Cllr Sally-Ann Hart is the Cabinet Member for Tourism and Culture on Rother District Council.

Magistrates, or Justices of the Peace (JPs), are a body of volunteers drawn from their local communities, which has been delivering the bulk of criminal justice for centuries; magistrates deal with 95 per cent of all cases of adult crime which are brought to court. Many magistrates also sit in the family proceedings courts and youth courts, having received specialist training to do this. Magistrates play an active role in communities and a number of magistrates, like myself, volunteer as school governors, councillors, and so on.

The rewards of being a JP are numerous, including the development of new skills and learning about your local community; a real eye-opener to how local – and national – social, economic, political, and environmental decisions and issues impact upon us and how they might drive human behaviour. This very large dose of realism is what tipped me into politics; to bring about change for the better. In all honesty, who in their right mind would choose to go into politics these days if they were not driven by an uncontrollable force to make things better, particularly for those who cannot fight for themselves.

While they are volunteers, magistrates have the serious commitment of administering local justice; a commitment as important as any paid role. They are an essential resource to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) – and the country. Without them, the court system is likely to grind to a halt. But, over recent years, the number of magistrates has decreased; in 2012, there were approximately 25,000 JPs in England and Wales, but by 1st April 2018 there were only around 15,000 JPs – down 40 per cent across this period of time. This reduction is due to a number of factors, including resignations and retirements, a falling in workload in the criminal courts due to an increased use of out of court disposals and a downturn in recruitment.

Magistrates are core in the administration of justice and the number of resignations should be of concern. It is best practice for Magistrates to sit in benches of three – particularly important when hearing trials – as a majority decision is required. Due to a shortage of JPs, benches of two are becoming more prevalent, which raises problems when two magistrates cannot agree; if they cannot reach a decision, a trial may have to be re-heard, in the interests of justice. This costs taxpayers money. It is also becoming more common that courts are being cancelled, particularly the family courts, where there is a dearth of family qualified magistrates and more challengingly, qualified family court chairs. Again, this costs taxpayers money.

An independent and strong judiciary is essential in a democratic society; JPs play a crucial role in upholding the law and delivering justice. Much has been written elsewhere about court closures hitting morale, which it has done. Many magistrates, particularly from rural areas are now expected to travel further, unpaid, to fulfil their sittings. I have often been asked to sit in Crawley, Horsham and Brighton, which from where I live near Rye, would mean a two hour journey in heavy traffic each way – there is a limit to my dedication. JPs feel that they have lost their connection to local justice in their own community. In addition, far too many magistrates report to feeling undervalued, not only because of court closures, but because of silly little things like cutbacks on coffee and biscuits in the retiring room, which make these committed volunteers feel unappreciated.

The average age of magistrates is around 58 and although they can be appointed from aged eighteen, there are few magistrates under the age of thirty (one per cent). Being a JP is not that easy when you have a job, children and other commitments. Diversity is important as JPs are supposed to reflect the makeup of local communities.

We need JPs; dwindling numbers have an impact on the administration of justice. HMCTS is working with the Judicial Office and other relevant Government departments to develop a strategy for the Magistracy that will aim to improve diversity, including recruiting younger JPs. However, I fear that unless there is a change in national legislation to facilitate wider diversity, improvement will not happen. Legislative change to facilitate wider diversity would compel employers to give time off for their JP employees to carry out their public service. A JP colleague of mine, who works for the NHS, has to take holiday to fulfil her judicial duties. Employers should embrace employing a magistrate as all the skills learnt in administering justice will have a positive effect in the workplace. It is quite absurd that those responsible for administering the bulk of criminal justice have to take holiday to do so. If the Government really values their service, this should be reflected in legislation.

Malcolm Richardson, former chairman of the Magistrates Association, says:

“Magistrates deal with more than 90 per cent of the criminal cases that come to court and they cost one per cent of the HMCTS budget. But we’re getting a bit tired of being treated like the one per cent and not the 90 per cent.” 

This voluntary dedicated body is available at low cost, but priceless in its contribution. Let us treat them accordingly.