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Fall in number of magistrates means less diversity

29th Jun 2016

A decrease in the number of magistrates in England and Wales will mean that those on the bench remain an overwhelmingly white and elderly majority, the government has been warned.

The justice select committee is conducting an inquiry into the future of the lay magistracy, examining in particular whether justices of the peace’s (JPs) sentencing powers should be increased from a maximum of six months’ imprisonment for each offence to one year. Penal reformers fear that allowing lay magistrates to impose longer punishments would result in over-congested jails filling up with more inmates.

A dramatic fall in crime rates, introduction of the single justice procedure, and the Ministry of Justice’s alleged preference for paid district judges are some of the reasons for the steep decline of JPs.

Justice minister Shailesh Vara told a select committee that “The number of magistrates is actually going down. The projection is that in 2022 it will be down to 12,000 from the present 18,000.” That drop, he insisted, was not a something he or the government desired.

The 12,000 figure is understood to be a projection forward of the recent rate of decline. Recruitment to the magistracy is continuing, albeit at a slow rate.

Last year 660 new magistrates were appointed, of whom 22% were from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds, Vara told the committee.

Responding to Vara’s projections, Penelope Gibbs, director of the charity Transform Justice, stated that “The government could prevent the predicted huge drop in numbers of magistrates of 60% in 13 years, but they need to develop a strategy to do so.”

“If they don’t bring in radical measures the magistracy will shrink and become less diverse at the same time. Magistrates should be representatives of the people in the courts, but that status is at grave risk,” Vara noted.