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29 November 2022
Family court matters Practicalities of being a magistrate Wider justice system

A round-up of our recent policy and advocacy work.

Our national officers, together with our four policy committees and supported by our small staff team, cover a wide range of issues that matter most to our members and represent the organisation on external bodies. Since our last advocacy update in August, we have prioritised the following eight issues:

1. Magistrates’ Leadership Executive strategy

We commented on the Magistrates’ Leadership Executive’s 2023-2025 strategy, particularly highlighting a concerning absence of any mechanism for measuring the strategy’s success and proposing inclusion of a strategic objective around diversity and inclusion.

Based on the findings of our recent policy pulse poll and advocacy report on the costs of volunteering, we also flagged the very real risk of early resignations due to sitting magistrates not feeling valued.

2. Open justice

Last month, the Justice Select Committee published the findings of its inquiry into open justice. Promisingly, this cited—and addressed—the evidence that we submitted earlier in the year.

As well as highlighting concerns about the Single Justice Procedure—particularly its implications for public confidence, and the potential adverse impact of requiring court users to provide proof of identity to join a remote hearing—our evidence emphasised that the President of the Family Division’s proposals must be properly funded to achieve transparency in and enhance public understanding of family justice.

3. Family court matters

Our policy team continued it efforts to develop strong working relationships with those responsible for family court policy. Among other activities this quarter, we responded to a Public Law Working Group consultation on supervision orders, secured a much appreciated annual conference keynote from the President of the Family Division, and successfully advocated for the participation of magistrates on Sir Andrew’s Transparency Implementation Group.

Our work on language in family courts was also cited in a parliamentary debate on the topic. This concluded that making changes to the language used could save magistrates time.

4. The process for recruiting magistrates

We held several meetings with the senior judiciary and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to discuss our members’ concerns about the significant changes that have recently been made to the recruitment process for magistrates—especially those pertaining to how interviews are conducted and the proposed new online test. Very positively, the MOJ committed to surveying advisory committee members across England and Wales to better gauge the level of problems encountered.

We remain worried that these issues might overshadow the success of the much-needed, ongoing recruitment drive.

5. Dangerous driving

We submitted a response to a Sentencing Council consultation on the sentencing guidelines for dangerous driving. This highlighted a need for guidance on disqualification periods to ensure that magistrates can approach sentencing for dangerous driving with confidence. It also advised on situations in which our members believe high culpability should apply, such as when offenders ignore medical advice and/or incidents occur in busy and built-up areas.

6. Flu jabs

In response to a Judicial Office (JO) announcement that all salaried judicial office holders aged between 18-49 would be offered a free flu jab this winter, we wrote to the JO asking for this to be extended to magistrates. We explained that excluding volunteer magistrates, who also work on the frontlines of the justice system, from this policy would make them feel undervalued and likely adversely impact court backlogs due to high rates of sickness absence.

7. Women and youth offenders

Our Chief Executive, Tom Franklin, gave oral evidence to the Equality and Social Justice Committee of the Welsh Parliament (Senedd) on women’s experiences in the criminal justice system. He referenced the results of a survey of our Welsh members when outlining four key issues of concern. Tom also touched upon the issues affecting children with speech and language difficulties who appear in the youth court.

8. Resources for employed magistrates

The MOJ has just published a range of new resources—which are available on the magistrate section of the Judicial Intranet—to support employed magistrates. These include:

  • An overview of magistrates’ workplace rights
  • Practical guidance on how magistrates can navigate conversations with their employers
  • A guidance note that magistrates can share with their employers, outlining the workplace adjustments they might require to perform this most vital of voluntary roles.

Our discussion paper on supporting employed magistrates, published at the end of last year, recommended that resources like these were urgently developed. So, this is a big win. Representatives from our young magistrates’ network were part of the working group that developed these much-needed resources. This is the latest in a series of activities the network has undertaken to ensure better support for young magistrates.