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Howard League blog · 19 Jan 2017

Radical overhaul of the magistracy is urgently needed

The High Court has ruled that magistrates unlawfully jailed a women for 81 days because she was unable to pay her council tax. Sam Genen and the law firm Ahmed Rahman Carr took the case.

About 100 people are imprisoned by magistrates for failing to pay council tax debts and the Centre for Criminal Appeals has found that magistrates often incorrectly conclude there is culpability rather than the inability to pay.

This case could have far-reaching implications for magistrates and should be taken very seriously.

The Howard League has been campaigning to end the use of short prison sentences by magistrates. A significant proportion of the cases dealt with by magistrates concern people who are living in extreme poverty, on the streets or who have severe mental health problems or learning difficulties. These are the people who are sent to prison.

Magistrates should be community leaders, problem solvers, people to turn to, to sort things out.

The number of lay magistrates has declined, which means that the rump remaining are pretty much all white, old and middle-class. They are no longer representative of their local communities.

The centrality of inflicting punishment corrupts the very heart of the role and functions of magistrates. It distracts and detracts from what could be a much more important and fulfilling responsibility that would restore respect and legitimacy to magistrates.

A radical overhaul of the magistracy is urgently needed. Magistrates should be community leaders, problem solvers, people to turn to, to sort things out. Let’s face them the other way, towards the community, and turn them away from the dead end of punishment.

I am sure this would encourage young people and people who are representative of local communities to join the magistracy, injecting energy and legitimacy. People would be taking on a responsible role in the community to solve problems.

We could then stop sending the poor, the annoying and the ill to prison.


  • I completely agree. Magistrates are unqualified to send anyone to prison, as a punishment, for even one second. If they remand accused, this should be reviewed by a Crown Court Judge every 7 days, (7 day rule). All magistrates must be trained and pass exams every two years to show they are competent and bang up to date. No more volunteers or nice old do-gooders. They should be paid a good salary. They should not be rewarded with suffixes like JP. It attracts the vain and pompous. They should just do their job.
    No magistrate should be allowed to imprison even if qualified under the recommendations above. They must use either restorative justice or appropriate and effective community sentences, or, when beyond their limited competence refer all cases to a crown court, or acquit. No one beyond retirement age of 65 should sit.

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