The mess of the magistrates' courts is in a microcosm the mess that central Statism has inflicted across all areas of administering our civil society. Within the criminal justice system, the role of the CPS - which surely should be called the SPS, the State Prosecution Service, for the extent to which it has ridden roughshod over the Sovereign's exercise of justice through her Sheriffs and Lords Lieutenant, and the role of the Lord Chancellor.
Sir, If opportunities are being sought for cuts in the public sector, a good place to start might be in the legal system, in particular the Courts Service.
As an example, in 2003 the Courts Service was enlarged to include within its embrace the administration of the magistrates’ courts and statutory tribunals in England and Wales. At the time Sir Hayden Phillips, then Permanent Secretary at the Lord Chancellor’s Department (now the Ministry of Justice), said that to effect that change the number of civil servants required would rise to about 25,000, at an annual cost of £3 billion.
Before 2003 the justices of the peace for hundreds of years had been entirely independent, managing their own courts locally at minimal cost to the taxpayer, and being reimbursed only for expenses. Their services were, and are, voluntary and unpaid.
The magistrates’ courts accounted in 2003 for more than 90 per cent of the criminal cases in this country, the rate of disposal being greater than that in the other criminal courts administered by the Courts Service; the magistracy, then and now, enjoys the confidence of the public, and without the lay magistrates the criminal justice system could not function. This much was accepted in the flawed Auld report, on the basis of which the enlargement of the Courts Service was proposed and justified. It was said that efficiency required the incorporation of the magistrates’ courts into a unified Courts Service, to be operated at both national and local level by civil servants. However, it remains doubtful whether any such efficiency has been achieved. On the contrary, it seems likely that the system, now burdened with an unwelcome bureacracy, is less efficient, more wasteful and very expensive.
The system worked perfectly well before 2003 without the need to spend billions on it. The removal of the magistrates’ courts (and the statutory tribunals) from the Courts Service, and the restoration of the autonomy and independence of the justices, would be constitutionally sound and would save the nation a great deal of money.
Stanley Brodie, QC
Many of the arguments against the old systems are around objections to (hateful term) a 'postcode lottery'. Well, those 'postcode lotteries' often reflected very accurately the values and relativities of local communities; the Welsh benches from 'dry' shires that savagely disposed of alcohol-related offences, and the harsh penalties for thieves imposed by benches in the northern Mill Towns. When I was a lad the bench covering the seaside retirement towns of Frinton and Clacton had the reputation of jailing speeding youngsters - and the message was understood; don't race in Frinton. My neighbour in a Suffolk market town was a magistrate, a down to earth bloke who worked as a supervisor for a local ICI plant. His family had lived in the town for at least 400 years. He saw his JP job as much about defending our local communities from external threats as upholding the Queen's justice - with the implicit consequence that outsiders and external deviance would be dealt with more harshly than local delinquency well understood.
In the mendacious doublespeak of the Central State 'Community Justice' means exactly the opposite; all discretion that would make the operation of the lowest tier of our criminal justice system in any way 'community' driven has been removed. Community values are scorned by the central State in favour of political policies. Here's to a return to independent courts, to a postcode lottery and to true community justice. And a bonfire of the Department of State Justice.