The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) which has launched an unprecedented £1 million recruitment drive to appoint over 4,000 new magistrates across the UK. At the heart of the campaign is the commitment to recruit more people from under-represented parts of society including the LGBTQ+ community.
The MoJ is working with current magistrates from the LGBTQ+ community across the age range of 18-70 and from all walks of life, such as teachers, delivering drivers, entrepreneurs, and students to encourage more of the community to come forward. The new recruitment campaign is focused on bringing a more diverse range of people to the bench, recognising that the justice system works best when mixed and diverse voices are represented in the decision-making process. The new application process has been designed to ensure that it is fair, more inclusive, and more accessible to all candidates whilst ensuring it identifies the best candidates for the role.
Luke Sambridge, 34, from Leeds is Head of Business Excellence & Transformation at Infinity Water and has been a magistrate for 15 years. Luke was 18 and studying Law when his lecturer, himself a magistrate, spoke fondly of his role and recommended Luke to put himself forward. Luke believes you have to change the system from within rather than “moan” from the side-lines. Luke is now openly gay and has adopted 2 children. Luke says being a magistrate changes your perspectives on life and strongly believes you should never judge a book by its cover.
New recruits will join the current 12,000 magistrates already playing a vital role in the justice system. Over 90% of criminal cases are dealt with by magistrates sitting in local criminal courts, ruling on cases such as drink-driving, theft and assault. People from all walks of life can be magistrates – as long as they are aged between 18 and 70. It is a voluntary role, which people can do alongside any employment or caring obligations.
This is the largest recruitment effort in the 650-year history of the magistracy and could increase the workforce by up to a third in the coming years.
Adam Rathbone, 30+, from Newcastle is a social and clinical pharmacist lecturer at Newcastle University and has been a magistrate for 7 years. He grew up on a council estate and saw a lot of crime rooted in inequality and deprivation, where people had no choice but to turn to it. Due to his background, he feels he can empathise with the defendants and can distinguish those who have made a choice to turn to crime from those who were compelled to it due to their circumstances. Adam is part of a multiracial family: his husband is Indian, and they have an adopted child of mixed ethnicity. He “Enjoys bringing some ‘real world’ know how to the bench”.
Did you ever think your identity and sexual orientation would be an obstacle in becoming a magistrate?
In short, no. Although I haven’t always been comfortable with my identity and my sexual orientation, I didn’t feel like it would be barrier to becoming a magistrate. It didn’t come up in the interview or recruitment process really, other than as part of a tick box form I filled out at the beginning. Most magistrates, whether LGBTQIA+ identifiers or allies, have been really welcoming.
How can we have more diverse people to the justice system?
That is the question! There are already lots of inclusive policies and practices in place to support people from diverse backgrounds to be magistrates, but the justice system can only recruit the people that apply. The only way diversity can increase is if people apply. As it’s a voluntary post, there are some groups who might find it harder to give up their time, but there is support, including financial support for travel and childcare, and extra support for people who might feel unfamiliar with the system, like mentors, so that everyone, from any background, can be a magistrate.
How important is to have diverse voices represented in the decision-making process?
A key part of being a Justice is drawing on your own life experiences to make decisions about what is fair and just. If everyone on the bench has had the same life experiences, then what they think is fair and just might be similar – but that might be different to what a victim or defendant feels is fair or just. We all have biases and prejudices that can sometimes be overlooked if everyone in the group has the same prejudice. If the group is diverse, these can be spotted and any issues that might be unfair or unjust for the victim or defendant can be ironed out. For example, somebody on the bench who has experienced being called a name in the street or assaulted because of their sexual orientation, is more likely to understand what a victim who has experienced the same thing is going through, so can relate to this experience.
How did your personal story shape your decision to become a magistrate?
When I was younger, like many LGBTQI+ people, I experienced bullying, harassment and assault because I was gay, even before I knew I was gay myself. Back then, the justice system didn’t really work for LGTBQI+ people, or many others from marginalized or minority backgrounds. Although there is still further to go, now a days, we’re incredibly privileged to have a justice system that specifically protects people and prohibits targeting people because of their sexual orientation, gender and sex. Although the justice system hasn’t always worked fairly for LGBTQI+ communities, that it is working towards that now makes me feel like I need to contribute to it, to be part of a system so that is can work to protect everyone it serves, not just the mainstream.
What is your work like?
Our work in the magistrates’ court is really interesting. We make decisions about if defendant’s are guilty or not guilty, so get to hear the evidence that has been collected, listen to witnesses and their different versions of events, sometimes there is CCTV or video someone has taken on their phone for us to look at too. The we make a judgement about what we think happened and pronounce if we’ve found someone guilty or not. We also make decisions about sentences, which can be quite tough. I think most people assume we should just lock everyone up, but our sentencing powers range from a conditional discharge (which the mainstream media often refers to as ‘letting someone off’ but it isn’t), to a fine, to community service and all the way up to sending someone to prison. We can also order people pay compensation, have a curfew and make restraining or banning orders to protect victims. We often get criticized online and in the press that our sentences are not harsh enough, but we make decisions using Guidelines and what we think is fair and just based on what we’ve heard in court. When people ask what it feels like to send someone to prison, I always invite them to apply to be a magistrate so they can find out for themselves one day what that feeling is like. It is very rewarding work, either finding someone not guilty if the evidence isn’t strong enough or giving a sentence that protects the public, punishes the crime and rehabilitates the offender.
