In Defence of the Magistracy by the Secret Magistrate

I have been a magistrate for several years now, and sit regularly in an inner-city courthouse. Every criminal prosecution – large or small – starts its journey in a magistrates’ court, and the overwhelming majority, well over 90%, end there too. In 2019, my 13,000 or so colleagues and I dealt with almost 1.4 million cases. We are truly the workhorses of English justice.

It is a role that I take great pride in, and enormously seriously, and, like most of my colleagues, I work as hard as I can to improve my overall knowledge and competence. Becoming a magistrate is probably the best decision I have ever made as I feel that I am making a real contribution towards maintaining the rule of law. The role is challenging and difficult and can also be heart-breaking at times but it is never less than fulfilling and I leave court after every sitting with a feeling of satisfaction, although often tinged with frustration because of the issues, problems and delays that are endemic within the Criminal Justice System.

I am therefore extremely sensitive when lawyers and other commentators are critical of the magistracy. Of course there are times when we make mistakes and no-one should be immune from constructive criticism, but often I feel that derogatory comments are made about us without justification or a full understanding of what we do.

In 2018 a renowned legal blogger – The Secret Barrister – published a best-selling polemic telling it ‘as it is’ about the law and how it is broken. They tore into the system, outlining the drastic and draconian cuts to the Ministry of Justice budgets, court closures, and the decimation of the right to legal aid, and I found myself simultaneously nodding in agreement and shaking my head in anger and disbelief at the carnage that was being unveiled.

To a degree, I had already seen some evidence of the decay even when sitting in a magistrates’ court: the ever-increasing number of unrepresented defendants deprived of legal aid and professional assistance, the number of cases delayed by court papers not being emailed to lawyers in advance, the late or total non-disclosure of evidence to the defence and behind the scenes foul-ups.

I agreed with almost everything that The Secret Barrister wrote until it came to their description of magistrates but nothing really prepared me for the devastating level of vituperative attack that emerged in that book.

I barely recognised the litany of incompetence outlined within the chapter on the magistracy which contained a forensic attack on every aspect of our being. Attention was drawn in particular to our apparent age, lack of diversity, lack of formal legal qualifications, our slowness, and amateurism.

We were also seen as unrepresentative of those we judge, naïve, poorly recruited, inadequately trained, out of touch, and unable to grasp or interpret much of the evidence presented before us. We also didn’t understand fundamental legal points, judgments, and principles. Our very purpose and existence were put under the microscope and into serious question.

I finished the chapter with my head reeling and blood boiling.

My first reactions were anger, frustration, and disbelief at how inaccurate, out-dated and indeed, patronising I found some of the accusations and generalisations, given how dedicated, hard-working, experienced, skilful and prepared so many of my JP colleagues are.

I started to research further and I discovered much vitriol elsewhere on the Internet with magistrates widely described as a “waste of space” and the “three wise monkeys,” or worse.

I thought about the best way to proceed, and decided to just let the public make up their minds for themselves.

I would simply record a year or so in the life of an ordinary inner-city magistrate and describe exactly what we do and how we do it. I’d discuss our recruitment, training, and assessment, and also outline all the obstacles, dilemmas, problems, and issues that we face, and have to deal with every day in the courtroom.

I would be entirely open, truthful and honest and not gild the lily or gloss over difficult subjects, although in order to protect both the innocent and the guilty, I would need to change all names and places as well as any facts that would help to identify court users on both sides of the bench.

Apart from defending the magistracy and what we stand for, I also wanted to do my best to attract new candidates and hopefully, I might even persuade some of those reading my book to consider becoming magistrates themselves.

The number of magistrates has been declining and there are now just over half the 25,000 magistrates that were sitting in 2012. This is due to decreasing workloads in magistrates’ courts as well as natural wastage caused by retirements and resignations – sometimes caused by concerns about our working conditions and the impact of the massive court closure programme.

What is worrying is the demographic breakdown of magistrates today. 12% identify as BAME and 80% are aged between 50-70 years – the mandatory retirement age. Only 5% of magistrates are aged under 40, with a small but growing number aged between 18-30 years. Retired or semi-retired people obviously have more time on their hands whereas those building a career or with family commitments cannot so easily spare the time required to become a magistrate. It is crucial therefore that we continue to recruit younger and more diverse magistrates from all backgrounds.

Not everybody realises that anyone aged 18-65 years can apply as long as they can demonstrate the key qualities required of a magistrate in terms of:

  • Good Character
  • Understanding and Communication
  • Social Awareness
  • Maturity and Sound Temperament
  • Sound Judgement
  • Commitment and Reliability.

The work of charities such as Young Citizens who have promoted the magistracy and informed the community about our role and the criminal and civil justice systems, is crucial. I have been so impressed by the Mock Trial Competitions that you have been running successfully since 1991, which have made the magistracy and the law much better known and understandable to a young and enquiring audience.

My new book – The Secret Magistrate will hopefully reinforce the work in this area of Young Citizens and ideally achieve the same goals.

The Secret Magistrate book cover

“The Secret Magistrate” takes the reader on an eye-opening behind-the-scenes tour of a year in the life of an inner-city magistrate. Chapters cover a variety of cases including the disqualified driver who drove away from court, the Sunbed Pervert, and Fifi the Attack Chihuahua.