Letter: Magistrates' independence under threat

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The Independent Online
Sir: Much has been written about the proposals for changes in the police force, but little about decisions the Government has made for magistrates' courts. Yet if these decisions become law, society will have lost one of the fundamental principles upon which our judicial system operates, that is, to ensure justice is independent and free of all pressures from government.

The Lord Chancellor keeps reiterating that he 'will enshrine in law the independence of magistrates and justices' clerks'. This would not be necessary if the Government abandons or amends the swingeing proposals by which it intends to reduce drastically the number of magistrates' courts committees, impose a structure of management upon the new areas and introduce fixed-term contracts and performance appraisals for justices' clerks, together with other changes. Judicial independence already operates within the present system; it is only because of government decisions that there is a need to 'enshrine judicial independence' in legislation.

The Government's proposals will bring magistrates' courts into a closer relationship with the Civil Service and introduce measures of control which are anathema to our understanding and belief that 'justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done'.

Magistrates object most strongly to being linked with police matters in the one Bill. We are entirely separate from the police, but are told that because of pressure on parliamentary time we have been included in the same Bill. Could there be an ulterior reason, that the emotive subject of policing and law and order will dominate the debate in Parliament and the crucial role of magistrates' courts be overlooked?

The freedom of our judiciary system is a right that must never be interfered with. We must ensure that the Bill is either defeated or amended in such a way that judicial independence remains sacrosanct and magistrates' courts are allowed to function without government interference.

Yours sincerely,



North Eastern Regional Group of Chairmen of Benches and Magistrates' Courts Committees

Magistrates' Courts

Newcastle upon Tyne

27 December