Former Birmingham poet laureate Roshan Doug has quit the bench because he says it is unrepresentative, he tells Rebekah Oruye.
A Birmingham magistrate has written a damning letter of resignation to Justice Secretary Jack Straw in which he accuses the court system of being “outdated” and not representative of multicultural Britain.
Roshan Doug, who was born in India and brought to the United Kingdom by his parents at the age of two months, said he had become “disillusioned” over the fact that the magistracy was “still primarily white, middle-aged and middle class”.
The 46-year-old former Birmingham poet laureate, who has served on the bench for over a decade, added: “I do not think this is excusable, considering Birmingham is the second city where it’s estimated within the next decade, the number of non-white residents will exceed the number of white residents.
“I would estimate, on my bench, more than 90 per cent of the magistrates are disproportionately white, over 50 and middle class.”
Mr Doug, who lives in Handsworth Wood, said efforts to attract people from black and Asian communities to the bench had failed.
According to Her Majesty’s Court Services, there are around 30,000 magistrates in the UK yet a recent survey showed out of these figures, 3.7 per cent of magistrates in England and Wales are Asian and 2.4 per cent are black.
“There was an initiative called Operation Black Vote which was organised on an ad hoc basis,” said Mr Doug. “A select group of magistrates might visit a temple or church groups, but that was just a box-ticking exercise. There was no real coordination or determination to see it succeed.”
The father-of-one criticised the methods employed by the courts when seeking and training applicants – claiming the work of magistrates only suited retired people with time on their hands.
“When I was a trainee, I was fortunate to be allowed days off to train,” he said. “Not all employers are as accommodating.”
His other grievances with the court system included what he claimed was “snobbery” by administrative staff and the influence of clerks.
“There is a frustration among some magistrates who feel that their hands are proverbially tied behind their backs,” he explained. “Although the Government says we have got to be tough on crime and the causes of crime, in court, we are directed towards leniency; probation or community orders because the prisons are crowded.”
Mr Doug worked as a lecturer for many years before following up his interest in law. After completing his training in Dudley and serving on the bench there for a few years, he was offered a job at the University of Central Birmingham in 1998 and subsequently transferred to work at the city centre courthouse.
He said: “I enjoyed the job at first, it was fun. However, I am very politically minded and soon began to look at the composition the Birmingham bench. I realised the majority of magistrates were retired captains of industry and their wives.”
Mr Doug’s view on the lack of Asian and black magistrates sitting at Birmingham courts was shared by retired magistrate James Hutchings. Mr Hutchings worked as a magistrate for more than 15 years, in Warrington and Birmingham until his retirement three years ago.
But unlike Mr Doug, he believed minorities should endeavour to ensure they were represented fairly.
“It is up to Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities to put themselves forward to find suitable candidates for the bench. The doors are wide open,” he said.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said the ministry was not directly responsible for Operation Black Vote – a non-party political campaign, supported by a majority of black organisations. He said the ministry did fund the Magistrates Shadowing Scheme, run by Operation Black Vote, to promote ethnic diversion among magistrates.
He added: “We are committed to ensuring serious and dangerous offenders go to prison. Our policy has been a vital tool in an approach to criminal justice which has seen crime fall by a third since 1997.”
A spokesman for Her Majesty’s Court Service, which is responsible for the day-to-day running of the court, added: “The roles of justices’ clerks and legal advisers in magistrates’ courts are clearly defined.
“They have the responsibility to give advice to magistrates, whether they have requested that or not. Whilst they have a duty to advise, the ultimate decision is always a matter for magistrates.”