On July 30th I posted that Justice Minister Damian Green was to address a meeting the subject of which would be “Reforming the Role of Magistrates”. Amongst my observations I wrote, “Of one thing we can be sure: this so called “event” will be for his purpose; not for ours”. I won`t blow my trumpet at more than a whisper because anybody with half a deaf ear towards politicians in August would have come to a similar conclusion.
A couple of days ago he made that speech. Amongst his comments were, ““However, four out of ten defendants sent to the crown court for sentencing received custodial sentences that could have been handed in the magistrates’ court - we need to look at why this is happening and if we need to do more to make the best use of magistrates. We need to keep the right cases in the right court if we are to have a modern justice system in a fair society.” On 7th December 2010 I posted on former Justice Secretary Jack Straw`s speech on exactly this subject. It doesn`t require intervention from Damian Green or any other politician for this change to take place. It merely requires advice from legal advisors who are sometimes afraid to deviate from the safe road of conservatism in not upsetting a preset apple cart. My colleagues (especially those with some years service) could also be a little more assertive and not be reticent in using our existing powers to the maximum. Of course the obvious change to make; a change which has been avoided for decades, is to remove a defendant`s right to choose mode of trial in either way cases. Some effort has been made in this direction with the recent new guidelines on “allocation” but the bull must eventually be grabbed by the horns in the face of inevitable and illogical objections by lawyers.
With his remarks on single magistrates overseeing low level traffic offences and “low level” shoplifting it is plain to see that the minister is less concerned with justice than he is with his preferred expedient solutions attempting to save money offered to him by the same Whitehall advisors who gave us Capita plc to provide court interpreters amongst other wonderful innovations in court eg restricting the availability of court ushers so that legal advisors are up and down like jacks-in-the-box chasing all over the building for offenders, lawyers, witnesses and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.
It is quite clear that underlying this speech is the government`s desire to remove Justices of the Peace from the courtroom and put a rump magistracy out to graze in the fields rubber-stamping traffic offenders, overseeing out of court disposals by police and taking part in local schemes of rehabilitation and/or arbitration between victim and offender.
If those in the Magistrates Association charged with the interests of their members cannot see the writing on the wall now they should join Mr Magoo at the optician`s and have their rose coloured spectacles surgically removed.