There are few things more depressing for a police officer than to have worked hard to secure the conviction of a criminal only to see magistrates hand out a derisory sentence.

It is equally depressing for law-abiding residents to see the scourge of their streets return from court nursing only a slapped wrist - his swagger intact, his snarl undiminished.

In the mid-1990s I spoke out against lenient magistrates. I felt they were undermining the work the police and public were putting into cleaning up the streets.

Some magistrates didn't seem to grasp that the courts are run for the benefit of society, they are part of the public face of towns and can have a major impact in improving the communities they serve.

Believe me, villains develop a 'league table' of courts; they know which ones are a soft touch. It shouldn't surprise anyone that crime rises in areas where the deterrent is low.

In the 1990s magistrates seemed aloof to many people, out of touch and their appointment shrouded in mystery. This week I returned to the courts in my capacity as elected Mayor of Middlesbrough and I have to say that I believe times have changed for the better.

Speaking with Colin Monson, the Chief Executive to the Teesside Justices, I was struck by how keen he is to emphasise the role of the magistrates court in the infrastructure of the town.

It's amazing that people will sit in front of their telly day and night to watch crime thrillers yet the public gallery of the magistrates court is usually empty, bar the defendant's family.

Mr Monson is keen for people to see real life drama first hand, to see justice in action and was pleased that a recent open day proved popular.

He is also very aware courts are run on public money. The more efficiently they are run, the more value they deliver for every taxpayer's pound. Refreshingly, he also accepts those sitting in public judgement are open to public criticism.

In Middlesbrough we currently have about 300 magistrates. They come from all walks of life and cover all creeds and colour, split equally between the sexes. We could do with another 60 magistrates: a move that would improve further the efficiency of the courts. The basic skill required is an ability not to pre-judge anything.

I'm sure many people following high profile cases through the media make up their minds before the defence has even begun. A magistrate must maintain an open mind, listen to both sides of the story objectively before making any judgement.

Anyone interested in becoming a magistrate can apply to their local court for an information pack. There are two extensive interviews to get through and then training. Successful applicants are expected to sit one day a fortnight. It's unpaid but expenses are met.

It's easy to criticise but to actually bring about change for the better requires commitment. So if the courts have ever made your blood boil, if you feel you could do better, then now's your chance.

Published: 04/04/2003