Magistrates born abroad furious at being banned under 1701 Act

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The Independent Online

Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, has provoked uproar by demanding that foreign-born magistrates take up British nationality or face the sack.

The move follows the discovery by a Home Office official of an obscure clause in a 300-year-old piece of legislation that appears to restrict the lay magistracy to citizens of Britain and its "dependencies". Lord Irvine has ordered magistrates' courts committees in England and Wales to suspend justices of the peace who are not citizens of Britain, the Irish Republic or the Commonwealth, to stay within the letter of the law.

The ruling is thought likely to affect up to 150 people, most of them born in European or North American countries, although the Lord Chancellor's Department said it was currently aware of 22 cases.

The suspensions have caused shock among magistrates, who are all required to swear an oath of office and an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

The Lord Chancellor has offered to "fast track" them through the British citizenship process so that they comply with the Act of Settlement 1701.

One of those affected is German-born Ursula Smartt, who had gone through four years of selection procedures to become a JP and was due to be sworn in next week. Ms Smartt, who is married to a senior BBC executive and has lived in Britain for 30 years, is a senior law and criminology lecturer at Thames Valley University and a respected commentator on the British criminal justice system. She said that as a German she found it ironic that she was being banned under a law drawn up by the House of Hanover.

Ms Smartt said: "I had been through years of tough interviews and panels to become a lay magistrate.

"I was very proud to be accepted and had bought my outfit to be sworn in. I cannot believe that I am not allowed to take up post when I have paid taxes in this country for 30 years and worked as a teacher and a lecturer."

Because Germany does not recognise dual citizenship, Ms Smartt would have to sever her links to the country of her birth to become British. She said she would be complaining about her treatment to the German ambassador to Britain and to the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder.

Alice Reid has now been suspended after sitting on the Inner London bench since 1991. An American citizen, she has resided in Britain since 1962, and has lived for 25 years within five miles of the two courthouses where she is based.

She said: "I am appalled that it has taken this long for the Lord Chancellor's Department to make this discovery and by the way we have been peremptorily barred from sitting."

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Department said a law to allow foreign-born magistrates to sit in British courts would not be ready until summer next year.