Opinion: Does control of search warrants matter to you? Then become a magistrate

In recent days Liberal Democrats have united against reported Home Office plans for the state to acquire unprecedented power to search private online communications. As Mark Pack noted, resistance to this has even won Nick Clegg rare praise from the Daily Mail.

Many Liberal Democrats have the necessary habit of not just debating how society ought to be, but carrying liberal values into effect in daily life. Many Lib Dems who are passionate about education, including myself, serve as school governors. Likewise, party members volunteer as neighbourhood watch coordinators, Citizens Advice Bureau mentors or youth club leaders.

If you feel particularly strongly about search warrants and the need for them to be issues carefully and proportionately then you should consider whether you only want to debate it, or even campaign on it, or whether you want to be part of the process of deciding which warrants should be granted or refused.

Most search warrants are applied for to local magistrates. There are about 30,000 magistrates in England and Wales. They typically sit for a minimum of 20 days per year on a voluntary basis. There are rules requiring employers to give time off and limited compensation for the self-employed.  Hearing applications by the police for search warrants is one of their duties. They also deal with the overwhelming majority of criminal cases – acquitting the innocent, convicting the guilty and deciding the right sentence.  They also have a jurisdiction in family law.  There is an inherent civil liberties aspect to everything they do.

No formal qualifications are required although the application process looks for ability to think reasonably rationally. An appreciation of equality and diversity is essential. It is important to understand that you will not be able to impose your political view as to what the law should be. A magistrate’s oath-bound duty is to apply the law as it stands to individual cases but within that is a considerable margin of appreciation; space for personal judgement. It should be a rewarding task to anyone who cares about civil liberties and dealing with crime in a fair, proportionate way.

We want a society where the strong are just and the weak secure. Such a society can only exist if individuals who love justice are willing to take on the responsibilities, and the powers, that have been created for a few citizens to hold.

An internet search will tell you how to apply to be a magistrate. If not someone as sensible as you, then who do you think will apply?

* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Great suggestion. Have forwarded….

  • Peter Hayes 5th Apr '12 - 9:11pm

    Unfortunately I don’t really feel any link with where my work has taken my home. When I was working being a magistrate would have taken up more of my time than would be acceptable to my employer or the government department that paid for 7×24 support.

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