Too many Tories sit on the bench

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MAGISTRATES' benches across England and Wales are full of Tories and short of Labour voters, according to Government figures released for the first time.

The statistics show that magistrates' courts are a long way from achieving their aim of reflecting the political make-up of the communities they serve.

Officials say they have tried repeatedly to correct the imbalance, calling on Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters to apply to become magistrates. However, Government critics say the magistracy remains a self-perpetuating 'old boy' network.

In urban areas, where Labour polls more than 50 per cent of the vote, its supporters often constitute less than 30 per cent of JPs.

The Government gave information on political affiliations of magistrates in 10 areas at the time of appointment (22 per cent did not declare an allegiance).

A clear pattern emerges. In the two Oldham constituencies, for instance, Labour polled about 52 per cent of the vote at the general election but only 27 per cent of magistrates support Labour. Tories with 32 per cent of the vote, make up 36 per cent of the bench.

The same is true in Bristol, where Labour won 40 per cent of votes, slightly higher than the Tories. Yet 142 Bristol magistrates say they are Tory, and 85 Labour.

Solicitors say it is particularly important to avoid Tory-dominated benches. Stephen Gilchrist, of the Legal Aid Practitioners' Group, said: 'The whole point of having a lay magistracy is that it is supposed to represent the views of society - and your views may well depend on whether you are a supporter of the Tories or Labour.'

Anthony Edwards, of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, said Labour supporters were more likely to appreciate the reasons that often lay behind crimes.

The Duchy of Lancaster, which appoints magistrates in Lancashire, and the Lord Chancellor's Department, which does so elsewhere, have campaigned to attract Labour-supporting JPs. They have also increased the number of non-magistrates on the local committees that appoint people to the bench in an effort to cast their nets wider.

But the problem persists. Officials say Labour supporters are more likely to be employees who have difficulty getting time off and can ill-afford to lose wages. Critics say the selection committees are still dominated by magistrates, who tend to favour like- minded applicants.

One Lancashire magistrate, a Labour supporter, said colleagues had quit the bench after having to deal with poll tax cases. A Labour supporter had not been appointed after his interview focused on his support for the miners' strike.

'If you vote Labour, obviously you won't approve of the Government's criminal justice policies - that's the real problem,' he said.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Magistrates as voters ----------------------------------------------------------------- The figures are the percentage of votes cast for a party in the general election; in brackets are the percentage of magisterial support ----------------------------------------------------------------- Town Cons Labour Lib Dems Lancaster 45.6 (41) 39.2 (24) 14.1 (12) Oldham (x2) 32.3 (36) 51.9 (27) 14.7 (16) Leigh 25.5 (31) 61.3 (32) 12.6 (6) Wigan (x2) 25.3 (34) 61.5 (26) 10.2 (7) Guildford 55.3 (48) 11.2 (17) 33.2 (9) Hounslow (x2) 44.3 (45) 44 (34) 10.8 (11) Bristol (x4) 39 (49) 40.4 (29) 19 (14) Dudley (x2) 42.6 (54) 46.7 (25) 10 (11) Leeds (x6) 33.6 (47) 48.5 (33) 15.5 (12) Gateshead 24.4 (34) 63.5 (34) 12.1 (7) Overall 36.7 (41.9)46.8 (28.1) 15.2 (10.5) ----------------------------------------------------------------- Sources: Lord Chancellor's Office, Duchy of Lancaster -----------------------------------------------------------------