Common sense and compassion.
Those are the two qualities needed to sit on a family court making life-changing decisions on behalf of children who are suffering as their families break down or who are subject to child protection issues.
Family courts in Lancashire and Cumbria are in dire need of magistrates.
As part of a nation-wide recruitment campaign The Ministry of Justice has announced that 35-65 vacancies need to be filled across the two counties in the North West.
Family justice Dr Anne Jackson, who lives in Lancaster and is in her 60s, said: “Family work is increasing very rapidly.
“There’s a great shortage of family magistrates so what we are doing is rolling out direct entry into the family panel.
“It’s sad, it’s very sad because you are dealing with children who are in need of support.
“Normally you do a certain amount of time at a criminal magistrates court then you are allowed to move on but this is an new initiative.
“I would say that people would find it extremely fulfilling. I think they would go away from a session feeling that they had made a difference to a child’s life.
“Some things do stay with you but we have got a good support network around us and we learn to come to terms with that.
“Get involved. It’s 13 days a year so it’s not a huge commitment and you meet some incredibly interesting people and families. It’s a very very worthwhile form of voluntary work.”
Justices who sit in hearings in family courts are advised by the Family Court Legal Advisor, the Children and Family Court Advisory Service (CAFCASS) and the child’s Guardian during cases.
It means a detailed knowledge of the law is not necessary, just the ability to apply common sense and compassion to the cases which are heard in court.
According to the Ministry of Justice reading various documents ahead of the cases is necessary but the paperwork is not excessive.
And those interested in the role but concerned about a dip in wages need not worry. Justices are not paid but are able to claim expenses, including any loss of earnings.
The minimum sitting requirement for all magistrates is 13 full days per year plus mandatory training, which is a minimum of seven full days in the first year.
Taking on the role as justice means a commitment to serve for at least five years from appointment.
Dr Jackson, a retired dentist, told the Post why she started volunteering as a magistrate.
“I wanted to give something back and I wanted to help out in a way that I could,” she said. “I always had an interest in law. I’ve been a magistrate for 20 years now. We are called justices in the family court.
“I have learnt that sometimes parents, while they both believe they have the best interests of their child at heart and they love that child, sometimes they need somebody to point out that they could be wrong.”
While in public law children are at risk of harm and neglect Dr Jackson says cases in private law differ.
She says: “We don’t see much in the way of violence at our level.
“Private law is where, for example, Mrs and Mr Smith cannot agree where their child will live and this causes them to come before us.
“We see parents who really can’t agree. They will have tried mediation and if they still can’t agree they will come to court and we will make a judgement based on what we see.
“In criminal courts you see more of the toxic trio - drugs, alcohol and domestic violence.
“It’s distressing to see parents who cannot reach an agreement. The only thing they agree on is that they love their child.
“So it can be a worry and it can be something that can live with you.
“But we are given huge amounts of support. We sit as a panel of three and we bounce ideas of each other and talk things through.
“We have some excellent legal advisors. Their job is to provide us with the law and we are there to provide the common sense. There are obvious criteria that a magistrate is judged on. You have to be compassionate and concentrate.
“There is reading beforehand. Before a case you will be given in a bundle which has statements from parents and police.
“Then then Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service have the voice of the child. They give us the independent view of what the child is thinking.
“We regard their support as vital when we are making judgements. Everything is confidential. It has to be because we are given insight into the darker aspects of someone life with alcohol and other things.
“Whereas the criminal court is adversarial and the family court is inquisitorial.
“Nobody is there to be judged. We are there to get the best outcome for the child,
“The over arching framework on which everything is hung in The Children Act 1987. The welfare of the child is paramount and that is crucial to what we do and why we do it.”
Asked how she fitted her role as a justice around her job as a dentist Dr Jackson said: “I was very fortunate, I worked part time.
“But nowadays my weeks vary - I might be in court once or twice a week.
“Your employers are expected, legally obliged to give you the time.
“We have very well trained legal advisors who will guide us on aspects of the law.
“A basic knowledge is important but we are given very very good training.
“You will be sitting with experienced magistrates and there is no such thing as a stupid question.
“We are very keen to have a very wide diversity of ethnic groups and we want people who represent the community and who represent that variety.”
Urging people to take the plunge Dr Jackson added: “Just do it.
“If you think it’s the kind of thing that’s for you, do it.”
The Family Court deals with a variety of cases relating to children, child protection, family breakdown and related issues.
The Ministry of Justice aims to recruit 35-65 new Family Court Justices across Cumbria and Lancashire. Many Justices sit at more than one location and maximum flexibility is encouraged.
Legal or social work qualifications or experience are welcome but not necessary. The Government arm also encourages and welcomes diversity from all sections of the community in order to reflect the people with whom it comes into contact.
Family Courts are not open to the public so applicants will not be able to visit and observe a court. However, people interested in applying can instead watch videos about the Family Court on YouTube produced by HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) and other organisations. CAFCASS publish information on their role at cafcass.gov.uk/about-cafcass
If appointed, justices would sit only as a magistrate in the Family Court. Some magistrates also sit in the Criminal Courts but applicants would not be required to do this.
More information and application forms are available at www.gov.uk/become-magistrate. The closing date for applications is April 30, 2019. Those appointed would begin sitting in April 2020.
For further information contact the Ministry of Justice by email at CL-Advisory@justice.gov.uk
Lancashire has four family courts in Leyland, Blackpool, Lancaster and Reedly. In Cumbria the Family Courts are in Workington, Carlisle and Barrow.