The Magistrates’ Association today published a landmark report on the costs of being a magistrate. Based on a survey of the association’s members, the report has revealed that the expenses regime is not fit for purpose and is consistently leaving unpaid magistrate volunteers out-of-pocket for their public service. The membership body for magistrates in England and Wales has made 20 recommendations to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) that it believes will help strengthen magistrates’ morale, mitigate resignations and improve diversity.
The Magistrates’ Association’s report is the first comprehensive study into the hidden costs of volunteering as a magistrate. With over 90 per cent of all criminal cases being resolved in the magistrates’ court, the criminal justice system in England and Wales relies heavily on the commitment of these volunteers. The association’s survey of nearly 1,400 sitting magistrates paints a deeply concerning picture of an expenses regime that does not reflect the true costs incurred, and of a workload that is not properly recognised—leaving the thousands of ordinary people who volunteer as magistrates to pick up the tab from their own pockets. Remote sittings and time spent pre-reading are virtually unrecognised by the system.
Almost three quarters (73 per cent) of the magistrates surveyed said that the role had created some level of financial cost to them, with the impact of price rises being felt hard. More than half (57 per cent) said that claiming expenses in March 2022 had left them more out-of-pocket than a similar claim in March 2021.
The magistracy has undergone significant changes in recent years. Although 81 per cent said these had impacted them, just 19 per cent reporting feeling adequately consulted—leaving them feeling unvalued.
The report finds that the expenses shortfall is becoming a resigning matter for some. The main reason respondents said they would resign is due to not feeling valued. Lack of support relating to changes to IT, were also among the top four recorded reasons for resignations.
The association says that a failure to resolve these issues could impact recruitment, retention, and the development of a more diverse magistracy. According to the report, young magistrates—those under the age of 40—are nearly three times more likely than the survey population as a whole to have considered leaving the magistracy due to financial factors. Black, Asian and minority ethnic magistrates are nearly twice as likely to say the same. Similarly, the disproportionate impact of volunteering on those who are self-employed and/or who have a disability are highlighted in the report. The organisation also warns that people on low incomes face particular exclusion from serving as magistrates because of the financial costs involved.
Bev Higgs JP, National Chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said:
“Those who volunteer for public service as magistrates should not find themselves out-of-pocket. It is unacceptable for magistrate volunteers to be expected to financially subsidise a vital function of public life. The expenses regime needs to reflect true costs and be simpler to claim across a wide range of personal circumstances. We urge better recognition of at-home sittings, including the costs of magistrates having to use their own IT devices and systems.
“The system must also be more flexible and responsive to wider economic pressures. We recommend a new standing working group is established to include the MOJ, the Magistrates’ Association and magistrates’ representatives to identify and deal with issues as they arise. An immediate review of the 2019 expenses changes, which included the deeply unpopular mileage rate reduction, is the starting point.
“The magistracy has proved its resilience time and again, most recently in the way it kept justice going through the pandemic. But at the same time, it is fragile. It is powered by goodwill, and that goodwill needs to be nurtured, not taken for granted.”
The report additionally recommends that the MOJ and HMCTS improve their understanding of the needs and motivations of magistrates as volunteers, and calls for a Magistrates Volunteering Compact, setting out what magistrates can expect and what is expected of them.