Spencer Pitfield: Why the role of magistrate is set to vanish into the pages of history

TODAY I formally resigned my role of magistrate. I have been honoured to sit for the last 16 years on both the St Albans and Sheffield benches.

Sheffield Magisatrates Court.

I doubt I have ‘seen it all’, but it would be fair to say I have been witness to most things.

Sitting here in Sheffield over the last 10 years, I have most definitely witnessed life at the sharp end.

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Some parts of our big cities continue to be very violent places for ordinary hard working and law-abiding people to live.

It is, however, a sad day for me.

Since 2000, and together with many other thousands of magistrates up and down our country, I have given of my time freely and voluntarily in support of communities and our common desire to uphold the local rule of law.

Speak to any magistrate today and they will tell you that this lowest level of the judicial court system has had to cope with dramatic and often role-limiting change.

Indeed, it would not be far from the truth to say that the magistrates service is today in complete disarray – many colleagues note with despair that it is only a question of time before all lay magistrates are replaced fully by salaried district judges.

Here in Sheffield a list of over 350 magisterial colleagues in 2006 has now dropped to well below 150. Retirements are not being replaced, working justices are leaving in their droves – no longer does it seem that the courts service want to facilitate our attendance. Our colleagues in administration and support services for the courts feel overworked, underpaid and hugely disillusioned.

The office of magistrate or justice of the peace dates back to Richard I who first appointed ‘keepers of the peace’ circa 1200. The Act of 1361 under the reign of Edward III promoted these keepers of the peace offering them new powers to “restrain offenders, rioters, and other Barators, and to pursue, arrest, take and chastise them according to their trespass or offence”.

Nothing in life stays the same. You cannot of course stop ‘progress’ – we all know that our civil society is changing at such a rate that it is often difficult for organisations such as our magistrates courts to keep pace.

Clearly, in these times of limited state monies, the pressures now readily apparent on our judicial services are such that any Government would no doubt struggle.

Just like the professionalisation of councillors, which has been ongoing since the 1970s but gained pace in the Blair years, I know that the voluntary unpaid role of civic-minded justices of the peace is now a thing of the past.

If we want to maintain any aspect of this important civil role – and not have it fully consumed by relatively highly paid district judges – Government has to seriously consider bringing forward stipendiary magistrates, lay members of our community who are remunerated to sit for an agreed number of days per year.

Just like ‘professional’ councillors – we need our justices to reflect every part of our society today – this, I feel, can now only be done by remunerating a smaller number of them.

My time has passed as a magistrate. I wish I could say I have enjoyed every moment of this important work in our communities – no I could not.

But I have always been able to feel that sometimes I was able to help keep our society a little safer; sometimes I was able to give an offender that one last chance – the benefit of the doubt. I suppose in essence I was able to on occasion do some good.

As we look to the future, I would suggest that our magistrates courts are no 
longer able to support and protect those communities most in need and change is urgently required.

A final thought from the well of our magistrate courts – we must do so much more to 
better resource and support our alcohol and drug intervention services.

Prison isn’t the right place for many offenders – dare I say it most offenders.

But there must and should not be any soft options – if alcohol or drug addiction is driving your offending, and blighting our communities – secure rehabilitation centres should be made available for suitable individuals, where the right care and guidance might more easily ensure the chance to get on a different path in life rather than just ‘serving time’.

But this subject is better 
taken up another time, for now it just remains for me to say farewell to colleagues in the magistrate’s court system and to wish them well in their endeavours.

Dr Spencer Pitfield OBE is the Conservative spokesman for Sheffield and South Yorkshire.