Putting the Judicial Appointments Commission in charge of recruitment and introducing positive discrimination are among recommendations to improve the diversity of the magistracy made by a justice charity today. 

Transform Justice said lay magistrates are ‘considerably older, whiter and more middle class’ than the general population and less diverse than they were in 2000. Its report, Magistrates: representative of the people? finds that magistrate recruitment is ‘facing a crisis’.

It is the second report within two weeks on the future of the magistracy, whose ranks deal with 90% of criminal cases coming before the courts. Last week the thinktank Policy Exchange called for a massive expansion of the magistracy, and the recruitment of 10,000 to their ranks to enable magistrates to perform extend roles.

Transform Justice says the number of magistrates is in ‘freefall’ with a 28% decline since 2007. Last year only 300 people joined the magistracy while nearly 2,000 left.  

According to the report, magistrates are getting older and less representative of ethnic minority communities. In 2013, 55.5% were over 60, compared with 32% in 1999. In 14 areas over 60% of magistrates are over 60.

Only 3.2% are under 40. In 1999, the proportion of magistrates from minority ethnic backgrounds was two percentage points below the population at large; in 2013 it was six percentage points lower.

The socio-economic profile of the magistracy, notes the report, is poorly measured, but it says the magistracy remains disproportionately middle class, with over half in managerial, senior official or professional occupations, compared with 28% in the general population, and only 1.5% from sales or customer services, compared with 8% in the population.

The report suggests that the crisis developing as magistrates retire and resign without being replaced due to a recruitment freeze in most areas, is not being addressed.

The crisis, it claims, lies in the lack of policy. Attention has been paid to increasing diversity in the salaried judiciary, but the ‘shrinking and ageing’ magistracy, whose recruitment is dealt with by HM Courts and Tribunals Service, the Judicial Office and advisory committees, is not on the political agenda.

The report concludes: ‘If the magistracy is to remain a key part of the criminal justice system, it must become more representative of the communities it serves. This involves thinking radically about who magistrates are, how they are recruited and what their commitment needs to be.’

The report calls for the Judicial Appointments Commission to take over responsibility for recruiting and suggests positive discrimination - putting forward candidates from under-represented groups and allowing interview panels to favour the candidate from an under-represented group, where two candidates are equally suitable, as is permitted for salaried judges. 

Other recommendations include making it easier for those in work to sit as magistrates by changing the law to give people an absolute right to time off to sit; increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers; introducing a fixed 10-year tenure and freezing the recruitment of district judges.

Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice, said: ‘If the number of magistrates continues to shrink as rapidly as it has done recently, numbers will very soon dip below 20,000 and recruitment will grind to a halt.'