An influential group of MPs has criticised the Ministry of Justice for failing to translate its goodwill for magistrates into any meaningful strategy to support them.
In a report published today, the House of Commons justice committee says the magistracy faces a range of ‘unresolved issues’ relating to its role and workload, and serious problems with recruitment and training, which should be urgently addressed.
The committee recommends that as a matter of priority, the ministry and the senior judiciary should develop an ’overarching strategy’ for the magistracy. This should include workforce planning, training and the wider promotion of their role, especially to employers, it says.
The report states that the number of magistrates has fallen significantly over the past decade. The figure currently stands at 17,552 compared to 30,000 in 2006.
The strategy should also take into account the impact of court closures and consider whether the role of magistrates could be expanded, particularly in any proposals for problem-solving courts.
Recommendations include introducing an ‘equal merits’ provision to increase the diversity of the magistracy. Under the Crime and Courts Act 2013, if two candidates are of equal merit, one may be preferred over the other in order to increase diversity among that group of judicial office-holders.
The provision has been available for all Judicial Appointments Commission exercises undertaken from 1 July 2014.
Latest judicial diversity statistics show that 53% of magistrates are female and 89% are white. The report states that many benches have no, or very few black, Asian and minority ethnic magistrates. Among serving magistrates, 86% are aged 50 or over with only 4% under 40 and less than 1% under 30. Over half of magistrates are within a decade of retirement age.
The committee suggests introducing the provision for the protected characteristics of age, race and disability.
A kitemark scheme should be created that ‘recognises and rewards’ employers who support the magistracy in a bid to rebalance the age profile of magistrates.
The committee recommends that a continuing professional development scheme be introduced, as well as a ‘more robust appraisal scheme’ that can identify inadequate performance and ‘review the future of magistrates who are insufficiently committed to their role’.
The committee also supports increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers from the current six months to 12 months for one offence, recommending that the ministry provide an implementation timetable for commencing section 154 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
Addressing the issue of court closures, the committee welcomes the MoJ’s commitment to developing a detailed implementation plan for each proposed magistrates’ court closure and its willingness to look at alternative service provision.
But it adds: ’In determining the location of alternative venues, we recommend that the ministry ensure that at least 90% of magistrates’ court users can reach the nearest venue by public transport within one hour.’
Use of alternative venues has assumed a key role in the ministry’s court estate strategy, the committee notes, adding: ’It is regrettable that inadequate forethought has been given to the security implications of holding court sessions in buildings that are not equipped with a secure dock’.
The committee recommends that the ministry urgently consider the issue, consulting with magistrates, district judges and court staff to identify ’low-cost practical solutions’ to potential security risks.
The committee announced its inquiry into the role of the magistracy in November last year, noting that despite the ’centrality of its place within the criminal justice system’, the role of the magistracy has not been reviewed for many years.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: ‘We welcome this report and will consider its recommendations carefully.’
Commenting on the report, Chris Brace, chief executive of the Magistrates Association, said the committee accepting its case for 12 months’ sentencing jurisdiction was encouraging.
Brace added: ’We now hope that the government will follow suit by enacting dormant legislation. Retaining these cases in the magistrates’ courts will speed up justice for all court users, especially victims, enabling magistrates to give more proportionate sentences at the right level.’