Reluctant Irvine shelves change to selection of JPs

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The Independent Online

The Lord Chancellor has shelved plans to change the system for appointing magistrates on the basis of their political leanings. The present practice, selecting lay magistrates determined by local voting patterns, has been criticised as unrepresentative and likely to lead to the appointment of magistrates more willing to follow the government line.

The Lord Chancellor has shelved plans to change the system for appointing magistrates on the basis of their political leanings. The present practice, selecting lay magistrates determined by local voting patterns, has been criticised as unrepresentative and likely to lead to the appointment of magistrates more willing to follow the government line.

The Government's research has shown that political affiliation is not always the best way to achieve a proper social balance among magistrates.

Last year, Lord Irvine of Lairg said he was determined to find a better way of selecting magistrates and embarked on a detailed consultation exercise. But yesterday, he said he had "reluctantly concluded that for now it remains the most practicable measure".

Results of the consultation showed 45 per cent of respondents supported the removal of political affiliation as a "balancing mechanism" in the appointment of magistrates. There are 30,000 magistrates in England and Wales, roughly reflecting the voting patterns from the past two elections.

The Magistrates' Association said yesterday it still favoured other ways of choosing magistrates. A spokesman said voting patterns changed and that one magistrate chosen because he or she was of a political colour did not necessarily mean they would hold that view for all the time they were on the bench.

The spokesman added: "It's not very reliable and we think other things like ethnicity and employment and age are more important." She added that many suitable candidates may be undeclared or not belong to any political party.

The main alternative conten-der to the current system had been the "geo-demographic" approach, which would use data from the 1991 census to classify people in social groups. These groups would be defined by age, sex, car ownership, home ownership and ethnic group. But Lord Irvine said research had shown this model was difficult to apply, difficult to explain, expensive and cumbersome.

He said: "We have no intention of imposing a new system which has as many question marks against it as the system it would replace." Public confidence in the lay magistracy was "vital" and this was best achieved when "benches reflect the diversity of the communities which they serve".

He said he was committed to finding an alternative to the political affiliation system and his department was examining an approach based on the occupations of candidates.

The spokesman for the Magistrates' Association said the Association supported the Lord Chancellor's determination to come up with a more workable solution. The Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee, which does the initial recruitment of lay magistrates, will continue to ensure the voting pattern for their area is broadly reflected in the composition of the bench.