Being part of the Shrieval Office comes with the privilege of seeing behind the scenes of communities and ‘systems’ that we wouldn’t within our usual roles.  Buckinghamshire’s High Sheriff, Dame Ann extended her invitation to visit Milton Keynes Magistrates Court, to her Goodwill Ambassadors (GA) and in mid-July 2023 I accompanied Ann with fellow GA Ranjit.

A visit to the courts starts with a thorough bag search and walk through the metal detectors. We were greeted by Debbie Gibbs JP, Chair of the Bench on arrival, for an introduction to the court system.  To appreciate why we were there we reflected back to over 1,000 years ago when the High Sheriff would have judged all court cases within their own county.

But now there is a more community-based approach which sees around 12,000 individuals volunteer to fulfil the role of magistrate, in courts across the whole of England and Wales[1].  And these individuals, are all unpaid individuals, giving their time to sit in court a minimum of 13 days a year a hearing cases.

At Milton Keynes Magistrates Court they hear a vast breadth of cases which they either escalate to Crown Court (which for us is in Aylesbury), or if the penalty served will be less than 12-months determine a conviction/sentence themselves.

Dame Ann, Ranjit and I were invited to observe an active court session and we stayed to hear 3 cases.  Everyone will, I’m sure, reflect differently on experiencing sentencing of an individual, but for me I found the process quite tough to endure. All three were repeat offenses with a mix of the offender being present in person, on screen (video link), or in one case, considered in their absence as they chose not to attend. It felt like a vicious loop of individuals within the criminal system and although our prisons try and offer the support, you can almost feel how the budget pressures stop an individual’s support far too early in the process.

On leaving the courts, we were invited to discuss and reflect on the cases, giving us the space to process the stories and incidents we had heard; I suspect that the hour spent observing 3 court cases will stay with me for a lifetime.

The courts are changing and modernising, from regular use of video links, to connected databases, and training/understanding on mental health within offenders.  The courts are a historic institution and hold certain formalities, but I was pleased to hear of their planned approach to diversifying their pool of magistrates to further reflect the community they are serving.  And so if you are someone who thinks they could make fair decisions, taking in other people’s perspectives, communicating sensitively, whilst being self-aware and professional, take a look at how you could get involved:


Notes to Editors

Dame Ann Limb DBE DL biography

Dame Ann Limb is Chair of the City and Guilds of London Institute and from 2015-2021 was Chair of the Scouts, the UK’s largest youth engagement charity. She is the first woman, and openly gay, to hold these roles. She is also Chair of the UK Innovation Corridor, the country’s globally significant life sciences cluster stretching from London to Cambridge and Chair of The Lloyds Bank Foundation. Between 1976 and 2001 Ann enjoyed a successful career in Further Education as a College Principal in Milton Keynes and Cambridge and in the civil service, where she was responsible for the UK governments flagship digital learning initiative, learndirect. Dame Ann is Deputy Char of the Prince’s Foundation, a heritage-led regeneration charity. And Vice President of the social justice charity she founded in 1998, the Helena Kennedy Foundation. In the 2011 Birthday Honours, Ann was awarded the OBE, in 2015 ‘upgraded’ to CBE and in the Platinum Jubilee Honours 2022 elevated to the rank of Dame Commander of the British Empire, DBE. In 2019, Dame Ann was named #1 LBGTQ+ public sector role model in the OUTstanding List and one of the most 50 most influential women born in the North of England in the Northern Power Women Power List.

About The Open University

The Open University (OU) is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning. Since it began in 1969, the OU has taught more than 2.3 million students worldwide and currently has over 208,000 students. Seventy-one per cent of directly registered students are in full-time or part-time employment, and 76 FTSE 100 companies have sponsored staff to take OU courses.

In the latest assessment exercise for university research ( Research Excellence Framework,2021) over three quarters (76%) of OU research was assessed as 4 0r 3 star – the highest ratings available, awarded to research that is world -leading or internationally excellent. The OU’s commitment to research and societal impact is recognised too with 82% of its research impact assessed to be world leading or internationally excellent. For further information please visit The Open University

Written by : High Sheriff

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