Keepers of the Law

3rd November 2017

A surprising amount of justice is dispensed by ordinary people. Heather Harris finds out more.

It was King Richard I (1157-1199) who came up with the idea of ‘keepers of the law’ to uphold the rules of the land. Little did he imagine that, 850 years later, the concept would still be practised across the country by over 16,000 men and women. Now they are referred to as Magistrates or Justices of the Peace and they make up 85% of the judiciary community, dealing with 90% of criminal cases and civil matters.

Their role has changed over history, of course. “The powers of magistrates have varied significantly over the years, from hanging, whipping and transportation in the 1600s through to the modern magistracy governed by the Sentencing Guidelines today,” Jason Hughes from the Magistrates Association tells me, adding that our country is still unique in its use of lay people to uphold the law.

This unique position is one of society’s best kept secrets. Until now, I didn’t realise that anyone can apply to sit on the magistrates’ bench. It’s an unpaid role, open to anyone between the age of 18 and 70, and – most surprisingly – doesn’t require any legal background or even any formal academic qualifications. In fact, as Malcolm Richardson, Chairman of the Association and a magistrate since 1989, tells me, “Often the best magistrates don’t have an academic background. What they do have is a range of life experiences that they can bring to the bench. The role is to listen, to understand the circumstances involved and, most importantly, to have empathy.”

Louise Harrison (not her real name) agrees. She has been a magistrate since May 2013, sitting in St Albans Magistrates’ Court and Hatfield Remand Court. “I have teenage children and it certainly affects how I look at young defendants who appear before me,” she says. “You cannot help but draw on your own experiences and this is a good thing.”

Although Louise does acknowledge the existence of an extensive Sentencing Guidelines manual (now online and made available via court iPads) to which every magistrate must refer, she adds that “it basically comes down to using your common sense.”

Also, to ensure no single individual can determine the sentence, magistrates always sit in threes, usually from a range of ages, backgrounds and genders. There is currently a 53% female, 47% male split.

“That’s one of the best things – you get to meet some really fantastic people whose paths you would never otherwise have crossed,” Louise says, explaining that she was convinced to apply by a friend after giving up her previous voluntary role as a Conciliator for the NHS, which she’d done alongside her main career for a number of years. 

Over 5,000 people apply every year and 25% are successful. Malcolm thinks this is about right. “This ratio is good, as it is a responsible and demanding role so has to be right for the individual and the judiciary,” he explains.

Louise was very impressed by the process, as interviews are scenario-based not academic. She feels they really helped the applicant think about the prejudices which all of us have, either consciously or unconsciously. “I remember being asked to rank a list of crimes in order of my perceived seriousness including traffic speeding, burglary of an elderly person and domestic violence. It really made you think.”

There are also visits to prisons, young offenders’ centres and the probation service, so that would-be magistrates can see the actual outcome of their sentencing decisions.

Once accepted ‘onto a bench’, the successful magistrate is allocated a mentor for the first two years to support them. He or she goes onto an online rota where court dates are allocated. The minimum requirement is 26 sittings, the equivalent to 13 days a year, plus occasional bench meetings and update training. And no details are given as to what the case is, so a day’s work could range from an actual criminal trial to an ‘allocation’, where the magistrates are simply referring the case to the Crown Court for sentencing. 

“I like to do one court day every three weeks, or I feel out of my stride,” says Louise.

Unlike Jury Service there is no obligation for an employer to give time off for their employee to carry out their volunteer magistrates’ role, and it is often taken as unpaid leave.

So why would anyone do it? In a study for charity Transform Justice, magistrates across England were asked anonymously about the ‘job satisfaction’.

Responses frequently use the word ‘privilege’. People also talk about how it helped develop them as a person: “I think it really opens your mind. Because most of us live in our own world…. And when you have that eye-opener, it can make you a better person…”, is one opinion, echoed by “It has opened my eyes to the way different people live their lives, and you see everybody at their worst and at their best, and in the middle”.

It trains you to think logically, too, which many see as a useful transferable skill. Others are rewarded by their involvement with the court system. “I think people who don’t know about being a magistrate think you are just sending people down or you are being nasty, but most of the time we are trying to help people. The family court is a real eye-opener. It’s terribly cheesy to say it, but if you can help just one person, then I think you have actually done a good job that day”. 

There can be a positive result, whatever the outcome of the hearing. “One of the satisfying things is you get the sense that the defendant feels that they’ve been dealt with fairly. That might mean they are going to prison and it might mean something else but they can feel that they’ve been given a fair hearing. That feels good.”

Sadly, the study also found negative comments based around the financial cutbacks which has led to many being frustrated by the system. Malcolm sympathises. “Over the last ten years the number of magistrates has fallen from 30,000 to 16,000 as 200 court houses have closed. No longer does every town have a local court house. People have to travel up to 40 miles which is impractical and also loses the link between the judiciary and the community.”

The House of Commons recently stated that the government should put more money into spreading the word about the role of magistrates. “We are often invited to speak at Rotary or WI meetings,” says Malcolm, “but in a way, we are preaching to the converted. It is more important we reach out to the working-class communities and immigrant communities to encourage them to apply. The magistrate population should reflect the population of society.”

Along with his fellow magistrates, he gives up his spare time to work for MIC (Magistrates in the Community). They visit a variety of schools and involve the children in mock trials – a great way to educate youngsters about the criminal justice system. But he wishes he could do a lot more.

As Louise says, “ We are aware that the Ministry of Justice is tight on funds but it is vital that we keep this very thorough system in place to make justice quick and effective but also fair and with the correct balance between punishment and rehabilitation.”

She would recommend the magistracy to anyone, she declares. “You are making a real difference. You are giving something back to society.”

King Richard would be proud.

For more information on how to become a magistrate,

Find Your Local