Ask someone to picture a magistrate and the chances are they'll conjure up an image of a retired head teacher of a private school or some other middle-class pillar of the community. Carol Henry-Smith, a policy development manager at a housing organisation, assumed you also have to be legally trained and almost certainly white. "It wasn't that I thought black and ethnic minorities were specifically excluded, but that we may not be very welcome," she explains. "I think I thought the courts were quite unfair to black and ethnic minorities, whichever side of the bench they were."
Now a magistrate herself, she says: "I've learned that people really do get a fair trial, whatever their background and what's more, I thoroughly enjoy being part of the court process. It's not like the court cases on telly. It's a long and laborious process to actually become a magistrate, but it's definitely worth it. You get to develop some very transferable skills, like decision making and assessing information quickly, and I really think it's good for black and ethnic minorities to see other black faces here."
It was an advert for Operation Black Vote's magistrate shadowing scheme that first caught Henry-Smith's eye. "While I was made well aware that getting on it would be no guarantee to eventually becoming a magistrate, I thought it would be a good way of finding out what a magistrate actually does," she says.
Operation Black Vote aims to encourage and inspire people from African, Asian and Caribbean communities to play a full and positive role in the democratic decision making processes in our society. Indeed, the organisation, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer, was originally set up both because of a declining turnout of these groups in both local and national elections and because of a lack of understanding among these communities about how our democratic institutions work. The magistrate shadowing scheme, which is now in its third year, is funded and supported by the Department of Constitutional Affairs and has had the backing from a succession of Lord Chancellors.
"It's about attracting people like Carol Henry-Smith who might not otherwise consider it as a way of contributing to civic society," explains Ashok Viswanathan, assistant director.
The scheme, he says, is run in key areas up and down the country, where there are sizable black populations and under-representation on the bench. "Those whose applications are accepted do 10 visits over a six-month period, although in reality most happen in a shorter time frame."
Not only do they get to observe the bench in court when the magistrates are deliberating, but a mentor explains what is going on and how the decisions are made. Participants also get to talk to other members involved in the court process, such as clerks, to get a flavour of what is happening in the rest of the courtroom; and they go out into the community to see what magistrates do as part of their extra-curricular work.
In addition, they get two days' training, involving a variety of agencies such as the Home Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, to explain how magistrates' work fits into the wider criminal justice system. "It's been a real success and 25 people out of 200 have gone on to be appointed as magistrates," says Viswanathan.
He adds that existing magistrates gain from the scheme too. "It's very much a two-way street. For instance, magistrates can get to learn about different nuances in different cultures."
The biggest learning curve for Henry-Smith, who now works as a magistrate in West Hertfordshire, was discovering just how structured the decision-making process is. "I also learned just how much goes on in a courtroom. They always seem so quiet, but in fact there are many people doing many different things."
Once trained, magistrates are expected to work a minimum of 26 sittings a year, although Henry-Smith says the average for West Hertfordshire Bench is nearer 45, most of which are half-days. "It takes up a lot of time, which isn't easy to fit round a job, but it is possible. With me, some of it is time off in lieu and some is unpaid. There's also a lot of reading, and there are the extra-curricular activities like going out to schools to inform children about what magistrates do. But, in fact, I am particularly looking forward to that bit because I'll get to tell people that they shouldn't be put off thinking about becoming a magistrate like I was."
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