Now that I am retired having been many years a magistrate with a long awareness of the declining freedoms enjoyed by the ordinary citizen and a corresponding fear of the big brother state`s ever increasing encroachment on civil liberties I hope that my personal observations within these general parameters will be of interest to those with an open mind. Having been blogging with this title for many years against the rules of the Ministry of Justice my new found freedom should allow me to be less inhibited in these observations.




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Wednesday, 15 April 2015

THOUGHTS AFTER RETIREMENT



It is generally accepted that magistrates` courts came into being in 1285, during the reign of Edward I, when ‘good and lawful men’ were commissioned to keep the King’s peace. The title Justice of the Peace (J.P.) first appeared in 1361, in the reign of Edward III. As the office was unpaid only those with independent wealth could be appointed.  Until the turn of this century applicants had to declare their political affiliation before their applications would be considered. Prior to 2003 there was a great deal of truly local control of individual magistrates` courts.

With major changes in society since 1997; reduction in crime, increase in out of court disposals, mass immigration, increases in legislation and government`s increasing desire to exercise control,  units of governance increased in size eg many smaller London boroughs were abolished and absorbed into larger entities with populations the size of cities such as Bristol.  Courts were no exception to this big is best philosophy.   With the formation of Her Majesty`s Courts and Tribunals Service in 2011 central government has overall control of the whole courts` process. 

On March 25th I   sat  for the last time as a magistrate.  I did not resign, I was not removed for misconduct; I have been retired because I will be about to reach the biblical standard and compulsory retirement age of three score years and ten.  As an individual who has freely given  one day weekly for each of these seventeen years it will most certainly leave a gap in my life and lifestyle which will not easily be replaced.  But as part of a cohort of baby boomers, currently 55% of my colleagues are over 60 years old, the lay magistracy  is losing its most experienced members many or most of whom are qualified to sit as chairmen in court.  Those in their fifth decade of life make up 28% of J.P.s. The youngest group; the under forties has been fairly constant over the last decade at under 4% of the total.  An organisation which for whatever reason loses or is projected to lose such a high percentage of its most senior members cannot be expected to have a long shelf life.  This brief summary is not about the representative nature of the magistracy.  My concern is that as appointees and the most junior members of the judiciary we are subject to the whim of government.  And that whim hints at the removal of lay magistrates from our courts system as we know it;  a  system of courts unique in the world where lay magistrates have powers of custodial sentencing.

The last fifteen years have seen a gradual erosion of the powers of magistrates` benches over their members and behind the scenes court processes.  Her Majesty`s Courts and Tribunal Service has arguably created powers for itself not envisaged by those who set these changes in motion.  Whilst the number of J.P.s has fallen by almost a third over this period of falling numbers of cases coming to court  the same period has seen the number of full time District Judges sitting alone  rising from below 100 to 139 assisted by 154 part time Deputy District Judges.  The numbers of District Judges (and D.D.J.s)  have increased as a direct result of government policies. It is reasonable to ask oneself why.  It cannot be purely on cost although if their having a qualified legal clerk for assistance were abolished the cost difference would be a close run thing allowing for J.P.s expenses.   It cannot be that increasing court time is required.  The last decade has seen the number of lay magistrates reduced from c30,000 to c 23,000. The only logical conclusion is that by having the lower courts under the control of salaried civil servants they become more amenable to central control.  Those more expert than I in the manipulation of statistics have suggested that converting the Deputies to full time D.J.s would enable a government to remove the lay Justice of the Peace from the criminal court altogether replacing him/her with a single arbiter of law, fact finding and sentencing  thus allowing  full -  on control of the total courts process by civil servants beholden to government for their stipend.   It is virtually beyond argument that this is indeed what happened after the riots of 2011.  I personally experienced pressure from senior officials to send where lawful a  related matter at that time to crown court as District Judges were instructed to do notwithstanding whether or not it had passed the required seriousness test.  My colleagues and I at the time declined such pressure. 

There is no doubt that in their quest to pursue the concept of restorative justice,  the proliferation of out of court disposals, the pressure to reduce custodial sentencing and the virtual balancing of costs between J.P.s and an arguably  more efficient and cost effective professional judiciary there are politicians all too willing to heed the voices of pressure groups to remove the lay magistracy from the courtrooms of England and Wales.   Recent legislative changes, many by the coalition, have seen the resignation of a small number of J.P.s........statistics are impossible to find.  Imposition of taxes unrelated to income termed “victim surcharge” on convicted offenders in addition to costs, fines, community requirements and custodial sentences were greeted with dismay by most of my colleagues.  Newly announced additional such taxation known as the Criminal Court Charge will almost certainly accelerate the philosophical distance between magistrates and government leading  inevitably to resignations especially from the most senior cohort of J.P.s.


I can now write in all honesty that against my previous expectations I am happy to have reached this milestone; the end of my judicial career. However I intend to continue with this blog as long as I think I have something useful to say and there are some who consider it is something useful to read.  

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