The government wants to recruit 4,000 volunteer magistrates in England and Wales as it seeks to ease the backlog of criminal cases which has built up since before the pandemic.
The Ministry of Justice said the campaign to attract new magistrates from all backgrounds and a broad age range represented the largest recruitment effort in the 650-year history of the magistracy.
It comes as the government looks to increase magistrates’ sentencing powers to help ease pressure on the crown court system, which had a backlog of 58,728 cases as of November 2021.
At the same time 372,000 cases were outstanding in the magistrates’ courts, a drop of 70,000 from a peak in July 2020.
Magistrates courts deal with more than 90 per cent of criminal cases, ranging from minor theft to burglary, with only the more serious cases being heard before a jury at a crown court.
The number of volunteer magistrates in England and Wales has fallen from 29,270 in 2010-11 to 12,651 in 2020-2021, according to figures from the MoJ.
The reduction partly reflects that some crimes, such as minor motoring offences, are now dealt with via fixed penalty notices rather than in court.
The magistrates courts have been less badly affected by the pandemic than the crown court, where social distancing measures and the presence of a jury have led to two or three courtrooms being used for each trial.
The unpaid volunteer magistrates hear family and criminal cases in courts in their local community and sit at least 13 days a year, often while holding down a full-time job. They usually sit in a group of two or three alongside a qualified legal adviser.
The drive to recruit more magistrates, particularly among younger people and diverse groups, comes as the government seeks to make greater use of magistrates courts by increasing their sentencing powers and allowing them to hand out maximum prison sentences of a year, double the current limit.
Officials say the move will release an estimated 1,700 extra days of crown court time and help reduce the backlog more quickly.
Warnings have been expressed for a number of years that thousands of magistrates would need to be recruited because of a demographic crisis in the magistracy, where volunteers currently have to retire aged 70.
Figures published by the MoJ in 2020-2021 showed that 49 per cent of magistrates were aged 60 or over and only 6 per cent were aged under 40. Some 12 per cent were from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
Lay magistrates are recruited by local advisory committees in a process overseen by the MoJ.
Other measures the government has taken to ease the backlog in the crown court include investing £250m to support the courts and keeping 32 so-called Nightingale courts open until the end of March 2022 so that more courtrooms are available for criminal trials.