"We are an unsung national treasure."

That is the message from one North Hampshire magistrate as she encourages more people to apply to sit in the courts.

Amelia Ashton JP, who started sitting in the courts almost 12 years ago, said that being a magistrate has been "absolutely fascinating" and a "very positive experience".

"No two days in court are ever the same," Mrs Ashton told The Advertiser. "You never stop learning, there’s always something new, or something old.

"Lots of people say ‘Aren’t you depressed by what you see in court?’, but the honest answer is that you see the most enormous amount of the milk of human kindness, because people are complex, and I can honestly say in 12 years I’ve seen very few genuinely wicked types, but I have seen an awful lot of kindness, desperation, support, and it is an extraordinary system."

The Ministry of Justice have launched a campaign to recruit more magistrates - volunteers who sit in courts alongside their job, studies or retirement.

Magistrates are people with no legal background who volunteer their time to help decide on and sentence criminal cases. They are only paid travel and sustenance expenses, and are given legal advice on what they need to do whilst in court.

Normally, minor offences are decided on my a bench of three magistrates, but this equates to 95 per cent of all criminal cases.

Cases that are dealt with by magistrates, who sit in Basingstoke, Aldershot, Southampton and Portsmouth, include motoring, alcohol and drug offences, as well as theft and assault cases.

Mrs Ashton, from Winchester, said that more diversity among magistrates is what will allow the system to "continue to thrive".

"There’s a slightly worrying picture of a magistrate being an old white guy with woolly white hair," she said.

"We would like the young, but we all understand that you’ve all got jobs to do. We’re a great institution but we need new blood.

"That is the young, a greater ethnic diversity, we need communities to be represented whatever shape, size, background that community is, because that’s how we continue to thrive."

Recounting why she decided to become a magistrate, Mrs Ashton continued: "Back in about 2008 they changed the licensing law so that pubs could apply for licences until the middle of the night. I ended up being the street objector leading a campaign because we had three pubs in our street."

The campaign stopped two extended licensing applications, but the third went in front of what is now a district judge, a magistrate who has received training and is paid.

"While I was in Hammersmith Magistrates' Court waiting to be a witness, I went and sat in some of the other courtrooms and I was amazed by the speed and efficiency and fairness of the whole process, and by the fact that these were lay people and didn’t have any legal training.

"It’s almost the best stories you can see, because it’s people’s lives being played out, and for some people it really is about being heard. I was so amazed by this that I thought ‘perhaps I could do this’."

But while some may have grandiose visions of what the inside of a court may look like, with barristers dressed in wigs and judges sat in decadent court rooms, the reality of a magistrates' court is rather different.

"We're all rather dull looking!" Mrs Ashton jokes. "It’s very interesting because of course it has gravitas, and the institute needs to be taken seriously, but what’s very obvious is the dignity with which everyone is treated, by each other and as a whole, and the teamwork.

"When the bench retires, you see the extent to which there is co-operation between the legal advisor and the defence and the CPS and probation, and that is also very heartening."

Mrs Ashton says that magistrates need to commit to 13 full days a year, but that the courts are very flexible to each individual's availability. Employers also have a legal obligation to allow you to take time off for the role.

Asked what her message would be to anyone thinking of applying, the 56-year-old said: "Come! The public gallery is open, the great thing about courts in this country is that it is an open system, so come and watch.

"It’s fascinating, you learn so much about human nature and what is going on in your local community and it is such a worthwhile thing to do."

For more information and to apply, go to magistrates.judiciary.uk.