House of Commons Justice Committee is conducting an Inquiry into the Role of the Magistracy and has concluded its evidence sessions. The first of those sessions was covered in an earlier post on 24th March - Justice Committee - The Magistracy.
A second session was held on 10th May and this took evidence from six Magistrates. The final session was held on 7th June 2016 with evidence from the Magistrates' Association; the Senior Presiding Judge (Lord Justice Fulford) and the Chief Magistrate (Mr Howard Riddle) and, finally, from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara MP).
These sessions are reasonably lengthy but are worth watching for those seeking to be informed about the many issues confronting the Magistrates and the Magistrates' Courts. This post does not seek to address all of those issues but they included whether Magistrates ought to specialise more; the relationship between Magistrates and District Judges (Magistrates' Courts); the new Single Justice Procedure; Court closures; Recruitment of Magistrates and Diversity; Sentencing Powers etc.
Perhaps we see through a glass darkly* as to what the future may hold.
Clearly under consideration is a "Unified Criminal Court" and it seems that it will have "lay justices" as part of its judiciary though no details are available. A similar "unification" process took place in the family jurisdiction with the creation in 2014 of the Family Court - Crime and Courts Act 2013.
The Unified Criminal Court is referred to in the January 2015 Report by Sir Brian Leveson - Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings - (page 92).
It seems from the evidence given by Lord Justice Fulford that there is support within the senior judiciary for trial by jury for many lower level offences to be removed. This may be linked with additional sentencing powers for Magistrates. Limitation of trial by jury is essentially cost driven. It is claimed that jury trial is expensive and that it can be disproportionate to the issues in the case. For the moment I will leave that topic to one side and concentrate on another - Legal Aid.
Legal Aid seems to have had no mention at all in the committee's sessions. In the present legal system, criminal cases are either dealt with by the Magistrates' Court or by the Crown Court. The rules to obtain legal aid differ between the two. In the Magistrates' Court, legal aid will not be granted for representation unless the defendant meets BOTH a means test AND an interests of justice test. If more work is ever to be given to Magistrates then it is, I submit, vital that the whole question of legal aid for representation is reconsidered carefully since the issues in cases can be more complex and the consequences for individual defendants greater. It was sad to observe a Parliamentary Committee talking about increasing the powers of Magistrates without also saying that legal aid needs to be examined.
It is also rather surprising that the Justice Committee's evidence sessions did not look at the role of Justices of the Peace in Scotland since those reforms may hold possibilities for England and Wales.
* 1 Corinthians 13:12