Magistrate numbers are worse than was previously thought after an HR error resulted in a total being overstated by as much as 1,000.
Judicial diversity data published by the Ministry of Justice yesterday shows there are 13,177 magistrates in England and Wales. In April 2008, there were 29,419 magistrates.
However, a user guide on the statistics says previous total figures were overstated by as much as 1,000 ‘as a number of leavers had not been correctly removed from the HR system’. The error was discovered as a result of a data reconciliation exercise carried out this year.
John Bache, national chair of the Magistrates’ Association, urged the government to let magistrates sit beyond the age of 70 to address ‘this alarming and unsustainable slump in numbers’.
Yesterday’s statistics show that half of magistrates are aged 60 or over.
Bache said: ‘We are now facing a crisis in magistrate numbers. Even before the current coronavirus pandemic halted recruitment, the number of magistrates had halved in the last decade and there are now simply not enough magistrates to do the work that needs to be done.
‘The Ministry of Justice and the court service must invest in a major recruitment drive to recruit thousands more magistrates over the coming years. However, recruitment and training take time and we need more magistrates urgently.’
The Commons justice select committee, which conducted two inquiries on the role of the magistracy, told the government last year that the alarming shortfall in magistrate numbers was 'as frustrating as it was foreseeable'.
The government is currently consulting on increasing the judicial retirement age, including allowing magistrates’ appointments to be extended beyond the minimum retirement age when there is a public interest or business need. Raising the retirement age to 72 would retain an estimated 1,056 magistrates per year. Raising the retirement age to 75 would retain approximately 2,122 magistrates. The change would require primary legislation to amend the Courts Act 2003.
A three-year Strategy for the Magistracy drawn up by the Magistrates Leadership Executive lists six objectives to create a ‘comprehensive and sustainable’ recruitment plan. These include exit interviews for colleagues leaving the magistracy and getting agreement from the ministry to set up a national steering group to raise the national profile of magistrates.
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