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2 June 2021
Diversity, disparity and inclusion

In conversation with members of the MA's Black, Asian and minority ethnic network.

The MA Black, Asian and minority ethnic network was launched in November 2020 as part of the MA’s work to recognise and bring together magistrates who are also members of groups we believe to be underrepresented within both the MA and the magistracy as a whole.

To mark Volunteers’ Week 2021, we sat down (in a socially distanced manner) with the group’s co-chairs, Jacqui MacDonald-Davis JP and Doreen Huijssoon-Prescott JP, to ask them about their experiences of volunteering as magistrates, the importance of representation in the magistracy, and the group’s plans for the future.

Jacqui has been a magistrate for 16 years and sits in Central London. She currently works for Health Education England in the Professional Support Unit as an Education Lead, supporting trainee medical clinicians. She has several voluntary roles within the magistracy; as well as co-chairing the network she sits on the MA Board, is Deputy Bench Chair of the Central London Magistrates’ Court and Deputy Chair on the MA Training, Learning and Development Committee.

Doreen became a magistrate in 2006 and sits in Birmingham. She has been employed in the further education sector and has international humanitarian experience including the co-pioneering of a vocational training school for AIDS orphans in Uganda. Doreen has undertaken the training to become a presiding justice and participates in the MA’s Magistrates in the Community initiative.

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

Jacqui: I had thought about it for many years. I have always been involved with various voluntary projects; as a student at university I volunteered with a bail project at Camberwell Magistrates’ Court, and I was a lay visitor (visiting police stations unannounced) for several years. I also volunteered for the Prince’s Trust for a considerable period of time. When I started work as a university lecturer, a colleague mentioned the magistracy to me, and I have not looked back since. On reflection, I have always had an interest in social justice. I was brought up to believe it is important to give something back: the family mantra was: to whom much is given, much is expected.

Doreen: Similarly, my parents recognised the importance of giving back to the community, and they supported my employment as a humanitarian aid worker in Uganda, Rwanda and Zambia. On my return to the UK, I visited the local magistrates’ court to make enquiries as to how I could serve the local community.

What is the biggest thing you have learned since becoming a magistrate?

Jacqui: The importance of listening to understand. To assume nothing. To be respectful of those who appear before the courts—there is so much we don’t know about the life of others. It is a role with great responsibilities that should not be entered into lightly.

Doreen: My greatest personal life lesson is to embrace change. In the magistracy, this could be adapting to the revision of court procedures at a national level or the revision of the court rota at a local level.

How important is it that the magistracy is modern and diverse?

Jacqui: The diversity of background and experience of the magistracy contributes to a broader collective perspective. Anyone who appears before the court must feel that judicial processes and procedures are fair, objective, transparent and free from any forms of discrimination. The lived experience of magistrates informs our thinking and decisions. We have to move with the times or we will be left behind.

Doreen: I have always been aware of the inextricable link between social justice and humanitarian policy. A high level of social significance and integrity within public institutions is synonymous with a modern and diverse magistracy. How can public servants demonstrate accountability without demonstrating the attributes of public life?

Can you explain what the Black, Asian and minority ethnic network aims to do?

Doreen: The network aims to provide a networking platform and to generate discourse around the issues affecting the inclusion of Black, Asian and minority ethnic magistrates, from attraction and recruitment to retention and development. Finally, it exists to advise and inform the work of the MA and relevant government bodies. Now is the time to mobilise the magistracy to maximise the skills, abilities and competencies of our colleagues.

Jacqui: The concept of ‘BAME’ is not one that I like. BAME implies a homogeneous group, which we are not. Therefore, it is something we plan to discuss with our group members. The network aims to capture the experiences of Black, Asian and other racial and ethnic groups as magistrates. To celebrate achievements and to ensure members have a seat at the table where decisions are being made. To contribute to Magistrates in the Community resources and to highlight that members are more than the colour of their skin. I would like the group to contribute to recruitment, to volunteer for other roles and responsibilities, and to be regional ambassadors and champions of the magistracy in their place of work in their local communities. As well as so much more.

What do you think is the biggest misconception that others have about volunteering as a magistrate?

Jacqui: Not fully understanding what being a magistrate is really about. That it requires commitment, training and engagement. It is not just about having JP after your name!

Doreen: One of the big misconceptions about any kind of voluntary community service is that certain roles may not be accessible to Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. My response is that these communities cannot limit themselves to the spheres of influence of the previous generation. To do so may limit their potential as individuals and the national representation of diverse Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

What do you most enjoy about volunteering as a magistrate?

Jacqui: I learn something new every time I sit. I enjoy working with colleagues and presenting a professional, committed and fair front to defendants. It is about defendants feeling that their voice has been heard and, irrespective of the outcome, that justice was served. And most importantly, I feel I’m giving something back to London.

Doreen: I enjoy the opportunity to participate in structured decision-making with an ever-changing team of magistrates. The courtroom setting presents a unique opportunity to actively listen to each person’s valuable contribution to the proceedings.

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

Doreen: The pace of change within the magistracy is challenging. This is largely due to the volume of critical information which needs to be disseminated and applied within limited time constraints. Fortunately, the MA branches continually seek to develop innovative strategies to accompany magistrates on their journey of personal development.

Jacqui: Making decisions regarding custodial sentences, or remanding someone pre-trial. It is never easy. Plus, recognising that we all have prejudices when presented with certain criminal behaviour and we need to put them aside and remain objective.

How has volunteering as a magistrate changed during the pandemic?

Doreen: The need to manage loss and change has been paramount. Fortunately, many personal and professional challenges have been overcome by the goodwill of our colleagues.

Jacqui: We have had to apply lateral thinking, pivot to keep everything moving, finding new ways of working. Things have moved online, with more remote sittings, online training and webinars. It has been important to identify colleagues who were either within walking distance or had easy access to the courthouse to hold the fort. It was about pulling together and ensuring that we remained in contact with our bench members, especially those who had to isolate or were shielding and listening to the concerns of magistrates and then acting accordingly. Above all, ensuring that returning to the courthouse took place at a slow and steady pace and that colleagues felt confident returning to a safe and clean environment.

Finally, what would you say to someone from an ethnic minority background who is thinking about joining the magistracy?

Jacqui: I would want to ask anyone thinking about joining the magistracy why they want to become magistrates. What do they think it is all about, how can they contribute to the magistracy? I would want them to explore the transferability of the skills they can gain as magistrates and take back to their place of work/community groups. I would stress the importance of sitting in the back of the courtroom to gain a full experience by observing magistrates at work and encourage them to talk to the bench about their observations and the reasons behind their judgements. They should also read the MA’s information on becoming a magistrate online. All before submitting an application!

Doreen: I would encourage them to reflect on the possibility that one of the ways to manage change is to be an agent of change. Be encouraged: you are the change that we need to see!