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Thursday, 24 June 2010

If Dave is to succeed, he must restore the Petty Sessions

One of the oldest Acts of Parliament still on the statute books is the Justices of the Peace Act 1361. Now down to a single section that even the Blairs' spoilation of historic English Law didn't quite destroy, a translation into modern English is given on the government's Statute Law Database but the definitive legal text remains in that curious Norman Latin English of the day;

"First, That in every County of England shall be assigned for the keeping of the Peace, one Lord, and with him three or four of the most worthy in the County, with some learned in the Law, and they shall have Power to restrain the Offenders, Rioters, and all other Barators, and to pursue, arrest, take, and chastise them according their Trespass or Offence; and to cause them to be imprisoned and duly punished according to the Law and Customs of the Realm, and according to that which to them shall seem best to do by their Discretions and good Advisement; . . . ; and to take and arrest all those that they may find by Indictment, or by Suspicion, and to put them in Prison; and to take of all them that be not of good Fame, where they shall be found, sufficient Surety and Mainprise of their good Behaviour towards the King and his People, and the other duly to punish; to the Intent that the People be not by such Rioters or Rebels troubled nor endamaged, nor the Peace blemished, nor Merchants nor other passing by the Highways of the Realm disturbed, nor put in the Peril which may happen of such Offenders"

The Lord remains, of course, in the person of the Lord Lieutenant, who still appoints county magistrates. The Petty Sessional Divisions in which magistrates courts sat were well established by late Victorian times, when purpose-built courthouses replaced the 'Justice rooms' in Inns and large private houses in which the business of the courts had previously been disposed. Every market town had its own Petty Sessions in which local JPs disposed of minor offenders, issued licences, made Bastardy Orders against irresponsible inseminators and oversaw the attestation of men joining the army. Serious offenders were bailed or held for the Quarter Sessions, for judge and jury.

None of this could survive the Blairs' Injustice Department. Citing the unsuitability of the traditional courtrooms to accommodate offenders in wheelchairs, dangerous terrorists and video link technology, scores of courts were closed and with them went the combined decades of experience and wisdom accumulated by the Clerk and Bench that made these courts locally accepted, respected and valued.

In Suffolk it came down to just five courts as below; now Mildenhall has been closed, and Sudbury and Lowestoft will no doubt follow in the present round of cost-cutting, leaving the entire business of the County to be disposed of in either Ipswich or Bury St Edmunds.

For a County poorly served by public transport, the effect on accused, victims and witnesses will be to reduce justice to African standards, with victim and accused travelling to court on the same bus. The law firms in the market towns, generalists who handled conveyancing, farm auctions, wills and driving offences, will be hard hit too; having a partner from a small Brandon practice sitting in Bury all day only to have his multi-listed case 'bounced' to another sitting can not be compensated for by public fee levels, also to be hard hit. So hardship and injustice for all then - except perhaps the civil servants staffing the Ministry of Injustice, who can tick boxes for disabled access, deploying machine-gun toting coppers in the atria and video links to enable the prosecution of ten year-olds.

And I suspect that before long, there will be no room in these courts for lay justices. District Judges will rule, refugees no doubt from a disbanded CPS, salaried and utterly obedient to their Whitehall masters.

This is a poor day for Justice and a poor day for England. Cameron cannot succeed in devolving power whilst his left hand is busy centralising it.


English Pensioner said...

I don't think they have done a proper examination of the costs involved, and I think it is more about having so-called District Judges (previously Stipendiary Magistrates) rather than lay Magistrates. The Civil Service could never stand the idea of someone doing a job free of charge when they can create a paid post and employ someone, it's how they expand!
But it will have an effect on justice; were I a witness to a crime, I'd be willing to attend a local court, but unless it was very serious, I wouldn't be willing to go all the way to our County Town.

Our no-longer used magistrates court is a listed building, so is still there and presumably still being looked after by the county, so its hard to see what saving has been made.

A month or so ago, it had a large sign saying "Police" and a couple of police cars outside, and I though that they were bringing back our local police station. Alas, when I strolled further down the street to have a look, there was a nice sign saying "Midsomer Constabulary", and a bored John Nettles standing waiting for the next scene!

Chuckles said...

I will thank you not to denigrate and defame African Justice like that!