This week is National Volunteers’ Week, an annual celebration of the contribution that is made by millions of people across the UK through volunteering.
Magistrates are individuals from all walks of life who give up their valuable time and are passionate about making a difference in their local communities. They volunteer for at least 13 days a year to hear a variety of cases dealing with criminal proceedings, or in the Family Court. Magistrates sit in court in groups of two or three, known as benches, and are accompanied by a legal adviser to give them support.
We recently spoke to London Leadership Magistrate, Alexia, who has been volunteering in the magistracy for 21 years. In her interview, she talks about the most rewarding aspects of the role, describes a typical day, and encourages others to apply.
Could you please tell us a bit about yourself?
My name is Alexia and I grew up in Shropshire but also abroad, as my father was in the army. I have been living in London for the past 35 years. I studied Psychology at university and am really interested in people and what makes them tick. I spend a lot of time working for the magistracy doing various roles and, when I’m not doing that, I spend time with my family, walk my dogs and love to travel.
What type of magistrate are you?
I’m an adult and a youth magistrate. I have been a magistrate for 21 years, appointed when I was 35.
What motivated you to become a magistrate?
It was a role that drew my attention when I did jury service in my early twenties. I felt it would be a fascinating role, something that would appeal to my abiding interest in people and behaviours and a way of contributing to my community. It was also something I could fit around my growing family. I became a magistrate when my children were five, seven and nine and, while it was a bit of a struggle fitting it all in for the first few years, as they grew up and became more independent, I could commit more time to the magistracy. Now they have all grown up and flown the nest, I have lots more time to devote to my various magisterial roles and have been able to get really involved.
What do you find rewarding about the role?
The fact that we can really make a difference, both to defendants and victims. We can have a significant impact on their future. For victims, we can make decisions that will support good outcomes for them and have an enormous impact on their lives. Another aspect is that I have met so many people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures – it has been such an interesting experience. It is a real privilege to do this work.
Could you describe a typical day as a magistrate?
I get to court for about 9:15am, meet my two colleagues and we go through the court list with our legal adviser, looking at the cases and seeing if there are any issues we need to discuss or clarify. Our legal adviser is a trained lawyer who advises us on the law and gives expert advice on procedure – they are with us in court and, while they play no part in decisions we make, they will make sure we are acting within the law.
If we have papers then we make sure we read them and are prepared for the hearing. For example, if there are sentencing hearings, we will read the pre-sentence report prepared by Probation. For other matters, such as first hearings, we make sure we are aware of the details of the case so that we are alert to the issues that we need to establish to manage the case and consider bail. It could be that we are doing a trial, which doesn’t usually involve any pre-reading.
One of the fascinating aspects of the role is that we never really know what is coming through the door next. We might know what the charges are, but every single one involves different circumstances and different individuals – no two cases are ever the same. At all times we decide matters as a Bench i.e., three of us. As a three, if we are not unanimous, we are able to make a majority decision. Everyone plays an equal part – no one has the power of veto over anyone else, however experienced they are. Everyone brings different skills and experience to the bench and that is one of the strengths of the magistracy – the variety of experience and knowledge among the magistrates. We talk things through and make decisions together, using the various structures provided to ensure we are consistent. For example, if we are sentencing, we have the Sentencing Council Guidelines for reference.
We can do 20 or 30 cases a day if we have a remand list (first hearings and sentencings) or one or more trials in a day. We also do other lists such as breach lists (when defendants have not abided by the rules of their community or suspended sentence orders) and local authority matters.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a magistrate?
Go for it! It is such a rewarding job – fascinating, enlightening and a real privilege. You don’t have to have any qualifications – you don’t need to be a lawyer or have a degree or even have passed exams! You need common sense, good judgement, a sense of fairness and the ability to listen.
You learn many skills that are transferable which can really benefit your employer. Whilst you only have to sit 13 days a year, sometimes it can be hard to juggle the demands of your sittings with home or work life, but your bench chair, the magistrate who manages all the magistrates on the bench and supports us with pastoral care, can help with that.
We also have lots of materials that you can give your employer which will demonstrate how useful it will be for them to have a magistrate as an employee. Full training is provided, and we are really keen to get people from all walks of life to properly represent their communities. Pop into your local court and have a look – anyone can at any time!
Why do you think it’s important to recognise the work of volunteers?
Volunteers contribute an enormous amount to our life in the UK. Magistrates are not generally that well understood by the public – people tend to think (understandably given the work we do) that we are lawyers and therefore paid. They are rarely aware that we are volunteers and give our time for free. When people find out that we are, they are amazed! There are c14,000 magistrates in England and Wales and we deal with 96% of all criminal cases from beginning to end – we keep the criminal justice system going! It is very important that volunteers are recognised, as they contribute so much to society and their local communities. Things would simply come to a grinding halt without them.