In a study of more than 80 magistrates, only one-third were consistent when presented with the same case twice, according to research by Dr Mandeep Dhami, a psychologist at City University, London.
Dr Dhami told the British Psychological Society's conference in London that magistrates from 44 courts were given a set of 27 hypothetical cases and asked to make decisions over bail for offences ranging from shoplifting, theft and grievous bodily harm. They were also sent duplicates of seven cases where only the name was changed.
More than two-thirds showed inconsistency in at least one if not more of the cases, and the extent of their experience made no difference.
Men tended to be treated more punitively than women, and magistrates were more likely to be severe if told the police viewed the suspect with hostility or the prosecution argued for harsh treatment.
Dr Dhami said the law needed to be made clearer. "Lay magistrates only work 35 half- days a year. It is very difficult for them to develop consistency," she said. "We need reform and stricter guidelines so that they know on what basis to make decisions."
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