This is a source of both frustration and hope for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for the simple reason that there is undoubtedly an untapped pool of brilliant and potentially community-changing magistrates out there primed to do their bit. The MoJ just needs to find them.
Being a magistrate is fascinating. Ordinary people who hear court cases in their community, magistrates sit in on a wide variety of cases – from parking fines to manslaughter - listen to evidence, and follow case law to reach fair decisions with assistance from legal advisers on-hand to help.
It’s a crucial and hugely interesting judicial role which can be carried out by anyone between the ages of 18 and 70 (provided you have no serious past criminal convictions). The main issue is unfamiliarity: once the role and accessibility is explained, 43% of people are interested in taking it up.
In the mid-2010s, Chorley-born Fiona Gilbert was living in Blackpool. As a mother to her two children, she wanted to set a good example and, having always cultivated a fascination with crime docs and courtroom dramas, she found the idea of becoming a magistrate intriguing.
“I have huge faith in the justice system, so to be a part of it was something I had a real interest in,” explains Fiona, 39. “My children were local and I was a governor at both their schools, so I had a strong sense of community. I wanted to be part of something bigger.
“I’d also wanted to be a police officer when I was younger too, so there had always been that interest in law and the justice system,” adds Fiona. “I felt like it was a good time in my life to do something about that.”
Pursuing her sense of intrigue, Fiona started to speak to various people to get more information, one of whom was her neighbour, himself a magistrate. He encouraged her to go along to court and sit in to see how the whole thing felt before making a decision on whether to go for it.
“As soon as I went into the courtroom, I got this sense… I don’t know how to describe it,” says Fiona. “It was this weird feeling of almost stepping into one of the docs I’d watched - it fascinated me and I had this immediate sense of awe.
“I could feel I was in a special and important place,” she adds. “And I still feel like that every time I walk into court - it never leaves you. The minute I walked in and the first case got started, I remember knowing for a fact I was going to apply to become a magistrate.
“There was this instant sense of belonging; I even had an immediate fear thinking ‘what if I don’t get it?’” Fiona continues. “It was something I wanted to do because I knew I’d be good at it, that I’d enjoy it, and that I could add real value to it as a person.”
That sense of belonging was justified: Fiona became a magistrate in 2016 and hasn’t looked back since.
“It was everything I’d expected and then some, genuinely,” says Fiona of her early experiences in the role. “No two days or cases are ever the same and it’s taught me loads - I always knew there were two sides to every story, and nowhere do you appreciate that more than in a magistrates’ court.
“Naively, I probably thought it’d be very low-end criminal cases, but around 98% of all criminal cases start in a magistrates court,” she adds. “I probably wasn’t expecting to have really serious and sometimes devastating crimes come through - things like manslaughter and fraud.
"Of course, you sometimes see the worst of people,” explains Fiona, who adds that the skills she has picked up as a magistrate have also helped her in her career in the civil service as Head of Capability for Taskforce and Specialist Compliance at HMRC. “But you also see the best of them, too.
"Seeing how victims turn their lives around really restores your faith in humanity. It’s a nice reminder that courts aren’t all about doom and gloom. I’m in court tomorrow and, while it sounds strange to say ‘I’m looking forward to being in court’ because I’d obviously rather that the crime hadn’t happened to the victims, I still love the work as much as I did in my first year.
"The work has given me so much confidence, too.”
Keen to find as many Fionas as they can, the MoJ is currently on the largest recruitment drive in its 650-year-old history, seeking to boost the number of UK magistrates by 4,000 in an attempt to tackle the ever-growing backlog of criminal cases caused by the crippling austerity policies of the past 12 years and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Having recently launched a £1m national recruitment drive, the ministry is aiming to increase their workforce by a third in total – a huge undertaking. But one of their main tactics is to tackle misconceptions about being a magistrate, pointing out that the role is part-time, can be fit around other commitments, and doesn’t require a law degree.
It’s hoped that such demystifying efforts will also increase the diversity of the bench, making magistrates more representative of the communities they serve as currently, just 5.9% of North West magistrates are under 40 and just 9% are from Black, Asian, or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
“We want to appeal to people who think ‘it’s not for me’ because they’re unemployed or because they’re a parent to young children or because they never went to college,” says Fiona. “None of those things are barriers - I never got a degree and I’m a full-time working mother of two children, one of whom has special needs.
“To anyone considering becoming a magistrate, I’d say that we need our magistrates to represent the communities which they serve, so we need a diverse bench,” says Fiona. “People that bring different lived experiences and perspectives are crucial.”
In Lancashire specifically, there is a particular need for magistrates to apply to volunteer in the family court, which allows people to make a tangible difference to the local community whilst improving the lives of local children and families’ futures.
Such a role involves making decisions on childcare arrangements for separated parents who cannot agree on matters independently, enforcing child maintenance orders, and helping prevent domestic abuse with the support, advice, and training to handle such cases effectively provided by the MoJ.
"If you’re questioning whether you could do it, go and sit in a magistrates court and think again, because to serve our communities better, we need a more diverse bench,” says Fiona. “You can make it work because you’re so supported and it’s so important that we have people from different demographics.
“We’ve got to start to spread the load and make sure the bench reflects the people we actually see in court,” she adds. “And, the more people we have who can represent different groups of people, the stronger the judiciary gets.”
Visit icanbeamagistrate.co.uk for more information on the role of a magistrate and information on how to apply.