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.

Comments are usually moderated. However, I do not accept any legal responsibility for the content of any comment. If any comment seems submitted just to advertise a website it will not be published.

Thursday, 29 October 2015


This blogger has with few exceptions been very critical of the Magistrates Association and those leading it.  With this in mind I have copied below the speech The Chief Executive recently made to the Reforming Probation and Rehabilitation Services Conference on 22 October 2015.

It is IMHO a well crafted speech with the underlying motive of explaining why the M.A. is taking money from those who will implement some of the proposals here expounded. He makes no bones about castigating critics of such innovation with little attempt to conceal his contempt for their opinion.  I leave it to readers to make their own judgements.

Implementing Changes to Sentencing to Enhance Probation Services

Chris Brace

Chief Executive
Magistrates’ Association

Further joint working between the courts, the NPS and CRCs to implement changes to sentencing and assessment
Extending the role of the magistrates’ courts in the rehabilitation of offenders
Imposing new measures when offenders breach supervision order

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I have been asked to talk about changes to sentencing to enhance probation services.Firstly, however, I thought it would be useful to explain what the Magistrates’ Association is and what we do.

The Magistrates’ Association is a charity. It is not a public body and it is not a trade association. It is a charity. It is a charity with a Royal Charter and Bye-laws, which means we have a very strict remit and very strict rules to which we must adhere. We exist to promote the sound administration of the law. That means we discuss how the law is implemented, how it can be done better, the intended and possibly unintended outcomes of the law, whether those outcomes are desirable or undesirable, and what can be done about it. We advocate for change where we think it is necessary, and we talk to, educate, and in certain circumstances attempt to influence those decision-makers who hold the levers of change. We do not comment on what should and should not be the law. We would never discuss whether a particular offence should be decriminalised or whether a particular activity should be criminalised. We would never, within our strict remit, advocate for any particular imposition against offenders to be abolished, but we may highlight perverse outcomes and suggest ways that an imposition may be amended to enable those outcomes to be fairer to those who come before the courts. We always work in the interests of justice. We are a membership charity and have around 19,000 members across England and Wales. The majority are magistrates, many are retired magistrates, and some are interested individuals both inside and outside the justice system. The membership payment is a donation to charity, to support our object of promoting the sound administration of the law. We support our members by informing them about changes to the justice system, to the law, to process and procedure, and we provide sentencing and other exercises to ensure that magistrates keep their skills up to date. We are in the process of developing an extensive continuing professional development offer which will be launched in 2016.

We have 12 full time equivalent staff, but our members do a huge amount of voluntarywork to support us.They make up the board, the policy committees, and the committees of our 59 local groups that cover England and Wales.That’s about 600 people volunteering to keep things running.But our biggest endeavour is our magistrates in the community presentations. Every year our members, on an entirely voluntary basis, give almost 5,000 presentations to about 200,000 people in schools, colleges, universities and community groups to educate their communities about the role of magistrates and the justice system as a whole. That’s about 2,000 magistrates going out in their local communities, voluntarily, because they care, because it is important, and because we believe that’s where reducing offending starts; supporting people to gain an understanding of the justice system, why it exists, why it is important, and what it means to be a good citizen. However, we are often hampered in our work by those who think that judicial independence and  judicial impartiality means that magistrates and, inappropriately but by extension, the Magistrates’ Association should not be working with the other agencies who make up the justice system. Siloed working is far too often not only encouraged, but seen to be essential. That is wrong. There is no two ways about it. How can we see it as a virtue to run a system that is so fragmented that joint working is not only discouraged but sometimes actively prohibited? We must work together. Sentencers must work with the National Probation Service, and not just in court, to discuss the needs of offenders and how our work can support each other. Sentencers must work with the Community Rehabilitation Companies to pool knowledge about what interventions work for different offenders, what don’t, what programmes are available and where, and to discuss how greater flexibility and a wider breadth of innovative programmes can be developed to rehabilitate offenders and reduce reoffending. That shouldn’t be prohibited, it should be seen as an active duty that supports our collective endeavour.

There are those criminal justice campaigners who still bemoan the dawn of the CRCs and who would like to turn back the clock on those changes. Whatever the personal opinion of any of us working within the justice system, we must live in the world as it is now, not as it was in the past. We must work together and openly discuss procedures, process and outcomes with each other, with a view to supporting each other to greater effectiveness and efficiency. If that causes constitutional consternation, then that is fundamentally wrong and structures should be changed to enable that essential work to happen.

