My view from the Bench
By Beaky JP
First a little introduction. I am a Magistrate with nearly 20 years’ experience on the Bench. I am an Approved Chairman and an appraiser of other Magistrates. In my day job, and somewhat unusually for a Justice of the Peace, I also happen to be a qualified and practising Solicitor in the City of London. This little musing is intended to cast a little spotlight on what it’s like to be a JP in the 21st Century. I hope to dispel some myths and correct a few misconceptions. Any cases that may be referred to will be completely anonymous and certain facts changed if they are so unique as to allow any sort of identification. While I may comment at times on the Criminal Justice System, I will say nothing that might bring the Magistracy into disrepute. It is an office under the Crown and over 630 years old in the making…it is something Britain should be very proud of. Now read on…
The role of the Magistrate has been very much in the news recently. There are changes afoot in the Criminal Justice System and articles in the national Press and on Social Media and in particular some of the comments of the great British Public, have illustrated just how much ignorance there is out there about just what a JP does. So in this first of an occasional series, I’m going to try to explain who JPs are, how we get appointed and what happens when we are.
The traditional image of a JP is a crusty old Colonel or Grande Dame in large hat and gloves whose appointment came about masonic like by a gentle tap on the shoulder by someone equally grand and a few whispers in the right place. WRONG. Today’s JP can be anyone – the youngest appointee was 18 and retirement is compulsory at 70. There are no secret discussions; application is by a long and detailed form available from the Ministry of Justice website followed by interview by a panel of 3 members of a Local Advisory Committee comprising both serving magistrates and non magistrates. A recommendation is then made to the Lord Chancellor after CRB checks, and hey presto, about a year after initial application, you may make it onto your local bench. The Advisory Committee members have themselves been specially appointed (after application and interview) and trained for the role. The system is transparent albeit sometimes long and drawn out to ensure that only candidates with the necessary skills and qualities (and stamina!!) make it through.
Zilch, nada, not a bean!! JPs are volunteers and certainly aren’t in it for the money!! It’s fascinating when sometimes I have visited schools and colleges to talk about the work of the Magistracy and the very first question often asked is ‘What do you get paid then?’ The looks of disbelief on the faces of the kids are a thing to behold, if a little disappointing to be honest. The concept of ‘volunteering’ is a bit alien to some of the little dears. We ARE entitled to some travelling expenses and a small subsistence allowance (Just over £7 which just about covers a sandwich and a cup of coffee for what can be an 8 hour day). Self-employed colleagues can claim what is called a Financial Loss Allowance up to a maximum of around £130 a day but recently the MoJ has moved the goalposts making it far more difficult for the FLA to be claimed. The loss has to be ACTUAL and provable and for many self-employed, this is simply not possible. How can a small shopkeeper for example prove that a customer didn’t come into his shop because he was in court instead of behind the counter? How can I as a professional lawyer prove that I lost client time when I can (and do) make it up at midnight and on the weekends despite this being unsocial hours which I would rather spend with my family?
The knock on effect of this may be to discourage ordinary working people from applying or continuing as JPs and this cannot be in anyone’s interest, least of all the CJS. I’m not sure anyone has actually explained that to the MoJ!
Once appointed, the really hard work starts. Newly appointed JP’s must observe in at least 2 different court houses, and undertake extensive training before they are allowed to actually sit on the bench. While they are not expected to be experts in the law – a legally qualified clerk provides that bit of the equation – they DO need to understand a significant degree of legal procedure and practice. They are the arbiters of law and fact at the end of the day and detailed structured decision making processes must be followed in order to ‘do the job’ properly. Sentencing Guidelines are provided to all JPs and again must be adhered to, to try to ensure consistency in approach to cases throughout the land. Of course there are slight variations in sentencing – they are guidelines not tramlines and no two cases (or defendants and their circumstances) are exactly the same. Nevertheless, in studies of sentencing practice since the Guidelines were introduced, a far more consistent approach has been identified.
Initial sittings of new magistrates are mentored by a more experienced JP. Every new magistrate has an individual mentor assigned to them. The mentor has been specially trained for the role and provides both information and a shoulder to cry on for the first year or so. Reports on these sittings are prepared and submitted to a Bench Training and Development Committee, at the end of which, a formal Appraisal is carried out. Based on set competencies, criteria and behaviours which need to be demonstrated, specially trained Appraisers vet the newbie and prepare a ‘Threshold Appraisal’ report for the BTDC. Only if the BTDC consider the JP competent are they passed to continue. Failure at this stage will probably lead to additional training and support until a further appraisal is held.
Every magistrate, no matter how long they may have been on the bench is appraised at least once every 3 years and the competencies demonstrated. Training is a continuous process. Every time a new piece of legislation concerning the courts – whether procedural or a significant new criminal offence – training is provided. Sometimes it is provided by the Judicial College – kind of like School for Judges – and sometimes by the local court staff themselves.
So, just as a final word, please remember that it is extremely irritating for many Magistrates when they hear comments – often I’m sorry to say by young baby barristers – patronisingly suggest to a bench they can’t be expected to understand the esoteric but ‘extremely important’ point they are trying to make. While very naughty of me I have been known to reply that yes, with only 25 years as a solicitor under my belt, I really struggle with the concept of shop theft, please carry on and enlighten me. Strangely, they tend to move on rather quickly after that!!