Saturday, February 22, 2014

JPs In The Nick

The idea has resurfaced (as bright ideas do) of dealing with certain low-level offences by way of a single magistrate sitting in a police station. That isn't as simple as it sounds; for one thing a legal adviser will be needed, and for another there is the question of police and judiciary keeping at healthy arm's length from one another. Many years ago a shiny new police station was built across the road from my court, and there were thoughts of putting a tunnel under the road to ease the transfer of detainees into court. My Clerk (who was independent, as Clerks were then) killed that one on the grounds of separation of powers. At the time we dealt with a good few Customs cases, and Customs offered to build a courtroom in their local HQ but the answer was again a firm no.

Until a few years ago our Saturday courts were taken by a single experienced Justice, of whom I was one. Single-justice powers were restricted - I could adjourn, grant or withhold bail, and sentence to no more than a fine of one pound or one day's detention. That was useful for overnight drunks and the like, and worked fairly well. More serious stuff would be put off to a full court during the week.

It took a while to get used to using the word 'I' rather than 'we'  and at first it felt odd to hear a bail application with an empty chair on each side of me, but it soon became easy to go through the decision process as the application progressed.

Let's see how this one goes. If it turns out to be cheap, it might happen - if not, it won't.


  1. When I became a Special Constable in Birmingham in 1958, the recreation room in my nick had been the Magistrates Court. One set of stairs led into the room directly from the cells.When the new Police Station and Magistrates Courts in Whitehaven were built in about 1980, the two were linked by a corridor which led from the Custody Suite to the dock in Courtroom 1. Now the Court sits in Workington some 12 miles away..

  2. My court (not in England) sits in the same building as a police station, the social work department, and the prosecutors office. There are separate cells for court detainees from police prisoners and in general it seems to work well. Neighbouring courtrooms can hear anything from speeding or divorces to rape and murder. I don't think you need to be physically separate to have separation of power - nor even to give such a perception.

    Now as for JP's in police stations sitting alone, I assume you already consider search warrants at home with no direct legal advice? I could imagine a structure where phone/video L.A. was available shared between multiple locations? To me the bigger challenge is getting a prosecutor and defence solicitor to the police station. Actually are we that far away from virtual courts - perhaps not ideal for trials - but why not for procedural hearings? Do you really expect to do any real "business" in such a setting?

  3. I don't have a problem with a tunnel under the road or even co-location where there are clearly separate buildings (as for example the Hatfield buildings appear to be). I would be very concerned about single JP's sitting in a police station, esp if one of the '10,000 new' that they advocate. I*n terms of Saturday sittings, I'd be very happy to do that as it would help me balance the demands of work and being a JP. However, I suspect that JP's aren't the barrier to this. In my new(ish) larger LJA with 400 JPs, I can think of 10 or 15 like me who would be happy to sit at weekends or the evening and I'm sure there are more. That would provide for a regular sat court or one of two evenings a week.The bottle neck will be the rest of the justice system. Overtime for CPS, Legal Advisors, court staff Serco etc.

    1. From a personal perspective it would suit me better too. But I doubt it would suit the various professionals you list, nor the defence lawyers, possibly the police witnesses etc.

      I also think that sometimes having to sit in court for a day missing work is both an effective filter for preventing people pleading not-guilty unless they have a serious argument AND often a greater punishment for those out of work than their limited means 'permit'!

  4. Policy Exchange, the think-tank who came up with this, said that the pubic might be admitted to hear the sittings of the courts in the nick.


    Do we want this to be one of those countries where reporters say that they were not allowed into the trial? Criminal courts sit in public with open doors. End of.

    And I don't see the police being any too keen on the public coming in unvetted and as of right to sit at the back of the court as they do now, if they choose.

    The appropriate reaction to these proposals is in the plural and they bounce.

  5. The who Policy Exchange document is worth a read - they obviously know their stuff and have researched this thoroughly. We are all far too old and are clogging up the system for all those young ex-offenders who just can't wait to become JPs, and we should be limited to a ten-year tenure because experience just gets in the way, and we all know that our three-yearly appraisals are merely a tick-box exercise to ensure we have clocked up the minimum number of sittings.

    Damien Green has said ..."There are a number of interesting ideas in this report that we will consider as part of our on-going work."

    He sounds just like Sir Humphrey - but presumably "interesting" means getting close to "novel" or "courageous"!

  6. I'm all in favour of swift, speedy justice, but sometimes it can be a lttile too quick. A little pondering by the defendant can often prove to be a very salutory lesson.

  7. But are you convinced the PE know what we actually do? I wholly agree on not clogging up the system but the way to do that is by firmer annual appraisal. Many of the problems identified are with justices on minimum sittings, as is their right, who are often the newbies, and the presiders who may know it all but don't handle case management or procedure as well as they might. The PE, like so many, seems to think we just sit there and pontificate, well, let them come and look at a case management form and see how it is handled, or the complexities of some sentences. That is where experience does come in. It seems as if the system from above is being all overhauled without looking at the deliverers...without an understanding that the world has moved on when it comes to being a mag. We do so much supremely well. Not sure it's understood what that is, though.

  8. A long time ago (longer even than my advancing years) magistrates' courts were known as "Police Courts" and were often in the same building as, or adjacent to, the local nick.

    It was quite rightly felt that this was prejudcial to defendants, and/or that justice could not both be done and manifestly be seen to be done. So it became government policy no longer to refer to magistrates' courts as "police courts" and to separate them physically from police stations.

    It seems this has been forgotten, together with the reasons for this very sensible change having been made so many years ago.

  9. Don't forget that the police started off as agents of the court and are still to this day attested by a magistrate.


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