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, 4 November 2015

LAW COMMISSION// 12 MONTHS FOR MAGISTRATES

For over a decade there have been arguments, reports and informed suggestions that magistrates should have enhanced sentencing powers; namely that the current maximum of six months custody be doubled.  No other  initiative or  sentencing possibility has been more enthusiastically supported by the Magistrates Association although whether that reflects opinion of magistrates in general is a moot point. It is not difficult to discern the reason for such changes; it has nothing to do with the efficiency or lack thereof of the crown court but everything to do with the lower cost of running magistrates` courts.  These lower costs might be self evident but are very difficult to find in an authoritative published form.  We have figures such as these but  considering that the courts are run by Her Majesty`s Courts and Tribunal Service if one had expected clear and  unambiguous figures in its annual report one would have been disappointed.  114 pages on such topics as climate change and  carbon management plan but the daily cost of running the various courts under its control are nowhere to be found.  IMHO this cannot be an oversight. It is an omission by commission.  Various ratios have been offered historically on the relative costs of crown and magistrates` courts  and from recollection the former costs two to three times the cost of the latter but I am open to correction on the detail. 

These and similar arguments will become increasingly vocal in the near future because the Law Commission has recommended that the lower courts be allowed to sentence for up to twelve months custody.  As expected, Magistrates Association chairman Richard Monkhouse quoted in the Guardian was quick to endorse such a possibility, “Magistrates are trained, ready and able to handle cases with longer sentences – we see this as an opportunity for the government to trust our members to do the job they signed up for.” From the opposite side of the sentencing divide no doubt there will be a response from the Howard League for Penal Reform long opposed to magistrates` courts having any powers at all of custodial sentencing....."The Howard League repeats its objection to the use of short prison sentences, which are ineffective and damaging and believe magistrates’ over-use of custody could be prevented if they were required to remand an individual to the Crown Court for a custodial sentence".

Having been compulsorily retired by HMCTS earlier this year although the impending imposition of the Criminal Courts Charge made me jump from the good ship justice a little earlier than required  I can perhaps  reflect more objectively than sitting J.P.s on this situation.  There is an unhealthy number of them sitting only for the minimum required period demanded by the Ministry; 26 half days annually.  The actual numbers are kept under lock and key by the country`s justices` clerks but from my earlier analysis of all J.P.s  sacked by the   Judicial Conduct Investigations Office about half were for failing to sit for that minimum number of times.  I am informed by my own former colleagues that the number of two person benches is currently as high as it has ever been and that is with a reduced number of courts.  In addition there is virtually widespread agreement that training for magistrates is not as effective  it should be and that change is around the corner.  The appraisal system is not fit for purpose. These  facts alone give cause for concern.  Whilst a winger might just get by sitting for three hours every fortnight for a chairman to be competent and to be seen as being competent such a sitting level is totally inadequate.  However the Ministry is loathe to increase this minimum sitting requirement for chairmen because of the dire and increasing shortage of those eligible for the step up to the middle chair. 

I doubt the legal profession is any too happy about the proposals. Young lawyers of both persuasions are unlikely to offer their services for an increased number of appearances at magistrates` courts where their financial rewards make the junior doctors current pay levels seem to be in the stratosphere. 

The Law Commission`s proposals will IMHO be unlikely to come to fruition and with the impending reversal by Michael Gove over the Criminal Courts Charge likely to lead to mixed headlines he most certainly will not wish to make columns in the broadsheets by allowing magistrates increased sentencing powers at least not in the near future.

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