I had always imagined that magistrates were like characters in an Ealing comedy film. They would either be blustery, red-faced, retired colonels or bluestockings like Margaret Rutherford. If anyone had told me that I would end up becoming a magistrate I would have laughed, as I did four years ago when my wife first suggested the idea.
She had seen an article in a local paper inviting people of all ages and backgrounds to apply to become Justices of the Peace. At the time my job was fairly undemanding and my wife thought that I’d find the work interesting and, more importantly, I’d be good at it. I wasn’t so sure. Wasn’t I too young to have the necessary air of gravitas? However, the more I thought about it, the more the idea appealled and after a week I applied for an application form.
The form was quite detailed, asking questions about health, political views, Masonic connections and whether my nearest and dearest had any previous convictions. I also had to select three local people who had known me for more than two years to write a reference supporting my application. I sent the form off expecting to receive a polite rejection. Several months later I was invited for an interview.
Think of the worst job interview you’ve ever had, times it by ten and you’ll get some idea of how I performed in front of the selection panel. With job interviews you can prepare, but I had no idea what sort of questions I was going to be asked beyond the most obvious ones. I sat down in front of a panel of four people who proceeded to pull me to pieces, challenging everything I said to the point where I felt completely stupid. My answers seemed banal and inadequate and I left the room with my self-esteem in tatters. It served me right, I thought, for even daring to think to I could be a magistrate. I had been put firmly in my place.
Several weeks later I was invited for a second interview. I reluctantly went, expecting another humilating hour of being cross-examined, but this time I was given a piece of paper with six hypothetical cases, with multiple choice answers about what sentence I thought appropriate. One of the cases involved a man who was beating his wife and had previously served four weeks in prison for the same offence. The obvious answer seemed more prison and longer, but would it change anything? The case notes said that the man and his wife had three children and apart from these isolated incidents of domestic violence, they were a reasonably happy family. The best outcome was to keep the family together, but only if the violence could stop. I remmbered that there were anger management courses and decided to give him a suspended six month prison sentence with compulsory attendence at one of these courses. I hoped this was the right answer.
The second interview was quite different to the first and once I realised that I wasn’t going to be subject to a humiliating interogation I began to relax. In hindsight I now realise that the purpose of the first interview was to see how I performed under pressure. I can imagine that some people would have lost their temper at the rudeness of some of the questions, or perhaps let slip some sort of prejudice. I had passed by keeping my cool and not saying anything dreadful and now I had been invited back to demonstrate whether I possessed good judgement.
I passed the second interview and a year later, I swore an oath to the Queen in front of a judge. I found the words, which date back to the medieval period, particularly moving and felt privilegd to be part of something that began nine hundred years ago.
I am now a sitting magistrate and so far I haven’t come across anyone who resembles Margaret Rutherford. My colleagues are generally older than me, many of them work in the public sector and quite a few of them are frighteningly intelligent. In my more paranoid moments I wonder if I was only accepted because they needed to fill a quota for younger people, but I hope that in time I will become a decent magistrate.
During the last two months I have dealt with a variety of cases: assault, drunk driving, arson, theft, harrassment and assaulting a police officer. Some of the people appearing in the dock have been fairly unpleasant, but many have clearly been unlucky in life and their crimes have been the result of desperation or stupidity. As a magistrate my job is to protect the public, but I also want to see offenders have an opportunity to change their lives for the better.
I sit with two other magistrates one morning a fortnight, which is the most I can do with my full-time job in bookselling. One of the three magistrates is a chairman and does all of the talking whilst the two ‘wingers’ observe and take notes. If a case is fairly straightforward we will whisper to each other and agree on a sentence immediately, but if it is complicated then we will retire and discuss the evidence until we have reached a decision. Our job is not to know the law – we have a legal adviser to do that – but to make a judgement and ensure that justice is served.
Someone once said that if you invented a legal system from scratch, you probably wouldn’t have magistrates and I agree. It’s ridiculous that 97% of all legal cases are dealt with by unqualified amateurs. What’s even stranger is how well the system works. Every now and then senior governement officials make noises about replacing the magistracy with paid professionals, but the costs would be astronomical. I feel fairly confident that even if we aren’t around for another 900 years, the Justices of the Peace still have a role to play in the 21st century.
*As a footnote to the photo of Margaret Rutherford, whilst searching for a picture of her I discovered that her father was mentally ill and bashed his own father to death with a chamber pot!