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4 September 2023
Diversity, disparity and inclusion

Charlotte Wassermann shares her experience of being a magistrate with an invisible disability and sheds light on the types of adjustments that can make the role more accessible for people with hidden disabilities.

The text reads member blog, Charlotte Wassermann. It is accompanied by Charlotte's photo.

I applied to be a magistrate because, I’d been looking for a voluntary role that would bring new experiences and would also contribute to my local community. In my day job, I was producing observational documentaries—some of which were about parts of the criminal justice system such as the police—and this sparked an interest in how the criminal justice system worked. I developed a belief in the role of the independent judiciary in the administration of justice. When I found out it was possible to volunteer and contribute, it felt like just the role I was looking for.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought a lot of changes

I began sitting in January 2020 just as the courts were facing the pandemic. This caused some disruption—for example, we couldn’t have any face-to-face training—but it also had advantages. My usually very busy job as a freelance television producer was significantly quieter and I was able to pick up sittings and get lots of experience in my first year.

However, in the year I began sitting another big life change also came along. In January 2021, I got an infection that turned into post-viral fatigue. This developed by the summer into myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), and I became a disabled person.

Not all disability is obvious or visible

I have an “invisible disability” and most people who meet me wouldn’t necessarily know that there is anything wrong—especially because people tend to only see me on my good days. However, developing ME/CFS has had a massive impact on my day-to-day life.

The condition is a long-term, fluctuating, neurological disease that affects many body systems. It not only causes extreme fatigue and flu-like symptoms, but also impacts the way the brain and the body functions after even a small amount of exertion (be that physical or mental). It’s a bit like having a battery that is always running close to empty and can’t recharge properly.

This condition has led to me cutting back drastically in all areas of my life. I’ve stopped work, given up hobbies, limited my social life and am very careful about the exercise/activity I do.

Even as I was giving up so much, I was very determined to continue sitting as a magistrate—the role is so rewarding and is one of the main ways I feel connected to the world and like I’m still making a contribution.

How to keep sitting with ME/CFS

I’ve overall had good experiences as a magistrate with a hidden disability. Whereas television is very bad at making adjustments for disabled people, with a bit of adaptation on my part and some flexibility and support from colleagues, I’ve successfully managed to keep sitting once a fortnight and continue in my role as council representative for North East and East London Magistrates’ Association (MA).

The biggest difficulty I’ve faced is when we have a long sitting day and finish late. Because the length of the court day is unpredictable, this is possibly the hardest thing to manage. I can feel my fatigue getting worse towards the end of the day, but this doesn’t impair my judgement, nor my ability to perform the role well. I’m always fine if a bit tired on the day, but because I push through to keep going it can have an impact on the following days when I get ‘payback’ and my symptoms get worse.

To try and avoid this situation as much as I can, the main thing I do is a lot of planning and preparation to preserve my energy for sitting in court. For example, I cook all my meals in advance,  rest more the day before and after a sitting, and have temporarily adapted my rota to include some half-day sittings to help limit the impact of sitting days.

Reasonable adjustments aren’t always about physical infrastructure

When it comes to accessibility, people often think about practical things like lifts and ramps, signage, lighting, disabled toilets or hearing loops. All of these are really important for many disabled magistrates. For me, however, the factors that make the role accessible aren’t in the bricks and mortar but in the way the work is organised. For example, it’s helpful to:

  • Receive the rota in advance, so that I can plan for when I’m sitting.
  • Have breaks during the day and a quiet place to go for a rest at lunchtime.
  • Sit in courts near my home, so that my journey there isn’t too challenging. This makes a massive difference to the energy demands on a sitting day.
  • A hybrid option for meetings or training sessions that take place in the evenings or far away so that I can attend remotely. This helps me to benefit from the extra-curricular aspects of being a magistrate.

The main support I’ve asked for and received on the day of sitting is to have deliberations away from the main retiring room. It’s quite tiring to be in a social space with lots of people and noise, and it’s easier to be just with the colleagues I’m sitting with when we’re discussing the work of the day.

A magistracy that is accessible to all

I’ve been lucky to be able to adapt to being a disabled magistrate, but I know volunteering isn’t always as easy for all of us. I’ve recently helped with the research that underpinned the MA’s landmark accessibility report. The findings showed that more needs to be done to ensure the courts are consistently accessible for disabled people across England and Wales. Many of the difficulties that disabled people face—not least disabled people who want to be magistrates—are to do with barriers created by the way things are organised and set up rather than our impairments or differences.

This matters, not just because the lay bench should reflect all of society, but also because every disabled person brings their unique knowledge to the courtroom as well as the skills and experience that all magistrates are expected to demonstrate. Since getting ill, I’ve gained a much more profound understanding of the impact being disabled has on people’s experience of the world—the challenges and exclusions still exist in so many areas.

The voices of disabled magistrates can also help colleagues to understand some of the experiences of the people who attend court as witnesses and defendants. They provide a powerful and important contribution, and this is the best way of ensuring that the administration of justice is as fair and inclusive as possible.