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Leading in the community – the role of magistrates

Two Christian magistrates urge fellow believers to consider this area of service

We asked two magistrates to share their experiences and explain why Christians should think about becoming magistrates.

Ian Rawley is the senior pastor of New Life Church, Cambridge. As well as leading his local church, he travels extensively around the world, helping church leaders and encouraging churches. He is also involved in humanitarian work, especially in the global south. Ian has served in various roles as a magistrate in Cambridge, including being chairman of the local advisory sub-committee that recruits, interviews and recommends potential new magistrates for appointment.

Athos Ritsperis spent 16 years in the Navy and now works for the Ministry of Defence, as well as being in the Air Force Reserves and serving as a trustee of the Armed Forces Christian Union. He is a magistrate in Portsmouth.

Abi: What does it mean for you to be a magistrate?

Athos: Being a magistrate is about public service. I think for all of us, it’s important to think about what role we can play in society. Our church, for example, is very community-focused, we’re looking to have an impact through things like debt counselling, working with rehabilitation, Street Pastors and having a food bank. It can be different things for different people but I think it is important that we have a focus on faith and works – they go hand-in-hand.

For me, I felt that being a magistrate was one way that I could give something back to society. I think it’s important that you do that within your locale so that you have an understanding of the issues that are prevalent and that you are making a contribution towards addressing them. It is an awesome responsibility because ultimately you are dealing with people’s liberty. Every criminal offense starts in the magistrates’ court and about 90 per cent are dealt with there – that’s where the majority of the business of the judiciary is done. Only the cases that are beyond the allocated powers of the magistrates move on to crown court.

There is a very structured process which is helpful when you are trying to determine the response to crimes. You have to think – what is it that we are seeking to achieve? Are you just seeking to punish the individual? Are you seeking to rehabilitate them? Are you seeking to protect society? That leads you down a number of options but I think going through that thought process is very important.

Abi: Of course, part of being a magistrate is having the ability to be impartial, to not bring your own opinions and beliefs to the role. As you say, it is about public service. Why should Christians think about being magistrates?

Athos: There are a range of roles in which Christians can get involved with their local community and being a magistrate is one of them. If it aligns to a person’s background, experience and temperament, then that’s an area worth exploring.

No knowledge of the law is assumed or required, you have a legal advisor there who is a trained solicitor, who will make sure that you don’t fall foul of the law. You are there to listen to the case that’s put before you and use your value judgment to determine whether the person is guilty or innocent. Christians need to be represented there because we are part of our society, we have a voice, and it is just as right for us to be represented in that arena as in other parts of society.

Abi: Last year, figures suggested that 86 per cent of judges are aged 50 or over, and that 89 per cent are white. A magistrate was quoted as saying, I work with a lot of very talented people and experienced people but the bench needs to be far more representative of the community it’s serving.” I think that points very much to what you were just saying, Christians are part of that community so why aren’t we represented along with everyone else?

Athos: Yes I think it’s true that we’re not that diverse. Thinking about my colleagues, there is not a lot of ethnic diversity there. We all tend to be white middle-class professional people. I don’t think we are representative of society, because people don’t think that being a magistrate is an option that is available to them. I’m keen that the message goes out to everybody that that is something they can put themselves forward for. The minimum age limit is 18 and it doesn’t require any academic or professional experiences at all.

Incidentally, the selection process is very good, very testing. Throughout my professional career I’ve been through a number of interviews and assessments for jobs and memberships of professional bodies, and the selection process for being a magistrate is very effective. There were two sets of interviews and after both I left not knowing how well I had done. Normally you get an inkling when you come out of an interview, but the types of questions that were being asked were very searching…I tried to answer them honestly.

But that stayed with me and I’ve recently applied to become a member of the Advisory Committee, which is responsible for recruiting other magistrates, because I wanted to be part of that process.

Abi: Has being a Christian in that role ever been a challenge?

Athos: Well as a magistrate you sit as a bench of three. There’s one person who is chair so in court he or she is the spokesman, the master of proceedings. But when it comes to considering a decision, you are all on a par.

It’s possible for the two wingers – the people that assist the chair – to disagree with the chair and win the day. Obviously, you try to achieve consensus, but if that is not possible, then you go with the majority.

There have been times when I have disagreed with the decision of my fellow magistrates, but you put forward a unified front. There is time to discuss, but there comes a time when you need to make a decision and everyone needs to get behind it. So that’s a challenge.

If I have failed to bring my colleagues around to what I consider to be the correct decision, that does affect me, but I guess that would be true whether I was a Christian or not. I’m trying to think if my faith has ever been an overt issue…I can’t think of any examples!

Abi: My final question: What advice would you have for someone who thinks that this all sounds interesting and would like to find out more?

Athos: I would certainly encourage them to look into it. All magistrate courts are open to the public, so go along and sit in on a case – determine if you could see yourself in that role. They sit during the working week and also on a Saturday morning at 10 o’clock.

So go there, sit in. Find out more about a magistrate’s role – the government website tells you all about the requirements of being a magistrate. Speak to people who are currently serving as magistrates.

There is a project called magistrates in the community’ whose role is to promote the magistracy and they will go and speak to organisations so you might be able to invite them to speak at a church coffee morning perhaps, or a church meeting, to talk about the role and see if that sparks an interest. And be open to it – don’t be overawed. At the end of the day they’re just looking for genuine people who have an interest in serving the community.

Listen to Ian Rawley’s interview here on soundcloud

About the author

Abi Jarvis is the public leadership coordinator at the Evangelical Alliance, seeking to equip Christians with the skills and confidence to be leaders in the places where God has called them. She has a BA in Ancient History and a MSc in Political Communication. Abi loves going to the theatre, watches too many American TV dramas and somehow became responsible for daily office exercises despite her hatred of all things sporty. Much to her dismay, she ticks the box for pretty much every stereotypical feature of a PK - a pastor's kid.

See more from Abi Jarvis

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