13:34, August 06 122 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-06 13:34:03
Increase in female magistrates could mask decline in diversity

A majority of magistrates are women but the sustained increase in their numbers may be concealing a reduction of social diversity on the bench, the national chair of the Magistrates Association has suggested.

The latest statistics show that 54% of all magistrates in England and Wales are women but Malcolm Richardson asked if that meant more middle-class partners who are either not working or only work part-time were joining the bench.

“We are getting to the place that we are needing to be a little bit concerned about the discrepancy in the number of women,” Richardson, who has been a magistrate in Bristol for nearly 30 years, suggested. “What does that hide? We don’t look at the percentage of magistrates who are in employment and I think that would be a telling measure.

“The rise in the percentage of women is not a problem but someone ought to be concerned about a trend which [when projected forward] potentially society will find uncomfortable. It may mask other problems.”

In London, the proportion of female JPs is 58% and in several counties – including Leicestershire, Northampton and Surrey – it has reached over 60%. But there are no statistics on the social class or income of magistrates.

As a whole, the magistracy is more reflective of British society than the rest of the judiciary despite the number of magistrates falling from about 30,000 a decade ago to about 16,000 now. Only 28% of court judges in England and Wales are female.

“There’s nothing to encourage and quite a lot to discourage employers allowing their employees to [join the bench]. There’s no requirement, as there is with reservists in the armed forces, to release them from work. The government must do more to encourage [those in work becoming magistrates as well].”

Magistrates deal with 90% of the cases that come before court but no funds are available to advertise or raise awareness about the magistracy, he said. “It’s sad that there’s no money or budget to increase diversity. If you had gone out 10 or 15 years ago you would have seen adverts on buses and engagement with Operation Black Vote, increasing people’s awareness of the role and their suitability for it. That’s all gone.”

Around 11% are from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds, compared with 14% of the national population being BAME. Justice must be impartial when dealing with defendants from different backgrounds, Richardson noted, but “we need to ensure that people believe justice is fair … We enhance society’s engagement with justice if people feel that the people [handing down] justice are reflective of their community.”

Richardson, 69, has been chair of the Magistrates Association since 2015. He formerly worked for IBM and is now a management consultant. On the bench, he specialises in family court cases.

The selection process needs to change, he believes. Recruitment of JPs is often opened on a county-wide basis and closed when three or four times the number of applicants to places has been reached. “So it’s those people who have easy access to computers, are good at filling in forms and have knowledge of the process,” he said. One recent application competition in Buckinghamshire “was only open for a few hours”.

Morale among magistrates is sinking, he fears, after years of “benign neglect” and a major court closure programme that means JPs frequently have to travel far outside their communities. “I don’t mean this as a threat,” he said, “[but] those who deploy us need to be aware that we don’t have a contract of employment. None of us need to go to court tomorrow.