The government has been told that it could have averted a recruitment crisis within the magistracy if it had listened to a group of MPs led by the Conservative Bob Neill MP three years ago. The House of Commons justice select committee said the current shortfall in magistrate numbers was 'as frustrating as it as foreseeable', expressing regret that it took a 'near crisis' to push the government to act.
Three years after telling the government to develop a national strategy for magistrates as a priority, the committee repeats its recommendation in a follow-up report published today.
The committee disagreed with then justice minister Lucy Frazer's comment that 'morale is up'. The report says: 'Magistrates are dealing with reduced support and an apparent under-valuation of the time they give as volunteers, against a background of continuous change that many believe to be undermining the principle of local justice.'
Concerned about the barriers facing employees wanting to become magistrates, the committee says the government should introduce a kitemark scheme for employers who encourage staff to become magistrates and bring forward proposals to legislate for mandatory employee release for magisterial duties.
The committee was 'disappointed' by the government's delay to review the financial loss allowance, 'leading to a situation in which some magistrates are effectively subsidising HM Courts & Tribunals Service. This is clearly unacceptable.' It was surprised that little progress had been made to developing alternative court venues to mitigate the impact of court closures.
Welcoming the government's stance on short prison sentences, the committee says magistrates should have the power to impose custodial sentences of up to 12 months in cases that would otherwise be sent to the Crown court for sentencing.
Lead magistrates were praised for their efforts to develop a national strategy. However, the committee says their objectives are unlikely to be achieved without HMCTS cash.
Neill said today: 'Magistrates and the criminal justice system as a whole have been badly let down by the failure of the government to take action and provide appropriate funding to tackle the major issues we flagged in our 2016 report. Many of those issues remain.
'Morale is not improving, despite the minister’s efforts to reassure us. The court closure programme has made things worse and the shortage of magistrates could have been avoided had the government adopted our initial recommendation on recruitment.
'The action promised three years ago has failed to materialise, and we again call for an appropriate national strategy. Merely identifying the magistracy as a component within the government’s wider strategy for the judiciary is inadequate to recognise the distinctive and pivotal role of 15,000 magistrates working as unpaid volunteers within the criminal justice system.'
The Magistrates' Association said today's report is a 'strong and timely reminder' of the challenges faced by the magistracy. It strongly supported the recommendation to update the financial loss allowance so that magistrates 'are not out of pocket for performing their duties, which are essential to the operation of the justice system'.