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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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47 Comments

Anonymous

Clifford Chance?

(5)(0)

Criminal practitioner

Hmm…

When a magistrate has to make a decision about conflicting evidence gut instinct does have a role to play.

I’ve got two people both telling different stories. How do I tell who is lying? One was less consistent than the other. My gut instinct tells me that they might be the less credible.

Makes perfect sense. I’d rather be tried by a bench of JPs than a DJ any day.

(11)(8)

Anonymous

Be

Gone

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Don’t agree. If the only thing you have to go on is gut instinct when trying to decide between two conflicting accounts, then you are not sure on the evidence and aquitt. If there is other evidence to support account A over account B then that would be different and you might well be sure account A is correct.

(17)(0)

Anonymous

Who said that gut instinct was the only thing he relies upon?

(0)(1)

Anonymous

He did.

” It is just about following your gut instinct.”

What part of the word just are you having difficulty with?

(3)(0)

Anonymous

When assessing two contradictory pieces of evidence what is a magistrate supposed to do? One must be a lie. How do most of us assess whether some thing is a lie or the truth. We call upon our life experiences/gut instinct.

(14)(7)

Anonymous

Here’s how:
If police officer said it – true
If defendant said it – lie
Simples

(11)(20)

Criminal

Nope.

I’ve had acquittals where police evidence has been rejected.

(8)(1)

Anonymous

Why you lion four

(0)(0)

Anonymous

D1ndu nuff1n m8

(0)(1)

Anonymous

Absolutely 100% wrong. You are obviously not a practising lawyer. It is frequently the case that two eyewitnesses have a contradictory recollection of the same incident. While it is *possible* one of them is lying, it is more usual that one (or both) of them is innocently and honestly mistaken. Another possibility is that a further piece of evidence comes to light that explains the contradiction and allows the two accounts to be reconciled. Life experience plays a huge part, but your black-and-white approach is the opposite of how things are in real life.

(12)(3)

Anonymous

FWIW. Actually a 30yr PQE lawyer. Had my arsed whupped by the most difficult judge on the circuit as an articled clerk. Took QCs apart when in house counsel. Drafted legislation, Corporate lead lawyer on UKs largest transaction, taught LPC/GDL. But that is by the by…

I actually listened to the young man’s piece on the radio. He was engaging and articulate.

If a scally wag is up before the Beak on a charge of theft of a mars bar and his counsel claims said scally wag wasn’t ‘intending to deprived’ the shopkeeper of the mars bar what is a magistrate supposed to do but make a decision based on the likelihood of any one ever trousering and then returning said choco…

And who do I think would out perform in the classroom, office or court room, you or the young magistrate/Tesco employee. Tesco employee every time.

You’re clearly in the wrong profession.

Boom.

(4)(30)

Anonymous

In your 50s? Doubt it.

Boom.

(17)(0)

Anonymous

Why is ‘taught GDL/LPC’ in there like it’s an achievement

(32)(1)

Dr Doom

The LLButthurt is strong with this one.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

The ONE time gut instinct should come into play is when you are forced to assess two contradictory pieces of evidence and there is literally NOTHING else that can help you decide which is correct. Even then, you should treat your judgement on which is correct as suspect and try to rely on it as little as possible

(1)(2)

Anonymous

Only in a civil court. It is not the role of a Magistrate or a Jury to decide which account is correct. The Judicial oath and the oath taken by a Jury both require the fact finder to be sure that one account has been proved by the evidence to be true and one account has been proved to be false by the evidence. Hence the oath “to faithfully try the Defendant and return true verdicts according to the evidence.” In your example where there is literally nothing else to help you decide (ie no evidence) which account is correct, then neither account has been proved to be true so that you can be sure it is true and the verdict according to your oath is Not Guilty. Misunderstanding both the burden and standard of proof is a pretty basic error.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

1. “one of the country’s youngest criminal judges ” – he is a magistrate, not a judge.
2. “My first case on the job was murder. ” – surely he was just sending it up to Crown Court – not a big one for the much criticised gut?

(41)(0)

Anonymous

Now imagine he’d acquitted the defendant of murder based on his gut instinct after looking into his beautiful brown eyes?

(2)(0)

Anonymous

He will be sat beside an experienced magistrate and another less experienced magistrate. Between them it’s unlikely a gut instinct will result in a group decision by the bench.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

Pay peanuts, get…

(3)(1)

Anonymous

Pay expenses, get volunteers.

(10)(0)

Anonymous

Lol at LC calling it a job. I suppose the LC staff have long given up on earning any actual money

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Are the LC crew volunteers?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

A Snickers?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I suppose those big name barristers are willing to volunteer in their spare time to be magistrates?

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Not allowed. JPs are meant to be non legally-qualified.

(4)(2)

Anonymous

There is nothing preventing lawyers being magistrates.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Aside from the need to actually work to pay off their uni debts

(3)(1)

Barry

Portrayed* not betrayed.

(0)(1)

Silly

A maggy is not a judge legal cheek

(5)(0)

Anonymous

I’d choose self service over this clown any day. Probably give myself life with no parole.

(4)(3)

Martin

I don’t care if they’re are young or old ; white or black ; men or women . As long as they are intelligent and fair and can overcome any prejudices and pre-conceptions they may have then I’m satisfied. Summary justice in the magistrates’ courts is often imperfect but I think most lay justices volunteer out of a sense of “civic duty” and not because of kudos or a power ego trip. I wish this young man well.

(11)(0)

Anonymous

Quite strange that amateurs are permitted to dole out justice. Why not simply appoint District Judges?

(4)(3)

Anonymous

Sounds like a case for abolishing juries.

I can think of some lovely liberal countries that we could follow and do that.

Let’s start with North Korea…

(4)(1)

Anonymous

District court judges work in Northern Ireland…

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Worked for Oscar Pistorius…

(0)(0)

Anonymous

The assessors in his case were lay finders of fact with the ability to outvote the Judge (just like Magistrates!)

(0)(0)

Anonymous

First problem is thst he’s on twitter at all as a member of the judiciary. It was also unforrunate that he condensed the whole body of the law of evidence into gut instinct. There are rules on how to treat evidence that is definitely not pure intuition.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

I experience DDJ’s on an everyday basis. This lad probably makes better decisions than they do.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Well said. He had the confidence to appear on a national broadcaster and then front up on twitter to face his critics unlike the anonymous key board warriors. I suspect he has the last laugh – each day enduring some sad tired wannabe lawyer in a shiny suit, dog eared LPC guru notes in hand.

(2)(2)

Anonymous

We have ourselves a new Marvel Avenger. Gut Instinct Man.

(0)(0)

Gerontion

It’s extraordinary the kind of dross they let become magistrates these days. It used to be the case that only established pillars of local society would be magistrates; now apparently some spotty-faced pillock is considered mature, wise and responsible to pass legal judgement upon his fellow citizens.

(3)(1)

Criminal law is boring

Tample Sext

(0)(0)

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“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”.

Only a solicitor-advocate would say that …

(0)(0)

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