Magistrate numbers in South Yorkshire have fallen by nearly 40 per cent in three years
The number of magistrates in South Yorkshire has dropped by nearly 40 per cent in just three years, according to new statistics.
Figures from the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary show that there are 274 magistrates currently sitting in the region, compared with 441 three years ago.
This is one of the steepest drops across the whole of England and Wales, and magistrate numbers are also falling significantly in England and Wales, from nearly 20,000 magistrates in 2015 to just over 15,000 this year - a drop of around 25 per cent.
An charity is warning that dwindling magistrate numbers could have an impact on the administration of justice.
The Magistrates Association said that it is increasingly hearing from its members that magistrates are sitting in benches of two, rather than three, including during trials, due to shortages and magistrates needing to drop out.
Magistrates Association chief executive Jon Collins said: "Three people will always be able to make better decisions. These situations should not be normalised, particularly for decisions of innocence or guilt."
Independent charity Transform Justice also said that these two-person benches are a serious problem.
Charity director and former magistrate Penelope Gibbs said: "In these cases the bench is likely to be less diverse, and decisions not as fair.
"It's a principle of judgement by peers that magistrates should sit as three, so there can always be a majority. When a bench is just two magistrates, one must 'win' if there is conflict."
Mr Collins said that for magistrate numbers to remain constant over the next 10 years, more than 8,000 new magistrates need to be recruited to replace those retiring once they turn 70.
Magistrates are unpaid volunteers who deal with about 95 per cent of criminal cases alongside a legal advisor. They must be over 18 and retire at 70, and must sit in court for at least 13 full days or 26 half days a year.
Employers are legally required to give magistrates time off to serve, and training is provided on the job.
Of the magistrates in South Yorkshire, 90 per cent are white, and 60 per cent are over 60. There are only two magistrates under 30.
Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service has said that it is working with the Judicial Office and other Government departments to develop a strategy for the magistracy that will aim to improve diversity as a whole, including recruiting younger magistrates.