In the days of Buggin`s turn to ascend to the bench magistrates` courts were relatively self governing and almost a parody of themselves and their members. Indeed long serving female colleagues can still remember when hats and gloves were approved accessories if not de rigueur. Thank goodness such days are behind us but like all fashion swings the pendulum has reached its maximum amplitude on the opposing side. Magistrates` Courts are now completely and totally controlled by HMCTS. There is virtually no independence of thought or action. Indeed I have been informed that at a recent Bench meeting in a metropolitan area the area Justices` Clerk [presumably on behalf of his employers HMCTS] objected to said Bench discussing with regret the appointment of an additional District Judge his argument being that the Bench had no control of said appointment and therefore should not even consider the matter. He was given short shrift and the matter was formally adjourned for inclusion as a proposal at a later meeting. That a high ranking member of HMCTS dare to tell an independent Bench at its meeting what it could and could not discuss was arrogance of the highest order.
The biggest display of public disorder in a generation which constituted the August riots of last year has provoked some deep thinking in almost every organisation and government department remotely associated with the maintenance and understanding of a harmonious society at one with itself. None was more pleased to squeeze the last pip of self righteousness from a lemon of a situation than the Ministry of Justice and its offspring Her Majesty`s Courts and Tribunal Service. This organisation has more than a whiff of authoritarianism in its ever increasing reach. The trumpeting of evening and weekend magistrates` courts sitting extended hours staffed by eager workers for the common good was a propagandist’s delight. That J.P.s were not involved and many of the staff involved have now been made redundant has not dimmed the almost messianic glint in the eyes of government ministers. Pilot schemes to increase court hours are beginning in various courts but the attitude of HMCTS to J.P.s can be seen in the manner in which the proposals have been set out to at least one court involved. Currently courts sit from 10.00am – 1.00pm and 2.00pm – 5.00pm. Many sittings go beyond 5.00pm but only with the goodwill of all involved. The pilot court will sit from 9.00am – 1.00pm and 2.00pm – 6.00pm or so it is intended. A court sitting is akin to baking a rather scrumptious cake or pudding; all the ingredients in the correct quantities must be available to be mixed at the appropriate times at the correct temperature for the requisite time by somebody who is familiar with the whole process. It is completely fanciful to expect that defendants [many relying on public transport], CPS files, electronic or otherwise, witnesses, police officers and all the other required components of a trial are going to be ready at 9.00am. The attitude of Group4, SERCO and similar who transport prisoners and who are sometimes not now available even at 5.00pm is still to be negotiated. But it is the manner in which J.P.s have been treated in this exercise which exercises me. We are all volunteers. We do this job because we enjoy it. We do not undertake it as a task. We are motivated internally. We sit a minimum of 26 half days a year; ie one day a month whether a winger or a chairman. Personally I do not consider that is sufficient for a chairman to retain competence. but that`s another matter for another time. HMCTS in this latest pilot scheme regard us as unpaid employees. Why do I say this? The proposal is that J.P.s who sit in the morning session will be regarded as having had two sittings and will not, as now, sit in the afternoon session. Similarly will be the allocation for the afternoon bench. In other words according to this reasoning it will be an attraction to the supposedly employee mindset of a J.P. to have an extra hour regarded as the equivalent of two hours on the old basis for his/her minimum number of sittings. By this reckoning 13 four hour half day sittings per annum will constitute our minimum sitting requirement. HMCTS in their gross arrogance seem to think that an inducement of less work for “equal” reward will be an attraction. If that is not the mindset of an employer I will have to ask my wife`s Dutch family how to speak their language twice over. I state unequivocally that no chairman will be able to retain competence with such reduced day to day experience. And that in my opinion is precisely where we are going being ushered along the way by HMCTS with this as an example. We are being undermined as surely as sitting over a rabbit warren…….solid on the surface and full of pit holes underneath. .
This ground is subtly being prepared for a complete take over of the magistrates` courts system by salaried District Judges with J.P.s like a herd of sheep being corralled into various local justice centres by any other name to be part of a so called representative organisation for low level matters outwith the current summary justice system. The letter published here in the blog KOWTOWING 11th April is just the prelude. The thinking and control behind it is now well established.