The LGBT+ network was the second MA diversity and inclusion network to be launched, in February 2020, as part of our wider work to bring together magistrates who are members of groups we believe to be underrepresented both in the MA membership and in the wider magistracy. The launch of the group was covered by the Law Society Gazette.
As part of our reflections on representation within the magistracy for Volunteers’ Week 2021, we sat down with the group’s chair, Tom Quarton Manuel, to find out more about his experience of volunteering as a magistrate, and how important representation is. Tom was sworn in on his 22nd birthday and has now been a magistrate for nearly 13 years. He sits in Nottinghamshire.
How did you first hear about the opportunity to volunteer as a magistrate?
I was in my second year of university when I saw an advert on a bus asking members of the public to become magistrates. Like many others I have spoken to since, I didn’t know much about the role, that it was a voluntary position, and that you didn’t need a legal qualification to become a magistrate. I researched what a magistrate was in more detail, sat in the gallery and watched a few cases, and ultimately applied.
What is the biggest thing you’ve learnt since becoming a magistrate?
I have learnt an incredible amount about the judicial system and my community, although I am very aware that what I see in court is just a sliver of both.
How important is it that the magistracy is modern and diverse?
There are many studies that demonstrate the importance of diversity. Not only is it a moral imperative to have a diverse bench that welcomes everyone from all backgrounds, but there is also a practical benefit. Diversity of all characteristics, and the intersectionality between them, provides a richer background of experiences, opinions and beliefs, that can be brought to the court and used to influence decisions and decision-making processes. Evidence shows that diversity reduces the likelihood of ‘groupthink’ and aids in making better and, perhaps surprisingly, faster decisions.
What attracted you to the LGBT+ network?
I have been sitting as a magistrate for over a decade. In that time, I have barely met a handful of magistrates who volunteered that they were LGBT+. Of course, there could be many more magistrates I have met over that time who are not vocal about their gender identity or sexuality, but it always felt like LGBT+ people were underrepresented, at least in the area in which I sit. When this group was proposed by the MA, I jumped at the opportunity to support it and LGBT+ people.
Can you describe what the network aims to do?
It aims to be a networking platform for LGBT+ magistrates across the country, to generate discourse around the issues facing LGBT+ people, and to advise, inform and work with the MA and government bodies on the recruitment and retention of LGBT+ magistrates. Our two main outcomes of our first two-year work plan are to create an inclusive environment where LGBT+ magistrates feel welcomed and represented and to ensure LGBT+ magistrates are fairly represented in the MA and across the magistracy.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that others have about volunteering as a magistrate?
I think the biggest misconception about magistrates is who we are. That we are all retired, white and middle class. While there is more work that must be done to improve diversity, the view that we are a homogenous group that all think alike or have a specific background is not true at all.
A further common misconception is that you need to have legal qualifications, or that it is a full-time job. Even those who do know it is a voluntary role might not know that there is a financial loss allowance, even for the self-employed. If you can meet the six key qualities of being a magistrate—good character, committed and reliable, socially aware, of sound judgement, of mature and sound temperament, and able to communicate effectively with colleagues, court users and staff—then you should apply.
What do you most enjoy about volunteering as a magistrate?
It is a cliche, but it is knowing you are doing something positive for your community—finding the fairest outcomes for all parties and hopefully reducing future offending.
What is the most challenging part about volunteering as a magistrate?
Aspects of inefficiency in the system and a lack of resources for prisons, probation and support in the community can make things very frustrating. Magistrates are not interested in going to court to hand out huge sentences—we want the best for our communities. So when we see ineffective sentencing options or repeat offenders who did not get the ideal level of support, it can be disappointing and difficult.
How has volunteering as a magistrate changed during the pandemic?
For the first three months of the pandemic, all of my sittings were cancelled. I do not know how many courts were open or how many cases were being heard, but certainly, there were no trials happening and everything that could be adjourned was. Since July, my sittings have been back to normal—all of them as a presiding justice. I know that some of my colleagues have not been called to sit until this year, though.
In court, the biggest and most obvious change was the reduction from benches of three to benches of two. It is not ideal at all. A third voice in the retiring room is not just to be a tie-breaker. It is also there to add to the discussions and aid the diversity that is so needed.
Of course, we have also seen a big shift from defendants, witnesses, lawyers and the press being present in the courtroom to being over video link. Aside from the odd technical glitch or the now common phrase “you’re on mute”, it seems to have gone pretty well. That said, I do prefer having everyone in court—proceedings flow much smoother.
What would you say to someone from the LGBT+ community who is thinking about joining the magistracy?
Do it! From my experience, the magistracy is very welcoming and needs you and your time to make it better. Whether you see yourself as coming from the LGBT+ community or not, we want your experiences and knowledge to improve the magistracy and better reflect the communities we serve. If you are unsure if it is for you, come to court and observe some cases to see what it entails. If you have further questions, get in touch with your local bench, the MA or the MA’s LGBT+ network.