Magistrates set to frustrate court reforms

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LORD MACKAY of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor, announced yesterday that the Government is to speed up legislation that will radically change the way magistrates' courts in England and Wales are run.

Proposals to put justices' clerks under fixed-term contracts are expected in the Queen's Speech at the opening of Parliament in November. There will also be proposals to make the clerks (the chief source of legal advice to lay magistrates) accountable to new area managers and inspectors appointed through the Lord Chancellor's office - thus linking them to the executive for the first time in legal history.

Clerks, responsible for the budgets of their courts, would also be given performance-related pay. This system, say both clerks' and magistrates' organisations, would put pressure on them to deliver measurable results rather than justice.

The legislation, proposed in the White Paper, A New Framework for Local Justice, has been brought forward. It is now certain that the country's 30,000 magistrates will take action designed to frustrate the new rules, which they say threaten their judicial independence.

Hints of unrest were voiced yesterday at the AGM of the Magistrates' Association. The magistrates voted overwhelming for a motion stating that they viewed 'with great concern' the threat to their judicial independence. They strongly urged the Lord Chancellor to do nothing that might put pressure on magistrates to 'subordinate the interests of justice to management efficiency'.

The Lord Chancellor addressed the association at the Guildhall in London, where there were warnings from magistrates debating the proposed reforms that 'justice would suffer in the name of efficiency' and that clerks would be measured on 'numbers' rather than justice.

Mrs Janet Atkinson, a magistrate from Keeble in Yorkshire, said Lord Mackay had been listening to their concerns 'with only one ear'. The association's voice would be 'raised to a bellow' she said.

The Lord Chancellor told the association: 'Nothing I have heard so far has caused me to alter my view that the changes I have proposed will not interfere with judicial independence.'

He promised to 'enshrine in law' a guarantee of that independence.

Although magistrates and the 200 justices' clerks in England and Wales will eventually have to accept the new conditions, continued opposition could force the Lord Chancellor into a protracted and lengthy parliamentary process to enforce everything in the White Paper legally.

One magistrate said yesterday: 'In England and Wales 95 per cent of all crime is dealt with by magistrates' courts. If Lord Mackay doesn't acknowledge our concerns there are steps we can still take to make it difficult for these changes to go ahead.'