BLM activists should consider becoming magistrates to help improve diversity

3 August 2020, 05:41

Fifty-six percent of magistrates are women and 12% identify as being of black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, rising to 28% in London
Fifty-six percent of magistrates are women and 12% identify as being of black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, rising to 28% in London. Picture: PA
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Black Lives Matter activists concerned by racial bias in the justice system should consider becoming magistrates to help improve diversity and increase trust, long-standing members of the bench say.

Magistrates courts in England and Wales deal with 90% of criminal court cases every year but are facing a recruitment crisis.

The number of magistrates has dropped 43% in the last eight years from more than 25,000 to less than 15,000 in 2019.

Fifty-two percent of those remaining face mandatory retirement within the next 10 years, as magistrates currently cannot sit beyond the age of 70.

Now the Magistrates Association, which represents magistrates in England and Wales, is hoping the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the resulting scrutiny of policing and the justice system might inspire more people to volunteer in the courts.

Jacqueline MacDonald-Davis, who has been a magistrate since 2005, said: "It is about being involved.

"No longer standing on the sideline and shouting in, (young people) have to engage in the process - which is exactly what they are doing now."

"Part of that process is saying 'I should become a magistrate' and 'I should be looking for jobs in the legal system'."

Some on the bench fear many younger potential candidates will be deterred by the magistracy's image as the preserve of middle class, middle aged white men.

In reality, the magistracy is actually one of the most diverse areas of the justice system.

Fifty-six percent of magistrates are women and 12% identify as being of black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, rising to 28% in London.

By comparison just 7% of court judges are people of colour, and only 32% are women.

But Ms MacDonald-Davis believes more needs to be done, especially to attract younger BAME people to the bench.

Describing her own experience of becoming a magistrate, she said: "I recognised that I was in the minority.

"But the question I always ask myself is 'What are you going to do about it? Are you not going to put yourself forward because you may be the only one?"

MP David Lammy's 2017 review into the treatment of BAME communities in the justice system found despite making up just 14% of the population, they accounted for 25% of prisoners.

This figure rose to 41% of the population being held in youth custody.

One significant finding was that BAME defendants were consistently less likely to plead guilty than white British defendants.

This disparity was found to be a major factor in the disproportionate makeup of the prison population.

An early guilty plea can see a custodial sentence cut by up to a third for most offences, or tip the balance in favour of community punishment.

The review found a profound lack of trust from BAME defendants that the criminal justice system would treat them fairly was one of the main reason for their refusal to consider entering a guilty plea.

It concluded that trust was eroded over time and was due in part to the disproportionate use of certain police tactics such as stop and search.

"Many do not trust the promises made to them by their own solicitors, let alone the officers in a police station warning them to admit guilt," the review said.

John Bache, who has chaired the Magistrates Association since 2017, believes that a justice system that reflects the community it serves could be a small but vital part of the process of engendering trust.

He said: "I think when a defendant comes into court and he sees three white faces and his face isn't white, I can see that he will think that those magistrates aren't going to understand his situation.

"Diversity is really, really important."

Many potential candidates have also reported that they did not apply because they believed they needed a law degree or should be of a certain professional group - neither of which are true.

Mr Bache said: "If you think you are not the sort of person that can become a magistrate then you are exactly the sort of person that we want."

The same goes for people who believe they are too young.

Mr Bache said: "People might say 'What life experience has he got, if he is only in his 20s?' and the answer to that is 'well, he's got his life experience or her life experience'.

He added: "Their life experience is different but it is no less important."

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