The Magistrate's Blog (2005-2012)

This blog has migrated to www.magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk This blog is anonymous, and Bystander's views are his and his alone. Where his views differ from the letter of the law, he will enforce the letter of the law because that is what he has sworn to do. If you think that you can identify a particular case from one of the posts you are wrong. Enough facts are changed to preserve the truth of the tale but to disguise its exact source.

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Location: Near London, United Kingdom

The blog is written by a retired JP, with over 30 years' experience on the Bench.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Clerk to the Justices

When I joined the Bench in the 1980s my court, like every other, had a Clerk to the Justices, who held his office under statute and was to all intents and purposes master in his own domain. He was responsible through the Magistrates' Court's Committee, for the administration of the court, and all of the staff knew who was in charge. He trained the magistrates and, to some extent, the staff, and he had his finger on the pulse of the court. The relationship with the Bench Chairman was particularly important, since the Clerk was appointed by the Court's Committee, and Clerk and Chairman managed the court, the staff and the bench. They had statutory independence, which inevitably meant that there were differences of practice between courts across the country. In due course that offended politicians who wanted to see 'consistency' as they put it, and control as I would put it.
So over a few years the courts were reorganised into regions and areas, and instead of a Clerk to each court, one so-called Clerk (whose functions were now mostly administrative) could supervise a number of courts and dozens of lawyers. That was really the end of the Clerk to the Justices, but the title remained, partly because it would have been prohibitively costly to sack them, and we then had the fiction of a Clerk who in reality could have 500 to over 1000 JPs to advise. When I started the Clerk knew all of his staff and magistrates, and, as one of them said, was a cross between a butler and a family solicitor. He was technically employed by the magistrates, but everyone knew where they stood.
Now there are plans to reduce the number of Clerks to about 50 for the whole of England and Wales, which means that few magistrates will be on personal terms with their Clerk, and that the office has in effect been abolished. Since 2005 Clerks have been civil servants, which means that while their independence is guaranteed when they are carrying out judicial functions or advising magistrates as to law, they must otherwise follow Government policy as directed by the Minister.
All this is a shame. Justice and so-called efficiency do not always sit easily together. Given the choice, I would prefer to sacrifice a little efficiency and concentrate on justice.