Big Newham Debate: Are magistrates ‘too old and white’?

Stratford Magistrates' Court

Stratford Magistrates' Court - Credit: Archant

The House of Commons justice committee said last week that there were “serious” problems with the diversity of magistrates and that they needed to be “far more representative”.

Matthew Gass, right, and Daniel Oxley

Matthew Gass, right, and Daniel Oxley - Credit: Archant

Around 89 per cent of magistrates are white, compared to 87pc of the country’s population, while 86pc are over 50.

We therefore asked: Are magistrates too old and too white?

Matthew Gass - Deputy chairman of West Ham Conservative Association

Magistrates are one of the great volunteer forces that keeps this country running. They have a challenging role where the input of ordinary people is vital. As a solicitor I understand the importance of access to justice and as a school governor I believe in volunteering to support the community.

Magistrates hear over 90 per cent of criminal cases. As such it is right we continue to look at whether they are representative of the country. This is a debate which at times has covered everyone from elected politicians to Hollywood actors.

Currently 86pc of magistrates are aged over 50 and 89pc are white. There is a desperate need to recruit new magistrates. Ten years ago there were around 30,000 in England and Wales but this has fallen to 17,552 today and 57pc are within 10 years of retiring.

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To help fill this gap young people need support from their employers. Companies should not see this as an inconvenience. Any employer would benefit from the transferable skills and training required to be a magistrate.

Much has been made of the eagerness for volunteering among today’s young people. They need to be made aware of long term opportunities like this which offer a rewarding experience, involve taking real responsibility and making a genuine impact on their communities.

Daniel Oxley - Chairman of Ukip Newham

Alex Yip, a 27-year-old magistrate, expressed his interest in recruiting more young magistrates and in having more diversity among magistrates. There is nothing wrong in him spending his time recruiting a wider range of backgrounds but if I appeared before a magistrate the last thing I would worry about would be his/her ethnicity.

He asks for the magistrates to be more representative but this is not their function, they are not politicians. The important consideration is their ability to dispense justice. The age issue is a different matter, but rather than an arbitrary age for retirement perhaps they should be regularly assessed for their competence. These attempts to recruit are often unsuccessful and then the call is for quotas.

In Ukip, there are no quotas. Everything is done on merit. Some people criticise this saying it perpetuates a dominance of white, middle-aged men, but this is not seen in Ukip. At the elections for Mayor of London and the London Assembly, the list had eleven names. Among them were young, old, male, female, gay, straight, black, Asian, white, Muslim, Christian and irreligious. Two candidates became members of the London Assembly, one gay and one black.

This was achieved without quotas. It was an even playing field.