Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Justices of the Peace

The office of Justice of the Peace is one of the oldest known to our law.   I wrote about the justices in June 2011 as part of a series of posts about our legal system.  Today, a considerable number of the justices are members of the Magistrates' Association and its recently elected chairman has suggested that there be a debate about allowing some former offenders to become magistrates - Law Society Gazette 11th November - Let ex-offenders sit as magistrates.  The article is worth reading since the suggestion is more nuanced than the headline would suggest.  Nevertheless, I disagree with any weakening of existing policy in this area.  (Existing policy does not necessarily exclude those with minor convictions).  It has to be paramount that the bench maintains not only legal authority but also moral authority to sit in judgment on the actions of fellow citizens.

In 1307 and 1308 Keepers of the Peace
were empowered to arrest people on suspicion of felony, and in 1316, in Kent, they were empowered to judge the cases of those they had arrested, so the jails could be cleared (Alan Harding - The Law Courts of Medieval England - 1973).  Although appointed by the King, the 'Keepers' were local men.  In the reign of Edward III, the office of justice of the peace was established (Justices of the Peace Act 1361) and it was stated that there were to be  'three or four of the most worthy in the county, together with some learned in the law.'  In 1388 the numbers of justices in each county was increased and it was enacted that they be paid 4 shillings for each day of their sessions: in effect, twelve times the average working wage of the day.  At the present time, justices receive certain expenses which are not all that generous!  The magistracy celebrated its 650th anniversary in 2011.  Over the last 652 years, the role of the magistrate has changed many times (and continues to do so) but it has been an abiding requirement that justices be of demonstrably good character.   I for one hope that this will be maintained.

Guidance notes for applicants - Section 4 explains the present policy regarding previous convictions

Addendum 18th November:

Law Society Gazette - Felons on the bench would be a crime  - former criminal defence solicitor John Morton argues that Richard Monkhouse's thoughts do not merit much consideration.  Does the public really want ex-criminals sitting in judgment over them?  Morton also argues that appointing minor ex-criminals to the bench is a slippery slope.


  1. "(Existing policy does not necessarily exclude those with minor convictions)."

    In all fairness to the M.A.`s new chairman I would suggest he is not advocating a change in current restrictions but perhaps re-stating for an audience with restricted knowledge that "minor" convictions are not themselves a necessary bar to appointment.

    1. He goes somewhat further than that but his 'threshold' is not clear. With falling workload, fewer Magistrates' Courts and more District Judges (Magistrates' Courts) fewer JPs ought to be required so there is no sensible need to widen eligibility in the way suggested. Mr Monkhouse made some other points however - e.g. relating to abolishing jury trial for some offences etc. I have not looked at those in this post.

  2. This is interesting. Minor convictions had to be declared but were not necessarily a bar to appointment. After appointment, minor convictions, especially motoring offences, were treated leniently unless persistent. About 15 years ago, a tougher attitude began to be displayed. In fact, JPs were subject to a more stringent regime than DJ(MC)s. Often they were forced to stand down whilst the infringement (or Complaint) was investigated or whilst the Lord Chancellor deliberated - no matter how minor the infringement. Advisory Committees did not use the discretion given them to consider cases on their merits - rather they took a blanket approach that was clearly unlawful. Hopefully a more considered approach now prevails. I write as a former Bench Chairman who had to advise many JPs who had minor offences to declare.

  3. Can't imagine why he started his term of office with this issue - I agree entirely with ObiterJ - when he has far more urgent fish to fry.