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.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

End Of The Phoney War

With the end of the consultation period on court reorganisation and closures and the recent announcement of which courts are to be closed, the real hard graft is about to begin. The closure programme, coupled with redundancy of many staff and redeployment of many JPs will present the salaried and volunteer teams who run the courts' system with severe challenges - the timescale is short and everyone is going to have to show the utmost goodwill to make things work.
I have seen a paper giving the Judicial Office's thoughts on deployment of JPs after the round of bench mergers. I can't say too much because I don't think it's yet in the public domain (no Assange I, I don't have the kind of friends who could pony up a quarter of a million quid to get me bail) but it is going to be badly received in some places.
In London, most courts including my own are to be merged with two neighbours, and the benches merged to create a new Local Justice Area which will have, in our case, three courthouses of differing quality, while three smaller ones will be closed. That will give us a Bench of between 400 and 500 magistrates, and work is already in hand to discuss and to negotiate how it will work. There is likely to be one Bench Chairman, but there will have to be a Deputy at each courthouse in all probability. Key committees such as the Training and Development Committee that has the task of approving chairmen and monitoring appraisals and mentoring will need local sub-committees to retain the local knowledge that they rely on.
The rota systems differ between the courts, and will have to be sensitively handled. There has always been a tension between the need to keep the bench open to as many people as possible and the demands of running an efficient court. The rules insist that we accommodate those who can only sit for half-days (our attendances are always counted in half-day units) but that can mean a 'sitting' of just an hour or two. Someone who has made the minimum level of 26 sittings might in reality have had just 50 or 100 hours of court time in a year. That is not enough to build or to maintain competence. Some people can only sit on a particular day, which means that they are likely to see a limited range of work. If your half-day is every other Monday afternoon and that is when the bus-fare dodgers or TV licence defaulters are listed, your judicial life is going to be pretty dull. Half-day sitters will rarely see a trial, other than the simplest, because we can't take a chance of having to adjourn if the case runs over the lunch break.
Some colleagues are anxious about having to travel between courts, but that will sometimes be unavoidable, especially if JPs are to see a full range of work. With luck we may be able to leave people based at their home court, just sitting 'away' a few times a year. Some of us do that already when workloads demand it, but it doesn't suit everyone.
The touchiest subject is likely to be the redeployment of those whose courts are to close. In a minority of cases there might not be a suitable place to send them, at least in the short term, and that may cause understandable resentment among a group of public-spirited unpaid public servants. And of course there is an informal freeze on recruitment until matters settle down. The Advisory Committees are about to be restructured and we have been told to expect no new colleagues for at least a year. The existing deployment pattern of District Judges will also have to be altered to fit the new LJAs.
There is a huge task ahead, and that's just for the magistrates. Court staff are aware that nobody's job will be untouched. Some admin staff from west London are being transferred to Rose Court, near Tate Modern. For someone used to a fifteen minute commute it will be traumatic to be flung into the maelstrom of rush hour city centre transport. Legal Advisers will be trimmed in numbers, and some grades will probably disappear - at a time when legal jobs are pretty scarce.
You will hear a lot more from me as the process goes on. I think we will make it work, but it won't be easy, and there isn't a lot of time to do it.