Every criminal case starts in a magistrates’ court, and most end there. Last year, the 14,000 magistrates of England & Wales dealt with almost 1.4 million cases.
But, what exactly does a magistrate do, who are they, and how are they recruited and trained? Are they out-of-touch and unrepresentative, or still fit for purpose with a role to play in today’s increasingly sophisticated and complex judicial system?
The Secret Magistrate takes the reader on an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes tour of a year in the life of an inner-city magistrate. Chapters cover a variety of cases including the disqualified driver who drove away from court, the Sunbed Pervert, and Fifi the Attack Chihuahua.
The book was written in part as a rebuttal to the The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's Broken which rather rubbished magistrates. It was the same sort of book - this is what a magistrate (or barrister) is and does and how they train, this is a bit of history, here are a lot of cases and what we did, and a lot of criticism of the government and underfunding. Sometimes I really wish for a half-star system. It was better than a 'this was an ok book' 3 star but not really a 'I really liked this' 4 star.
The main criticism of the magistrates system which is very ancient and is supposedly being judged by your peers, is that would only be true if you were an older middle-class white person. The author's solution is to get much more young people involved and to persuade their employees to let them have (paid) time off to do the training and sit as magistrates. That's not going to happen.
If you don't pay people and want their time and you set a high bar for entry you are mostly going to get well-educated people with their own companies, retired or women who do not work. (The author got a bit sniffy about the gender imbalance of 56% women. Well sah, let's talk about gender imbalance in just about every single profession and industry, rather than getting sniffy about 6% more women here). In London at least, 29% of the magistrates are BAME but they are still going to be the same middleclass well-educated etc as who else can afford all that time off work?
The author keeps making the point that even if they (they sit, usually in a bench of three) don't agree with the law, they still have to stick to it and to the prescribed penalties. It was a bit different when my father was a magistrate, then penalties varied wildly across towns and counties (I suspect they still do), and my father used to fine kids caught with cannabis £10 and question the police as to how many major crimes they hadn't cleared up, how much time and public money they were spending on prosecuting kids instead? Apparently you can't do that anymore!
The author does make the point that vast numbers of the people who appear before the magistrates with non-inictable offences (non-felonies), were inadequate, mentally-challenged, mentally-ill, very poor or had housing, family or other social issues. In other words, there weren't very many of their peers appearing before them. (Since prison has quite a lot of white middle-class prisoners, one must assume that they were up to much worse no good and were immediately sent to the Crown Court!)
The magistrates, says the author, do try and get help for the people, do discuss rehabilitation as much as punishment and the safety of the public. However, no matter how affordable the fine, the government (every one, of every stripe) has added on so many surcharges and costs that the fine is the least part of it. They make great use of community service, without ever once saying what service they would be doing, but I think more could be made of curfews, 'weekend prisons', courses they didn't have to pay for being completed with weekly or more often attendance.
Prison should be the last resort. It's a drain on the taxpayer, looks terrible on a cv, punishes the entire family and he, it is usually a he, will find it very difficult to get a job thereafter and might even recruit him into more crime and criminal knowledge whilst in prison.
It's not a bad book, it gets a bit boring because the cases are so mundane and there are so many cliches in the writing of it. My father would have probably enjoyed it. While my mother and brother went to bed, he and I would have sat up and talked about it till 4 in the morning, as we often did sitting reading and talking about books. I miss my father. ____________________
Notes on reading the book My father was a magistrate, chair of the Bench. He had very little faith in the honesty of the police, he thought they were more concerned about a good arrest and conviction record than honesty and justice. He enjoyed himself thoroughly being on the side of the little man, as he thought in general, no-one else was.
We were quite comfortable, lived well and you might have thought were absolute examples of the white middle-class. But that's not how my father felt. When I got to 18 and had to fill in the Census, I said I didn't feel comfortable ticking 'White'. Yes we are white-skinned, but we are also Jewish, and Jewish people are only politically 'White' when a country's government decides we are. To the Nazis we were more akin to rats, vermin, than even humans. it's not the only country and it's not historical either, it's the present too. He said he never did, always ticked 'Other'. 'Other' meant sympathy with those not part of the Establishment either. Being a Magistrate was just one of his ways of trying to redress the balance.
(Same review as I left on Amazon) As with other reviewers, I have already read The Secret Barrister and found their attitude towards magistrates and the CPS as arrogant, insulting and rude. Whoever this person is seems to wallow in the belief they are the only qualified person and the only one worth listening to.
This being an example of text from their site:
If there is one positive to be derived from the Criminal Courts Charge (about which see here), it is that the creeping media attention is starting to shine a low-wattage torch on the grubby underside of the criminal justice system – the magistrates’ courts. Enormous credit must be extended to Frances Crook and colleagues at…
With this in mind, I noticed on Twitter that there was now a Secret Magistrate and a book of the same name so I bought it out of curiosity. Rightly so, this magistrate started their book by responding to the slating given by the SB.
