In an effort to increase diversity amongst the Judiciary, John Bache - Chairperson of the Magistrates' Association - has called for more ex-offenders to become magistrates. People who have previously been an ‘offender', can potentially help defendants to feel less alienated, understand what is happening and feel less intimidated of the court system.
This idea is not too dissimilar to what Richard Monkhouse (the then chairperson of the Magistrates' Association) said in 2013. He referred to former offenders potentially being able to bring ‘a bit of reality into the courtroom'.
Clearly a more representative set of magistrates is needed - the magistracy is predominantly white, middle-class and older.
However, there are a number of challenges associated with ex-offenders being magistrates, not least the nature of the offence (or offending history), especially if it was sexual/violent and the perception that reformed offenders are not people of integrity and good character. It is worth noting that the Ministry of Justice discourages ex-offenders applying to become magistrates if their offending was serious and prolific.
Notwithstanding these challenges, reformed offenders can potentially relate better to defendants and their often-complex circumstances. They can possibly help them to understand the often complicated legal jargon used by magistrates. As ‘experts by experience' they can offer a different perspective, be a role model, be an authentic and credible voice and show that it is possible to make a positive change. They can genuinely say ‘I know how you feel… I've been through that'.
It is particularly important that those going through the often confusing process of the Criminal Justice System understand what is happening and for vulnerable adults and children this is even more the case. Gareth Jones, board member for the Association of YOT Managers, referred to how youth offending services and others offer specialist assistance in the courtroom for children and this goes beyond simply advising of what is legally taking place. Indeed, communication and language issues are paramount within a court setting as there is the real danger that children's body language, and lack of verbal skills for example, are mistaken with potentially serious consequences on the sentencing decision.
Jones says that a lot of current magistrates and judges understand this but the idea that some may have also experienced this first hand is to be welcomed. We may then really start to move towards the idea of child first and offender second.
Sean Creaney is an advisor at social justice charity Peer Power