|Rochdale Magistrates Court|
Regrettably, these celebratory events are marred by uncertainty. Many Magistrates' Courts
have been earmarked for closure in the interests of saving money and supposed efficiency - see Ministry of Justice 14th December 2010 - "Court reform: delivering better justice." It is obvious that, with fewer court locations remaining, parties to cases (including witnesses) will be required to travel much greater distances to attend court. It is also obvious that an important "local justice" element - (hitherto considered to be of some importance) - is being eroded by the closure programme.
Many serving Magistrates - many of whom have given years of voluntary service to this important office - are of the view that they are no longer valued by the "powers that be" and that they are gradually being eased out in favour of legally qualified District Judges (Magistrates' Courts). There is, as far as I know, no official statement to that effect but it is clear from a general reading of media case reports that the use of District Judges is on the increase. In 2000 it was reported (e.g. here) that Jack Straw and Lord Irvine wished to get rid of magistrates supposedly in the interests of "efficiency." Although this did not come about, the Courts Act 2003 made major changes to the system including the abolition of Magistrates' Courts Committees and the establishment of the District Judge (Magistrates' Courts) post. (For year 2010-11, the salaries of these judges was set at £102,921 p.a.) In December 2010, Mr Trevor Grove JP wrote an article published in The Telegraph - "Justice won't be served by downgrading JPs." in which he referred to the magistracy as a "cornerstone of our civic life" - "a triumph of volunteerism generations before the Big Society was even a twinkle in David Cameron's eye."
The latest wheeze emanating from within the bowels of Her Majesty's Court Service is to cut the already quite minimal expenses of magistrates. The Justice of the Peace blog gives some more detail of this proposal - "Magistrates' Expenses and Whitehall Weasels." Of course, this is presented as a necessary thing to do in the present economic climate but many serving JPs, whilst they perform their duties out of a desire to serve their local community, will see it as an exceptionally mean-spirited attack on an excellent very Big Society system of public service. It is to be hoped that this proposal is put into one of the many waste paper baskets which HMCS undoubtedly has. If sufficient effort were put into collection of unpaid fines then such gestures ought not to be necessary.
It is high time that government made it clear where they stand on the future of JPs. Death by a thousand cuts of a fine office is not acceptable. The Magistracy should be allowed to continue and its value in our democracy should be reaffirmed. The idea of "judgment by one's peers" goes back a long way in our history and was set out in Magna Carta 1297 Article XXIX. .Interestingly, Scotland has recently affirmed its faith in lay justice by the establishment of Justices of the Peace Courts. One hopes that, in their 650th Anniversary year, the government would do the same for the Magistracy of England and Wales.
Public sector cuts - where they will hit - The Guardian 25th March.
The Cuts Get Personal
Addendum 1st April 2011: "Cuts threaten to close 142 courts but magistrates won't go without a fight" - The Guardian 1st April - refers to some judicial reviews of certain court closure decisions.