Magistrates are volunteers who hear cases in local courts. You don’t need a law degree to start and there’s currently a chronic shortage of magistrates. Here Ruth Emery, a freelance journalist who has volunteered as a magistrate for five years, explains how to get started.
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If you think being a magistrate is a full-time role that requires a law degree and a ton of training, you’re not alone. I’ve lost count of the number of people who, when hearing I’m a magistrate, say “Wait, I thought you were a journalist?” or “Don’t you need a legal qualification?” The answer is yes, and no. Being a magistrate is an unpaid, part-time role. No legal experience is necessary.
I became a magistrate five years ago. I wish I had some inspirational tale about why I decided to apply, but the truth is I couldn’t decide between being a journalist or a lawyer when I was younger. It was literally a toss-up between Ally McBeal and Carrie Bradshaw. Carrie won, but the idea of Ally, or somehow being part of our justice system, stayed with me.
Many of us have some free time as a result of commuting less and working from home, and companies often give “volunteer days” on top of annual leave. If you’re thinking of doing some unpaid work, how about giving back to your local community by becoming a JP (justice of the peace)?
Magistrates are ordinary people who volunteer their time to carefully listen to cases in local courts. For me, being a magistrate gets me out of my privileged bubble of friends and family, to really see what is happening in society. You have the power to help victims of crime, as well as potentially help defendants that invariably have mental health, drink and/or drug problems. Every day you learn something new.
There is an assumption that magistrates are “pale, male and stale” but this isn’t completely true. More than half (56%) are female. However, there is still a long way to go to attract ethnic minorities and younger people: 13% of magistrates were from BAME backgrounds in 2020 (up from 12% a year earlier), and just 1% were aged under 30. The government is investing £1m to recruit more disabled magistrates in England and Wales as part of a wider effort to improve diversity.
There’s a chronic shortage of magistrates, made worse by Covid. It’s estimated an extra 3,000 magistrates are needed to run the courts efficiently. Here are my tips on starting your journey to becoming a magistrate and how to get the most out of it.
Check if you’re eligible
You can’t apply if you work in certain jobs, such as police officer or a traffic warden. It’s also unlikely you’ll be taken on if you have a criminal record or have been declared bankrupt.
The minimum number of days a year you have to commit to is 13. You get several days of training before you start sitting in court, so don’t worry about not having any legal qualifications – but do make sure you have sufficient free time.
To apply, first, check your local area is recruiting (most are). You can do this via the Government website. Application forms should be emailed to the appropriate address, although if you’re applying to be a magistrate in Cambridgeshire, West London, or Cumbria and Lancashire, you can do so online as part of a pilot scheme by 18 September.
The process then involves an application form and a series of interviews. You’ll need to demonstrate strong listening skills, a sense of fairness, and the ability to consider different sides of an argument.
Visit a magistrates’ court
Visiting a court will give you a feel for what actually happens there and whether this volunteer role is right for you. It’s also an important part of the application process, as you’ll likely be asked about what you observed during the interviews. Try and visit a few times, on different weekdays, and take notes on some of the cases you hear.
All criminal cases start in a magistrates’ court, and about 95% are completed there. Only the most serious offences – such as murder, rape and robbery – progress to the Crown Court.
Magistrates deal with a wide range of cases, from theft and criminal damage to assault and driving offences. Each courtroom typically has a trio of magistrates sitting together, plus a legal adviser that makes sure the correct procedures are followed. When a defendant pleads guilty, the magistrates decide what sentence should be imposed. If they plead not guilty, the case proceeds to trial, and the magistrates decide on the verdict (there is no jury in a magistrates’ court).
Discuss it with your boss
My boss was supportive when I told her about my aspirations to be a magistrate. So supportive that she gave me a reference, and made sure I could use my four volunteer days towards my sittings.
Legally your employer must allow you reasonable time off to serve as a magistrate, but they do not have to pay you. If you lose out on pay, you can claim an allowance, as well as expenses for travel and food.
Chat to your boss before applying. How will you manage your job alongside being a magistrate? I usually did my sittings on a Monday, which was our quiet day at work – I sometimes did a bit of work on a Sunday evening to make up for it, and also checked my emails during the lunch break as well as any times we weren’t needed in court. You get your rota well in advance, so you can give your employer plenty of notice.
Be prepared to sentence people to prison
How will you feel about sending someone to prison? While many sentences handed out at a magistrates’ court involve a fine or a community order, sentences of up to 12 months’ imprisonment can be imposed for more serious offences.
If you don’t agree with punishing (or rehabilitating) criminals through imprisonment, or you wouldn’t feel comfortable knowing you had sent someone to jail, being a magistrate is not for you.
All judges and magistrates follow sentencing guidelines that help ensure courts take a consistent approach to sentencing. Sooner or later, you will deal with a case where the guidelines suggest a prison sentence, so you need to be comfortable with this. Of course, it can be a difficult decision.
I felt particularly emotional last year when we sentenced a young man to prison on 22 December. He had never been “inside” before, and he genuinely looked scared and expected to be home for Christmas. I knew it was the right sentence for the crime, but I’m only human, and it was something I reflected on during the festive period.
Don’t be disheartened if you have a slow day at court…
Every job – or volunteer role – has its slow days and being at court is no different. Sometimes defendants don’t turn up, sometimes witnesses or interpreters don’t turn up, sometimes CCTV or body-worn footage is unavailable or doesn’t work on the court’s IT system, sometimes the prosecutors need extra time to talk to the defence lawyers while the magistrates wait outside… There are myriad reasons for delays.
But on another day, you may get an exciting, fast-paced trial (or two), or go through dozens of cases where you need to work out the most appropriate sentence.
One of the reasons I enjoy the role is the variety. The cases you hear open your mind; you learn about the law, and the issues affecting your community. You’re exposed to different ways of thinking and it trains you to take a more balanced view.
Embrace the magistrate network
As a journalist, I’m a rather nosy person, so chatting to the other magistrates is also something I enjoy. We’re a sociable bunch – there’s a Christmas party, and other events and ad-hoc training – so you can make useful contacts and friends.
The last time I was in court, the two magistrates I sat with were a Piccadilly line Tube driver and a businessman turned serial volunteer (he’d already given up his time at Citizens Advice and Samaritans).
There are other opportunities open to magistrates: you can sit in the family court, where issues like parental disputes, care orders and adoption are dealt with; and you can sit in the youth court. It depends on what interests you, and how much free time you have.
If you’re thinking of applying to be a magistrate, good luck! It’s a great volunteer role, and hopefully, your involvement will be a step towards creating a more modern and diverse magistracy.
Images: Getty, Ruth Emery
Ruth Emery, volunteer magistrate and freelance journalist
Ruth Emery is an award-winning financial journalist, and a contributing editor at The Money Edit. She was previously deputy Money editor at The Sunday Times.
Outside of work, she is a mum to two young children, a magistrate and an NHS volunteer.