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4 June 2021
Practicalities of being a magistrate

An insight into the MA's community initiative.

Magistrates in the Community is the Magistrates’ Association’s community engagement initiative. Every year teams of volunteer magistrates across England and Wales deliver a variety of presentations—from informal talks to mock trials—to schools and other community groups, to increase understanding of both the magistracy and the wider justice system.

To mark Volunteers’ Week 2021, we talked to Magistrates in the Community presenters, John and Debbie, about their involvement in Magistrates in the Community, as well as how important it is for the public to understand what magistrates do.

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

John: The chair of a charity I managed was a magistrate and asked me to consider applying to increase younger representation. I had also been the victim of crime and felt the criminal justice system had not responded well.

Debbie: I first heard about the opportunity when a friend of mine applied. I have always been interested in the law and I have always done voluntary work within my local community. I kept thinking about it and decided to apply myself.

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

Debbie: Do it. It is so worthwhile, interesting, challenging, emotional at times and so rewarding. I have learnt so much myself and you really start to understand that there are always two sides to a story and that people involved with crime are, more often than not, victims of circumstance and not the bad people the general public perceive them to be.

John: Go for it, but prepare. Go and visit a court and observe and talk to court staff and magistrates. Could you envisage sitting on real cases, making difficult decisions about guilt and innocence and sentencing offenders? It’s an important judicial role that’s challenging, rewarding, frustrating, and above all relies on teamwork. Go into it with your eyes open.

What inspired you to volunteer with the Magistrates in the Community initiative?

Debbie: When I was a new magistrate, the Magistrates in the Community coordinator at the time was asking for volunteers, and I mentioned that I was interested. A year later, when he retired, I was suddenly the new coordinator!

John: I heard from magistrates what a wonderful and positive experience it was for them and how much both they and the pupils got from the experience. That made me curious so I went along to observe and was inspired by what I saw.

Why is this work important?

John: Magistrates in the Community is a shop window to the magistrates’ court, the role of a magistrate and the wider judiciary. We educate and inform many thousands of people and show that we are real people, from local communities, who are committed to and passionate about the rule of law and active citizenship.

Debbie: It is a wonderful opportunity to spread the word of the magistracy. It is amazing how little the general public knows about what we do—most people think we are paid! In addition, our work with schools and colleges is a real opportunity to engage with young people and talk about the issues of the day, such as knife crime, drugs, county lines and, for older pupils, alcohol and driving offences. Magistrates in the Community is much more than raising awareness—it is also educational, particularly now crime and punishment are part of the national curriculum for year 6 pupils.

What is your best memory from Magistrates in the Community?

Debbie: Before I was the Young Citizens National Mock Trial organiser for my branch, I was a school mentor for several schools in my local area. There has always been a great rivalry between two schools in particular, and one school I had been helping with the mock trials had always been in the shadow of its rival, and was the real underdog in their heat. I went in to help the team twice a week for months, and on the day they pulled it out of their bag and won the heat. I couldn’t believe it and I was quite tearful by their astounding achievement.

John: A pupil from a school in a disadvantaged area came up to me at the end of a workshop and said “Thanks mister, that’s the best lesson I have ever had at school. I’m going to continue my education and be a judge or solicitor when I grow up.”

What is the best thing about volunteering as a presenter?

John: Working as a team and educating and inspiring young people and adults. Lifting the veil of what happens in a criminal, family or youth court and bringing it to life using personal experience. Our Magistrates in the Community team also organises regular social events and reviews to ensure we celebrate this work and focus on the right things.

Debbie: I love dealing with young people and children. When I present to them I really feel like they have learnt a lot and they make me smile.

What would you say to a magistrate thinking about becoming involved?

Debbie: Try it. There are so many different things that we do, so there is something for everyone to enjoy. We work with year 6 pupils up to sixth formers and college and university students—my team can pick and choose which visits they prefer to take on. We also visit community groups like Rotary—you even get a free meal with those visits! Once you start to get involved you really are hooked.

John: Be curious and you will be rewarded! Magistrates who dip their toes in the water get so much back. Magistrates in the Community is incredibly flexible and speaks to all kinds of audiences, from 10-year-old pupils to business executives, from a faith group to a stall at a community fair, and from the national mock trial competition to university law students. Magistrates in the Community is there to be shaped by each of us—by magistrates like you who become part of the team.

How has the work changed during the pandemic?

Debbie: Normally my team would visit more than 30 primary schools between the end of May and July. We also work with Action4Youth to deliver the National Citizenship Scheme (NCS) and we would see over 600 young people in the summer months. All of the school visits and the NCS days were cancelled. I was thrilled that we won the innovation award for devising a way to deliver our presentations remotely. We did reach some young people, but the numbers were nowhere near where we would normally be.

John: Like the rest of the world, we have gone online for some activities, or had to change our delivery format to be Covid-19-secure in person. We launched one session on 100 Years of Women Magistrates via Instagram on International Women’s Day with a local university. Locally we also developed a Covid-19 policy to support presenters and schools. As we emerge from the latest lockdown, we are looking forward to restarting presentations later this month.