A piece of the justice

Magistrates are about to get starring roles in the new justice system. Rachel Lipscomb tells Jon Robins why the Home Office got it so wrong

Perhaps the biggest surprise beneficiary of the Government’s self-styled ‘rebalancing’ of the criminal justice system is the 30,000-strong volunteer army of magistrates. Only a couple of years ago it appeared New Labour regarded the magistracy as a quaint anachronism whose time was due to come to an abrupt end. But in a rather remarkable turnaround of events, ministers now promise justices of the peace (JPs) starring roles in the new system enshrined in the Criminal Justice Bill.

“It’s an emphatic vote of confidence in the magistracy,” declares Rachel Lipscomb, a magistrate of 20 years experience and, as of last month, the new chair of the Magistrates’ Association. “Only three years ago the very future of the magistracy was under question in some areas, and what we’re seeing now with the Criminal Justice Bill is an extension of our sentencing powers.” The Government plans to extend magistrates’ maximum sentencing powers to 12 months.

Two years ago the then Home Secretary Jack Straw commissioned a study into the role of lay magistrates. At that time, one senior Home Office aide provided an insight into the esteem in which the unpaid volunteers were held. “What we expect this research to prove is that lay magistrates are at best adequate and at worst appalling,” he told the press. The big idea was to replace them with district judges, who as paid professionals would still be cheaper because they were quicker and sit alone rather than in threes.

So what swung it for the JPs? Apparently, the ministerial advisers simply got it wrong. “We were given two very good clean bills of health,” Lipscomb claims. First of all, the aforementioned review clearly confounded ministerial expectations, and then there was Lord Justice Auld’s massive review of the criminal justice system, which prepared the way for New Labour’s ‘Justice for All’ white paper.

Lipscomb continues: “The Auld review of the criminal justice system came out firmly in favour of the magistrates at a point in time when it was being argued that magistrates should only sit with district judges and [ministers] wanted a very neutered role for the magistracy.” The effectiveness of JPs is also borne out by the fact that less than 1 per cent of magistrates’ courts’ decisions are appealed, she adds.

A cynic might argue that, in the end, the Government hated juries more than they disliked magistrates. For example, Courtenay Griffiths QC accused the Government of sneaking the Mode of Trial Bill back in “by stealth” by doubling the sentencing powers of magistrates and removing juries from fraud cases. Unsurprisingly, it is not a theory that this magistrate subscribes to.

But is this new, enhanced role for the magistracy something that Lipscomb feels comfortable with? “Yes, but what’s going to be absolutely critical is a good, even delivery of training across the country with suitable training to cover the extension of our jurisdiction,” she says.

Another crucial factor is the urgent need for more magistrates to meet the increased demand. According to Lipscomb there are 25,000 active magistrates, and that number, she reckons, is already 6,500 short of ensuring that benches can sit in threes. In fact, the magistracy has been in decline – in 1997 there were 30,377 lay magistrates compared with just 28,735 by April last year.

One magistrate in the Greater Manchester area recently told The Daily Telegraph: “We’re being squeezed at the moment. We’re losing people who are unhappy with the new changes, but we’re not picking up people from the ethnic minority community as we’re being told we must.” On his bench, there were only seven ethnic minority members and he feared that the situation was becoming worse as more and more people were leaving.

“Recruitment and confidence in the system almost run side by side, and there are parts of the country where there are shortages of magistrates,” acknowledges Lipscomb. The Lord Chancellor’s Department is soon to publish its own strategy for the recruitment of magistrates. “The campaign will challenge the unjustified perception that to become a magistrate you need to be white, middle-aged and middle class,” the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine recently promised.

To this end, the Magistrates’ Association has been running its own Magistrates in the Community programme, where the group goes out into schools and community groups and explains the role of magistrates. Lipscomb has been touring the schools to raise the profile of JPs.

Regarding the perceptions of the magistracy that she has to deal with, Lipscomb says: “There are a lot of myths that you have to have some knowledge of the law, and you have to have done this or that. What most people are unaware of is that you don’t have to have any of this background. With very few exceptions, everybody is entitled to apply.”

When visiting schools, the pupils are set sentencing exercises, and according to the magistrate it is the youngsters that are proving far less forgiving than the more soft-hearted magistrates. “It’s one of those rather extraordinary facts that the younger people act more harshly when it comes to sentencing,” she says.

While New Labour’s reforms might appear to be a ringing endorsement of local justice, the Home Office will expect more out of the magistrates. In 2002 the Home Secretary David Blunkett promised a sentencing guidelines body to wipe out the kind of “postcode justice” that saw only one in five people arrested in Teesside for burglary face immediate custody compared with their criminal peers in the Midlands, who were twice as likely to go down.

While the Home Secretary bemoans the lack of “consistency”, others in the criminal justice system see such statistical anomalies as local justice in action. There is a balance, as Lipscomb acknowledges. “We must have a consistent approach through sentencing, with everyone going through the same decision-making steps; but you’re always going to get variations,” she says.

Lipscomb, as a woman who joined the bench at the relatively young age of 33 in 1981, herself dispels a couple of the widely-held perceptions about the magistracy. When she first served, the gender balance was already 50-50, and it remains evenly balanced today. But she was the youngest magistrate on her bench in Kingston, London. “My age was never an issue,” she says. “I was very fortunate and I went to a bench that was very welcoming, and the older magistrates were very keen to have younger members.”

Why did she decide that she wanted to be a magistrate? “What I was most concerned about was that the criminal justice system should be seen and understood by the young, and that it should be seen to be treating them fairly,” she replies, adding that the best way to do that was have more young faces on the bench.

The lack of ethnic minorities on the bench is a more enduring problem afflicting magistrates’ courts throughout the country. “We’ve always had members from ethnic minority groups, but one of the difficulties has been getting representatives from those groups that are the largest in the area, and it’s a problem that you find all over the country,” says Lipscomb.

The Lord Chancellor is hoping to pick up recent trends. In 2000-01, for example, the proportion of new appointments drawn from ethnic minority communities rose to 9.3 per cent – up from 8.6 per cent the year before, 6.5 per cent in 1997 and only 5 per cent in 1994.

While pro-jury campaigners have made much of the inherent democratic credentials of juries, you seldom hear a similar argument made for the ‘local justice’ of the magistrates’ courts. Lipscomb says of the magistracy’s image problem: “The reputation is unfair, but there are many similar organisations that have this problem, and our challenge is to make sure that everyone who comes into contact with magistrates, and the general public, have to understand what it’s like and how it works.”
Rachel Lipscomb
Magistrate and Chair
The Magistrates’ Association