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'We need more black people in magistrates court roles'

DUTY: Magistrates Orin Miller and Yvonne Dixon, who believes black people can only change the system by being part of it

THE STARK lack of people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities at senior levels in our criminal justice system has led two experienced magistrates, Jacqueline Macdonald-Davis and Jessica Baldwin, to try and improve the ethnic diversity of the bench.

As members of the London magistrates’ advisory committee, they are spearheading the effort to encourage BAME people to become magistrates who will sit for at least 13 days a year in one of the capital’s 23 magistrates courts. There are vacancies for 350 new magistrates for courts in London. But Baldwin and Macdonald-Davis say their initiative is crucial to ensure that the people taking up these new roles challenge the narrow class and professional backgrounds from which the magistracy is currently drawn.

Baldwin told The Voice: “This is a great opportunity for those in our community to change the system from within. The views and opinions of a new magistrate are given the same weight as one with many years of experience.

She continued: “We need magistrates to be much more representative of the communities they serve if BAME communities are going to have trust in the criminal justice system.

“It’s no surprise that there is a trust deficit. If you’re a young black man coming into a courtroom and the three magistrates are white, middle-aged women you might not have a lot of confidence that you will be judged fairly.”


Macdonald-Davis, who has been a magistrate in central London for more than 10 years and works in health education, agrees. She said: “I appreciate the assumed challenges purported to be faced by some members of the BAME community at the hands of the police and possibly the judicial system.

“However the question I would ask, to quote my father, is what can we do about it?

‘’My father would allow us (his daughters) to express our views and frustrations and would then say ‘OK, now that you’ve got that off your chest, if you don’t like something then do something about it?’

Macdonald-Davis added: “This campaign is an opportunity for people from the BAME community to do something, basically, get involved.”

It’s often been said that the African Caribbean community has low levels of trust and confidence in the criminal justice system and there is a widespread perception that it doesn’t operate on a level playing field. This was one of the central themes of the recent Lammy Review by Tottenham MP David Lammy, (pictured below), which examined racial disparities in the criminal justice

CONCERNED: David Lammy

The report found that black men convicted in Magistrates’ Courts were shown to be more than twice as likely as white men to receive custodial sentences. People from BAME communities are also over-represented at almost all stages of the criminal justice system but those who pass judgement on them are often older and whiter than their peers.

The Labour MP had recommended a national target as a key step to increasing diversity in the judiciary. The call followed concerns which were expressed by Lord Thomas, the lord chief justice, after official figures showed that the proportion of BAM
judges had risen by just one percentage point in the three years to April 2017.

Prior to the publication of the Lammy Review, reform group Justice was also highly critical of the slow progress made towards selecting judges and magistrates who reflect the UK’s ethnic, gender and social composition. That failure, it says, has become “a serious constitutional issue”.

It said that the senior judiciary is dominated by privately educated white men and may need “targets with teeth” – if not quotas – to improve diversity on the bench. In his review, Lammy said: “The Government should set a clear, national target to achieve a representative judiciary and magistracy by 2025. It should then report to Parliament with progress against this target biennially.”

He added: “I found that the lack of diversity within our judiciary and magistracy has a significant effect on the trust deficit that I found in Britain’s BAME communities in relation to how the justice system is perceived. My review demonstrated the lack of progress over the last decade in improving diversity among the judges that sit in our courts, and I am clear that more of the same will not work”.

Currently BAME individuals make up only seven per cent of judges and 11 per cent of magistrates, despite forming 14 per cent of the UK population. Lammy’s report has made a difference, with a number of other recommendations made in his review published last year being adopted, including proposals to increase the number of BAME people in senior roles in prisons. However, the Government declined to set targets for recruiting more BAME judges and magistrates. Despite the Government’s
position on the issue, Baldwin and Macdonald-Davis have a strong belief that their tireless campaign can help improve things.

If you are between 18 and 65 you can apply to be a magistrate. There’s a rigorous selection process, but you don’t have to be a lawyer, you don’t even have to have a degree. A criminal record doesn’t rule someone out, either – as long as the offence wasn’t too serious and not recently committed. Magistrates or Justices of the Peace sit as a bench of three, that way if there’s a split
decision the majority rules. The work in courts is varied: magistrates hear trials, sentence defendants who are found guilty or plead guilty, grant or deny search warrants and decide on bail applications, among other things.


Typical cases heard in magistrates courts include minor assaults, pick-pocketing, shoplifting and motoring offences. Sentences can range from an absolute discharge to six months imprisonment for a single offence or up to 12 months in total. Magistrates witness more than 95 per cent of all criminal cases that come before the courts and they have the power to put people in prison.

“That’s a lot of responsibility, especially for someone who doesn’t have to have any formal qualifications,” said Baldwin.

“New magistrates are trained to decide cases without regard to colour, creed or gender. But if the system is to remain robust, those coming to court and the wider public must be confident that it is working fairly.

“London’s community is changing, so it is especially important that we attract the broadest possible range of applicants to deliver our justice.’’

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