Upholding the law

Magistrates are in short supply and great demand. Linda Pettit looks at how encouraging staff to volunteer can have a positive impact on both employees and their employers

Ever thought of getting involved in the local community, taking up a public role or encouraging your staff to do so? If you have, now could be the time to apply to become a magistrate, one of 28,000 volunteers who form the backbone of the judicial system, and hear the majority of criminal cases in England and Wales.

Serving as a magistrate in his hometown of Aylesbury, company director Alex Pratt has no doubts about the benefits. “You experience a different side of life,” he says. “It’s also about contributing something back and broadening your experience and development.

“After I applied I had a couple of rigorous interviews, and I also had to sit in court and observe proceedings. Having been accepted, I had several afternoon training sessions and an away-weekend. You do need to sit regularly and have on-going training to keep up with changes in the law.”

Pratt, who became a magistrate in his mid-30s, has now been serving for five years. Like other magistrates, he feels it is important for lay people to see that the law is administered fairly. “I hear anything from speeding fines to council tax problems. It can be tedious – sometimes there’s a lot of waiting around and paperwork – but it is good training for someone involved in management decisions and it embeds you into the community.”

Magistrates have no legal training or previous experience, but ‘sit’ with two other magistrates on the ‘bench’ where most criminal cases are heard. The practice of appointing magistrates dates back to the 12th century when Richard I appointed keepers of the peace. Nowadays, magistrates are generally appointed by the Lord Chancellor on behalf of the Queen and sit for a minimum of 26 half-days a year, although they need to be available for 35 – sometimes for the whole day.

It is the magistrate’s job to listen to evidence and make an unbiased, objective and fair decision on whether a defendant is guilty or not, decide upon the sentence (recently raised to a maximum of 12 months), whether or not to grant bail, whether a case should be adjourned, or whether to commit a defendant to the Crown Court. Magistrates aren’t paid, but they can claim allowances for travelling, subsistence and financial loss.

A massive shortfall in the number of magistrates – around 2,000 less than is required – means existing magistrates have to sit more often. To boost numbers, the Government has launched a £4m campaign to recruit an additional 1,000 magistrates a year in England and Wales. The drive will also encourage younger people – currently less than 4 per cent are under 40 and about 80 per cent are over 50 – as well as those from ethnic minorities, to ensure the bench accurately reflects the communities it serves.

“The strategy will highlight the importance of magistrates’ work, particularly to employers, who must be persuaded that by allowing staff time off to carry out their magistrate duties, they are contributing enormously to the maintenance of local justice and the values of good citizenship,” says Lord Falconer, secretary of state for constitutional affairs and Lord Chancellor at the launch of the initiative last October.

Under the Employment Rights Act 1996, companies are obliged to grant employees unpaid leave for being justices of the peace or fulfilling similar public roles, but many of the UK’s larger employers, such as Marks & Spencer, go further.

“We believe that supporting our staff to contribute to their local community is very important, and individuals are supported with up to three weeks paid leave to complete their public duties. This not only includes magistrates, but other types of public duty that our employees get involved in,” says Sally Humpage, policy specialist in the HR group at M&S.

“The company believes it gains in a number of ways, particularly as the individual develops skills and knowledge that can be transferred back into the workplace both to develop themselves, their career and the teams and individuals they work with. This allows us to have a more rounded workforce that is aware of the issues in the communities in which M&S operates.”

The Magistrates’ Association (MA), which is responsible for informing and promoting magistracy, firmly believes that being a magistrate enables skills to be refined that are transferable to the workplace, such as decision-making, teamwork, communication, knowledge of different cultures, recognition of discrimination and the acceptance of responsibility.

However, it is usually the time commitment that makes companies reluctant to actively persuade staff to volunteer for magistracy, particularly as the commitment isn’t flexible.

“The slight downside is the two to three days a month it takes, not the fact it’s unpaid, but the time,” agrees Mike Emmott, employee relation’s adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “More enlightened employers will take a more responsible approach and consider the benefits in terms of social networking, increased experience, growth of confidence and the fact that employers will effectively be selling your employment,” he adds.

High-street bank Abbey, which employs 27,000 people, has a clear policy on voluntary community services. Under its ‘Match Time’ policy, it gives workers up to one paid week per year to volunteer.

“Some people take that by going an hour early once a week to do voluntary work, others use their Match Time for training,” says Alan Eagle, Abbey’s charitable trust manager. Although the scheme wouldn’t cover the entire commitment necessary for a magistrate, it can be used for the training, or at least serving half the required time. “Match Time has to be of community benefit,” he says, “and it is subject to line manager support.”

However, Eagle admits the policy has a low take-up – just 60 employees have taken advantage of the scheme. “Volunteering is still seen as something you have to grit your teeth to do,” he says. “But whenever we’ve asked people who have taken Match Time what the benefits were for them, the community and the business, about 90 per cent have said they became more committed employees, because Abbey recognises the worth of what they are doing.”

Ann Flintham, communications manager for the Magistrates’ Association and herself a magistrate of 14 years, says the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which aims to bring more offenders to justice will increase the workload of magistrates even further by raising their sentencing power from six to 12 months, making the recruitment drive even more vital.

“I sit in [the London Borough of] Hounslow, and we did have 180 magistrates – now we’re down to 112,” she says. “Recruiting younger people is a problem, partly getting them released from work and also peer-group pressure. It used to be an honour to have a magistrate employee, but now it’s thought of as a nuisance.”

But Flintham is in no doubt there are tangible benefits for both company and employee. “Listening, the way you treat people, decision-making, being strong enough to put your view across while being tolerant of the views of others may be skills taught at work, but being a magistrate can enhance them,” she says.

And don’t forget that HR professionals can also apply, as Mike Emmott of the CIPD says. “If they are holding down a good job, it shows they can deal with people, have interpersonal skills, are competent and have the ability to be persuasive,” he says. “I think HR people would make very good magistrates.”

Why are more magistrates needed?

More magistrates – or justices of the peace (JPs) – are needed to fill the current shortfall and ensure the magistrates’ bench is made up of a broader range of people. HR professionals can either apply or ensure their company has a positive policy towards staff doing so, perhaps by identifying potential candidates, persuading the board of the benefits and communicating those benefits to employees.

Magistrates need to be of good character, demonstrate good communication skills, have an appreciation and acceptance of the law and an understanding of local communities and society.

To serve as a magistrate, individuals must commit to a minimum of 12 months, live in the area in which they are planning to serve, and have a reasonable knowledge of that area.

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