Could you have what it takes to be a magistrate?

Berinder Bassral knows all about dealing with the public. As the owner of a convenience store, he is a familiar face behind the counter for people stocking up on their baked beans or getting that last-minute bottle of wine for a dinner party.

WITH STORY:  155 young people from across the area took part in the Magistrates' Court mock trial competition at Telford Magistrates Court on Saturday. The Telford heat hosted 10 schools and feature 80 magistrates assisting during the day. The pupils made up the defence and prosecution teams as well as sitting on the bench. General view of one of the five courts in session.  PIC BY ANDY CUNNINGHAM: 10/3/12.
WITH STORY: 155 young people from across the area took part in the Magistrates' Court mock trial competition at Telford Magistrates Court on Saturday. The Telford heat hosted 10 schools and feature 80 magistrates assisting during the day. The pupils made up the defence and prosecution teams as well as sitting on the bench. General view of one of the five courts in session. PIC BY ANDY CUNNINGHAM: 10/3/12.

But when he is not serving tinned food and groceries, the 59-year-old is serving justice in the courtrooms of the Black Country, where he has been a JP for the past six years.

“I became a magistrate to make a difference in the area I live in and, as a parent, to be a good role model to my children," says the shopkeeper from West Bromwich.

Mr Bassral says he was approached by a friend about becoming a magistrate some years earlier, but initially thought he would not have the time.

"I often thought where do these people come from, how are they recruited, and the answer is they are a cross-section of the community," he says.

"They might be the people you are working with, only you don't know who they are."

"It's a similar thing with criminals, I often used to think 'who are they?' They are a cross-section of the community too."

Berinda Bassral

Mr Bassral, who serves at courts in Dudley, Wolverhampton and Walsall, says there is a perception that magistrates are trigger happy when it comes to sending defendants to jail.

"They are not, if anything they are the opposite, we will try to assist and rehabilitate them where we can," he says, adding that one of the most rewarding parts of the job is when he is able to help somebody turn away from a life of crime, being it helping them to overcome addictions or addressing other problems in their lives.

At the same time, he says one must never forget that every crime has a victim, and it is his duty to ensure they receive justice.

"The most rewarding thing about being a magistrate is knowing that you have made a positive change in an individual's life and being able to assure a victim that justice has been done in accordance with the law. No two days are the same," he adds.

He says magistrates do not need any legal experience, just a fair and open mind, adding that the training is very comprehensive.

The Ministry of Justice is hoping that more people will follow his example, and offer their service to the court system.

The number of lay justices in England and Wales has fallen by 48 per cent in less than a decade, from 25,170 in 2012 to 13,177 in 2020. The Government is spending £1 million on a drive to recruit 4,000 new magistrates, to increase both the numbers and diversity of those on the bench.

It represents the largest recruitment effort in the 650-year history of then magistracy, increasing the number of JPs by about a third. The new recruits are much needed to help clear the backlog of criminal cases caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The ministry also recently doubled the sentencing powers of magistrates, so they can issue penalties of up to two years in jail rather than one, in an attempt to reduce the number of cases being sent to crown court.

The Ministry of Justice says it is also keen to tackle misconceptions about magistrates and increase interest in the role, both in the West Midlands and beyond. A study found that when first asked if they were interested in becoming magistrates, just 28 per cent of people in the West Midlands expressed an interest. But when told more about what the role involved, interest rose to 41 per cent.

The research also found a number of misconceptions about the role, with more than a third thinking it is a full-time role, nearly four in 10 unsure about whether they would be eligible and nearly a quarter believing they would need a law degree.

"Most people can become a magistrate, from ambulance drivers, to mechanics, to personal trainers," says a spokesman.

"Each day magistrates across England and Wales make life-changing decisions in cases as varied as fraud and sexual assault. The work is voluntar, with individuals expected to dedicate a minimum of 13 days a year service, meaning many magistrates often fulfil this crucial role easily alongside full-time employment and caring responsibilities."

The new campaign aims to attract people from a wide range of backgrounds – from teachers to bricklayers, to stay-at-home mothers, and any individuals who can display reason and sound judgement.

While a majority of magistrates in the West Midlands – 56 per cent– are women, only 15.5 per cent are from an ethnic minority background, and just 7.7 per cent under the age of 39. The ministry says it is seeking to attract a younger wave of volunteers from more diverse backgrounds.

Magistrate Pam Sheema

Pam Sheemar, from Walsall, works for NatWest bank. Like Mr Bassral, she has been a magistrate for six years, and says she decided to volunteer as she felt it important the court system reflects the communities and people it serves.

"I have never looked back after six years of service and would encourage anyone who wants to support their community, to get involved," she says.

"You don’t need any particular qualifications and you get so much back. You create positive change for your local community, while learning new skills and enjoying new challenges.

"It’s a chance to represent your community, take action for good, and help to ensure fair hearings and justice for all."

Business consultant Clare Roberts Malloy, from Wolverhampton, is a comparative veteran, having served on the benches for 14 years.

She says: “My time as a magistrate has been nothing but positive; from the colleagues I’ve met, ensuring justice for victims and positive outcomes for children and families, the personal growth and development I’ve achieved, to the positive contribution to my community.

"It’s a great way to broaden your horizons, meeting new people with different backgrounds, experiences and opinions.”

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