Court closures could worsen the problem of recruiting an appropriately diverse magistracy, the House of Commons justice committee heard today.

In a hearing on the role of the magistracy, Penelope Gibbs (pictured), director of justice charity Transform Justice, said that court closures not only threaten local justice, but also the broad recruitment of magistrates from across the country.

Gibbs told the committee the magistracy is already in crisis. The number of magistrates has dipped by a third in the last eight years, she said, which has affected the diversity profile both in terms of age and ethnicity.

She said the closure of 86 courts, affecting one-fifth of the court estate, will only add to the problem.

Gibbs said: ‘Some magistrates are travelling huge distances now. You more or less have to have a car to be a magistrate, certainly outside the inner cities. That will limit to a great extent the number of people and the kind of people who apply for the magistracy.’

She added there are already concerns that the only people applying to become magistrates are in the immediate vicinity of the magistrates’ courts.

Jo King, executive chair of the National Bench Chairmen’s Forum, agreed that reducing the court estate would cause some magistrates difficulty.

She said: ‘We have 18,000-plus magistrates, who come from a very wide range of backgrounds and circumstances. It would be ridiculous for me to sit here and suggest that it is not going to affect any of them. I already travel nearly an hour to get to my local courthouse. So although I live in the south-east, I can completely understand the effects that are being experienced throughout the country.’

She added: ’We are concerned that as the court estate reduces, there will be an impact on magistrates and also court users. We need to look at ways we can mitigate some of those effects for court users. For magistrates, we need to look very carefully at recruitment.’

She said that because of the reduction in the workload of magistrates, there has not been an active advertising campaign to encourage people to apply. The forum is concerned therefore about the visibility of the magistracy and whether it is attracting a sufficiently broad range of candidates. 

But while King acknowledged there were problems with recruitment, she disputed the idea that the magistracy is in crisis.

She said: ‘We are going through a period of great change. But a crisis implie[s] that the magistracy is somehow falling apart and we are far from that.’

Peter Dawson, deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust, told the committee that magistrates should no longer be able to hand out jail sentences. Instead, they should be more involved in solving problems in the community. 

He said: ‘It is not a question of trust, it is about our approach to custody and the fact that we are profligate. We spend a great deal of money postponing a problem that needs to be dealt with in the community.’

He added: ‘Sending people to prison for less than 12 months does more harm than good.’