Friday, 25 March 2011

A Jewel Beyond Price ... the Magistracy of England and Wales ... No.2

Rochdale Magistrates Court
In December 2010 Law and Lawyers looked at the magistracy of England and Wales which was described by the late Lord Bingham as a "democratic jewel beyond price."  25th January 2011 marked the 650th Anniversary of the Justices of the Peace Act 1361 and, during 2011, a number of celebratory events are being held.  These events include a number of Court Open Days enabling the public to see the interior of a court and some of the behind the scenes activity.  The magistracy is a unique way in which members of the public have been able to participate in the administration of justice.

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.

Articles on funding cuts:
Public sector cuts - the truth - The Guardian 25th March.
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.


  1. There is a BIG issue here - does the government (or more pertinently, the civil service) wish to get rid of lay magistrates? Or, perhaps, downgrade their jurisdiction and powers to very routine stuff that DJ(MC)s would not want to do? I suspect that in the civil service there is a mind set that wants this, and will not let this go - in the same way that ID cards were pressed and pressed until they found a pliant minister to introduce them. However, for the Magistracy to fight back it is not sufficient to rely on the past. Concentration of services into larger hubs has been going on in all services (often with the same opposition as has been advanced to court closures). And it is inevitable for Magistrates Courts also. The key to the future for the Magistracy is to be innovative within this movement. For example, why do people have to come to court for everything? Why not send benches of magistrates from the hub court to a locality, once or twice a week, to run a court in a church hall? I am now retired from the bench, but modern technology, and modern management were not much in evidence when I was there. Are vast quantities of paper still moved around to little obvious purpose?

  2. Thank you obiter j for exposing to your readers the current efforts of HMCTS to further disincentivise current and prospective J.P.s.

    To former J.P. Anonymous the concept of travelling or temporary courts was shown for the nonsense that it was. You might find my post of 20/01/2010 of some interest

  3. Here is a live link to the Justice of the Peace post referred to.

    I don't know the answers to the questions in the first two sentences of the thoughtful post from Anonymous but one has suspicions. The ability of the Magistracy to fight back is limited and, in particular, it is very hard for them to be innovative because they do not have their hands on the essential levers to make changes. Benches could go out to sit elsewhere (e.g. in local town halls etc) but the powers that be would have to make arrangements for this to happen. There is plainly no willingness to do this. The whole system is now controlled "top down" (the old courts committees having been abolished and Magistrates are extremely constrained in what they may do.

  4. To Justice of the Peace and Obiter J, thank you for the link to the Arndale idea. Of course, 'instant' justice was not what I had in mind. One of the criticisms of more concentration is the costs imposed on witnesses, victims etc by having to travel further. Also the danger of more 'no shows' by various parties. But let me make my suggestion more concrete. I deduce that Obiter (from posts on this blog and others) to be located somewhere in the Greater Manchester area. Wythenshawe is a source of many petty offences and offenders. Why not hold a regular court (say a remand type court) in the Forum? If a case proceeds to trial, or sentence, then the offenders can travel to the City Court for the next hearing. My point here is that the way we do things has not really changed for decades. I think some things could change for the better within the framework we have at present. Some magistrates dislike concentration because it reduces localism. But this has been going on for years, and, lets be frank, some courts are just too small. Not many years ago I came across the Chairman of a Bench of 35. How can a bench that size generate the quantity and variety of experience that a competent magistrate is entitled to expect?

  5. Yes, some courts were too small and most people have accepted that. Such benches, if any still exist, are being phased out rapidly by the government. The emerging problem is that benches will be massive with a falling workload (due to "out of court" disposals of cases) and District Judges (taking a significant number of cases). Such big benches require a considerable amount of organisation and, let's face it, staff to support the number of people involved.

    I fully accept that, within the present system, it would be possible for benches to sit outside of their normal courtrooms BUT, and it is a big BUT, this would require proper resources. There is no willingness in the powers that be to consider such moves and it is they who hold the levers of power and not the magistrates.

    Other changes could be made - e.g. review of so-called "single justice powers" which are, in practice, often discharged by legal advisers acting alone. It would be possible to alter things here so that more of those powers had to be exercised by a "justice" and it would even be possible for minor cases to be handled by a suitably trained JP sitting alone. Yet again ,there seems to be no willingness to look at ideas such as these.

    BTW - I did know Greater Manchester well but am now located elsewhere - out in the Styx !