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.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Guest Blogger 2

This is a contribution from Jennie, a regular commenter, who is a JP as well as a Solicitor. It's hers entirely, but her views are welcome, of course.


Having been kindly invited by Bystander to pen a little piece for his esteemed blog (a task for which I am entirely unworthy!!) I thought I might use the opportunity to raise an issue that is becoming close to my heart. It is an issue common to many in the public (and indeed private) sector but as this is ostensibly a blog about the magistracy, I thought I’d limit myself to this.

I refer of course to the way the criminal justice system is being starved of cash and resources to such an extent that justice – that nebulous but vital element of any state that would dare call itself a democracy,- is suffering.

When I was appointed to the bench in 1993 (eek, was it that long ago?) we had a full complement of legal advisers (6) plus our own Justices Clerk. Our courthouse was relatively small (2 ‘secure’ courtrooms, 2 ‘ordinary’ courtrooms for more minor offences plus in a separate block a courtroom for ‘juvenile’ courts as it then was. We usually ran 3 sometimes 4 courts morning and afternoon. We had an efficient in house administrative staff who ensured that files were available for court, results were recorded the same day, adjournment, summonses and trial notices were despatched in good time for the next hearing and our very own Magistrates Court Committee ensured a smooth running of the administration and training requirements. Our relations with the Police, CPS, Probation and Defence solicitors worked well – not always perfect of course, but the lines of communication ensured that any minor problems didn’t escalate into major hassles.

The rot set in with the removal of local MCC’s and (in London at least) the establishment of the Greater London Magistrates Court Committee. Control was centralised and budgets slashed. It’s main concern seemed to be the wholesale closure of courts and selling off the land for development. After a long and hard fought battle we won the fight to retain local justice in our court. This ‘experiment’ lasted barely 3 years before the GLMCA too was abolished and Her Majesty’s Court Service set up (but not before the inevitable reorganisation and consolidation of Justices Clerks to a regional rather than local basis and let’s not forget the less than successful Libra IT project which seems to have taken an inordinate amount of time to get right and it’s still doesn’t have all the functionality as promised).

My court now operates on a ‘clustered’ basis whereby our admin is done by a far bigger court 4 miles away. We have only 2 full time and 2 part time clerks. If lucky, we run 3 courts in the morning (but its more often 2) and 2 in the afternoon. Our JC is based 12 miles away and visits from time to time (thank goodness for e mail). Files are often missing as they have to be shuttled between court houses for various purposes. Resulting gets done when someone is free to do it – it takes a very low priority (as we are not the court where the admin is based) and everyone is just trying to keep their heads above water with other tasks as support staff leave and are not replaced. It is not unheard of for clerks to have to ring our ‘cluster centre’ in order to book a trial in the middle of a busy remand court session only to be told that no one is available to help – ring back later. So much for speedy summary justice. We have even heard of trials being cancelled by the cluster centre without bothering to tell us.

Training of magistrates, while in theory under the auspices of the Bench Training and Development Committee (of which I am Deputy Chair) is again administered by a central office 12 miles away and time and again, our colleagues have tried to book courses, only for them to slip through a very large crack as applications are lost or not actioned .It is a system creaking at the seams as staff and (unpaid volunteer) magistrates do the very best they can under worsening circumstances.

The Ministry of Justice has announced a further round of cuts to fill a £1.3 BILLION black hole and a further 10.000 job cuts. Goodness only knows where these cuts are to be found – the frontline is barely functioning as it is – I have not even started on cuts to Legal Aid, the Police, the Probation and Prison services etc etc. No wonder Justice has her eyes covered – it is not that she is blind, she is simply weeping for what is to come…