There have long been complaints that magistrates are drawn from only a narrow – and highly unrepresentative – sliver of society. While those that come up before them may be from any and every walk of life, the bench is overwhelmingly populated by those who are white, middle class and heading towards retirement age. Indeed, according to the latest statistics, a mere 3 per cent are under 40.
Now, though, an influential think-tank is proposing a radical overhaul of the magistrates’ court system that would, at a stroke, both bring in new blood and address the concern that those sitting in judgment are out of touch with the world in which those that they are judging live. The solution? A major expansion in the number of specialist courts dealing with low-level, non-violent offenders whose problems are linked with drug addiction, alcoholism or mental illness. And the recruitment of reformed addicts and offenders to act as the presiding magistrates.
The change could hardly be more profound. Historically, it has been all but impossible for ex-offenders to join the bench. So tight are the rules, in fact, that a partner with a conviction can be enough for a candidate to be rejected.
According to Policy Exchange, this is all back to front – at least as regards a new type of drug and sobriety court. These are designed less to process legal cases than to play an active role in, for example, monitoring drug treatment and often require offenders to return on a weekly basis to report their progress. Former offenders – providing that they can prove that they have been on the straight and narrow for five years – would make ideal magistrates for such courts, the think-tank says.
The proposal will, in all likelihood, provoke uproar from some quarters. But it has much to recommend it. Not only because it might help to create a more representative class of magistrates. More importantly, because it might help the criminal justice system become more effective at dealing with certain types of problem and certain types of crime. It is certainly worth a try.