Some 30 000 Justices of the Peace sit in a thousand or so Magistrates' Courts all over the country, and nearly 300 in Bristol alone. They are appointed by the Lord Chancellor on the recommendation of local committees consisting largely of existing magistrates. This process gives rise to the criticism - perhaps justified - that the selection procedures tend to favour the appointment of new magistrates whose views are compatible with existing members'.
Magistrates must be aged between 27 and 65 at the time of appointment (though very few in fact are under 40); they must be British, Irish or Commonwealth citizens; they must be in good health (sufficient to enable them to do the job); and they must live within or close to the area served by the court to which they are appointed. They must have satisfactory hearing, but in 1998 the Lord Chancellor appointed the first blind magistrate for over 50 years, and several other blind people have been appointed subsequently.
According to an official handout from the Lord Chancellor's Department, the key qualities sought in those applying to be magistrates are as follows:
Good character: Personal integrity - respect and trust of others - respect for confidences - absence of any matter which might bring them or the Magistracy into disrepute - willingness to be circumspect in private, working and public life.
Understanding and communication: Ability to understand documents, identify and comprehend relevant facts, and follow evidence and arguments - ability to concentrate - ability to communicate effectively.
Social awareness: Appreciation and acceptance of the rule of law - understanding of the local communities and society in general - respect for people from different ethnic, cultural or social backgrounds - experience of life beyond family, friends and work.
Maturity and sound temperament: Ability to relate to and work with others - regard for the views of others - willingness to consider advice - maturity - humanity - courage - firmness - decisiveness confidence - a sense of fairness - courtesy.
Sound judgement: Common sense - ability to think logically, weigh arguments and reach a balanced decision - openness of mind - objectivity - the recognition and setting aside of prejudices.
Commitment and reliability: Reliability - commitment to serve the community - willingness to undertake at least 26 and up to 35 half day siftings a year - willingness to undertake the required training - ability to offer requisite time - support of family and employer - sufficiently good health.
Once appointed, magistrates are expected to sit for between 26 and 35 half-days each year - about once a fortnight on average, though many do more - for a day or half a day at a time. They are not paid, but can claim out-of-pocket expenses and lost earnings if appropriate: a sizeable minority make no claim at all. The total cost to the taxpayer for magistrates' expenses and training is about £500 per magistrate per year.
Magistrates can be removed from office by the Lord Chancellor, and several are removed each year for misconduct or incompetence or (on occasion) for refusing to apply a law they think unfair or unreasonable. In 1997, for example, the Lord Chancellor instructed a Wiltshire JP not to sit again after receiving evidence of her "mooning" at a stable owner with whom she had had an argument: such conduct, he said, failed to uphold the dignity, standing and good reputation of the magistracy. If not removed, magistrates retire from active duty at or before the age of 70. About 1 per cent of magistrates a removed by the Lord Chancellor, 4 per cent die in office, 35 per cent retire, and 60 per cent resign for work or health or other personal reasons.
The Lord Chancellor seeks to ensure that each bench "broadly reflects the community which it serves" insofar as this is possible. There are several reasons for trying to ensure that the bench includes a wide representation of different groups: certainly the appearance of fairness is important, and it is understandable that many young working-class black men feel they will not get justice from a middle-aged middle-class white bench. But because magistrates are unpaid part-timers, appointment is necessarily limited to those whose other commitments allow them to give up at least one working day a month to perform their judicial duties, and the bench can never be truly typical: according to research conducted in 2000, magistrates are overwhelmingly from the professional and managerial classes, and nearly half are retired.
An individual candidate who is otherwise suitable will never be refused appointment because of his/her gender, ethnic origin, social class or (moderate) political views, but the Lord Chancellor and the advisory committees try to ensure a reasonable balance across the bench as a whole. So far as gender is concerned they are quite successful - 48½ per cent of magistrates were female at the beginning of 1999, and women outnumbered men in the new appointments for 1999-2000 - but in other respects success is coming only slowly.
Certainly magistrates are unrepresentative in terms of age: the minimum age for appointment is 27, but only 21½ per cent of those appointed in 1999-2000 were under 40 and nearly 80 per cent of sitting magistrates are over 50. Perhaps this is a good thing - longer experience of life may bring greater wisdom, and offenders might be reluctant to accept the judgement of magistrates younger than themselves - but it confirms the stereotype of magistrates as middle-aged or elderly.
A survey in 1987 showed that only 2 per cent of magistrates were black, compared with 4 per cent of the population in the age range from which magistrates are normally appointed, but by 2000 the position was considerably improved. Although there were inevitable variations between benches, the lay magistracy nationally reflected almost exactly the ethnic make-up of the population as a whole.
Another survey in 2003 showed that among magistrates declaring a particular political allegiance, Conservative supporters outnumbered Labour supporters by a ratio of 4:3 overall: only a few areas had Labour in the majority. 34 per cent of all those polled described themselves as Conservative, 26 per cent as Labour, 20 per cent as supporters of other parties and 20 per cent as uncommitted. These figures show very little change from those collected in a similar survey eight years earlier.
Research evidence suggests that the imbalance does matter. A study by Bond & Lemon in 1979 showed that while magistrates' social class had no apparent effect on their judicial behaviour, their political beliefs did influence their behaviour particularly in relation to sentencing. But anecdotally, the members of a white middle-class bench would probably regard running away from the police as a sign of guilt, whereas in some communities it is automatic behaviour learned at a very early age. Unless the magistracy is fully representative of its community, there is a real danger that magistrates with the best of intentions may do injustice through failing to understand a defendant's conduct.