A day in the life of a...magistrate, Sylvia Maharaj

Dec 12, 2023

“Be a little light in the world”


Sylvia Maharaj came to the UK from Trinidad in 1963. Sylvia is the mother of 3 grown up children. Sylvia has had an interesting and varied career journey, from being a couture dressmaker, to becoming a magistrate (including sitting on various committees in the courts), to independent adviser on racial issues to the Metropolitan Police up to the present day. Along her career journey Sylvia achieved much for the community she passionately served, having particular insight into racial issues, straddling two cultures as she does - the Asian and West Indian cultures. Sylvia was the first woman to Chair the licensing courts in the borough as well as a number of committees, and the first person from an ethnic minority to do so. Sylvia’s devotion to the needs of the community was rightly rewarded with a commendation, and then with an OBE. 


Read on to learn more about Sylvia!


Thinking about my upbringing, my parents contributed to the driving principles of my life, telling me at a young age “money isn’t everything in life. The way you carry yourself through life is important.” That has stuck with me. I came to London from Trinidad in 1963 with 2 small children, and I had a 3rd child when I came here. My career journey started really when my children grew up and I had what I would call my second bite of the cherry! They were all at school and I had time to do a lot of things that I wanted to do. One of which was I owned a dress shop where I made bridal and evening wear as a one-off. It was known in those days as “couture”. I closed the shop after a while, and I became a magistrate. That’s something else I wanted to do. My husband has passed now.


Sylvia wearing one of her own couture dresses


I became a magistrate while I was working with the Local Authority in the Education Department. There were a couple of things that happened while the children were being taught English as a second language on Saturday mornings. On two occasions I actually visited, although I had two coordinators visiting the classes. Every now and then I would visit as well. The first Saturday morning I was there, one of the young guys was not in the class and I asked why. His mum said “he didn’t even come home last night, he went driving with his dad’s car and the Police stopped him and they kept him at the station all night, and they never informed us that he was there.” The same thing happened a few months later when I went, and a friend of mine who had actually been a magistrate for a number of years had been asking me to become a magistrate so I thought, this is the right time to do it. 


So I phoned my friend and explained and I went for the interview and I became a magistrate in 1989. Magistrates have to have training for 3 years before we actually chair the courts, in the meantime you can sit as what we call “Wingers”. Every court sitting has 3 magistrates, the one in the middle we call the Chair and two on either side we call Wingers who assist the Chair. The first time I actually sat in court with a couple of magistrates who were senior to me, there was an incident which really threw me. This guy walked in and before he even sat down, the 2 senior magistrates said to each other, “he must be guilty because he’s not looking up at us.” I thought, “that can’t be right”, but I didn’t say anything immediately. We decided after listening to the case and going over our notes, to go back to make our decision. One of the senior magistrates said to the other, “he didn’t look at us when he walked in, so I think we've found him guilty haven’t we?” The other agreed and said, “yes he is guilty”.


“If you are doing a job, you should look at the interests 

not only of yourself but of the community. 

I’m proud to have made a contribution to the community”


At this point I said, “but I've had no input into this whatsoever.” I was told it didn’t matter because the majority goes, and any 2 out of the 3 is a majority, and the two of them had decided. I then said, “will you help me then, because in my notes I can’t see anything that says this man is guilty, so I may have missed something in court. But before you do, I heard you say to each other when he walked in ‘he must be guilty because he’s not looking up at us’ but in neither of the cultures I represent, do we look up at figures of authority, we always look down.” They then decided in view of what I had told them to find the man not guilty. After that morning's sitting, I went into the court's manager’s office and asked to have a word with him. I said “I think we need some cultural awareness training in the courts”. He asked if I would do the training. I said “no, I know what needs to be done, but I’m not a qualified trainer.” And that was all it took. Within 6 months all the North East London courts were trained. After that all the London courts were trained. And then the whole country was trained without me even knowing that. For me that was an achievement.


Another of my achievements was in relation to my independent advisory role with the Metropolitan Police. Whilst I was still working as a magistrate, I was asked to set up a committee comprising of members from within the 11 boroughs served by this call centre by the Commander of the Centres. It was no easy task! However, in time the committee started to have monthly meetings with the Deputy Commander from the Centre attending, along with the Commander and committee members from that area. Within a few months, we had a meeting at which I was asked if I can roll out this format to the other Centres and I said it could be done. 


Me and my team then started recruiting members from the other boroughs and had meetings alternately at each centre. We decided to monitor the call handlers at work, just to find out how they were coping with callers especially at busy times. We did this by visiting by previous arrangements with Supervisors where our members noted how the call handlers were coping. Feedback forms were passed to me, which I passed on to the Supervisors, for which they were very grateful. We ended up with 32 members monitoring the 3 call centres. I set up and chaired this committee for 4 years in 2009 and it's still ongoing by a very capable Chair. I was commended for this work by the then Commander of the Centres who is now the Chief Constable of Essex.


Sylvia receiving her Commendation in relation to her advisory role with 

the Metropolitan Police call centres


Around this time I realised that when you are doing things within the community, you are not the only person who is actually looking at it. There are other people on the outside looking in. Someone was making notes along the line, and I was summoned to the Palace for a Commendation and I wondered who had asked for that to happen. I had a limited time to reply but I was away at the time. I rang them out of courtesy when I returned saying, “if I had been available I would have said yes, I would like to be put forward.” I didn’t hear anything until 2 months later I received a letter telling me when to come to the Palace and I can bring 3 people with me if I want. To my great surprise I was awarded an OBE by the Queen. It was presented by the then Prince Charles, now King Charles. He pinned it on my jacket and we had a little chat for a minute or so. It was so lovely to be there. That was an occasion that I’ll never forget. My children were so proud of me. 


Sylvia and family members after receiving her OBE


Despite retiring as a magistrate in 1998, I have by no means stopped! Not only do I still volunteer with the Metropolitan Police as an independent adviser on racial issues, but I also run coffee mornings for Breast Cancer Care, and am active at Salway Evangelical Church. Regarding my work relating to the law, whether as a magistrate or as adviser to the Met, I think it’s very important to work with and not against the law. We need to work hand in hand. I would encourage anyone who wants to do more for their community to look for ways to do so, whatever your age. For older adults, Age Concern is a great institution. Any little ways that you can give back to the community are very worthwhile. 

To read more “day in the life” articles and much more, click here to view the blog of The Careers Company.

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.