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Magistrates, courts and delivering community led criminal justice

15th March 2011

Jonathan's speech to the Salt Hill Society.

It’s a great pleasure to join the Salt Hill Society today. My understanding is that one of the reasons behind the formation of your group in 1783 was to protect locals from robbers and highwaymen. As a minister in the Justice Department I think that makes us spiritual cousins.

Sadly, my day job only now involves taking forward the Coalition’s reform plans for the Criminal Justice System in parliament and the country – rather than manfully defending coaching inns. But it’s about these reform plans that I want to talk today. In designing our proposals, one of our central beliefs has been the importance of local communities. The UK has long depended on the best of its people – active, engaged citizens like the members of this society – to ground our criminal justice system. I want to share with you how we intend to sustain and strengthen the role of local people in delivering justice.

Many aspects of magistrates work are important, not least sentencing powers and court efficiency. But tonight I wish to focus on two key areas. Firstly, improved community involvement, including an upgraded system of restorative justice. And, secondly, the need for a better use of the court estate, including more use of technology.

Individuals in local communities make up the backbone of our criminal justice system via the magistracy – an institution which celebrates its 650th anniversary this year. Some 28,000 individuals in England and Wales freely give of their time to serve our communities as JP’s, the length and breadth of our country. We all owe them a debt of gratitude. But we also need to appreciate that their role has changed significantly over time. And it is going to continue to do so. No longer are magistrates' drawn from a very narrow social class. Today magistrates come from every walk of life and are representatives of the community on the Bench. I am committed to the role of magistrates and to supporting them in that role, but I am also clear that their role needs to keep pace with the communities they serve.

Let me give you an example. Increasingly we all travel further, whether it’s the commute to work, a trip to the shops or even coming to Slough to meet with the Salt Hill Society. We are no longer confined to the towns or villages in which we live. Many old courts were planned to be no further than half a day’s horse-ride and that would have been for the convenience of the magistrate rather than victims or witnesses. However times need to move on, so, in our recent courts’ review, we thought an hour by public transport might be more appropriate.

Similarly magistrates now often serve in courts in a number of towns, or in places in which they do not live, or areas to which they have only recently moved. They often hear cases with defendants or victims and witnesses who live considerable distances from where the offence took place. What is now important is that magistrates bring their wider experience to the Bench and understand the needs of the community.

In our recent consultation paper we initiated a debate on new ways of delivering Neighbourhood Justice. This looks at the kind of justice that takes place with the intention of providing an effective and local response to lower level crime that may not necessarily belong in the courts. We need to challenge the common perception that ‘real’ justice must always involve some interaction with a court. Court may not always be the right answer and may not always be in the interests of the victim or deliver the most satisfactory result for the community affected by the crime.

I have already made clear my commitment to the role of magistrates and my support for their role. But I do firmly also believe that we are not making the best use of the knowledge and expertise we have within the magistracy. We are also not adequately capitalising on their links to the communities from which they are drawn and in which they serve. There could be a great potential for magistrates to get involved in developing an alternative tier of justice that takes place out of court, in local neighbourhoods, with communities increasingly playing a part.

We already have a range of community-based disposals for cases which are not serious enough to go to court. Now we wish to build on their government’s agenda of localism and community engagement. So we have consulted on additional community-based approaches such as Neighbourhood Justice Panels and Restorative Justice. The next challenge to bring these together into a coherent and transparent framework, based on principles of sound justice and public interest. The aim is to achieve timely, fair and effective justice outcomes in the community which are in proportion to the offence and which build public confidence in the justice system. To this end we want to work closely with magistrates on developing these ideas and the Magistrates’ Association has expressed its keenness to engage on this important agenda.

We also need to get away from the historic attachment some have to under used ill-equipped or unsuitable buildings. The reality is that many magistrates courts can only deal with a limited scope of cases because they are too outdated to have secure custody facilities. Others have so little demand that they are only open once a week and many import their staff from large local courts. Another problem has been that many older buildings only have one court room – which means that effective listing and case management is severely restricted. Effective administration of Criminal Justice is not actually a question of bricks and mortar. Rather the future is in fewer, more adaptable, victim and witness friendly court centres, where cases can be listed and be heard quickly and cost efficiently.

It is also important that the court service moves with the rest of society in the effective use of technology. Our justice system is rich in tradition but tradition should not mean a reluctance to adopt new technology, if new technology means justice can be delivered more efficiently without compromising fairness and transparency.

Video technology is one area where significant progress has already been made. Video links between courts and prisons have been widely used for some years to avoid the unnecessary transportation of prisoners to court to appear in non-trial hearings. Vulnerable and intimidated witnesses routinely give their evidence by live link. At the same time the Virtual Court in London and Kent has demonstrated how defendants can be brought before the bench for their first hearing via a video-link from the police station. This is without having physically to transport them to the court.

In this way not only is justice being delivered from a local location, but the potential for security and energy savings, by not transporting thousands of defendants and prisoners around the country, is significant.

But these applications are currently piecemeal and we want to do more to develop appropriate uses of video and technology which enable our courts to operate more effectively in a modern society. And so, for instance, we will shortly test the practicalities of police officers giving evidence in summary trials over a live link. This should benefit the police in terms of reduced travel and waiting time and importantly enable officers to work whilst waiting to give evidence. In time we would like to see civilian and expert witnesses more routinely giving evidence in this way.

What all this adds up to for me is a reformed and efficient criminal justice system. Also a system which keeps local people at its centre. Communities will have an enhanced role via Neighbourhood Justice. The volunteers making up the magistracy will continue to be at the heart of a modernised system. The common theme is a big role for active and engaged citizens – something which the Salt Hill Society has long exemplified and so I happily acknowledge your role as a forerunner of the Big Society.


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