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3 June 2021
Practicalities of being a magistrate

In conversation with magistrates who are balancing paid employment and volunteering.

Being a magistrate is a voluntary role, with magistrates asked to commit to volunteering a minimum of 13 days a year. Employers are obliged by law to allow time off work for magistrates to perform their duties, but it is at their discretion whether this is paid or unpaid leave. Many supportive employers allow employees additional leave so that they can give back to their communities by volunteering as magistrates.

To mark Volunteers’ Week, we sat down with two magistrates, Katherine Sirrell JP and Dan Longman JP, to discuss their experiences of balancing a career with volunteering as a magistrate, as well as what volunteering during the pandemic has been like for them.

Katherine has been a magistrate for four years and sits in Central London. She works at the Ministry of Justice as a policy advisor in the Access to Justice Directorate. She is also deputy chair of the MA’s young magistrates’ network.

Daniel has been a magistrate since 2017 and was appointed at the age of 27. He sits in three courts across Merseyside. He is a conservation officer for a local authority. He is also an MA trustee and deputy chair of the MA’s LGBT+ network.

How did you first hear about the opportunity to volunteer as a magistrate?

Katherine: I was working as a lawyer in private practice specialising in civil law. I really missed being in court and feeling like I was part of the wider justice system. I was lucky that because of my legal background, I knew about this volunteering opportunity and understood what a magistrate is. I worry that a lot of younger people in employment don’t know about the role and wouldn’t think the bench is for them.

Daniel: An acquaintance mentioned that they were interested in the role. I wasn’t entirely sure what it entailed, what type of people could do it or even if you needed certain qualifications. As I looked into the work of the magistrates’ court myself, I felt this was something I may actually be good at.

Can you describe how you balance sittings with your job?

Daniel: I am very fortunate that my employer has a policy to allow reasonable time away to perform public duties such as this. I have always found it especially useful that our sitting rotas are sent to us well in advance. If there is ever a conflict or other commitment that I must attend at work, there has never been a problem swapping a sitting to a more convenient date.

Katherine: In normal times I take two days a month to sit, and the Civil Service is very supportive and understanding. I am very lucky, and conscious that a lot of young magistrates won’t have understanding employers. It can be a struggle to balance commitments, but bench chairs in my experience have been brilliant at lending support. I would encourage any magistrates facing pressures from their employer to speak to their bench chair. Mine has been absolutely fantastic, but there could be even more support for magistrates in full-time employment who are often being pulled in different directions.

What transferable skills have you learned or developed as a magistrate?

Katherine: So many! I think my ability to analyse various sources of evidence and make decisions under pressure, as well as my communication and collaboration skills, are the most helpful for my day job. I work in a cross-governmental policy group where lots of joint decisions have to be made. My experiences working with magistrate colleagues, debating points of view, persuading and influencing each other where appropriate, and then backing one another and taking a shared decision, have been invaluable and unique. They are great skills and opportunities to bring to my employer.

Daniel: I think for me, confidence has been a major advantage. When I first joined back in 2015 I was somewhat dispirited having finished university a few years before but still having little to show for it apart from a short trail of mundane and uninspiring dead-end jobs. Being appointed as a JP was a boost to my self-belief that I did in fact have the talent and ability to reach my goals. The teamwork, listening and decision-making skills and all the other proficiencies we are required to show when deciding cases have all been improved over the past five years and have no doubt fed into my day-to-day life.

What are the top qualities you would say a magistrate needs?

Katherine: Empathy, patience, and excellent and sound judgment.

Daniel: Empathy is crucial. When deciding cases, it is vital that we do our best to understand the situation from a human point of view. It goes without saying really, but listening is one of the most important skills magistrates need when dealing with any situation on the bench. It is imperative that in the interests of justice, we listen and analyse every bit of information that is presented to us and never assume anything. What we decide may have potentially life-changing consequences.

Finally, as a magistrate, you need to be aware of your potential for unconscious bias. We must be alert to any subtle predispositions or mindsets that we may hold and be sure to only take an objective, evidence-based view of any situation which may come before the court. This is why it is so important for the bench to be diverse and feature magistrates of all backgrounds and experiences from right across our local communities. Magistrates should reflect the society we serve, and our individual experiences should help inform unbiased and balanced decisions.

How important is it that an employer supports its employees to be magistrates?

