No one wants to be the victim of crime, no one wants to be mugged. But it's a whole lot worse if you're mugged by the Lord Chancellor, the very man nominated to run our justice system. And it's even worse if he's picked on you because you were actually trying to improve the justice meted out in our courts.
But that's what happened to me when, in a newspaper interview back in February, I talked about some of the manifest failings of the youth court system. For the last eight years, I have cycled from my home in Clapham down to Balham to serve as a justice of the peace in my local youth court. Why? Because I felt it was something worthwhile, something grown-up, maybe even a social duty. I felt I had something to give, and once a fortnight since 1995 I have been giving it.
Yet, as time went on, I started to notice a persistent refrain in our retiring-room chats: the system simply wasn't working, and it was the victims who pay the price. None of us disagreed; delay was built into the process and more often than not delay meant failure. Forced by the adversarial system itself, defence advocates have no choice but to defend their clients to the best of the abilities. That means asking for every document, every witness, every CCTV tape. Faced with this barrage of demands the police and crown prosecution service are teetering on the edge of collapse. The result is a string of adjournments as they try to produce that CAD dispatch report, that third interview transcript.
And what happens to the victims? They put in dreary, endless hours, giving statements, attending identity parades, being sent home from adjourned court hearings. My 12 year-old son was mugged last July by two 15-year-olds – nothing serious, a little shaken, nothing stolen – but by the time a verdict was handed down, it was the following April, and we had each clocked up 39 man-hours. That's 78 man-hours between us – and we're the victims!
I suppose that's what pushed me over the edge – seeing the youth justice system from the victim's side, seeing how the lawyers and coppers and, worst of all, the young offenders treat it all as a joke. So when I was approached for an interview, I happily agreed – I thought I was talking about a universally acknowledged truth.
But that's not how the mandarins of the Lord Chancellor's department saw it back in February. I was clearly no longer fit to be a magistrate in their eyes, and I was "asked to refrain from sitting".
Most lawyers would endorse Lord Irvine's decision, pointing out that judges shouldn't give interviews. I would say they're missing the point. As a JP, an amateur, an unpaid volunteer, I am your representative in the justice system. I have no career at stake, no earnings; it is my job to communicate the public consensus into the justice system and to communicate the problems of justice back to the community. I am not bound by judicial trappism.
But that's not how the judge assigned to interview me saw it. I arrived at the interview in his fusty, remote chambers ready to play the game, the take-my-medicine-and-beg-forgiveness. Yet the judge grilled me, hectored me, belittled me and patronised me. I reeled away, stunned and appalled.
Even then I might not have come out fighting if it wasn't for an interview given to this paper by Lord Warner, the chairman of the youth justice board. This is an arm of the Home Office that was established to think proactively about youth justice and that provides much of our training and guidance. Two weeks after my Torquemada at the hands of the judge, he went public, saying almost the same thing as me. That's when I lost it. If he could say it publicly, why couldn't I?
And maybe I've had some small effect. Because on Monday, the Audit Commission and then the Home Office decided that they agreed with me as well. They spoke about £80m wastage and cynical manipulation by lawyers and loss of faith in justice. Exactly what I had been saying. Yesterday, the Prime Minister weighed in, backing up everything I had said.
But, sitting alone in his woolsacked fastness, Derry Irvine is clearly the last to see it. This new radicalism is all stemming from the Home Office – now packed with Mr Blair's friends. Number 10 seems finally to have realised that the Lord Chancellor's Department is too moribund, too myopic to make the necessary changes, to show the necessary verve. So he's simply steered round it – like an ancient oak felled across the motorway – and told the Home Office to get on with it.
So where does that leave me? Well, I'm still suspended, waiting for the Lord Chancellor to decide my fate – he's clearly as slow at reaching a verdict as the court system over which he presides. And when he does decide, will he really sack me for stating what even his boss now admits is a truth universally acknowledged? Go on, Derry, I dare you.Reuse content