Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 13 of the Courts Act 2003 to change the retirement age for magistrates from 70 to 75; and for connected purposes.
Magistrates, or justices of the peace, are ordinary people hearing cases in court in their community, and have been a fundamental feature of our judicial system since 1361. They continue to be chosen from people of good character, commitment, social awareness and reliability—those who can communicate effectively and are capable of making sound choices when sitting in judgment on their peers.
I had the pleasure of appearing in front of many magistrates while practising on the then Chester and north Wales circuit as a criminal and family barrister in the late ’90s and the noughties. My rose-tinted spectacles remind me that, more often than not, my clients got the rub of the legal green, but I also had to accept that I and the bench did not always have a meeting of minds—in other words, I lost.
The one constant, however, was the selfless and enduring dedication on display by so many of our fellow citizens to the fair and equitable dispensing of justice. I want to take this opportunity to thank all of them, particularly those who have contacted me about this Bill and shared with me their experiences, for their public service. I should add that their overall number includes at least 10 fellow current Members of Parliament.
However, the constant reliable recruitment and retention of our magistracy across England and Wales is under serious strain. The number of magistrates has decreased dramatically over the last decade or so, from about 30,000 to less than 13,000, with the number actually sitting thought to be substantially lower. That has had a profound impact on the case backlog, which is now up to nearly half a million in the magistrates courts; on delays, and even on the way justice is delivered. For example, during 2017-18 there were benches of just two magistrates, including for some trials, in nearly 40,000 court sessions—15% of the total. Inevitably, the covid-19 pandemic has both exacerbated the problem and catalysed the urgency of action, with recruitment and training on hold.
To illustrate this at a more local level, Paul Brearley JP, chairman of the Greater Manchester branch of the Magistrates Association, provided me with details of how the current chronic shortage of magistrates is affecting what is the largest single bench in England and Wales. At its creation in 2014, the bench size was approximately 1,100. As of 24 June this year, the number stood at 792.
From this figure should be deducted 188 justices who are currently on covid-19-related leave of absence and 47 justices appointed but not yet sworn in, leaving just over 550, or about half of the original number, in active service. During the pandemic, no more justices have been appointed, despite the fact that the retirements have continued—15 since lockdown.
Sadly, it is the same story across the country, as other examples I have received from the chairs of the West Yorkshire, north-west Wales and Herefordshire benches bear testament, with the latter seeing a fall from 127 magistrates in 2008 to only 47 in 2020, nine of whom are due to retire in the next 18 months. As we emerge from lockdown, the pressure on our court system has never been greater, and with more police officers on our streets and additional resources for the Crown Prosecution Service, we can expect even more cases, requiring even more capacity.
The measures introduced by the Ministry of Justice to tackle the considerable and escalating delays are welcome, including extending court hours and widening the use of technology where appropriate. Yet much of this will still rely on the human resources— otherwise known as people—working in our courts to meet ever-growing demand. That is irrefutable proof that we desperately need more magistrates as quickly as possible. Any judicial restoration also needs to ensure that it delivers as great a diversity as possible, especially regarding age, ethnicity and social status. As the former chair of the Magistrates Association, Malcolm Richardson, has said:
“The magistracy must reflect the community it serves if courts are to be perceived to be procedurally fair, command public confidence and help civic engagement.”
To that end, I was pleased to hear the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is sitting on the Front Bench, tell the House only last week that the magistrates recruitment and attraction steering group held its first meeting in February, with a particular focus on increasing diversity, regardless of age.
Despite such laudable and important efforts, recruitment will not, of itself, fix the problem, because the fact remains that nearly 7,500 magistrates—more than half of all current magistrates—will reach the age of 70 in the next decade, and, under current legislation, will be forced to retire. Losing these magistrates at 70 is a triple whammy. First, they are often the most experienced. Secondly, they represent a high proportion of presiding justices—those in the court chairs—in this group. Thirdly, they are likely to be retired from work and so more able to accept extra sittings, including at short notice. Paulette Huntington JP, chair of the West Yorkshire branch, tells me that her magistrates who have retired at age 70 generally tend to be high sitters as they have more time to give, with many clocking up between 50 and 100 sittings per year, and some even more than that due to the volume of work—well over the minimum 26 required. In contrast, it is proving difficult to entice those with work and family commitments to the bench, with fewer employers seemingly content or in a position to sanction regular absences.
While every effort should continue to be made to boost recruitment, simply replacing retiring magistrates would be a significant challenge, and given current shortages would not, in itself, be sufficient. Indeed, this year the number of magistrates recruited is expected to be less than the number who retire, partly due to the need for rigorous selection, mentoring and support of newly appointed magistrates. It is worth noting, too, that these difficulties apply to all jurisdictions—adult, youth, and family. The senior judiciary, including the Lord Chief Justice, the senior presiding judge and the president of the family division, are all aware of the seriousness of the situation, as are, I know, the Minister and the Lord Chancellor.
It need not be this way. Jurors are now selected up to the age of 75, doubtless to enable justice to be delivered by people with wide experience of life. You may also have noticed, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the head of the Supreme Court is aged 75 and the almost 73-year-old Roy Hodgson seems to be doing a reasonable job at Crystal Palace. So why should magistrates be deemed incompetent simply because they have hit an arbitrary age?
There are other sound, compelling reasons to apply such logic. First, people live longer. The current retirement age of 70 was set in 1968, when life expectancy was just 72, and it is now nearly 81. Secondly, people work longer. Thirdly, people retire later. As they say, 70 is the new 50. To ensure ongoing competency beyond 70, the recognised and recently updated system for appraisal of all magistrates and retained registrates would need to be extended, but this should not be a block to progress. As John Bache JP, chairman of the Magistrates Association, told me:
“We are rapidly heading for the perfect storm in the magistrates court. The backlog is increasing while the number of magistrates continues to fall, yet we are discarding those magistrates most able and willing to address this crisis”.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister, on behalf of the Government, is very sympathetic to these arguments and is keen to make progress sooner rather than later, so I urge the Secretary of State, the Lord Chancellor, for whom I have the utmost respect, to grasp this nettle now and give the magistracy the opportunity through this Bill, especially at this vital time of greatest need, to do what it has done for over 650 years, and deliver timely, fair justice for the communities it serves.
Question put and agreed to.
That Edward Timpson, Tracey Crouch, Jeremy Wright, Greg Clarke, Graham Stringer, Andy Carter, David Simmonds, Richard Graham, Karen Bradley, Andrew Jones, Mr Shailesh Vara and Ben Everitt present the Bill.
Edward Timpson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 September and to be printed (Bill 156).