The MA Network, an independent subsidiary of the Magistrates’ Association, is delighted to be working with our Founding Affiliates: the Oxford Centre for Criminology, the Probation Institute, the Office of the Victims’ Commissioner, MTC Novo, Working Links and Sodexo. The Network seeks affiliates who are collectively committed to promoting excellence in  the delivery of justice, and supports that endeavour by providing an independent networking hub where different providers and stakeholders in the justice system can come together to pool their knowledge and experience and share good practice, mutually supporting each other to improve their provision to achieve a better experience and better outcomes for all users of the justice system. The Network’s first research project is working directly with women offenders and providers to identify factors which lead women offenders to breach community orders and develop practical recommendations to change practice to reduce breaches. I mention this because we are justifiably proud of this new initiative, and because it embodies the necessity to work together to improve rehabilitation and reduce reoffending. But I also mention it because the criticism the MA has received for setting up this initiative has been hysterical and baseless. Commentators and campaigners who are usually balanced and who also want to see a more effective and reformed justice system, have cried corruption because the Network is seeking paid affiliation from CRCs, and other providers,to develop the capacity to undertake research and promote networking. Somehow the argument conflates the MA Network and the Magistrates’ Association, and then conflates the Magistrates’ Association and magistrates, and cries foul and claims corruption.What a load of nonsense.

If those who wish to see a more effective justice system actively attempt to sabotage  initiatives which seek a more effective justice system, on the basis that it is a legitimate activity for some but not others, then what a sorry mess we are all in.

So, that is how we see the justice system coming together for mutual benefit, to discuss improvements to the breadth and flexibility of provision, how to improve outcomes, and ensure that we do as much as we can to stop the revolving door of offending. Sentencers can support that with more engagement in court, more targeted sentences, pushing for more drug and alcohol review courts, and encouraging more problem solving principles in court. Probation services can support that by providing more programmes with more flexibility, and more options for more intensive programmes when a rehabilitation order has been breached or when someone reoffends and has already been through a drug or alcohol treatment programme. Community options are very limited when someone has already been through a programme once or twice, and with limited options comes an increased likelihood of having to send to custody offenders who may benefit from another chance in the community. An increased set of community options might see lighter touch programmes for those offenders for whom drug and alcohol use is a contributing factor, but where addiction is not the issue. At the other end there could be more intensive, perhaps residential, programmes for those cases where a drug or alcohol treatment requirement has not worked in the first instance. With those options available, there would be a clear progression of support which may initially help to nip in the bud behaviour which will ultimately lead to more prolific offending down the line, and in more severe cases of addiction help to divert offenders away from custody where they have breached a treatment requirement in the past. There are other options that could be extended too, with more flexibility bringing in a wider cohort. For example, we know that incidence of mental health is very high amongst defendants in court, but the mental health treatment requirement is complex to administer and restricted in cases of dual diagnosis. Currently, mental health treatment requirements only feature in 1% of community orders.

From my own experience on the bench, the building better relationships programme for domestic abuse offenders in London is hugely successful. Places are limited, understandably due to funding and capacity, but it is exactly the type of initiative where, if experience and knowledge are shared openly between providers, local innovation could change national practice. To address breaches, technology is likely to play a key role in ensuring compliance in the future.The Probation Institute is investigating how electronic monitoring can be used to support rehabilitative programmes and alcohol and drug tags provide opportunities to ensure compliance with community orders, but these new technologies must be subject to the appropriate control and oversight, their efficacy must be proved, and guidelines must be developed and adhered to, before they become a part of our standard toolkit.

With the continuing funding cuts, the emphasis these days always seems to be on cost, forgetting that the justice system should be investing in a low offending future.It is often forgotten that the justice system is a service that satisfies a public need for justice, rather than a business to be managed at the lowest possible cost. And, it is also often forgotten that if we improve rehabilitation and reduce reoffending, costs will in turn reduce, not only for the justice system but across society. That is not to say that rehabilitation of offenders should be the sole purpose of sentencing. The sentencing guidelines give magistrates five purposes to consider when imposing a sentence. They are the punishment of offenders, the reduction of crime (including deterrence), the reform and rehabilitation of offenders, the protection of the public and the making of reparation.Following the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the sentencing bench must include a punitive element, i.e. punishment, in all sentences. However, it is clear that at least three, and arguably four, of the purposes of sentencing are met by improving rehabilitation and reducing reoffending, so in these endeavours it is in all our interests to work together.

Finally, a word about victims. I haven’t mentioned victims so far, and victims are often absent from the magistrates’ courts. Victims are unlikely to be present at first hearing, may attend to give evidence at trial, but are for most of the time absent when any sentence is given as well. All too often when the bench asks for a victim personal statement, one hasn’t been taken or it is missing from the court file. Victims must be considered as part of the effort to reduce reoffending, and where victims are willing to undertake a restorative justice conference that option should be explored where appropriate. Restorative justice has good results in terms of reducing reoffending, and also improves victims’ satisfaction with the outcomes of their case. Restorative justice work is ongoing across the country, but may well be an additional string to the bow of probation services and have a real impact, over time, on reducing the incidence of crime.

Thank you.

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