Robin Cantrill-Fenwick, 35+, from Cowshill, North West Cumbria, is a Chief Executive of a business and consultancy. He is gay and hard of hearing and has been a magistrate for 6 years. He grew up on a council estate, went to university but dropped out. He understands how difficult it can be growing up on a council estate and wants to show that “Even a posh sounding middle aged, white, full time employed (running a Limited company) bloke can bring diversity.”
How easy or difficult is it for a gay man who is hard of hearing to be a magistrate?
Volunteering is really important to me – I’m a big believer that the way that positive change happens is if people show up and make it happen. I volunteer some of my time in the courts, because it’s somewhere we could all end up at some point in our lifetime! As a victim, as a witness, as a defendant, or – yes – as a magistrate! A bit like a sexual health clinic (a bit!) courts are one of those things in life that are invisible to most people until something happens… and then one day, what goes on there, and how well it runs, suddenly becomes very important to you. So just by being a gay person and a hard of hearing person in the system, I hope I’m part of a group of people keeping an eye out for how the courts work for everyone, including minority communities. I’m happy to say that as a Magistrate, I’ve never been at any kind of disadvantage in my role either as a result of being gay or because I’m hard of hearing.
How did your background shape you?
I went to school in the 80s and 90s, when Section 28 was still law. That’s one of the reasons why I’m interested in our legal system and in politics too. For most of my childhood my parents were together, but when they divorced we left the council estate where we lived and moved to a little village in the middle of nowhere. People forget that 25 years ago the internet was in very few homes. So growing up a bit isolated, gay, kind of deaf, pretty poor, watching a single parent work incredibly hard to make ends meet… Of course these things shape you. But for everything that went on, we had a pretty stable home life, and I went to good state schools with some great teachers who inspired me. So my childhood taught me the important of stability and role models too. When you get out of some of the day to day cases like traffic offences, a lot of the charges that we handle in the Magistrates’ Court can be traced back pretty quickly to some combination of poverty, instability, bad role models and poor life chances as the root cause. I grew up in the North East in a family that often struggled for money. I hope that helps me to recognise some of the pressures that many people who appear in courts are under, whether they’re in the dock or on the witness stand. I’ve never looked at someone in court and thought “why can’t you just pull yourself together” – but very occasionally colleagues of mine have said things like that, and that’s why it’s good that we have a mix of viewpoints and backgrounds represented. Magistrates sit in teams – or “benches” – of three, and we all listen to what the others have to say before making our decisions together.
How can LGBTQ+ people be more represented?
Government and others have to be better at reaching out to say not only that LGBTQ+ people are welcome – but that we need you. A lot of people don’t know the door exists, let alone that it’s open. But this is a moment where the people who run the courts are making a really big push to recruit more Magistrates from all walks of life, so it’s on all of us to step up and meet that call if we can. Anyone aged 18 to 74 can apply, and you receive training and mentoring – no legal qualifications required. We have professional legal experts who assist us. In so many ways, attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people are the most hostile they’ve been in my lifetime, so it really is about rolling up your sleeves and pitching in. Don’t wait to be asked. Don’t believe that sharing a hot take on social media will change things. It very rarely does.
Tell us something that personally touched you and how it affected your life.
The moments that matter most to me in court are the times when a decision I have been part of has delivered some relief. Removing an abusive partner from someone’s life. Stopping someone neglecting animals. Creating a pause for a community blighted by antisocial behaviour. Specially trained magistrates deal with family matters too – who gets custody of a child in a break-up? Will someone be allowed to adopt a child? What is in the best interests of the child? These are big decisions. You have to approach them with great care, listening to all of the expert advice. But there is so much opportunity to do a lot of good in the role. I think also that the very structured way we make decisions in court has helped me to be better at making decisions in other parts of life – learning to break something down into pieces, to focus on the most relevant issues, and to see things from different perspectives before reaching one decision or another has been really useful.
What are you most proud of?
Right now, any day when I leave court and think “that decision would’ve gone another way if I hadn’t been there”, AND any day when I leave court thinking “that other magistrate, or that advisor or lawyer, really helped me see the issue in a different and better way.” There’s a lot of teamwork goes into being a magistrate. Aged 40, I qualify – just – as a “young Magistrate”. That seems crazy to me – in years to come, I hope I’ll be proud of mentoring a new intake of younger magistrates, and LGBTQ+ people of any age or background.
Visit icanbeamagistrate.co.uk for more information on the role of a magistrate and information on how to apply.