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22-year-old magistrate who said job is about ‘gut instinct’ hits back at social media criticism

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Tesco-working Swansea law grad issues calm and measured Twitter response

📸 Luke Penney

A 22-year-old Tesco worker who is one of the country’s youngest criminal judges faces a social media storm following an interview in which he said the role is “just about following your gut instinct”.

Lawyers took to social media to slate Luke Penney, who has been on the bench at Swansea Magistrates’ Court since last year, claiming that the comment portrayed a lack of understanding of how to decide cases. Speaking to BBC News in an interview to promote the volunteer role of magistrates, Penney said:

“Being a magistrate is challenging, it does test you and your morals. It is just about following your gut instinct. My first case on the job was murder. It hit me that this responsibility given to society is huge, to keep everyone safe and to look out for the interests of justice.”

Lawyers leapt on the line as confirmation of their worst fears about “amateur” magistrates, leaving Penney to protest that it had been taken out of context in a lengthy interview.

Barrister Andrew Keogh commented “It’ll be Ouija Boards next”, while president of the West London Law Society Julian Young said “someone needs urgent training on the burden and standard of proof … very urgently”.

Other lawyers refused to jump on the bandwagon. Solicitor-advocate Nicholas Diable said that “I think this criticism is way OTT. A single line that could easily be interpreted in different ways is being used to castigate someone who in every other part of the interview comes across as dedicated and responsible”.

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While Robin Murray, a former vice chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA), said: “I don’t think it’s fair criticism to take one comment out of context. The bench are having a hard job recruiting at the moment and this is not going to help”.

Taking to Twitter to defend himself, Penney said: “Just to clarify the wording I used on a BBC clip I participated in – I use the word gut instinct. I now see that this may be misunderstood and I could have expressed it better. This was my first TV interview for which I was nervous. Of course all evidence is considered to which a decision is made on the reliability of said available evidence. I apologise to anyone who may have doubted my ability”.

Chief Executive of the Magistrates Association, Jon Collins, called the criticism “unhelpful and unfortunate”.

Penney, originally from Neath, applied for the unpaid role as a magistrate after spotting a recruitment flyer in the store where he works. He completed a law degree in 2017 but tells Legal Cheek that he doesn’t harbour immediate ambitions to go into practice.

Speaking before the weekend’s Twitter feeding frenzy kicked off, Penney told us:

“Having a law degree I thought I may have knowledge that most magistrates don’t. However, it’s not just law that you’re applying but common sense, so having knowledge will only get you so far.”

The Swansea University graduate says that “sitting on the Bench is different to what you read in textbooks. There are so many things to bear in mind in any court case and only experience will help you — but we all have to start somewhere!”

Penny says that he’s not currently pursuing a legal career, “but wouldn’t write it off in future”. The fresh-faced beak adds that law students can gain valuable exposure to legal practice by sitting on the bench — but that shouldn’t be their sole motivation for applying. He continues:

“I would recommend the magistracy to anyone who wants to apply. Law students may gain practical experience but I wouldn’t encourage people to sign up just for the time you’re at university and then resign. It’s not advised. The magistracy is recruiting for the future and as such needs people who are willing to sit for years to come. And you can combine it with full-time job.”

The average age of a magistrate is just under 60. Of the 15,000 magistrates in England and Wales, just 92 are aged under 30. Official statistics show just one magistrate between 18 and 29 in the West Glamorgan area — presumably Penney himself.

But Penney is not the youngest person ever to sit on the bench. Last year, Legal Cheek interviewed English student Nicky Stubbs, who became a magistrate aged 19.

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