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Weighing love on the scales of justice

Bob Earnshaw suggests that being a magistrate could be a powerful Christian act

NINE years ago, a friend asked me "Have you ever thought of becoming a magistrate?" It was not a question I had been expecting during that afternoon’s parish visiting.

Since that conversation, I have become convinced that Christians, with their understanding of human nature, have a real contribution to make to the magistracy, and might find it one of the most fulfilling aspects of their ministry.

Each year, about 1600 people are sworn to the office of Justice of the Peace. In the judicial oath, they are declaring something that Christians ought to be able to embrace wholeheartedly: "I do swear that I will well and truly . . . do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will." Christians will readily see the biblical foundations that have undergirded the lay magistracy since its inception in 1361.

Lynda is coming to the end of her training that will enable her to act as first among equals in chairing a bench of three magistrates. She reflects on her appointment as a magistrate: "I saw an article in the national press about a shortage, and I felt it was good to offer myself for service to the community in this way. As I am a Christian, I felt that we should be represented as a part of the community."

There are a number of ways in which magistrates seek to "do right to all manner of people". About 96 per cent of criminal cases are heard in a magistrate’s court. In the retiring room where the bench meets to decide the outcome of a case, there is direct opportunity for "acting and thinking judicially". Training is given for this, but Christians should already be in the vanguard; and what superb free training they receive for being more effective in that PCC meeting.

The Church today is being urged to see ministry in a collaborative sense, of clergy and people working together as a team. One of the requirements of the magistrate today is to be "able to work as a member of a team". Members of the body of Christ will find, in the magistracy, an opportunity to work out this understanding in a secular environment. To rely on the Spirit’s gift of wisdom during difficult team discussions, when, for example, a person’s livelihood is at stake, is a unique, if unseen, contribution that a Justice who is a Christian can make. How often during an impasse in a team discussion will the words "If any of you lack wisdom, he should pray to God" seem particularly appropriate.

Christians, moreover, will want to think theologically about their contribution to the magistracy. When, nine years ago, I told a parishioner I had been appointed as a JP, he looked aghast, and suggested that I was endangering my immortal soul. I am still puzzled about what he meant, but perhaps I am just theologically inept.

There is, of course, a great deal about justice in the Bible, and numerous instances in which people are selected to "judge" their peers. Christians ought to be as well placed as any, in humility, to fulfil this task today. The fact that justice is dispensed through teams of three, where each magistrate plays a full part in decision-making, helps justice to be seen to be done.

The way in which the JP who is also a Christian considers the case before him or her will be based on the knowledge of personal fallibility and sinfulness. This will give an understanding to humanity to the reaching of decisions. Moreover, judicial sense will be supported by an extra dimension.

"I am also able to pray for indi-viduals covertly in the court situation," a colleague wrote. The background of prayer enables the Christian magistrate to judge not with mawkish sentimentality, but with true justice, fairness and compassion.

There are many opportunities in the magistracy for Christians to use gifts and abilities that have been nurtured in the local church. Some find fulfilment in working as a member of youth or family panels.

An increasing number of magistrates are becoming involved in the national "Magistrates in the Community" project. Among other activities, teams of magistrates visit schools to speak about their work, and, it is hoped, help deter any pupils who are contemplating a career in crime.

The key qualities that make a person suitable for appointment (and there are moves to lower the earliest possible age for entrance to 18) are not so different from those listed throughout the New Testament.

Despite being more than 700 years old, and in spite of continuing political legislation, the magistracy is still developing and evolving. The need for magistrates is as great as ever. Christians can fulfil a vital task in their communities, and enrich their lives and ministries immeasurably.

During the days of Jane Austen, a quarter of all magistrates were priests. There are, of course, historical reasons for this, but the churches then were better represented in the magistracy than they are now.

The time has come to encourage the Christian community to play a greater part, and to seize the opportunities that the present recruiting drive offers.

For more information on being a magistrate, visit: http://www.lcd.gov.uk or www.magistrates-association.org.uk.

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