Page last updated at 09:15 GMT, Sunday, 13 April 2008 10:15 UK

Ethnic minority magistrates push

The session was held inside a Cardiff courtroom

A campaign group has held a seminar aimed at encouraging more magistrates in Wales from ethnic minorities.

Led by magistrates, Saturday's session at Cardiff magistrates court gave an understanding of their role and the work of the criminal justice system.

In 2007-2008 there were 48 magistrates from black, mixed, Asian or Chinese backgrounds out of the 1,878 in Wales.

The seminar, organised by Operation Black Vote (OBV), also give sample cases and discussed how to apply.

London-based OBV organised the seminar, called A Judiciary For All, across the UK.

Merlene Carrington
It's not helpful when there are people in the dock and you don't know their customs or lifestyles
Merlene Carrington, magistrate

The seminar served as a taster for its magistrates' shadowing scheme, which is run in conjunction with the Ministry for Justice, and aims to demystify court procedure for ethnic minority participants.

It also allows them a closer examination of the roles and responsibilities of a magistrate and gives the magistrates themselves the opportunity to gain greater insight into the experiences of ethnic minority communities.

So far, 38 people from the scheme have been appointed magistrates. There are around 70 others in the application system.

One person to have benefited is Merlene Carrington, 43, a participant on the shadowing scheme in 2004 who was sworn in as a magistrate a year later.

She now serves in London and has dealt with a wide range of cases from domestic violence to television licence evasion.

"I have to say that going into any court building for the first time can be quite intimidating," said Ms Carrington who is a life coach and runs her own business when she is not being a magistrate.

"The magistrates sit higher up than anyone else and people are talking in legalese often on top of one another.

"But for me once I became familiar with all of the processes of the court I found it very rewarding and I look forward to the times when I'm serving."

Magistrates hear less serious criminal cases, commit serious cases to the higher courts and consider bail applications
All magistrates sit as a panel of three, mixed in age, gender and ethnicity wherever possible
All three have equal decision making powers but only the chairman speaks in court
They are volunteers and are not paid but receive expenses and allowances
They deal with around 95% of criminal cases in England and Wales
Magistrate applicants must be able to commit 26 half days per year to sit in court

She added that the very presence of ethnic minority magistrates would make a difference because of their different experiences and understanding.

"Those differences should be valued and add something special in terms of understanding," she said.

"It's not helpful when there are people in the dock and you don't know their customs or lifestyles.

"I think people from minority ethnic groups bring that balance. It's important that they bring all that they are and all they have to the experience."

Simon Woolley, director of OBV said justice at magistrates courts was dispensed for the community by those who live locally.

"For that reason it is critically important that magistrates not only look like the people they seek to serve but also have the confidence from within that community," he said.

"The real benefit will be seen when the court benches are more representative."

video and audio news
Magistrate Dr Charles Willie on the day's aims

Drive to find ethnic magistrates
29 Nov 04 |  South West Wales
Ethnic minority magistrates trial
30 Oct 01 |  Politics

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