It would be a lie if I as a member of public had experienced a magistrates’ court as a layperson or criminal as I have not but I have in my line of work. Prosecutors struggle with workloads, last minute cases, piles of them too. The defence I deal with are always prepared, usually have one case to deal with and many more advantages to boot.
The magistrates are obviously going to see the prosecutor as ‘ill prepared’ and as expected, the book indicates this is indeed the case. However, this book has also given an insight to much more than this and thankfully, magistrates do see the situation for what it is. It is grossly unfair to say that they are ‘naive and out of touch’ or ‘being unrepresentative of those they judge’ as the SB states. They see the reality of cuts, under-resourcing, poor IT and so on.
The book goes through a large number of cases, individually, and in enough detail to give an indication of the diversity of work they have to undertake, the decision making based on guidelines that need a translator to dissect, plus the number of constant changes they have to keep up with including costs etc. This is something other professionals probably had no idea about as it is often assumed there is a pro-forma already prepared on their computers to work the figures out.
People also do not realise; this is all voluntary.
They have to dedicate days for court attendance, days for training and other commitments so how on earth could someone in full-time employment dedicate any time to this whether self-employed or not? It is therefore inevitable that most magistrates are those who have retired. In my mind, what of it? At least they have seen, experienced and educated themselves with the university of life.
The training may be ‘inadequate’ as SB also keenly points out but is that the fault of the magistrate? This book would say to me, no, absolutely it is not. Also in their defence, I think judging (excuse the pun) by the book’s attention to explain decision making in each case and guidance by peers and legal advisors, they do a pretty good considering they have had so little training.
One thing that struck me is their absolute fairness. Before reading the book, this was going to be my criticism of magistrates that they come across as being too fair at times, borderline lenient. Their motto … ‘fear and favour’ is always in my mind when defendants manage to avoid conviction after a lot of work has been put into a case by police officers but if all magistrates are similar in attitude to this writer, then I can now see the limitations they are bound by.
Towards the end the writer does ask a question and in doing so consults a legal advisor too about the leniency shown towards knife crime for offenders who have no previous history and of good character. The question was whether they had in fact been too lenient. The writer then leaves the court and walks down the road looking back at the building wondering about its future. I was almost expecting the line to be that this magistrate was walking down the road ‘in fear of meeting someone wielding a knife’!
Ultimately, this is a well written book, it is a fair and detailed explanation of the role of magistrates, their frustrations and limitations. Has the book changed my opinion of magistrates, yes it has. Not just because I would happily disagree with the SB anyway who I consider a pompous a.s but because the book has given us all an insight that we never had before. The word ‘insight’ has been used a lot in reviews and comments on this book so doesn’t that tell us something, that until now, a magistrate was a bit of a mystery?
If I knew this Secret Magistrate, I would thank them for the book and for what they do but as I cannot, I will be buying a copy or two for my legal colleagues in the hope their attitudes to magistrates will change, as has mine. To you SM, thank you.
The Secret Barrister heavily criticised magistrates in his recent book about the Criminal Justice System suggesting that many of them were not really qualified or up to the job. Strong words indeed. So here come the riposte. An anonymous inner-city magistrate has provided an account of their year on the bench, explaining what the role entails and the difficulties and challenges that they face every day in court.
It is fascinating stuff and provides a completely different picture to that painted by The Secret Barrister.
So who is correct? I suspect the truth lies somewhere between the two but this is well worth a read by anyone interested in becoming a magistrate as it is deeply supportive of the magistracy and provides an open and honest account of the job and how important and satisfying it can be.
I highly recommend this book which is written with wit, knowledge and incision and is packed full of interesting and amusing anonymised stories and anecdotes.
I saw this pop up after reading The Secret Barristers books. Having an interest in law, it piqued my interest.
I think it was an interesting read and to hear the views of a magistrate, but I did feel it tried too hard to be well written and thought provoking. It should have been much more condensed and concise to make it more original. To me, it was trying to be written like the Secret Barrister.
The writer is clearly very knowledgeable and has a passion for their role: it did make me think I should consider becoming a magistrate myself! This comes across strongly and what made me keep reading, but unfortunately there were stories that then lead into random tid bits about the different bits of law that lost its thread.
It was an interesting read, but I wouldn't be in any rush to read any follow up.
I thought this would be a cheap rip-off of THE SECRET BARRISTER, looking at the role of magistrates and their court. I was wrong! This is every bit the equal of the book which inspired it, and it serves as a fitting rebuke to some of the generalisations made in that. I actually found it marginally easier to read and more entertaining than BARRISTER, although that's due in part to the cases being more straightforward and open and shut here. The real-life stories are what makes this zing, but the musing and the narrator's character are strong additions to the narrative too.
Every criminal case begins in a Magistrates court and most will end there...
'The Secret Magistrate' is an eye opening, slightly depressing account of how the Criminal Justice System is drowning due to a lack of funding, an increasing backlog of cases waiting to be heard and a decrease in magistrates volunteering for this onerous duty.