Are we about to see the end of the magistrates’ court?

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By Omotayo Akorede on

New reform plans may plunge the magistracy into an existential crisis


The doors into the library of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom are engraved with a facsimile of the Magna Carta, signed by King John of Runnymede in 1215. One of its two most important clauses has been picked out: “To no man shall we sell, or deny, or delay right or justice” (article 40).

However, this famous quotation from Magna Carta seems to be gradually losing its effect, given the increasingly widespread unaffordability of legal advice and representation. The effect of court closures, particularly magistrates’ courts, means an increased travel cost for court users, and the severance of magistrates’ links with their local communities.

The reasons for this are not far-fetched.

The Ministry of Justice and senior judiciary recently put forward plans for reforms, representing a profound change in how justice may be done in England and Wales in the future. The purpose of this article is to consider the effects of these reform proposals, particularly with regards to the desire to close supposedly under-used magistrate courts. This follows the argument that these proposals signal an end to the prominence of magistrate courts in England and Wales.

Magistrates’ courts date back around 650 years. Their official birth came in 1285, during the reign of Edward I, when ‘good and lawful men’ were commissioned to keep the King’s peace. From that point, and continuing today, Justices of the Peace, now magistrates, have undertaken the majority of the judicial work carried out in England and Wales (about 95% of criminal cases are dealt with by magistrates).

The importance of magistrates, and indeed magistrates’ courts, cannot be overemphasised.

It is assumed that the diversity and humanness that magistrates bring to the court gives the public confidence in the judicial system. Lord Irvine, while he was Lord Chancellor in 1999, reiterated this point when launching the campaign for more diversity in magistracy:

Magistrates come from a wide range of backgrounds and occupations. We have magistrates who are dinner-ladies and scientists, bus drivers and teachers, plumbers and housewives. They have different faiths and come from different ethnic backgrounds, some have disabilities. All are serving their communities, ensuring that local justice is dispensed by local people. The magistracy should reflect the diversity of the community it serves.

Nevertheless, the magistracy has had its own share of criticism.

In a report in 2014, Transform Justice, a charity group that campaigns for a fairer justice system, found that the number of magistrates has freefalled, with a 28% decline noted since 2007. On a similar note, it was reported that magistrates are “considerably older, whiter and more middle class” than the general population and less diverse than they were in 2000; spurring up concerns that the magistracy’s constantly shrinking and facing an existential crisis.

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However, the institution is set to face its most difficult challenges to date in the near future, challenges that perhaps threaten its existence.

In a consultation paper presented to the UK parliament and released in September 2016, the Ministry of Justice and senior judges jointly made proposals for what could be tagged ‘swift and certain justice in a modern justice system’ — a principle among which is a closure of underused magistrates’ courts for a more technological and faster online justice system.

The desire to close rural courts, justified by the clichéd government argument of ‘swift justice’ and ‘cost-efficacy’, has sparked a lot of fears about the government’s commitment to access to justice, especially for the poor and vulnerable members of the society. The decision to sell buildings to fund modernisation may not be so ridiculous, but reports showing that some may have sold for as little as £1 says a lot about the effect of these reforms.

There are many who share similar resentments for these proposals, but perhaps these reforms are inevitable in a modern world. Since the spending review commitment of £700 million for court technology last year by the HM Treasury, details of what reform really means — beyond new iPads in court and a war on paper files — have been much anticipated. The reforms are expected to deliver savings of approximately £200 million a year from 2019-20 onwards.

This raises the question whether access to justice could be sacrificed under the guise of saving money. Despite campaigns launched by local court users, only five of the 91 targeted for closure — nearly a fifth of all courts and tribunals in England and Wales — were reprieved. The closures were justified on the grounds that, on average, the 86 courts closing were only used for just over a third of their available hearing time. More than 97% of citizens would still be able to reach their required court within an hour ”by car”.

Nonetheless, the grave implications of these reforms cannot be over-emphasised. As director of the Centre for Justice Innovation Phil Bowen noted, if more cases are heard online, and if more court buildings are shut, are these reforms pulling apart the case for continuing to have a lay magistracy in England and Wales?

In his words:

But there is, of course, something deeper about the connection between court closures and the future of the magistracy — it unpicks the thread that has tied magistrates to their communities for so long. It is a direct assault on perhaps the magistracy’s most cogent argument for existence: that magistrates know their patch and know what matters to their communities.

Perhaps it’s time to accept our lay magistrates have now out-lived their purpose.

Omotayo Akorede is a final year law student at Bangor University.

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