This International Volunteers Day, we invited Trustee of the Magistrates’ Association, Sarah, to reflect on her time as a magistrate.
Volunteering is often seen as something that benefits the cause or organisation with whom you volunteer. The reality is the benefit is mutual. When I first applied, I never imagined being a magistrate would lead me to the opportunities I’ve found, the friendships I’ve made and a reconnection with the skills I have. I joined to use my interest and knowledge in criminal justice to give back to my local community but in truth, I’ve gained so much more than I’ve given.
Sitting at the back of my local magistrates’ court observing the hearings was one of my favourite parts of my first career as a journalist in Yorkshire. 20 years on, and fresh from a degree in criminology at the University of Leeds, I decided to apply to be a magistrate to take my place making those decisions. I was, without doubt, motivated by a desire to do something useful with my newly acquired knowledge, to contribute to the criminal justice system locally. However, legal experience or a legal degree isn’t required as you are supported by legal advisors when you become a magistrate.
Through me, the North and West Yorkshire bench has a magistrate who attends court and works with colleagues to keep the wheels of justice turning. However, at the age of 50, I have been able to develop a raft of transferable skills, rebuild my self-worth and reset my purpose.
Since working in the courts, I have learned to communicate more clearly, process complex information swiftly and work as part of an ever-changing team. I don’t mind admitting that like so many women who put their careers on hold to bring up a family, my confidence had taken a hit. Volunteering has enabled me to reconnect with the skills and interests I put away for a while. I feel seen again.
Working with students
One of those interests is in education and supporting young people who are without the parental network of their more fortunate contemporaries. Through the Magistrates’ Association, an organisation that supports those within the magistracy, I have worked in the Magistrates in the Community programme in West Yorkshire. Along with colleagues, I go into schools, colleges, and universities to support learning about the rule of law and encourage judicial careers.
There are also a lot of stereotypes attached to the magistracy. At a recent Magistrates in the Community event, I enjoyed a lively discussion on our worth and challenged some young people who thought our work was ‘boring’, ‘jobless’ or ‘not worth it’. It’s important that young people from all backgrounds see a career in law as an option, or simply gain an understanding of how the justice system affects them. It’s the message I aim to deliver in the sentencing workshops and court visits we offer. Developing a programme aimed specifically at supporting sixth-form students, and hearing from feedback that it has made a real difference in student ambition and understanding, has been incredibly rewarding.
There are, of course, difficult days. Developing friendships with colleagues to support you on those days is vital. However, those friendships also emerge on the good days and that’s a part of volunteering you don’t anticipate at the outset.
The magistracy attracts people from all different walks of life, with different lived experiences, beliefs and stories. Coming together in a retiring room to discuss the fate of another person opens your mind to those differences. The recent recruitment of younger magistrates and the push to improve our diversity means we’re now more reflective of the communities we serve.