Written by Tom Franklin, Chief Executive of the Magistrates’ Association (MA)
‘Local justice area’ (LJA) is not exactly a household term outside of the magistracy. Even among magistrates it rarely gets the blood racing. Yet LJAs—and their predecessors, the petty sessional divisions—have formed the framework that has underpinned the organisation of the magistracy for centuries. The principle behind them is contained in that first word: local. The idea is that justice is best organised locally, close to local communities, with magistrates drawn from and hearing cases that affect the people in the local area.
Many members will recall the last round of bench mergers which took several months to bed-in and a long time for colleagues to stop asking ‘where did you used to sit’?
Parliament has passed legislation to abolish LJAs once section 45 of the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022 comes into force. There’s no set timetable for this to happen; sometimes it can take years for elements of legislation to be enacted—as was the case with the extension of magistrates’ sentencing powers, which took more than a decade to come to fruition. The abolition of LJAs can be done at any time by ministers once an alternative is in place.
However, there’s no agreed alternative to LJAs at present and the consultation that was supposed to open in spring 2023 has yet to commence. I don’t need to tell you that the Ministry of Justice has a lot on its plate now—not least managing the prison capacity that’s close to its limit—so I wouldn’t be surprised if new autumn 2023 date is also pushed back.
The MA has supported this delay. Abolishing LJAs and replacing them with something new is potentially the biggest change to the management of the magistracy in a lifetime. It’s far more important to get the change right than to do it fast. There’s no ticking clock and the government should take as long as it needs to take to ensure the consultation is thorough and meaningful, and that any new structure is fully thought through and tested—with the magistrates involved throughout.
While we can certainly see some opportunities from looking afresh at structures, the MA has argued that ‘local’ needs to remain at the heart of any replacement structure. The drift in recent years—ever since the creation of the then HM Courts Service in 2005—has been towards ever-greater centralisation and sometimes there can be economies of scale in processes occurring at a national level. However, there’s still a strong need for justice to be local. We have seen how the switch away from local training and development committees to larger TAAACs has caused problems as it was not thought through and has not been able to adapt to changes such as the transfer of magistrates’ training to the Judicial College.
I think there are three key reasons for this.
Firstly, and most importantly, most people’s confidence in the justice system comes from seeing justice done locally. Apart from the most newsworthy and serious crimes, they aren’t interested in what happens in Cheshire if they live in Cornwall, or about incidents of anti-social behaviour in Brighton if they live in Bolsover. They want to know that local offences are being properly dealt with locally. That gives local people faith in the wheels of justice and, frankly, acts as a deterrent. Interestingly, the various political parties are picking up on this—with proposals for community courts and the like—and it’s likely that general election manifestos will highlight the local element of justice.
Secondly, ‘local’ is important for magistrates. When we ask our members what motivates them most to volunteer as a magistrate, the top answer is always about giving back to their local community. Maintaining that strong local connection is going to be vitally important to recruiting and retaining magistrates in the numbers needed—and we’re talking about an increase from about 13,340 to 17,000 over the next few years.
Thirdly, local knowledge of magistrates still matters—perhaps not for all cases, but for many. When I visit MA branches around the country, I’m always struck by how different the local issues are. When I visited Norfolk MA, I heard a presentation about the challenges faced by the county’s large long-standing traveller community, which not all areas have. When I attended Lancashire’s annual general meeting, there was a presentation about rural crime that would have meant little to any magistrate in an urban area. In London, I hear about county lines—an issue that affects different parts of the country in diverse ways. This local knowledge of the combined bench of three helps magistrates to do their role well.
Our annual conference, which is taking place in Birmingham on 25 November 2023, is on this very subject. It’ll see the Minister for Courts, the new Lord Chief Justice, the new Senior Presiding Judge, the new Chief Probation Officer, and the Chief Executive of the charity Revolving Doors (which helps people who come into repeat contact with the criminal justice system) discuss this pressing issue.
If you haven’t booked your ticket for the event yet, please do so soon.
Photo credit: © pauws99 – stock.adobe.com