrate, and it’s right that these parts of me are valued and celebrated.

What would you say to someone who is neurodivergent and is considering applying to join the magistracy? 
If you have the qualities needed to be a magistrate then the magistracy is for you. Your disability is a part of you and it brings a valuable perspective to the role. Magistrates need to represent the people we serve; there are people in our communities who have disabilities, so there are also magistrates who have disabilities. In that way, your disability is an extension of your skillset – a unique perspective you would bring to the role. So, if you want to serve your community and are committed to being a magistrate, apply to join us today.

Any last reflections?
Yes; we can and should make courts more accessible. Easy examples include utilising technology like QR codes in courts to provide tailored information for court users, and increasing awareness of neurodiversity and disabilities. All that’s required is that we, as a system, commit to change and commit to doing better.

If you’re neurodivergent and are considering applying to join the magistracy or are already a magistrate, why not join our magistrates with disabilities network? There you’ll find a wealth of support, advice and (hopefully) friendship.