Courts could face perfect storm unless retirement age is raised for Magistrates - Edward Timpson

There are calls for the retirement age of magistrates to increase from 70 to 75.There are calls for the retirement age of magistrates to increase from 70 to 75.
There are calls for the retirement age of magistrates to increase from 70 to 75.
Edward Timpson’s Magistrates (Retirement Age) Bill would raise the retirement age from 70 to 75. This is an edited version.

MAGISTRATES, or justices of the peace, are ordinary people hearing cases in court in their community, and have been a fundamental feature of our judicial system since 1361.

They continue to be chosen from people of good character, commitment, social awareness and reliability – those who can communicate effectively and are capable of making sound choices when sitting in judgment on their peers.

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However, the constant reliable recruitment and retention of our magistracy across England and Wales is under serious strain.

Should the retirement age for magistrates be raised from 70 to 75?Should the retirement age for magistrates be raised from 70 to 75?
Should the retirement age for magistrates be raised from 70 to 75?

The number of magistrates has decreased dramatically over the last decade or so, from about 30,000 to less than 13,000, with the number actually sitting thought to be substantially lower.

That has had a profound impact on the case backlog, which is now up to nearly half a million in the magistrates courts; on delays, and even on the way justice is delivered.

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For example, during 2017-18 there were benches of just two magistrates, including for some trials, in nearly 40,000 court sessions – 15 per cent of the total. Inevitably, Covid-19 has exacerbated the problem and catalysed the urgency of action, with recruitment and training on hold.

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To illustrate this, Paul Brearley JP, chairman of the Greater Manchester branch of the Magistrates Association, provided me with details of how the current shortage of magistrates is affecting what is the largest single bench in England and Wales. At its creation in 2014, the bench size was approximately 1,100. As of 24 June this year, the number stood at 792.

From this figure should be deducted 188 justices who are currently on Covid-19-related leave of absence and 47 justices appointed but not yet sworn in, leaving just over 550, or about half of the original number, in active service. Sadly, it is the same story across the country, as other examples I have received from the chairs of the West Yorkshire, north-west Wales and Herefordshire benches bear testament.

As we emerge from lockdown, the pressure on our court system has never been greater, and with more police officers on our streets and additional resources for the Crown Prosecution Service, we can expect even more cases, requiring even more capacity.

The measures introduced by the Ministry of Justice to tackle the delays are welcome, including extending court hours and widening the use of technology where appropriate. Yet much of this will still rely on the human resources – otherwise known as people – working in our courts to meet ever-growing demand.

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However nearly 7,500 magistrates – more than half of all current magistrates – will reach the age of 70 in the next decade, and, under current legislation, will be forced to retire.

Losing these magistrates at 70 is a triple whammy. First, they are often the most experienced. Secondly, they represent a high proportion of presiding justices – those in the court chairs – in this group. Thirdly, they are likely to be retired from work and so more able to accept extra sittings, including at short notice.

Paulette Huntington JP, chair of the West Yorkshire branch, tells me that her magistrates who have retired at age 70 generally tend to be high sitters as they have more time to give.

In contrast, it is proving difficult to entice those with work and family commitments to the bench, with fewer employers seemingly content or in a position to sanction regular absences.​

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It need not be this way. Jurors are now selected up to the age of 75, doubtless to enable justice to be delivered by people with wide experience of life. The head of the Supreme Court is aged 75, so why should magistrates be deemed incompetent simply because they have hit an arbitrary age?

There are other sound reasons to apply such logic. First, people live longer. The current retirement age of 70 was set in 1968, when life expectancy was just 72, and it is now nearly 81. Secondly, people work longer. Thirdly, people retire later. As they say, 70 is the new 50.

As John Bache JP, chairman of the Magistrates Association, told me: “We are rapidly heading for the perfect storm in the magistrates’ court. The backlog is increasing while the number of magistrates continues to fall, yet we are discarding those magistrates most able and willing to address this crisis.”

Edward Timpson is a Conservative MP and barrister.

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

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