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16 January 2023
Practicalities of being a magistrate

Having clocked up nearly 30 years as a youth court magistrate, Godfrey Allen shares a few tips for newly recruited magistrates.

Over the last three decades I’ve had numerous occasions to reflect on my performance as both a winger and presiding justice. As well as completing a formal appraisal every three years and post-court reviews after each sitting, I’ve found introspection an immensely useful learning tool.

Here are a couple of things I’ve learnt over the years that I hope will be helpful as you set off on this most exciting and rewarding of voluntary careers.

  1. Try to arrive early if possible. This will ensure you have time to get properly acquainted with your business for the day and your colleagues, as well as to complete the obligatory  administrative tasks such as signing into the court and sorting out your laptop.
  2. Learn from your fellow magistrates’ varied experiences. Your bench colleagues are likely to have different professional, sociocultural and voluntary backgrounds to you, so will be able to share useful insights—on topics such as local education provision, health and social services, and housing—that may help inform your decision making on cases.
  3. Hold your commitment to ‘do right… without fear or favour’ at the forefront of your mind. During deliberations, you may occasionally, be told or suspect that if the bench follows a particular course of action that the matter may become the subject of a Crown Court appeal. However, a bench’s decision making should never be influenced by such a sentiment as this would constitute an improper consideration.
  4. Remember that ‘not sure’ always means ‘not guilty’. Although this should go without saying, I make the point nonetheless because it is so very important.
  5. Make the most of any small windows of opportunity that arise to help change a life. While we always weigh the potential impact of our decisions on defendants, it can be easy to forget that we’re also able to assist defendants to reflect on their future. For example, as well as ensuring a youth court defendant understands the specifics of a judicial pronouncement on bail or sentencing, you could also encourage them to think about the behaviours they need to get right from now on; recognise that the people either side of them in court have their best interests at heart; and go away with a commitment to focus on preparing themselves for their return to court. This approach is just as relevant for adults.
  6. Request and offer constructive feedback. Regretfully, we don’t receive feedback from defendants, witnesses and others who are the most affected by our decision making, so asking your fellow bench members for feedback on your performance—and offering them the same—is one of the best ways for us to strengthen our collective performance at court.