Most magistrates work unpaid and volunteer their services to use their training in the interests of justice.
However, over the past 10 years, the number of magistrates has halved to 15,000 and more than half of them are already over the age of 60.
This is causing a severe shortage in our justice system. Here’s why new legislation is urgently needed to change forced retirement at 70. The Magistrates’ Association’s recent annual meeting has decided to step up pressure on the Government to introduce legislation that will allow magistrates to stay on past age 70 if they wish to.
The most senior justices, who chair court hearings, are in particularly short supply, and although judges are also supposed to retire at age 70, they can work up to age 75 if needed.
Magistrates are not allowed to do so. Surely such arbitrary age discrimination has no place in the modern workforce.
Reduced immigration in an ageing population demands new thinking. We are reducing immigration levels and have an ageing population so we urgently need to update practices regarding employing older people.
If someone is perfectly capable of working and wishes to do so, the law should not force them to stop. Those practices may have been acceptable in the 20th century, but 21st century realities demand change.
Many people want to work into their 70s, if they are fit and healthy and enjoy what they are doing. Magistrates are unpaid and perform a hugely important social function.
Our justice system is hugely respected and valued throughout the world, and relies on unpaid magistrates to offer their time to deliver justice in our country.
It is an insult to the work ethic, public spirit and lifelong experience of our legal experts to force them to retire when they do not wish to.
Of course, they do need a proper appraisal system to assess capabilities; if they are not fit to serve then there has to be an impartial way to assess their ability, but that applies in other areas of working life and the judiciary should not be excluded.
Those who make and oversee our laws should not be discriminated against on the grounds of age. Such thinking fails to recognise all the improvements achieved in health and life expectancy, it should no longer be acceptable to discriminate against the over-70s, any more than it would be to require people to retire just because they are of a particular race, religion or gender.
It is time for new thinking about age in the workplace. The Government has recognised that people are living longer and healthier lives. Arbitrary limits, which fail to utilise all the skills and talents of our population, are damaging – both socially and economically. And in the case of magistrates, they are damaging the very fabric of our justice system, too.
If people want to work longer and can do so, don’t stop them. I hope the Government will urgently consider this matter and, especially in light of Brexit and reducing immigration, recognise the need to retain the services of our dedicated judiciary for far longer, if they want to keep performing their duties.
Ros Altmann is a Tory Peer. She is a former Pensions Minister.