Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

The role of the magistracy

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In October 2016, the Justice Select Committee published a report on the role of the magistracy in the criminal justice system. The Ministry of Justice responded to this report in December 2016.

There was a lot of common ground between what the Select Committee recommended and what the government is planning in relation to the magistracy.

A couple of specific issues caught my attention.

First, the Committee had noted that there appear to be some difficulties in ensuring that there are sufficient magistrates able and willing to undertake work in the Family Court. This has led the Ministry of Justice to make some administrative changes allowing a more flexible approach to be adopted for enabling magistrates to undertake family court work. The Ministry of Justice has indicated that it may consider special recruitment of some new magistrates who would only sit in the Family Court. However, even if it was concluded that this would be a good policy to adopt, it would require a change in the law. Any such change will therefore be some time off.

Second, the Committee report and the response from the Government raise some interesting issues about the future of the Magistrate’s Clerk. The Justices’ Clerk is the senior lawyer and adviser to the magistracy. Currently the appointment of the Justices’ Clerk is made under the Justice of the Peace Act, 1997. This requires the post holder to be a solicitor or barrister of five years’ standing or be a solicitor or barrister with five years’ experience of working in Magistrates’ Courts.

The Government has raised the possibility either that Justices’ Clerk would no longer be a statutory appointment, but rather appointed under new non-statutory arrangements. An alternative idea is that the functions of the Justices’ clerk might be undertaken by other officials working in the court system. The Government response to the Select Committee report states that this question is currently the subject of a ‘private’ consultation: “A consultation on the creation of a new senior leadership structure for lawyers working within HM Courts & Tribunals Service: Proposals to make changes to the role of the justices’ clerk”. This was published in December 2016 but is not apparently publicly available.

It seems unlikely that a major change to the role of the Justices’ Clerk would take place without some publication, so – again – I suspect that any change will be some time away. It should be remembered that part of the purpose of making the appointment of Justices’ clerks a statutory process was to help guarantee their independence in advising magistrates. It will be essential that this issue is taken on board in any proposals for reform.

For the Justice Committee’s report, go to http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmjust/165/16504.htm

For the Government response, go to https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/577348/government-response-justice-committee-report-role-of-the-magistracy.pdf

 

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Written by lwtmp

January 24, 2017 at 10:05 am

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