The coming year will have a set of challenges for magistrates, the like of which we have not seen before. As National Chair, here’s what I think is coming and what the challenges ahead of us are likely to look like.
1. Reform of local justice areas
This is very much a hangover from 2023 when everyone thought the Ministry of Justice would launch the consultation with magistrates on what would replace local justice areas (LJAs). That didn’t happen because the problems with increasing prison numbers took the civil servants working on the LJA reform away to focus on prisons instead.
We know that they are now back on track, and the consultation is likely to be launched this spring (barring any sudden general election announcement). As soon as the consultation is launched, the MA will organise a webinar to explain the issues, options to respond and the strengths and weaknesses of the proposals.
2. Wider judicial reform
Alongside the changes to LJAs, we expect reform of Training, Approvals, Authorisations and Appraisal Committees (TAAACs), as well as changes to the way judicial business occurs, the future of the Magistrates Leadership Executive, and what oversight occurs and by whom to be firmly on the agenda. The MA will be putting the case for the voice of ordinary magistrates to be heard at all levels.
3. Integration of new joiners
By the end of March, it is expected that nearly 2,000 new magistrates will have joined benches across England and Wales over the past year. This represents the largest and fastest recruitment of new magistrates in living memory.
While the expansion is welcome, large numbers of new joiners can be challenging for both long-standing magistrates, as well as our new colleagues. A common purpose and standards of training provide a bridge between those who are well established in their role and those just coming onto the bench.
The changes to training being managed by the Judicial College are well under way in all regions. This provides both challenges and opportunities as training becomes more consistent but could also become more remote from the needs in a particular area.
The MA’s training, learning and development committee will be working on understanding how things are going over the next twelve months.
5. Return of half-day sittings
A decade ago, when I was a bench chair I was encouraged to talk to those who sit half-days, to try and encourage them to switch to full days. This was largely successful but as I talk to younger magistrates now, more and more would find half-days more suitable for fitting around their day-jobs. The flexibility means that they don’t have to be absent from work for a whole day.
Undoubtedly, this will cause challenges for bench support teams and also for the types of cases that new colleagues can sit on. However, if we want to see a diverse magistracy perhaps change is unavoidable.
6. Other changes to sittings
Suggestions are being made to change the minimum annual commitment to make it easier to talk to employers about absence from work. Additional allowances within the annual commitment in a new magistrate’s first few years, to accommodate the training requirement, are also being mooted.
The MA will be looking at these proposals carefully as ‘dumbing down’ the competence of magistrates must be avoided at a time when we are under more scrutiny than ever before from the public, press and justice organisations.
7. Appraiser and mentor burnout
Many benches struggle to secure an appropriate number of appraisers and mentors. In areas with large recruitment numbers, we know that mentors are being stretched. Some are taking on two or three mentees. It’s important that more people volunteer to take on these incredibly rewarding roles to enable recruitment to continue at the pace necessary.
8. Legal advisers
There seems to be a wholesale shortage of legal advisers across England and Wales. While caseloads are falling in most areas, there are still too many cancellations—often at last minute when a legal adviser is sick. There is no slack in the system.
While recruitment is permitted up to 110 per cent of the budget for legal advisers to create some spare capacity, too many legal advisers are still in training. This makes them unable to sit in certain courts or for all sessions in a week.
9. Artificial intelligence
The use of AI in the justice system is coming faster than I had expected. Most noticeably in single justice courts where defendants are using ChatGPT to help them with their mitigation when they enter a plea online. Pop over to ChatGPT and ask it ‘Help mitigate a fare evasion fine’ for an example of how it is being used. The MA will be organising a webinar on AI and the justice system for members this year.