Robert Buckland is Secretary of State for Justice, and Lord Chancellor.
Since the Prime Minister appointed me Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor just over three months ago, we Conservatives have put forward a bold and ambitious plan of criminal justice reforms. If you caught my speech at the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month in Manchester, you’ll remember I noted how victims often feel let down by New Labour’s policy of releasing almost all offenders automatically after having served only half of their sentence in prison. I announced that for those most serious violent and sexual offenders, we would end this. The Daily Mail front page called it the ‘end of the soft prison sentence’, and an opinion poll by YouGov for The Times found this was the most popular policy announced at conference, with 74 per cent of people supporting it.
I firmly believe this is the right thing to do to ensure offenders serve a sentence truly fitting the severity of their crimes. I also announced plans to enable courts to sentence offenders guilty of alcohol-related offences to Alcohol Abstinence Monitoring, so-called Sobriety Tags.
Through these measures we aim to increase public confidence in the justice system. However, our reforms are not just about offenders; I’m clear we must support victims of crimes to cope with the immediate impact of what has happened and, as far as possible, recover from the harm they have experienced. We’re going to do this by enshrining in legislation rights outlined in something called the Victims’ Code. But I’m also clear that it’s not just those who go through the criminal justice system, but those actually dispensing justice itself, who have a hugely important role to play as these reforms play out.
A number of ConservativeHome readers have a long and distinguished history serving as magistrates, and their vital role is something I know myself as a former Recorder (part-time judge) in the Crown Court. Indeed, my House of Commons colleague John Glen MP and Number 10 Special Adviser Jonathan Hellewell have both served as magistrates, as has Baroness (Amanda) Sater, currently in charge of selection of Parliamentary candidates. And David Cameron’s mother, Mary Cameron, was famously a magistrate, though she is now enjoying a well-earned retirement from the role. We owe all those who both currently and in the past have served their country by sitting as magistrates a huge debt of gratitude for all their hard work, often in trying circumstances.
Recruiting dedicated, public-spirited people to the magistracy depends on the work dispensing justice being both rewarding and meaningful. That’s why I will be working hard to support the magistracy in intensifying efforts to recruit new members. And I urge people from all backgrounds and strata of society reading this article to consider applying. The Justice Select Committee has a report out today on ways we can perhaps do things better, and whilst there has been progress, I am determined we strive even harder to get the best people for these important roles.
So who can be a magistrate? You need to be over 18 and under 65. Applications are considered from people between 65 and 70, although magistrates must currently retire at 70. Potential magistrates must be aware of social issues, have sound judgement, be reliable, mature and able to listen and communicate with others. He or she must also be of ‘good character’, which means an applicant must not have been convicted of a serious crime or of some minor offences. They must also not have been banned from driving in the last ten years or been declared bankrupt.
The Conservative Government has worked to increase recruitment and retention of magistrates. According to a survey by the Judicial Office two years ago, 80 per cent of respondents said they had a strong feeling of satisfaction in their role, 89 per cent said they had a strong personal attachment to their role, and 91 per cent said they would recommend being a magistrate to friends and colleagues.
Diversity has also improved, with statistics from July this year suggesting 12 per cent of magistrates are from a BAME background, although there is still work to do on this front, and 56 per cent of magistrates are female.
Indeed, last year alone more than 1,000 magistrates were recruited, but there is certainly more to be done. More straightforward and faster recruitment must occur and, very importantly, morale must be boosted.
That’s why I’m establishing a Magistrates Recruitment and Attraction Steering Group alongside the magistracy to drive this activity.
Our plan is that potential candidates receive better and clearer information on what the role entails, what the application involves and the vacancies that are available in a particular geographical area. We’re also going to carry out research to identify the best ideas across the magistracy to try to plug any gaps where there aren’t enough magistrates volunteering. There are many benefits to employers of releasing employees for short periods to carry out their magistrates’ duties, and we need to do more to promote this.
At the moment, magistrates must retire at 70, but I’m not entirely convinced this is the right age to step down from the bench, as many people at this time in life still have so much more to give. So we’re going to have a consultation on whether this is the right age both for magistrates and all other judicial officers, too.
Last year, the Conservative Government introduced a new mechanism to allow people to apply directly to the family courts, rather than requiring two years’ criminal experience, and this significantly expanded the pool of people eligible to apply to be family magistrates.
Magistrates are a pillar of our world-class justice system, sacrificing their time to give back to local communities, dispensing justice without fear or favour. Every single criminal case begins in a magistrate’s court, with around nine in ten being dealt with in their entirety there. Quite simply, those who serve as magistrates are crucial to our criminal justice system as the Conservative Government takes robust action to tackle crime and make our streets safer. I would encourage anyone interested in the role to consider applying and serving their country in this important way.