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, March 12, 2011

Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin

You may find that the blog takes a more introspective view than usual over the next couple of months, as my bench, along with many others, goes through the process of merging with two neighbouring benches. As one of the greybeards attached to my court I am taking part with the Bench Chairman in the process of managing the merger at magisterial level. HMCS staff are working very hard to sort out admin and staffing issues, driven as ever by desperately tight budgets. Merging our three benches will involve the loss of two smaller courthouses, leaving us with three, with about a dozen courtrooms between them, to serve a population of about 700,000 people. It's not just about real estate though, because the number of available courts will be driven by the size of the pool of legal advisers. LA's are qualified lawyers on Civil Service terms, so they do not come cheap. Their numbers are being trimmed, (and maternity leave for those remaining doesn't help) so there will be a cap on the number of courtroom days we can sit. Here are a few of the problems that we are addressing:-
Do we use one courthouse or three to deal with Youth work? It is notoriously difficult to get young offenders to court on time when they have just a few miles to come. Faced with a long bus ride, many may not bother, with all the cost and frustrations that involves.
It is more efficient to concentrate some kinds of work in one courthouse - this already happens with traffic, TV licensing and suchlike. This means that JPs will have to be prepared to move about to keep up their experience of different kinds of work. Not everyone will like this.
Travel and subsistence costs are bound to rise, but nobody has any idea how much. I met an old pal who sits in Buckinghamshire the other day, and he told me that JPs attached to High Wycombe court are being sent on occasion to sit in Milton Keynes. That is something like a 100 mile round trip, involving a good three hours on the road, taking a route that is notorious for congestion at rush hour. 100 miles in a 2-litre car is a £58 mileage claim, with staff mileage expenses on top. In our case, the courthouses are only about ten miles apart, but along routes that are awkward for some colleagues.
Because magistrates' courts were historically self-governing there are many differences in local practice, such as whether or not people sit half-days (we don't, some do) whether rotas are quarterly, half-yearly or annual, how to handle swaps (staff do it in some courts, we do our own emails except in emergencies).
So as you may see there is a lot to sort out, and time is short. In late summer we have to elect new officers and committees, in preparation for the whole thing to go live on January 1st.
Above all we have to meld three benches into one that retains the character and camaraderie of its precursors, while concentrating on serving the public well with horribly limited resources. With goodwill and hard work, we can do it.