Pam Braakenburg - Magistrate
Pam Braakenburg is well known and respected in Dartmouth as Chairman of the Music Festival and trustee of The Flavel.
She has been embraced by the community and made a big impression since moving down to the area from Cardiff in 2005.
But Pam has another commitment, which sometimes sees her dealing with difficult, challenging and complex things: she is a magistrate.
And she hopes that her example, and that of other magistrates, will encourage others to step forward to take up the role – as anyone with a good character between the ages of 18 and 70 can become a magistrate.
“I do it to give something back to the community,” she said. “I think it is important in a democracy that people accused of wrongdoing are judged by a group of their peers – people from their own community. It’s very rewarding and you get huge life experience.”
Pam first became a magistrate in her native Wales, whilst being the owner of a successful landscaping business. She was recommended by a member of the Bench and became a ‘Justice of the Peace’ in 1986 after a rigorous interview process. After training she sat for the first time in one of Cardiff’s 13 courts – along with three others.
“You never sit on your own, but I was a little apprehensive,” she said. “What I was amazed by was the variety of cases and subjects you see, and people from all walks of life.”
Sitting once every two weeks, Pam quickly impressed and progressed up the ranks, firstly to lead the three magistrates in court as ‘Chairman’, then to be elected Deputy Chairman of the Bench in 1999 and finally be elected Chairman of the Bench in 2002.
To lead more than 200 Magistrates in one of Britain’s biggest cities is no small responsibility, but Pam said it was a pleasure and an honour.
“I was the youngest ever Chairman of the Cardiff Bench and the youngest woman to be elected to the post - I’m very proud of both,” she said. “I suppose there was a lot of responsibility, but I found it interesting and enjoyed the opportunity to be at the heart of my community. We dealt with some very important and large scale cases and I really felt – as I do still – that being in this role makes a positive difference.”
After moving to Dartmouth in 2006, Pam applied for and joined the Bench in South Devon sitting in Torquay and Newton Abbott in 2007.
Three Magistrates sit in every session. There are three types of case: ‘Indictable Only’ (those which have to go to Crown Court - usually very serious offences), those which can be dealt with at either Crown Court or the Magistrate’s Court, and ‘Summary Only’ - those which are only heard by the magistrates.
For Crown Court cases the Magistrates will often only set bail and conditions, but they can pass down judgments on lesser cases. They can deal with anything from a parking ticket to family cases – some of the most complicated and serious a Magistrate will hear.
“It can be hard with the family cases,” said Pam. “We have to examine the facts very carefully and make the right choice for the children, which is hard to do. But the decisions have to be made, we all take advice, weigh up the cases in front of us and do what is right based on the evidence. “
Pam said the ability to be decisive is vital and the role needs someone who can make a decision and stand by it – but that there is always support on hand to give you the confidence in the judgments you make in the role.
“Firstly, you are there with two other magistrates,” she said. “You never take sole responsibility for a case. Secondly, there are lawyers there who will advise you on the legal facts of a case, and there is comprehensive training – which is always being renewed – and clear guidelines on sentences which all magistrates study and use on a daily basis.”
Although the role is unpaid, expenses – sometimes including compensation for loss of earnings – are payable to those who become Magistrates. Pam said she would encourage anyone interested in their community and justice to consider it a possibility.
“It would be brilliant to have more people, especially young people, coming forward to become magistrates,” she said. “I would recommend it to anyone. The variety of cases is vast, there is huge satisfaction in helping your community, and you learn so much about the world. It is something I will do until I have to stop when I turn 70 - the role is interesting and rewarding.”
First Published May/June 2012 By The Dart