Magistrate numbers are falling significantly across England and Wales, from nearly 20,000 magistrates in 2015 to just over 15,000 this year – a drop of around 25 per cent.
Dwindling magistrate numbers could have an impact on the administration of justice, an independent charity has warned.
The Magistrates Association has said that it is increasingly hearing from its members that magistrates are sitting in benches of two, rather than three, including during trials – due to shortages and magistrates needing to drop out.
Magistrates Association chief executive Jon Collins said: ’Three people will always be able to make better decisions […] These situations should not be normalised, particularly for decisions of innocence or guilt.’
Somerset, Lancashire and Shropshire have all recently reported particularly significant declines in magistrate numbers:
- In Avon and Somerset, the number of magistrates has fallen by more than 25 per cent over the past three years, higher than the national average.
- Figures from the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary show a 30 per cent drop in the number of magistrates in the Lancashire area (603 are currently sitting, compared with 860 three years ago).
- In West Mercia, there are 324 magistrates currently sitting, compared with 442 three years ago.
Law Society president Christina Blacklaws said: ‘Magistrates have to travel further, unpaid, for the privilege of sitting as a magistrate, and they lose the close connection to local justice in their home area that often attracts people to the role in the first place.
‘This particularly affects people in rural areas, those with disabilities, and lower income families.
‘Twenty years of cuts have heaped colossal pressure on the entire justice system, and those who work hard every day to ensure the rule of law is upheld.’