Katherine: Incredibly important! Magistrates are a vital part of our justice system, it couldn’t function without us. Yet so many of us struggle with employers who may be reluctant to provide the time and flexibility for employees to volunteer. This is understandable, particularly for small and medium employers who will be under business and financial pressures, especially during the pandemic. We need to find a way of supporting and educating employers so they can be confident in providing their employees with the flexibility they need to volunteer as magistrates. Equally, we need to educate our colleagues through clear communication and evidence of the amazing skills and qualities they develop on the bench, so both employers and employees can see the value of the role.

Daniel: This really is the crux of the recruitment situation for new magistrates. In 2021 it is unrealistic to expect those of working age to voluntarily take leave or miss a day’s pay to sit as a magistrate. The vast majority of working-age people do not have the luxury of financial independence or other such means to be so philanthropic with their time, especially those with caring commitments. To achieve diverse and mixed benches made up of more than just the retired, there must be a recognition that magistrates make a positive contribution to society as a whole. Employers should look beyond the balance sheet and permit their staff to take paid leave for all magisterial commitments. This will not be feasible for all small businesses, but if it is indeed possible, then such policies should be implemented. To do so would make an important difference to the health and makeup of the magistracy.

What would you say to someone thinking about joining the magistracy?

Daniel: Do it. It is a fascinating role which allows you to make a real difference in your local community and offers you an insight into life and circumstances beyond your own. It also gives you the chance to develop important skills which you can use in other areas of your life, and it is flexible enough to fit around your current commitments. I have no regrets about my own decision to join the magistracy and I would encourage anyone with even the slightest interest to take the time to learn more about the role and decide whether it is something for them.

Katherine: Firstly, do it! We need more magistrates and the more people who apply; the more varied the applicants, which can only be good for diversity. Young people often approach me to ask about applying and I am always keen to share my experiences and highlight how uniquely fascinating and varied the role is. It is the most rewarding thing I have done, and I am so keen for more and more young people to sit. If we increase the diversity of the bench (including age diversity), we will encourage greater public confidence and higher-quality decision-making.

What do you most enjoy about volunteering as a magistrate?

Katherine: How varied every sitting is. You really see all walks of life in court and have the opportunity to directly impact people’s lives. It is an absolute privilege and endlessly fascinating to sit.

Daniel: For me it is also the variety of cases, the opportunities to learn and, ultimately, the chance to make a difference. No two days are the same and every time I leave court, I feel I have learnt something new, either about the law, my community, or an appreciation of a viewpoint I had never previously considered.

What is the most challenging part of volunteering as a magistrate?

Daniel: It may sound obvious, but the role of magistrates is a very responsible position. There is no escaping the fact that your decision can have very real and possibly life-changing consequences for a fellow citizen, so there is genuine pressure on our shoulders to reach the most appropriate and fair decision given the evidence and circumstances in front of us. We do not take decisions lightly and I think that is the most challenging part of the job, the weight of it all.

Katherine: For me, it is the commitment, but the decision-making can be challenging at times. There can be really sensitive issues and sometimes it is difficult to feel confident that your decision is having a positive impact.

How has volunteering as a magistrate changed during the pandemic?

Daniel: Things have only just started to get back to normal again. There was a time when it was just two magistrates on a bench, which I can imagine could lead to trouble if there were opposing points of view. Luckily, I never encountered that, but even with the three of us on the bench there are plastic screens in place in most courts and I still wear my mask during cases. There is plenty of hand sanitiser around and notices about the importance of social distancing are dotted around all over the buildings. As a magistrate, I feel the courts are working as well as can be given the situation and we all have an individual responsibility to look after ourselves and all other court users.

Katherine: When Covid-19 hit there was a huge impact at work and I actually had to take a break from magistrate duties to concentrate on managing the policy and operational pressures at work. So, for me, the change has been that it has been a real struggle to sit, but I know from my colleagues that the social distancing and number of cases listed have added additional pressures on the bench. It is going to be tough for a while but we are a great group of volunteers who are motivated to serve the system. I am hopeful that the change to ways of working may mean more young people are able to work flexibly or from home, freeing up time to be able to volunteer on the bench. The pandemic has also made many people more community-minded and I hope people will be more interested in volunteering in their local courts and giving something back. That would be a possible silver lining to take forward from the pandemic.

Learn more

If you’re looking for more information about balancing your job and volunteering, or are an employer of a magistrate, take a look at our employing a magistrate page for information and advice.