opinion: lay magistrates keep courts in touch with th e community

Day in, day out, the 30,000 lay magistrates in England and Wales - 46 per cent of us women - deal with the bulk of criminal work that comes before the courts. Without payment, but with courtesy and confidence, we local people deliver local justice in our local communities. We deal with well over 90 per cent of all criminal cases; we have a substantial civil jurisdiction in family and licensing matters. Fewer than 3 per cent of our decisions go to appeal each year.

John Welch (Opinion, 6 September) says that we are "not necessary in principle", but in fact our community base and our sitting in benches of three make us not only necessary but highly desirable. We know what matters locally: we respond to community concerns: we bring three different kinds of life experience to difficult decisions on guilt and sentence.

The triple nature of our tribunal is an invaluable safeguard against injustice, and to ask a single person to take such weighty decisions alone is not only potentially burdensome for the individual but also requires him or her to work without the infinitely helpful brake that comes from discussion with colleagues in decision-making.

Last week's Opinion seemed to suggest that our training is unsatisfactory because it does not make lawyers of us. Heaven forbid that it should. Its purpose is to build on our common sense and varied life experience to make us into lay judges.

We need to be able to listen to evidence, evaluate it and take decisions soundly based on it; we need to structure these decisions rationally and ensure that they fall within the appropriate legal framework. We need, in short, to be trained to behave judicially, and we are. We continue to train throughout our magisterial careers and while, of course, a properly working relationship with our clerks is vital to both us and them, that relationship stops them short when we reach the decision-making process. Both we and they fully understand that.

If, as John Welch believes, magistrates join the bench in search of social kudos and magisterial dinners, they are doomed to disappointment, first because society no longer operates in that way, and second because the appointment process now focuses clearly on the establishment of judicial potential.

Magistrates are no longer appointed because of who they are but because of how well they can carry out the required tasks. The quality of new recruits is impressive.

None the less we are actively seeking recruits from the widest possible social base. We particularly need the best applicants from the ethnic minority communities and from working people of all kinds. Our courts will provide application forms to anyone asking for them and our appointment process is now much more professional than it has ever been.

Of course, stipendiary magistrates have their part to play in the work of courts within the largest centres of population, but the lay magistracy - conscientious, community-minded and successful - is an established part of the fabric of our society.

France and Italy envy England and Wales our lay justices and are introducing legislation designed to bring their lower courts closer to the community. Recognise our worth, our contribution and our extreme willingness to extend our social base even further. We are much too valuable to be thrown away.

ROSEMARY THOMSON

The writer is chairman of the Magistrates' Association.

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