Wheels of local justice continue to grind exceeding slow

It’s been a while since a case of killing a man by witchcraft came before the York courts. Nor has anyone been charged with bewitching a horse in recent memory.

The penalties available to the presiding justices have changed too. No longer can a miscreant be imprisoned in the stocks or the pillory, to be pelted with rotten fruit by the more civic-minded citizen.

Crime and punishment have come a long way since these medieval examples from the York archives. Yet the justice system established more than six centuries ago is surprisingly recognisable – as are the offences committed down the generations.

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This year marks the 650th anniversary of the magistrates’ service. The judicial role of the Justices of the Peace was enshrined in statute in 1361, a fact commemorated nationally with a royal reception in Westminster earlier this year.

Three members of the York Bench chose to mark the occasion by writing a history of the city magistrates service. Obliged to Their Worships: The York Magistracy 1361 to 2011 reveals how times have – and haven’t – changed.

York’s earliest magistrates were officials of the town, the mayor or aldermen, and were often tradesmen or shopkeepers. There’s no longer a requirement for magistrates to hold office, although serving councillors often serve on the bench. Women were debarred from the post until 1919 and York’s first woman magistrate was sworn in the following year.

In more recent years the 100-strong York bench has included among its number a coal miner, lorry driver and railway union official. So the principle of justice being dispensed by ordinary people within the local community has prevailed.

“It can be very helpful sometimes,” says Peter Smith, chairman of the York Bench. “If you are dealing with a case and one of the magistrates says ‘I know exactly where that is and what it’s like round there, the streets are not well lit’ – these are all little things you would never know otherwise.”

For many, the tenet of local justice was dealt a blow by the Government’s decision to close courts to save money. Selby Magistrates Court is to shut by 2013 and all cases heard at York, with a merger of the two benches.

“One of the big arguments for retaining the Selby court was that very thing: you won’t have people living in Selby necessarily dealing with people in Selby,” says Peter.

“Once the decision was made – and we opposed it, we were very sorry it took place – we’ve gone about the business of merging in a sensible way.”

If the modern local magistrate bears a resemblance to his historical predecessors, what about the crimes upon which he adjudicates?

Here too are similarities. Where we have the felony of carrying an offensive weapon, in the 16th century you could have been prosecuted for “carrying of swords of greater than statutory length” and the problem of vagrancy or begging has survived the centuries and shows no signs of abating. As for drugs, while it wasn’t until the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that the possession and supply of heroin, cannabis, opium and more were forbidden, Tudor magistrates did clamp down on “the drying of tobacco by means of logwood and block wood” as it “did not produce that good effect”.

Magistrate Aileen Bloomer, who will take over from Mr Smith as chair of the York Bench in January, said the book shows many modern crimes have their historic equivalents.

“We now have drunk driving. Before you could be drunk in charge of a horse which was unacceptable in the days when horse transport was common,” she said.

The York Bench sits in the imposing gothic magistrates court, purpose built on Clifford Street in 1892. “I’m not sure that I have a great sense of history when I’m in the hurly-burly of court. But as soon as there’s time for reflection then we are very aware of the history,” Aileen said.

Seeing the same faces in the dock time after time can make a magistrate’s heart sink, agree Peter and Aileen. The reward comes when a repeat offender responds to a court verdict by getting back on track and going straight.

“In the nicest possible way,” said Aileen, “the best thing that can happen is that we never see them again.”

Obliged to Their Worships: The York Magistracy 1361 to 2011 by Fiona Holland, Gillian Sanderson and Sue Grace is published by FGS Publishing, priced £7.99.