Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Goodbye To All That

The last decade has seen London's Magistrates' Courts undergo fewer fundamental changes than some of our colleagues elsewhere - but we have been buggered about nevertheless, the most recent bright idea being clustering of courts to save money on administration.
The proposed reorganisation (which will be about the fifth that I have seen) will cut down the existing 28 Local Justice Areas (mostly coterminous with London's Boroughs) into 9. The proposed mergers, which are highly likely to go ahead despite localised opposition, are, for the record:-
Camden, Islington, Enfield and Haringey to be combined as North London Local Justice Area.
Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Stratford and Waltham Forest to become North East London LJA.
Barking, Havering and Redbridge to become East London LJA.
Bexley, Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham to be to become South East London LJA.
Croydon, Lambeth & Southwark and Sutton to become South London LJA.
City of London, City of Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham to become Central London LJA.
Kingston, Merton, Richmond and Wandsworth to become South West London LJA.
Ealing, Hillingdon and Hounslow to become West London LJA.
Barnet, Brent and Harrow to become North West London LJA.

Given the depth of he financial hole in which we find ourselves, most of these groupings seem to be plausible. Of course transport links and the like will be argued over,but think how much better-off we are in London than our rural cousins in benighted outposts such as East Anglia and Wales.
If this all comes to pass the civil servants will get on with trying to rationalise the admin, and magistrates will have to start working out the details of bench mergers.
Because magistrates ran their own affairs for over 500 years there are wide differences in day to day practice across the country. Rotas are drawn up in differing ways, by differing people, and on differing principles. For example some courts rota their JPs in half-days, as the rules say they should. Most courts don't because it's just too difficult to cope with. That's just the tip of the iceberg. Then new merged benches will need to have a single Chairman for 4-500 magistrates, but a deputy chairman for each courthouse will be a must. Hallowed local practices such as sitting on the same day each week will have to go. Hard work and goodwill are going to be needed to make this function. But function it must. I have seen badly organised mergers, leading in one appalling case, to two benches who share a courthouse (but not their biscuits, for God's sake!) and declining, when finishing early,to assist their colleagues on the 'other' bench by taking on some of their cases.
As I have said, goodwill, good humour and common sense are going to be at a premium while we sort this out. Failure is not an option.

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