'I start this piece by declaring an interest: I am 24 years old and I’ve been sitting as a magistrate for the last four years. I am an adult and youth winger on the North London Bench, based at Highbury Corner Magistrates Court.
'The whole time I’ve been a magistrate I’ve been acutely aware of how, when it comes to age, the magistracy is far from being representative of the people we see in court and society more generally. However, I’m also well aware that with significant budget cuts, the MoJ and HMCTS are hard-pushed to facilitate any kind of serious recruitment campaign that would target younger audiences and those who have no idea about the role of a magistrate.
'The figures speak for themselves. Although magistrates can be appointed from age 18, there are very few magistrates under 30 (1%) and only 4% of magistrates are under 40, while 85% of magistrates are 50 and over, and 55% aged 60 and over. The average age of magistrates is 59 years old, and has remained at just under 60 since 2012, beyond which records are unavailable.
'Last month, I attended the MA’s annual conference in Manchester for the first time. I was slightly disheartened to see that one of the motions put before members was to raise the retirement age of magistrates from 70 to 75. The proposer of the motion admitted that it was a “quick fix” to the systemic demographic issues with magistrates. I appreciate that we can recruit younger magistrates while extending the retirement age, but I think it sends the wrong message to HMCTS at a time when there are very few resources to prioritise certain agendas. I think we need to be much more radical with our solutions to this problem.
'An obvious barrier to recruiting younger magistrates is that employers are not giving applicants the required time to sit in court. But there are other factors that affect our ability to attract a more representative pool of candidates, which is why we need to spend more time speaking to current magistrates to get the full picture.
'MA national office is currently working to recognise and bring together individuals who are members of groups they know to be underrepresented within both the MA and the magistracy, as a whole. They then aim to form Special Interest Groups (SIGs) which will allow these members to network and discuss issues specific to them. These will be dependent on uptake, but will ideally include Young Magistrates (under 40), BAME Magistrates, Muslim/Christian/Jewish Magistrates, LGBTQIA+ Magistrates, and Magistrates with Disabilities.
'The first of these is the Young Magistrates SIG. Last month, the MA brought together a group of magistrates from across the country, all under the age of 40 and many representing other communities which are currently underrepresented within the magistracy, such as the BAME, LGBT, and disabled communities. The group will meet regularly to discuss how the MA can better support younger members and break down some of the barriers preventing other younger people from applying.
'Lord Adonis, a Labour peer in the House of Lords, has taken a particular interest in this cause and recently came to a focus group with the Young Magistrates SIG. It is amazing to have the support of Lord Adonis, as he was instrumental in founding TeachFirst and FrontLine, the social enterprises that got young graduates into the teaching and social work professions, respectively.
'There is an opportunity to start something similar for magistrates - which is why over the next few months I am going to work with the Special Interest Group, the MA, magistrates and HMCTS to develop a proposal of what a programme might look like for recruiting new young magistrates.
'The wider context is clear: we desperately need to recruit more magistrates as our current demographics show over 50% will retire in the ten years. We need to think about radical ideas that will fulfill two purposes:
i) Improve the age diversity of magistrates, better representing the public; and
ii) Create a more sustainable recruitment model that appoints magistrates earlier in life.'
The Special Interest Groups are still in development, but if you have any queries or thoughts, please contact Halita Obineche, Director of Membership for the MA.