The MA young magistrates’ network was launched in April 2019 and has had several successes since then, including a national conference. The group aims to bring together magistrates under the age of 40 to provide networking opportunities, generate discourse around issues that specifically affect young magistrates, and advise the work of the MA on the creation of routes for the recruitment of young magistrates.
For Volunteers’ Week 2021, we’re thinking about representation within the magistracy and the opportunities for and barriers to underrepresented groups volunteering in this way. We talked to Luke Rigg JP, chair of the network, about what he has gained from his experience of volunteering as a young magistrate, as well as his hopes for the future of the magistracy.
Luke was appointed at the age of 20 and has now been a magistrate for six years. Originally appointed to the Calderdale Bench in Halifax, he now sits in North London. As well as being chair of the young magistrates’ network, he sits on the board of trustees and is also co-chair of the probation liaison committee. Outside the MA, he works as a senior policy adviser to the London Assembly.
How did you first hear about the opportunity to volunteer as a magistrate?
I first heard about the role when I visited my local magistrates’ court as a sixth form student. At the time, I was thinking of studying law at university so I was encouraged to attend the court’s open day, where I heard from solicitors, barristers, court staff and magistrates. Up until then, I had no idea what a magistrate was, what they did, and who could become one. It was a big eye-opener and I instantly became fascinated by the role.
What is the biggest thing you have learnt since becoming a magistrate?
On a personal level, the biggest thing that I have learnt is that I can, and should, challenge myself more in life. It is really easy to stay in your comfort zone, but I think you can benefit massively from throwing yourself in at the deep end—and court can often feel like that!
In terms of my understanding of the criminal justice system, the biggest thing I have learnt is the importance of getting legal representation in court, which sadly far too many people are unable to afford.
How important is it that the magistracy is modern and diverse?
It is fundamental to the strength and future of the magistracy. We are only as strong as our people and it is crucial that we represent the people that stand before us in court as much as possible. Being diverse is not an ‘airy-fairy’ concept: it actually improves decision-making and makes us healthier as a bench.
What drew you to the young magistrates’ network?
I had been thinking for a while that there wasn’t enough support out there for younger magistrates, so I was really pleased when I heard that the MA was going to launch a group dedicated to those of us in a younger age bracket, and I wanted to be part of it. I was fortunate enough to be elected as the first national chair of the group in 2019 and was re-elected this year.
Can you describe what the network aims to do?
The network was formed to provide a forum for younger magistrates to come together, discuss issues that affect them and feed into policy changes affecting magistrates. Since being elected as national chair of the group, I have led the development of a work programme that mixes policy, communication and social activities.
What has been the standout achievement so far?
Rather than picking one specific outcome, I would say our biggest achievement has been raising our profile as a group to the extent that we have been involved in and consulted on significant policy changes affecting magistrates. I believe our collective voice is being heard among the magistracy, wider judiciary and government.
What would you say to a young person who is thinking about joining the magistracy?
Speak to a young magistrate! It can be difficult, as a prospective applicant, to find the right answers online to the questions younger applicants have, whether it is the impact on your employment or your ability to claim loss of earnings. The young magistrates’ network has a pool of people who are more than willing to help explain the role to other people.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that others have about volunteering as a magistrate?
The biggest misconception I hear from friends and family is that it is a job and that magistrates are paid a salary. We are, in fact, volunteers who do it because we believe in making a difference!
What do you most enjoy about volunteering as a magistrate?
I most enjoy the variety of cases we see in court. Every day is different and that is what continues to make the role really interesting.
What is the most challenging part about volunteering as a magistrate?
The most challenging part is trying to leave the emotion and the intensity of the day in the courtroom. The first few weeks are difficult but you learnt to park it at the door and get on with the rest of your life, whether it is your job, childcare or anything else!
How has volunteering as a magistrate changed during the pandemic?
It has not fundamentally changed the work we do in court, such as presiding over trials and sentencing defendants. However, the way we interact with each other as magistrates and move about the building has changed. There are strict social distancing rules within the building: plexiglass in courtrooms, hand sanitiser, cordoned-off seats, and so on. There are also fewer people entering the building so that we can manage footfall. As national restrictions ease and more people are vaccinated, we anticipate that this will be reflected in court buildings.