The Times online has commented on the MA report published last week Active, Accessible, Engaged — The Magistracy in the 21st Century
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As JPs celebrate their 650th anniversary, those who deal with them would like them to better reflect local communities
What do people think about magistrates and their role? The answer is very little — because they don’t really know what magistrates do.
Yet the public strongly supports the idea of local justice; and those who do have dealings with magistrates would like them better to reflect their local communities.
The findings were some of the key conclusions of a report published this week, Active, Accessible, Engaged — the Magistracy in the 21st Century, after extensive research among the public, victims of crime, MPs, police and others in the criminal justice system.
The research, funded by the Monument Trust, was commissioned by the Magistrates’ Association as JPs celebrate their 650th anniversary as a means of informing debate on policy affecting the magistracy.
As John Fassenfelt, chairman, put it: “The time is right for politicians and others to secure a clear shift in the public’s perception of crime and punishment.” At the heart of the research is a paradox: the 26,000 volunteers, or justices of the peace, are the “envy of the world”, Fassenfelt says. “If the big society is looking for evidence of the involvement of volunteers, it need look no further; magistrates have set a very good example.”
Yet there is also widespread misunderstanding and ignorance about their role: one main conclusion is that for most people, JPs and their courts are “opaque” and remain an unknown quantity. Crime victims, in particular, perceive the court process as “very difficult to comprehend and access”.
So extensive was this public lack of knowledge that the research team had to abandon questions about whether people had confidence in magistrates. Instead, public forums were held around the country where people were first introduced to what magistrates do.
Its research panel, chaired by the Liberal Democrat peer and former magistrate Lord Dhjolakia, also conducted extensive interviews during 2011 with people in the criminal justice system.
The key findings were that justice should be local — but it must also be representative of the communities it serves.
The lay magistracy is seen as too white, middle aged and middle class, prompting calls to “open up the magistracy to ex offenders and review eligibility “relating to previous convictions.”
The report also urges the Ministry of Justice to look at whether unimplemented provisions of the Equality Act 2010 can be brought into force, so that positive action to be used in the selection of JPs.
At present local advisory committees who effectively make appointments have discretion over whether a criminal conviction is a bar to serving as a magistrate.
Minor motoring offences are not usually a bar to appointment as a JP but serious motoring offences may be as would suspension of a driving licence. Undischarged bankrupts are not eligible.
John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, indicated that the idea would be controversial.
“It is not for me to comment: it is for the Government to take a view on that [lifting restrictions on eligibility] but I can say that I think some magistrates would have concerns about it.”
Other key findings are:
* It is “essential” that those sitting in judgment on others should be living or working in the communities they serve as well as being independent, impartial, competent and trained
* The magistracy — although more diverse than other parts of the judiciary — is still not “truly representative” of the communities it serves, especially in terms of class, age and diversity
* The justice system for many people remains “opaque”, especially for victims who are still not kept informed about process and outcomes
* The public wants punishment to be part of the sentence but their priority is to stop the offending behaviour
* People want magistrates to be more involved in the local justice system and actively monitoring offenders after sentence and with rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders
* People want magistrates to communicate better with the public and say they should be at the heart of community justice, with more low-level cases hard in a less formal setting
The report concludes: “Magistrates are part of the community and magistrates’ courts operate in an open and transparent manner that is a key feature of criminal justice in a democracy.”
As well as measures to improve diversity, the report’s recommendations include: a more robust management of cases in court by magistrates to tackle delays; involving magistrates in reviewing out-of-court penalties; and doubling their sentencing powers from six to 12 months.
It suggests improving communication with the public through making sentences available electronically; providing more court open days; making more prison visits and opening up court houses for community activities.
Report by Frances Gibb, Legal editor, The Times