Skip to main content

Lay Magistrates

Volume 779: debated on Monday 20 February 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage more people to come forward to train as lay magistrates.

My Lords, while magistrates’ recruitment is the responsibility of the Lord Chief Justice, the department is supporting the judiciary in endeavouring to improve the application process to make it more accessible and suitable for a wide range of applicants. There is generally no shortage of applicants for the vacancies that arise.

I thank my noble and learned friend for his reply. As he will be aware, the number of lay magistrates has plummeted in the past 10 years, from 30,000 to 17,000 today, and is predicted to fall to 11,000 in 2020. Can the Minister assure me that the drive for diversity, which I strongly support, is not compromising the principle of merit that should apply to all public appointments? Does he agree that the solution lies in more prominent and proactive recruitment drives?

While the number of serving magistrates has reduced significantly in the past decade, it is important to make it clear that this is not indicative of any difficulties with recruitment. The reduction in the number of magistrates is due primarily to changes in workload. Recruitment is undertaken in each local justice area, with 44 advisory committees responsible for recruiting and selecting magistrates. Of course, the aim is to recruit on the basis of talent but to ensure that talented people represent all backgrounds and communities they serve.

My Lords, we have made no progress on diversity in the lay magistracy. At least gender diversity is not a problem, with a roughly equal number of men and women, although ethnic diversity has hardly moved. However, younger people are woefully and increasingly underrepresented. In 2000, about a third of lay magistrates were over 60. Now that figure is 55%. How will the Government address this? Currently, employers must allow staff time off to serve. Will the Government consider offering employers modest incentives as well to encourage recruitment of working-age magistrates?

Magistrate remains a sought after role, and competition for vacancies tends to be strong. Advisory committees employ a range of techniques to reach out into their communities for applications to the Bench. This can and does include advertising in public places such as libraries, community centres and the local press. At present, there are no plans to put forward further financial incentives.

My Lords, in light of the concern about the age of magistrates, will the Minister look again at the unreasonably low retirement age of 70 for magistrates?

I remind the noble Lord that the unreasonably low retirement age of 70 applies also to justices of the Supreme Court.

Statistics from the Ministry of Justice show that 10% of magistrates are from a black and minority ethnic background, but can my noble and learned friend the Minister outline whether there is a specific recruitment drive that also addresses the need for young people from those communities? When black and minority ethnic young people come before a youth justice panel, it is very important that it is representative of their communities in a way that unfortunately the police force that arrested them might not have been.

It is of course important that the magistrates’ Bench should be representative of the communities they serve, but it is equally important that we have regard to the skills, experience and talent required of those who sit on it. That tends to come with age and experience.

My Lords, some 7,000 magistrates will reach retirement age in the next five years. That is something like eight times the membership of your Lordships’ House. Fifteen per cent of cases are heard by Benches of two magistrates, yet district judges are still being recruited at salaries of around £100,000 a year. Is not the increasing reliance on district judges, alongside the failure to extend the recruitment of lay justices beyond the middle and upper classes and the impact of court closures, eroding the concept of local justice rooted in a sense of local community?

The noble Lord draws attention to a number of issues concerning the disposal of cases between the district court and the magistrates’ court. That will be further addressed in detail as we proceed with the prison and courts reform Bill, which is presently under consideration. I reassure the noble Lord that there is no attempt to direct recruitment towards particular social classes or backgrounds. The 44 advisory committees responsible for recruiting magistrates in England and Wales are concerned to ensure that they recruit talented people from all backgrounds and all communities.

Has the Minister noticed, as I have, that in response to powerful pleas from Peers on all sides he and his noble friend Lord Nash have merely read out extracts from the brief provided by their civil servants? Are Ministers in the House of Lords no longer allowed to say, “I’ll take that back and discuss it with my colleagues”?

I was not aware that the noble Lord had read my brief before I arrived in the Chamber. I rather think that if he did he did it in a cursory manner, because I can assure him that the answers I have given have not simply been a recitation of what was in the written brief.

My Lords, my noble and learned friend referred to the reduction of workload among magistrates. Can he confirm that that is at least in part due to the reduction in the rate of crime in the UK at the moment? Will he also register his and the Government’s approval of the contribution that magistrates make to the criminal justice system? I think they decide something like 90% of all cases.

My noble friend is absolutely right: more than 90% of all criminal cases are disposed of by the magistrates’ Bench. If I may read a little further—

—it might be noted that of course they take on an increasing burden but against the background of a decreasing rate of criminal activity.

My Lords, the captains of RN ships are trained, to an extent, as lay magistrates to conduct summary trial, and they must form a nice pool, when they retire, to go into this area. Does the Minister agree that if we had more ships and more people, this would help?

The noble Lord raises an interesting cross-departmental issue. One downside to his proposal would be its negative impact on our concern to ensure the age spectrum of those sitting on the magistrates’ Bench.