A mentoring scheme aims to attract more people from ethnic minorities to the magistrates bench.
"When some defendants enter the court and see me, a black magistrate, sitting on the bench, their jaws hit the floor," says Maureen Mosley. "But my presence does reassure black and ethnic minority defendants that they will be treated fairly. They certainly have more confidence in the system when they see diversity on the bench."
Mosley, a justice of the peace, is a graduate of a magistrate-shadowing scheme designed to attract more people from black and ethnic minority communities to the South Derbyshire magistrates bench. Training involved attending six court hearings over six months. At the end of each session, she would discuss the case - traffic offences and petty crime - with her mentor. "Anything that I didn't understand was carefully explained to me," Mosley says. "The training was a real eye-opener."
The scheme was launched in Derby two years ago by Operation Black Vote (OBV) - a group dedicated to inspiring ethnic minorities to participate in civic society - in partnership with the Department of Constitutional Affairs. Mosley, 40, who works as a security adviser for the Department for Work and Pensions, is one of two women graduates. She joined the bench in January. Three male candidates also qualified but have yet to start working.
"I wanted to find out more about how minorities are treated in court ... and how the system worked," Mosley says. "I always thought you needed to know the right people and have legal qualifications to become a JP. But you don't need either. If you use basic common sense, are willing to listen and work as a team with your two fellow JPs and the legal clerk, you can do the job."
Her unpaid magistrate's commitments take up one day every fortnight. As a civil servant she is entitled to 18 days off a year to sit in court. Accompanied by other magistrates, Mosley also visits local community centres and schools to give presentations. "I tell them that if I can become a JP then so can they, if they are interested," she says. "Their race is irrelevant."
Five more people - one African Caribbean and fours Asians - have applied to the shadowing scheme this year. While the numbers recruited from the scheme might seem small - bringing the total assigned black and ethnic minority magistrates in Derby and South Derbyshire to 20 (7.4%) since 1989 - it is seen as a leap forward.
"The real success of the project is not how many magistrates are selected today, but how many will come through in the months and years ahead," says Simon Woolley, OBV's director of operations. "Neither must we underestimate the value of the confidence-building this project engenders between the courts and local black communities."
The scheme is operating in eight other areas - Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bury, Hertfordshire, Leicester, London, Merseyside and Mid Glamorgan - and involves 125 applicants shadowing magistrates in 28 courts.
Woolley views Derby's shadowing scheme as the blueprint. "The court hierarchy there is so proactive and positive," he explains. "It has given the shadows excellent experience in all aspects of court procedures and they have learned a great deal. The reaction in the local communities has also been very encouraging."
"One of the great benefits of the scheme is the ambassadorial role for those taking part, as it provides opportunities for them . . . to talk to their communities about magistrates and their work in court," says Cindy Barnett, chairman of the Magistrates Association. "We know the project plays a vital role in raising awareness and improving confidence in the criminal justice system."
Mosley says: "I find it fascinating and enjoy the responsibility. It's a very important job, and I am proud to be doing it."