Participatory democracy or a phrase similar is used effortlessly and thoughtlessly by politicians from the left right and centre to indicate that we are all important; that all our opinions are valued and that we are all in it together. What we are in is of course open to conjecture. Postal voting was encouraged by the previous administration to further greater participation in both local and national elections. The result was an increase in election fraud. The project was sound but there was no appreciation of the possible misuse of what was ostensibly an effort to increase the numbers of voters making use of their hard earned privilege.
The workings of magistrates` formal gatherings are somewhat less participatory. Every bench in the country has at least three meetings annually where matters of local policy can be discussed, reports by various committees are presented, short presentations by representatives of other agencies can be made and at one of these meetings elections must be held for membership of those committees, in particular for the Training and Development Committee; the group which more or less controls the bench`s activities from training and all that entails to dealing with all grievances. The “Rules and Procedures” of my bench`s TDC runs to 17 A4 pages. One would have thought that such a powerful committee would operate best with the full confidence of the bench if the full bench were involved in voting on its membership of nine although by statute three members only may comprise the committee. One would be wrong.
My bench comprises about 360 members. However only around 90 J.P.s turned up for the last three meetings one of which was the annual election meeting. Although members interested in standing for election to committees can submit their own nomination papers only those actually attending the meeting are eligible to vote…..hardly participatory democracy in the age of e-mail, i phone and i pad. Arguably the most important function of those behind the scenes of our magistrates` courts is to draw up a rota, balanced for sex and ethnicity where possible, for our courts` benches of three to be allocated. For my court that means up to a maximum of 72 J.P. positions daily have to be confirmed as being available. Since my own appointment these rotas have been drawn up twice a year. Predicting one`s movements six months in advance is difficult but considering it takes about two months for the rota`s gestation from filling in an availability form to its final production it is a reasonable process and has worked well.
At one of those three meetings referred to above there was a proposal to issue the rota on an annual basis. In my opinion this was a purely cost saving measure but nevertheless it was put to the meeting where about 49% of those present voted “for” with about 36% “against” and the rest abstaining. That means that around 14% of the bench approved the change. This is an insult to democracy. This is the same procedure that brought British Leyland to bankruptcy by incessant strikes forty years ago, that voted many union leaders into powerful positions and BTW elects the fine gentlemen who run the Magistrates` Association....election meetings where only those present can vote; where proxy or on line voting is prohibited. Of course for certain groupings such limitations in representation are the basis of their existence. For magistrates it should be ended.
“OMOV”, one man one vote, was a driving force which could have propelled the late John Smith to 10 Downing Street instead of T.Blair. Its sentiments are as applicable today as they were then.