Poor-performing lay magistrates are being allowed to stay in the role because of a weak appraisal system, a new report claims.
The study by national charity Transform Justice, also concludes that the compulsory training magistrates receive is incomplete, particularly since finances have become more stretched.
The report recommends magistrates specialise in particular areas and tailor their training accordingly.
The charity also wants to replace the current appraisal system with more regular observations and to ensure that magistrates who have poor skills are retrained or made to retire.
Director Penelope Gibbs said the status quo was ‘inadequacy’ and cited the scheme for assessing magistrates as an important factor.
‘Magistrates - good and bad - are appraised every three years,’ she said. ‘But appraisal is based on just one day’s observation by a fellow magistrate, whom they may know.
‘The weakness of the appraisal system means that magistrates who perform poorly, may continue to do so, potentially leading to court delays and poor decisions.’
The research, based on interviews with magistrates, lawyers and court staff, as well as a survey of 47 sitting magistrates, found a difference of opinion on the strengths of the magistracy.
Magistrates themselves suggest that they were broadly happy with the training they receive, though some would like more. But practitioners, experts and lawyers were critical of magistrates’ lack of skills and knowledge.
Gibbs added: ‘Whether on women, diversity, children or mental health, those who interact with magistrates feel many lack the understanding to communicate effectively with offenders and make the best decisions.’
The report said the magistracy today is less representative of the population in terms of age and ethnicity than it was 25 years ago.
Against this background, it suggests a breadth of training was more important than ever, but there remain gaps in training in equality, domestic violence, drug addiction and mental health.
The amount of free training offered has also reduced, with those magistrates who do go to conferences or seminars rarely reimbursed for their fees or expenses.
As well as more rigorous assessment and magistrates specialising, the report recommends a review of the content, length and delivery of compulsory training. Magistrates should visit lawyers in the community and prisons and should be jointly trained more with district judges.
Magistrates should also be given a small expenses allowance for attending learning events, with CPD made compulsory, it says.