JUSTICE is blind, delivered without fear or favour, we are always told. Except in the recruitment of magistrates, I would argue from my own experience and a brief review of all the identity politics that now surrounds it. The news that the justice system is in crisis with the number of magistrates in England and Wales halving to 15,000 over the last decade is not the slightest surprise.
Matters have now become so dire that 15 per cent of benches are now reduced from the standard three to two magistrates, causing numerous problems on sentencing, since a split decision cannot be resolved by a casting vote. The shortage is particularly acute in family and criminal cases. But at least each depleted bench now ‘broadly reflects the community it serves in terms of gender, ethnic origin, geographical spread and occupation’.
I take this last quote from my own rejection letter. Presumably this did not mean that magistrate benches should be composed of 82 per cent ‘White British’ (as defined by the last census). Probably not. Last year Jane Garvey on BBC Woman’s Hour referred to a predominantly white London theatre audience as a ‘problem’. My own experience of the magistrates’ recruitment process is that similar thought processes can be traced back to the New Labour era.
I was greeted at my 2007 interview in south west London by an amiable cove who took no further part in the proceedings. On his left and right were two unsmiling ladies who looked at me as if I had just been dragged in by the cat. Did I do any voluntary work? one asked. Yes, I helped to run local junior cricket teams on a Sunday. What social groups took part? – a pointless question but I patiently explained that it was not my club, I just helped out in the local community. Did we play any ethnic minority teams? Yes, we did, I replied, although I could have added that I hadn’t noticed their skin colour, maybe because I was trying to do something useful like finding a lost U12 wicket-keeping glove.
But it was clear that the line of questioning was designed to start painting the middle-class, middle-aged white bloke in front of them as a narrow-minded bigot. Of course they could have asked how inclusive I had been when I ran my publishing company. But that question was never going to be asked since it might have uncovered that I had employed young and old, males and females, lesbians, gays, African and Asians. Perish the thought that they should learn that in trying to create wealth, all I cared about was getting the right person for the right job.
Then we had the astonishing question: ‘What law would I like to change?’ Poor old blindfolded Lady Justice must have fallen off her perch. I forget what I replied but I should have noted that the last time I looked the law was made by the elected Parliament and upheld by the Judiciary – even more so at the lower levels where there is little or no interpretation.
The whole thing went from bad to worse. I remember describing myself as socially inclusive and liberal but I believed people should be encouraged to stand on their own two feet. I then made the mistake of quoting Goethe along the lines that there would be a lot fewer problems in the world if everyone looked after their own families and communities. The two ladies shuddered visibly. Possibly they were contemplating all those redundancies in the public sector if such draconian measures ever came into universal effect.
I have always enjoyed the law. Lawyers and journalists don’t have a lot in common but mastering the brief and coming to a conclusion on the available evidence is one shared interest. The Wig and Pen – the wig argues a case and the pen writes the story. Applying to become a magistrate also gave me an opportunity to do voluntary work in the community.
I wasn’t the only white British male turned down as a magistrate at the time. A friend was a governor at a well-known public school. Fat chance! The election of New Labour in 1997 led many on the Left to take their chance and engage in a root-and-branch change of British society. The borders of the nation state were opened to admit millions of immigrants without any thought of the effect on local communities, new identities and of course victims popped up all over the place and a massive spending spree kept the whole party well lubricated until at least 2008. Nothing was left to chance and the public sector, along with the judiciary, was politicised in a way never seen before in British society.
If you stop recruiting from wide sections of the population to fulfil unrealistic and unnecessary discriminatory quotas, you can hardly be surprised if magistrate numbers fall by half in just a decade.
Want to recruit more to the bench in England and Wales? Try putting the blindfold back on again.