Magistrates quit over means-related fines

SIX MAGISTRATES in Surrey have resigned in protest at the Criminal Justice Act, which came into force last October. The six said they could not accept the new means-related fines system and measures affecting their ability to punish persistent offenders.

The moves come amid growing criticism of the Act, with judges and justices calling for it to be modified. Magistrates' leaders are to discuss their concerns with Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, tomorrow when talks are expected to concentrate on a key section of the Act which limits the extent to which previous convictions can be taken into account when sentencing.

The six resignations, from the Epsom bench, have taken place over the past two months and result from from hostility to the new Act, according to Christopher Pulman, chairman of the Epsom division. They bring to about 30 the number of magistrates who have stepped down in protest at the Act.

Mr Pulman said: 'All the magistrates have been serving for many years and they are finding the new legislation very hard to accept.' He said the system of unit fines, whereby financial penalties are related to the offender's disposable income, was causing concern.

Last week, for instance, a man from Hove, East Sussex, was fined pounds 16 for possessing cannabis worth pounds 7. Earlier this month, a man in Porstmouth, Hampshire, was fined pounds 500 for parking his car on yellow lines while he went to get water for his overheated engine.

Of equal concern to magistrates, however, is Section 29 of the Act, which limits their ability to take previous offences into account when sentencing. Punishment can be only increased if earlier convictions point to a pattern of offending, according to the Act.

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, is expected to modify the system soon. He is likely to introduce reforms to reduce fines for people on middle incomes and possibily to increase the minimum penalties.