LETTER: Judging a balance of right and wrong

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The Independent Online
From Mrs P. J. Crossley, JP

Sir: John C. Welch ("Court is no place for amateurs", 6 September) uses assertion and casuistry in place of argument. There are several respects in which the stipendiary magistracy is not superior to the lay bench, and appointments to the lay bench are driven not by the desire to obtain a balance - although it would be manifestly unfair if a balance were not sought - but by the selection of people of integrity and understanding.

Lay magistrates, unlike stipes, come from many different backgrounds, understand local issues and can interpret the law flexibly to suit local conditions.

Four recent pieces of legislation took away the autonomy of magistrates in administering sentences and payments. The original Criminal Justice Act had the effect of fixing fines so that magistrates could not use their discretion. The Child Support Agency took over the administration of maintenance payments from the magistrates courts. The poll tax also removed a great deal of magistrates' discretion, and the Dangerous Dogs Act has had the same effect. The fate of these government attempts to bypass the moderating effect of common sense should make politicians think twice before handing local justice over completely to the professionals.

Yours faithfully,

P. J. Crossley


8 September