Monday, August 23, 2010
Dissent In The Ranks
The traditionally placid proceedings of the Magistrates' Association have been replaced in recent days by turmoil and confusion. Last week's extraordinary statement from deputy chairman John Howson about setting up 'justice-lite' courts in shopping centres got a bit of attention from the press, and things became stranger still when a sort of clarification-cum-withdrawal was given to the Solicitors' Journal, of all publications.
Chairman John Thornhill has, I am told, been away,and he has issued a holding statement promising an 'investigation' today after which he will tell members what is going on. John is not one to suffer fools gladly and sensitive souls should steer clear of MA headquarters at Fitzroy Square for a few days.
Many magistrates are aghast at the whole situation, and there is talk of resignations and suchlike.
There is a fundamental problem here that is not going to go away without a serious and radical rethink.
The MA has a serious job to do, working with the government and the higher judiciary, and playing a part in training JPs as well as keeping the public informed about their work.
Unfortunately its decision-making structure is slow and cumbersome, and as with so many organisations, only a minority of members take any interest.
The government's proposal to close over 100 courthouses points up the MA's quandary. Should it oppose the closure of local courts, acting rather like a JPs' Trade Union, or should it take a lead in helping to design a system of summary justice for the 21st Century? Is its repeated concern for 'local justice' an idea that has passed its time?
The MA needs to take a long hard look at itself, its structures and its links to the membership. Watch this space.