Howls and wry laughter in court

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The Independent Online
'A Bill will be introduced,' said Her Majesty, in that polite but faintly surprised tone perfected for reading out her various governments' wheezes, 'to strengthen the administration of magistrates' courts.' They are, on the whole, solemn places, magistrates' courts. Yet strange noises echoed within the panelled walls of half the magistrates' courts in the country on Thursday, as Her Majesty opened Parliament. 'A howl of depression,' said one London magistrates' clerk, 'mixed with a wry laugh.'

In a room in the City of London magistrates' court that evening a small group had gathered to greet the publication of a new book, ('Managing Criminal Justice' by John Raine and Michael Willson, Harvester Wheatsheaf, pounds 10,95), on the management of the criminal justice system and the Government's latest proposals. This did not look like a gathering of leftie subversives. A bowler hat lay on a chair in the lobby outside. Yet inside the talk was low and restless. On the fawn carpet, David Green, justices' clerk at St Helens in Lancashire, was talking urgently. 'We'll be on five-year contracts. The danger is executive control of the judicial act. The theory is that it's all for efficiency. But there are a number of ways where it's obvious to me it will trespass into the courtroom.

'It's trying to run a magistrates' court like a Japanese car factory when we are dealing with justice. And you can't mechanise that.' Yet Mr Green did not seem to be one of those Sixties-thinking people this Government distrusts. Later in the evening he turned pale purple at the mere suggestion that magistrates might sit wearing jeans.

Not far away stalked Gaye Fox, clutching a sheaf of papers. 'It will emasculate the independence of the judiciary at our level]' she said. 'We're writing to the entire House of Lords.' Mrs Fox, a magistrate at Ealing, is 60. She wore a seed pearl necklace. She did not look much like an old hippy either.

The Government's proposals for magistrates' courts will form part of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill. Put simply, they will bring justices' clerks, who advise magistrates on points of law and run the courts, under the direct influence of the Government. At present, however prejudiced and crusty a few may be, they are independent of politics. But in future magistrates' clerks will depend for the renewal of their new, short-term contracts, on the ultimate approval of an inspectorate that reports to the Lord Chancellor.

Magistrates' courts committees are also going to be altered. Their chairmen will have to be approved by - yes, the Lord Chancellor. And all this in the name of increased efficiency and the introduction of the market. 'Who are my customers?' snorted one clerk. 'I'm having to hand out questionnaires asking villains who slash seats what they think of our seating arrangements.'

Michael Willson, co-author of the book and associate lecturer in public policy at the University of Birmingham, rose to introduce the volume. 'When I was in Strasbourg with the working party for the management of criminal justice, we were interested in the cost per case,' he said. 'Yet the Swiss, Belgians, French and Germans were going on about human rights. It got tedious. I know it's important, but let's get on] Then I realised my thinking was sloppy. It's something to do with not having been invaded since 1066. We find it easy to assume things are all right.'

He sat down to applause, watch chain sparkling in the light. If this goes through, I asked another clerk, will you really feel pressurised to do what you think central government wants? 'Of course,' he said.

Mr Willson picked up his bowler and the party adjourned to discuss principles, Plato and politics over dinner. 'When the poll tax was happening,' said another clerk, reaching for the designer water, 'somebody suggested that we all list the cases on the same afternoon to split up the demonstrators. And we said, we can't do that]'

Last year a circular went out from the Lord Chancellor's department telling justices' clerks that legal aid was being granted too readily. After an outcry from the clerks, the Law Society took the instruction to the courts, claiming it was an unlawful attempt to influence them. The Lord Chancellor's department promptly withdrew the document. Will the clerks' independence of mind be retained if they think their jobs are at risk?

'And then there was the miners' strike,' Mr Green said. 'Don't forget we dealt with all those cases.' For magistrates' courts, of course, deal with almost all public disorder cases that arise out of marches and demonstrations against the government of the day. 'I can't directly list certain magistrates for certain cases,' one clerk had said at the party. 'But I could pretty well arrange that a case comes up, say, when a magistrate I know always lets people off is on holiday. Or the one who always believes the police.'

The Government says its proposals will not damage the judicial independence of magistrates' clerks. It is a little disturbing that so many at the cutting edge disagree. More than half the branches of the Magistrates' Association are worried by the potential risk to judicial independence. So is Lord Scarman, the former law lord. So, he has said repeatedly, is Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice (the Government surely cannot class him as a hippy). David Green put on his overcoat. 'Watergate was nothing compared with this,' he said. 'But it's hard to get anyone outside the law interested.' Gaye Fox went home to get on with her letters asking for support. 'Someone,' she said, 'has to stand up and say No] No] No]'