Quitting the Bench

This autumn, I quit the Bench. For fifteen years, I served as one of England’s unpaid, voluntary magistrates, also known as a Justice of the Peace (JP). I would attend court, hear trials, sentence offenders, determine judgements and sign warrants. For those who would like to know the reasons, read on. For those who would prefer a modest summary, know this: human justice is imperfect, inefficient and inadequate.

I managed to juggle the important responsibility of being a JP with my work at church as well as teaching at my school, which, somehow, I managed, even when I was full time. In September, I received a letter complaining that I had fallen short of the minimum number of sittings (26 half days per year) by six since 2019. This rankled me, as the courts cancelled me 22 times in 2019 and 2023 alone. The committee which had performed these calculations would be meeting again to review my situation in the future; I saved them the trouble. This was not the only reason, but it was the final push. As already stated, magistrates are not paid for their time; although they are given a mileage allowance, this was cut a few years ago, despite the fact that the cost of petrol and diesel has risen significantly. To have given my time freely, and to be told, in a disapproving tone by some school ma’am that my efforts were less than satisfactory, I resigned. Yet there are many other dissatisfactory features of the English and Welsh legal system which might persuade a fair minded person to feel discontent with the status quo, some of which I describe.

Court buildings are scruffy and disrespected. The architecture cannot now be helped; it was unfortunate that Preston’s resembles a urinal, Lancaster’s a leisure centre and Blackpool an Eastern-bloc prison. Yet inside, over which there is control, the buildings are tired and untidy. Old TVs dumped in corridors and retiring rooms, disused furniture lurking in dark corners of the courtroom. Burnley courthouse has paint peeling from the walls and ripped curtains in the assembly room; Blackburn, though furnished to a grand Edwardian spec, is damp and smelly. Yet justice is, and can be, dispensed in these settings. Just because the government fails to invest in the court estate does not mean that fair decisions can be made and the judicial oath honoured.

What is a greater problem is the inefficiency. The courts rightly moved away from paper documents onto electronic. First it was iPads, then it was laptops. First it was one system, then another. Regularly, one enters court to find the paperwork has not been uploaded, or the defendant’s antecedent history (ie criminal record) is missing. I would sit on Saturday mornings to find the police have arrested someone the night before but had not bothered to provide any details, not even the charges. So I would be in the ludicrous position, as Chairman of the Bench, of simply releasing prisoners back onto the street. The state has no right to detain them with no charge, but on the other hand, I was releasing a potentially dangerous person back into the orbit of his victims.

Sometimes courts were cancelled because legal advisors, once called court clerks, could not be provided. These people are the underpaid cogs which keep the lists moving, and are too few. Sometimes a prosecutor could not be found, so the cases could not proceed. A number of us JPs commented that if the general public was aware of what was happening, there would be an uproar. On reflection, I think we were mistaken; anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of our judiciary, especially at the level of the lower courts, will know how lethargic and clunky is the whole operation.

It is true that local Benches are populated by some disagreeable characters; geriatric windbags who enjoy hearing their many words echo around court rooms and bossy old dames who accepted retirement from work too soon and would otherwise have no reason to dress up. Yet many JPs were kind, empathetic and decent people who try their best to make fair decisions despite the courts’ and various agencies best efforts to thwart them. We would sometimes be advised to simply let offenders walk free because, being in receipt of benefits and already owing to fines to the court, there was no more we could do. 

JPs are often treated like employees rather than unpaid representatives of the monarch in whose name justice is dispensed. The hours I spent waiting around assembly rooms only to be sent home as I was ‘no longer required’; the pressure not to take a break during weekend court so lawyers and court staff could go home earlier; the computerised rota which sent magistrates from Burnley to Blackpool and from Blackpool to Burnley, passing each other on the M55; the inane system of appraisals which wasted everyone’s time but still failed to root out the incompetent. Then there was the mind-numbing ‘training’. Once upon a time, JPs received worthwhile training, during which teas and coffees would be served, and lunches provided, all while a competent pair of legal advisors would share their knowledge of a given aspect of judicial business. Nowadays, one must spend 3 hours thirty minutes staring into a computer screen at home, while someone’s voice lectures you on the importance of diversity, and insists you take a ‘quiz’ or perform a ‘mix and match’ exercise after each section to ensure you have paid sufficient attention. Those few sessions which remain ‘live’ don’t bother to offer lunch; it is hoped that you bring something from home or can source a sandwich in the 35-minute midday break from Preston centre -after all, they are only magistrates. They don’t get paid anyway, so who cares? Their time is cheap; it does not matter if we squander it. In the execution of my judicial oath, I have been sworn at, threatened with death, and watched as I left the courthouse, but I have aways known that one chooses the fair and just option, regardless of its popularity. Yet I was expected to sit at home while a dreary voice from my laptop admonishes me on how to be a magistrate.

Although I regret the way that I and many of my colleagues were treated, here is fifteen years’ worth of voluntary work which helped many people and gave me a feeling of genuine satisfaction. Although it is a pity that the Courts were not able to receive another few decades’ worth of my input, I am glad I am free of it. My time was repeatedly wasted. If you ‘pay for what you get’, we should not be surprised that a lay magistracy is disrespected by the quango which manages the system. Human courts are slow and lumbering, inadequate and ineffective. Although I think the British legal system one of the better ones, and certainly less susceptible to bribery and corruption than many other nations', it makes us long for that perfect justice of heaven. Thank God, He does not employ His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to manage it, nor some of the bossy old women and pompous old men to dispense it. While saluting the many able and dutiful justices, Advisors, ushers and administrators who work so hard, we know there must be something better.

I pity anyone who finds themselves in an English magistrates’ court- whether they be defendant, witness or magistrate. Only the lawyers benefit, and even they suffered when Legal Aid was thoughtlessly cut. Thank God, heaven's perfect justice is coming, beside which every human judiciary appears cruel or weak.  

It is a joy for the just to do justice, but destruction will come to the workers of iniquity. Proverbs 21:15