Some magistrates can't wait to sit in the middle seat, and chair the court. Others say 'not for me thanks' and happily sit out their magisterial time as wingers, supporting the chairman and taking a full one-third share of the decision-making out the back. There is no laid-down timetable to progress to the chair, but introductory training can start about four or five years into your time on the bench. Once selected to go forward, the aspirant chairman will attend formal training, including role-play and video sessions, and then will have to do six chair sittings under the supervision of an appraiser. If all goes well, as it usually does, the Bench Training and Development Committee will add him to the list of approved chairmen. The Catch-22 is that the BTDC has a duty to appoint no more chairmen than the court needs to function. It is essential that those who take the chair maintain their competences by regular sittings in the centre seat, so on a typical bench of 100-110 JPs about 50 or so will be chair approved. The level of recruitment tends to fluctuate, for reasons that are beyond me, and the rate of retirements and resignations will again vary from year to year. As a result, my own bench has a group of a dozen or more magistrates with five years' experience who may well have to wait as long again before a chair becomes available. I was appointed at the time of a lot of recruitment, and I had to wait for ten years to become a chairman. A few years ago that was down to five years for many. Like most benches we are in the throes of merging with two neighbouring ones to give a strength of about 400 JPs and with a common seniority list. That may improve the prospects for would-be chairmen or it may not. At the moment we do not have the figures.
In contrast, I have been to sit in a court not too far away where they have trouble finding enough people to take on the chair, and are reduced to putting little notices in the lift asking for volunteers.
Well trained and competent chairmen are absolutely essential to the effective running of our courts and to the maintenance of public confidence. It's just one more thing that needs to be sorted out within the very short deadline for the merged benches that will be open for business straight after the New Year.
I was interested to note that with a strength of about 400, a grouping of three London Boroughs will be the same size as Birmingham or Manchester's courts.
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