Next month, the results of an analysis of the training needs of magistrates will be reported to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who commissioned the research last summer from the University of Birmingham's School of Continuing Studies. Lay magistrates are intended to provide local justice by and for local people. But ensuring that justice does not depend on where a person lives demands a high and consistent standard of training.
Pressures on the trainers, primarily the justices' clerks, are considerable as the law never stands still. New elements are constantly being added, such as appraising the work of court chairmen.
One proposal currently gathering support is for new magistrates to undergo a kind of apprenticeship, with a more experienced colleague acting as mentor, to ensure there is greater control over what they learn and when.
Barbara Berkeley-Hill, training liaison officer with the Magistrates' Association, says: "Training is really quite a strange picture that is changing almost by the hour. Between 1361 and 1920, very little happened. The first syllabus was only laid down in 1966.
"While there is now a formal system, it really is not monitored or evaluated very effectively. All the magistrates' courts committees should be fulfilling certain requirements, but we are not sure," she says. "And since this government legislates every five minutes, there is a lot for magistrates to keep up with."
JPs have been criticised for being inconsistent in their approach, while they fight against being tied too rigidly to sentencing and other guidelines.
Mrs Berkeley-Hill says: "There are basic guidelines that all magistrates work within. But it is supposed to be local justice for local people and we have no wish to so professionalise or clone everyone that they all say and do the same things.
"While there has to be an element of individuality, at the same time it is terribly important that people feel they are being treated the same regardless of where they live."
Professor Jennifer Tann is the project leader of the training needs analysis report. She says the aim was to identify what skills and information magistrates need to be effective and how best they can be helped. To do that, the team invited 5,000 randomly selected magistrates to fill out a detailed survey, questioned other professionals involved in the court process, including barristers and solicitors, and surveyed 120 justices' clerks.
The final stage involved a series of five workshops around the country with 20 magistrates at each who were asked to bring along four stories from their personal experience illustrating good and bad practice as raw material for the project.
Professor Tann says: "I have done work of this kind before and I have never had such a good response rate. The magistracy is very concerned to have an input into the research and there is great interest in its outcome."
While she will not comment on the report's recommendations before it goes to the Lord Chancellor, Professor Tann says it is not a question of suggesting more training but reconsidering how and when magistrates receive it.
"A lot of being a magistrate is about using common sense, but, for instance, effective chairing of a court is achieved through sensitive learning and training - making sure pronouncements are intelligible, that defendants understand what is happening, consulting with colleagues on the bench."
She adds: "Juries, like magistrates, make decisions on the facts of a case and make pronouncements on guilt or innocence without undergoing any training. We have reason to be grateful for the amount of commitment magistrates do give to training."
Keith Broadbent, chairman of the Standing Conference of Training Officers for Magistrates - a committee of the Justices' Clerks Society - says: "I am aware of concern that training is more variable than it should be - clearly that is something which the trainers of magistrates will need to address."
Concern about just how much of the information presented to new magistrates actually sinks in prompted one justices' clerk to turn to scriptwriting for a Crown Court-style training video.
Steven Reynolds, clerk to the justices in Exeter and East Devon, drafted in court staff to play the key roles in a series of open-ended courtroom scenes involving bail, mode of trial, two 20-minute trials and sentencing, allowing the new recruits to consider what decisions they should make.
The topics covered in training new JPs are prescribed by the Lord Chancellor. New recruits undergo an induction course to learn about court procedures, observe cases and visit the local prisons.
They may sit for the first time after about six weeks. There is then a continuous training commitment over the next five years when they can consider whether to go on to be court chairman or on to a family or youth panel, which involves further specialised training.
Mr Reynolds says: "There is a lot to take in at the beginning. Making the video was not so much a question of worrying that some of the magistrates were not ready to sit as ensuring I was presenting the information in as stimulating a way as possible."
The video, produced by the legal and consumer journalist Will Hanrahan, was funded by Central Law Training at a cost of pounds 9,000. So far, 50 copies have been sold to magistrates' courts. Profits are going to be put into further training material for JPs.
Mrs Berkeley-Hill says she welcomes the new video. "There is a dearth of good training material - chalk and talk is far too pervasive."
The Magistrates' Association, which represents 27,500 magistrates, runs national and regional training events to help JPs to keep up to date with current practices and policies. It is part of a consortium involving justices' clerks and academics which last year produced a training video on court chairmanship called Competent or Not. Its next project is to produce a video for new magistrates.
So, do we have the magistrates we deserve?
Says Mrs Berkeley-Hill: "That's a loaded question. I do believe in the lay magistracy because there is a need for local justice by local people from a wide variety of backgrounds. But we live in a complex world and those people must be properly prepared."
Magistrates' Induction Training Video Pack can be obtained from CLT Professional Publishing, Wren's Court, 52-54 Victoria Road, Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham B72 1SX (0121-362 7706). Cost: pounds 275 plus VAT.
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