There are about 25,000 magistrates but there is no organisation which democratically represents their views. The Magistrates` Association revolves around a long discredited branch system based on counties one of which, Middlesex, no longer even exists. This form of representation allows those with an eye on rising through the ranks to sit at the top table an easy route so to do. With benches of up to 400 members meaningful relationships with other part time colleagues are unlikely. With branches consisting of perhaps three or four benches self promotion is the order of the day. However there are the stirrings of change and branches based on benches and on line voting are sure to be implemented in two or three years. However a J.P. having problems with his/her Justices` Clerk or HMCTS will find no support. In such confrontations it`s survival of the fittest or those with the deepest pockets to afford professional representation.
Each year about two dozen J.P.s are removed from the magistracy by the Office for Judicial Complaints with about half that number being sacked for failing to sit even the lowest number of times required. Many others do not appear on that list having realised the wisdom of resigning before being pushed. One would have thought that the problem of low sitters, each of whom would have been advised prior to appointment of that crucial aspect; namely minimum availability, would be a major concern for a body which until August I didn`t know existed……The National Bench Chairmen`s Forum. The minutes of its last get together on 04/09/2012 were recently published. On low sitters the minutes report the previous meeting on 17/04/2012,
“17th April 2012 Action point 14 – Low Sitters – No letter has been forthcoming from Magistrates HR. A general discussion took place on how this is being handled in the regions. EW to raise at the next SPJ Liaison Meeting and matter to be discussed at NBCF conference.”
Note the almost complete lack of report on the discussion of who said what, why and when. This secrecy of course is par for the course. The minutes of the meeting on September 4th indicate how the matter of low sitters was discussed;
“12. Reduction in workload. Concern was expressed that due to a number of factors including a reduction in workload and further court closures, some magistrates were now unable to meet their minimum sitting levels."
The infamous directive on blogging by judicial office holders resulted in probably the greatest number of posts the M.A. Forum has ever seen and general consideration that the Senior Presiding Judge and his acolytes had put their feet in their own mouths. That directive was endorsed by the M.A. and the above mentioned N.B.C.F. And what did the minutes have to report on this topic at that meeting of September 4th?
8. Blogging Guidance
A discussion took place on the recently issued ‘Blogging by Judicial Office Holders’guidance. There was general acceptance amongst members of the committee that the guidance was welcomed and adequate.
I have long been against J.P.s` involvement in so called neighbourhood justice panels for the simple reason that trained and experienced magistrates are being invited to involve themselves as ordinary members of the public. IMHO this is just another step in reducing our courtroom involvement to being ancillary to a professional District Judge(MC) and relegating us to out of court environments. My opinion might not be that of the majority but it it is certainly held by a not inconsiderable minority of my colleagues. So what did the meeting have to say on this important development?
10. Neighbourhood Justice Panels
A discussion took place on what was happening in the regions and the pilot areas and reference was made to the guidance issued by the SPJ which confirms that Magistrates may sit on the 15 approved panels as members of the public, but not in a judicial capacity.
Those four extracts from the minutes of the meeting on their own are enough to assign the N.B.C.F. to oblivion. The national conference of the Forum was scheduled for 21/09/2012. Its next regular meeting is 23/10/2012. I wonder what more pearls of wisdom will be forthcoming?