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The Magistrates’ Association on volunteer development & professionalism

Image copyright The Magistrate's Association. Used with permission.

The Magistrates’ Association on volunteer development & professionalism

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The voluntary nature of governance in schools brings with it certain topics which are, for now, guaranteed to cause more debate and diversion of opinion between those who peform the role and those who legislate and advise on it – in particular remuneration (payment for a voluntary role) and professional development (whether or not governors should be required to undertake induction and ongoing training) as a core part of the role. Before the 2015 general election this was briefly raised at the TES Hustings, where all three post-May 7th candidates for the job of Secretary of State for Education said that they were against mandatory training or CPD:

The textbook response to those who maintain that any sort of mandatory CPD would dissuade volunteers is to cite magistrates as a similar group to school governors – but a group who are expected to undergo training – both in their first year as a magistrate and on an ongoing basis during their time in the role. Magistrates are regularly referred to in the regular discussions about professionalism, professional development and payment:

Magistrates' Association logoThe Magistrates’ Assocation’s view

Malcolm Richardson JP, National Chairman of the Magistrates Association

Malcolm Richardson JP, National Chairman of the Magistrates Association

With these issues in mind Modern Governor contacted The Magistrates’ Association (MA) to find out more about the reality of what it might mean to be a professional volunteer and what volunteer development and professionalism might look like in a parallel sector. Does “professional” necessarily imply payment – and if not, what characteristics does a professional volunteer possess? This sits as a companion piece to our recent post interviewing someone who is a local councillor, magistrate and school governor.

In this post, Malcolm Richardson JP, National Chairman of the Magistrates Association, gives the MA’s view on some areas which will ring bells to any with an interest or concern around what good governance looks like in schools. Modern Governor has added emphasis to those areas which will probably chime to anyone with an interest in issues of the professionalism of and payment for school governors.

For those who don’t know, what does a magistrate do? What’s their role in British (English?) society?

Magistrates, or Justices of the Peace (JPs), are unpaid judges who deal with over 95% of criminal cases in our courts in England and Wales (Scotland has a separate system and distinct legal system).

JPs are ordinary people who sit in benches of three in magistrates’ courts, they are not legally qualified but do receive legal advice from advisers in court. They hear lower-level criminal cases carrying custodial sentences of up to six months in prison. There are approximately 19,600 magistrates which constitutes around 93% of all criminal jurisdiction judges and is larger than the standing armies of Denmark, Sweden or New Zealand!

Essentially, magistrates are as important to our criminal justice system as trial by jury, because both embody the core principle that the community should participate in the administration of justice. The office of Justice of the Peace has existed for over 650 years. Collectively, magistrates are called ‘the magistracy’ but you will also hear terms like ‘the bench’.

Image copyright The Magistrate's Association. Used with permission.

Image copyright © The Magistrates’ Association. Used with permission.

Why do individuals become magistrates?

People become magistrates for all sorts of reasons, but a recent survey carried out by the Magistrates Association shows that 65% identify ‘public service’ as a core reason. Because magistrates are so incredibly varied in their backgrounds, occupations and so on, the reasons for applying are just as varied.

Is it a completely voluntary role? How does any funding or payment work?

Magistrates give their time freely and are unpaid. Regulated expenses can be claimed for travel and subsistence costs, however many magistrates do not claim anything at all.

What professional development are they expected to undertake? Who monitors this?

Training is provided by the Judicial College, which is an arm of the Judiciary of England and Wales. After magistrates are appointed they attend mandatory training before they start sitting in court. For example they are trained on how the court operates and how to use the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines, the tightly controlled rulebook for how JPs sentence offenders for each offence and what they may take into consideration in doing so.

The Magistrates Association works closely with the Judicial College to help provide training for JPs, promoting quality in training nationally and innovating courses and learning materials. But resources are tight and we believe more can be done by central government to support magistrates in their work.

Some magistrates take on additional roles inside and outside of the courtroom. For example, some JPs can become the chairman of the bench (sitting in the middle of the bench in court, directing and chairing court proceedings). Others will become bench chairmen or deputy bench chairmen, involved with the administration of the work of magistrates’ courts in their local area. The use of bench can be confusing, we know!

It is important to note that magistrates adjudicate on the facts of the cases before them, not points of law. As such, training is geared towards this end.

How is their effectiveness measured – and what happens if they’re not effective?

Bench chairmen have a pastoral role in looking after JPs in their area and magistrates have regular appraisals. If there are serious complaints about JPs these are dealt with by the bench chairmen and the Local Advisory Committee, this body reports to the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice on the appointment and discipline of magistrates.

Image copyright © The Magistrate's Association. Used with permission.

Image copyright © The Magistrates’ Association. Used with permission.

What challenges are there around the recruitment, retention and development of magistrates?

Magistrates are the most diverse party of the judiciary, in terms of ethnicity, background and gender. However, the magistracy faces difficulties in recruiting younger people to join, particularly those of working age. Recruitment has slowed down massively over the last eight years or so, leading to a ‘drag’ in increasing the diversity of JPs as quickly as it could be. The Magistrates Association is pushing for measures to make it easier for employers to release potential magistrates into the role, thus opening it up to a broader range of people.

In terms of retaining magistrates, they have to retire from sitting in court at the age of 70, with no exceptions. Otherwise, individual magistrates may leave the bench for a variety of reasons, including changes in circumstances or moving out of the area, etc. Retired magistrates have the option of going onto what is called the ‘supplemental list’. This means that they are still technically Justices of the Peace, with the right to hold the letters JP after their name, but cannot sit in court.

Could the justice system operate effectively if magistrates weren’t trained?

The system benefits enormously from magistrates’ skills, knowledge and experience from ordinary life as well as these when refined through training for their judicial duties. We would not like to see a justice system in which no training was provided, this is why we want more support from central government for the Judicial College in its training functions.

How is a magistrate’s ‘professionalism’ expressed – in their conduct, expectations on them, and the environment in which they operate?

In short, in many ways. Magistrates administer law in their communities with the strict impartiality as required by their judicial oath. As such JPs are expected to represent and uphold the dignity of the legal system and of the court. Specifically, the Ministry of Justice defines the key qualities of all magistrates as: good character and personal integrity; understanding and communication; social awareness; maturity and sound temperament; sound judgement; and commitment and reliability. These are the attributes expected of magistrates.

What effect would paying magistrates for their work have on the justice system? Would it make being a magistrate more or less ‘professional’?

It is difficult to say because it has not happened before. But it is important to remember that it is the unpaid nature of the work of magistrates which sets itself apart from the rest of the ‘professional’ legal world, similar to trial by jury. Being a magistrate is not an occupation, it is a form of public service for which no payment is made, and whilst JPs are professional they are not a part of a profession. We see this as critical to the characteristics and unique position of the magistracy. We do not envisage magistrates being paid for their work in the future and it is not something we would make the case for.

What can’t magistrates do – what are the limits of their power and responsibilities?

Magistrates are tightly governed in their sentencing powers by the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines, referred to earlier. This places a limit on the level of financial impositions JPs can make (fines, charges etc.) and also the length of prison sentences, currently set at a maximum of six months. We are pushing for existing legislation to be enacted which would extend this to 12 months sentencing. As previously mentioned, magistrates on the supplemental list cannot sit in court but can sign certain documents and warrants.

In the justice system, who do magistrates work with who are paid for their work? Does the difference in the paid/unpaid nature of these roles cause any tension?

Magistrates deal with a whole host of agencies in the criminal justice system who are paid, from their legal advisers, clerks, HM Courts and Tribunals Service staff to probation officers, the police, social services, court interpreters to name a few.. There are a limited number of District Judges sitting alone in magistrates’ courts, they are salaried and legally qualified.

We do not observe tensions between those in paid and unpaid roles because magistrates are not paid and never have been. Therefore, when they apply to become JPs they’ve signed up to an unpaid role. If you want to get paid for public service, we would advise you not to become a magistrate!

Magistrates are often cited as a group who are similar to school governors in the voluntary nature and scope of their role within their communities. What do magistrates who have also been school governors cite as the main differences between the roles?

Our members have a tremendous variety of additional public service to their names, including school governorships, being local councillors, prison visitors, etc. All the roles are different, but there are no doubt valuable transferrable skills across them. Magistrates are highly skilled decision-makers, as such a range of skills accompany that. Given that school governing bodies are strategic decision-makers, we see this is a key area for skills transfer.


Questions for governing boards

  • What is our collective understanding of ‘professionalism’ as it relates to a governor’s role?
  • Even though the Secretary of State for Education might not think that we need to develop professionally, have we made it mandatory among ourselves to improve and develop?
  • Have we discussed – either formally or informally – how we would react to some or all of us being paid for our voluntary roles?
  • Looking at the Magsitrates’ Association’s detail of training in the first year and ongoing training and development  – how could we mandate something locally to enhance our professionalism?

All images copyright © The Magistrates’ Association. Used with permission.


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  • Elizabeth Bohill
    Posted at 20:09h, 18 March Reply

    I am both a Magistrate and a school governor. I enjoy both of these roles and also find they compliment each other. As a Youth Panel member I have worked with the local Youth Offending Team (YOT) both in school and in court.

    I am currently Chair of Governors of an inner city secondary school in the North East and am a Deputy Bench Chair of a combined Bench covering four hearing centres.

    It is my strongly held belief that neither roles should be paid. It’s not why we do it and offering payments may attract the wrong people. Although I can accept the argument that some people would like to become involved but cannot afford to give their time without remuneration.

    As Chair of Governors I spend many hours in school, this is my choice and I’m aware it’s a time commitment that many other governors cannot offer. I don’t however believe it’s appropriate to consider paying chairs, either ALL governors are paid or none, it would be divisive and could appear to some as the beginning of two tier governance. With those who are paid having a senior role, which would be both unfair and against the principles of governance.

    An additional consideration in these austere times, where would the money come from? The hard pressed budgets of our schools? Forcing difficult decisions on the Finance committee- governors or teachers? Or will the government pick up governor salaries by making cuts elsewhere? It’s a Pandora’s Box best left closed.

    What I do believe is that training for governors, particularly those who do not come from an education background should be mandatory. There are ever increasing expectations of governors. Who are expected to support and challenge school staff, have a strategic role in the schools direction and drive up achievements and best outcomes for our students. To do this I believe good quality, mandatory training is essential. Far more necessary than salary.

    Governance is effectively a limiting judgement, as Leadership and Management cannot be judged GOOD or better, unless governance is as well, therefore governors owe it to their schools to engage with training to equip them to fulfil their role professionally and competently.

    As a magistrate I was comprehensively trained before entering court for the first time, after that I was regularly appraised and undertook regular additional training. I also access all training available from Governor Services, but this is frequently cancelled due to poor take up. In both of my roles I perform vitally important work, potentially impacting of lives of pupils and other members of the public the but only one of these roles requires mandatory training- this is wrong.

    Last year my governing board underwent an External Review of Governance including a 360 degree review of my role as chair. We found this invaluable as a learning tool and has allowed us to identify weaknesses and therefore increase our skills to assist us on our quest for Outstanding.

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