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Amelia Ashton, Chair of Wessex MA, provides a detailed account of the Magistrates Association Conference, incorporating the 56th Annual General Meeting, on Saturday 13 October.
THE ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING
The AGM was well attended.
There were no great surprises as expenditure has remained stable and income has dropped in line with falling magistrate and MA member numbers. Cash reserves are robust and the MA has assets of nearly £6m. The excess from the sale of the previous property has been invested to provide an income.
There were 2 motions for the AGM to debate, both of which are detailed separately, so I will not recount here.
In the Chair’s address, John Bache listed the seven similarities between chairing the MA and being a consultant in A&E:
1. Everything that goes wrong is your fault
2. You are never short of advice on how to do things better.
3. You learn to pick your battles.
4. You develop a sense of humour.
5. No 2 days are the same.
6. Your words are often misunderstood – accidentally and wilfully.
7. You are lucky to have and enjoy the camaraderie and loyalty of colleagues.
One of his bugbears is that he doesn’t understand how a magistrate who is not a member of the MA can possibly keep themselves up to date given the lack of HMCTS training.
He explained that the country needs 9,000 new magistrates in the next decade for numbers to stand still. He sits on the Overarching Magistrates Group (OMG) with Emma Arbuthnot (Chief Magistrate) and Duncan Webster (new Lead Magistrate on the Magistrate Leadership Executive). The OMG is designed to improve the training, morale, competence and confidence of magistrates.
It was announced that the MA will celebrate its centenary in 2020 and planning is already under way in terms of a celebration.
Lucy Frazer QC MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice
Ms Frazer atated that she was there to stress the importance of the magistracy in the judicial system and that as magistrates we have a future and it will be fulfilling.
Recruitment is an issue – HMCTS and JCO are collaborating to increase the profile of the magistracy (possibly by advertising) and to streamline the process and timing of recruitment.
£1bn is being invested to improve the justice system and as part of that they are still considering the need for and role of court buildings. She said “I hope you will see some changes that will make it better.”
They are considering temporary or pop up courts to aid the accessibility to justice for defendants, witnesses and victims. They are looking at alternative provision of courts and/or transport but these provisions would be on a case by case basis e.g. very rural areas. Her definition of justice is the fair determination of rights, which doesn’t necessarily have to take place in a court building. She accepts that not everyone can or will want to use technology but we can’t ignore the huge part it plays in our everyday life.
They are reviewing the impact/ unforeseen circumstances of the Legal Aid reforms of 2012.
She accepts the need to protect open justice but without any real suggestion as to how that might be doable under the Reform programme. The business case for Reform is regularly tested.
The Rt Hon Lady Justice Macur DBE, Senior Presiding Judge
Lady Macur’s starting point is that magistrates are a vital part of the judicial family – and “that’s not just bunting”. The number of magistrates has dropped from 25,155 in 2012 to 15,003 in 2018 and this is as much from resignations as retirements. The magistracy will not become extinct but some magistrates will if they fail to adapt to change. In her mind, it is vitally important to replenish numbers and increase diversity but absolutely not at the cost of merit.
On new technology she said she won’t have magistrates who are not tech capable think they’ll be put out to grass, when so many have valuable experience. The introduction of Digital Services Officers is recognition of the need for help. The job can only be done with the technology if the technology works. There are provisional dates for IT mentor workshops in 20 venues from January 2019. Issues have been taken on board and sorted e.g. the incompatibility of appraisal and expense forms.
The enhanced rota will roll out over the 20/21 October. Court iPads are to be simplified so that the opening page will only contain 4 tiles and there will be the option of a portrait screen.
She has delegated powers and signs off new magistrates which should sort out delays but she will not rubber stamp applications.
She is hopeful that the collegiate nature of both the MA and benches will continue to provide the interest and pride that will retain current magistrates – that doesn’t seem to allow for the possible disappearance of benches all together.
Diversity is important but ultimately her view is that the only box that must be ticked is excellence. There’s a need to encourage employers to support their employees in public service. Jury service is protected so why not the magistracy? There needs to be recruitment campaigns – adverts on the backs of buses, adverts in jury rooms.
She is part of the working group on pop up courts and they are looking for alternatives where suitable for each jurisdiction but they will not sacrifice the security of the judiciary and support staff.
The video pilot in Medway is going well - if there is a role for video to play it will need magistrates to be more participant and prepared to demand to see the defendant in person where necessary. Magistrates must embrace the technology but not at the cost of independence or the basic tenets of justice. While she’s SPJ the magistracy’s continuing resilience will not be taken for granted. She hopes that through her we’ll be emboldened to raise issues.
She gave some numbers on the case load of the magistracy – In Q3 2017 the magistracy dealt with 175,475 SJP cases and in addition in 2017 as a whole it dealt with 13,200 cases.
The stats suggest we are keeping cases at the trial point more often and sending them up for sentence where necessary. The forms completed on cracked, ineffective and vacated trials are all scrutinised.
She would seem to be a good friend to magistracy and a fierce ally.
Sir James Munby, former President of the Family Division
Sir James has a bad back and unfortunately could not come to the conference.
Dame Glenys Stacey DBE, HM Chief Inspector of Probation
This was a very interesting session.
Dame Glenys runs the probation equivalent of Ofsted. She has 50+ inspectors and an annual budget of £10m.
There are three strings to their work:
1. Thematic inspections – for instance the recent one on domestic violence which showed up the problems with probation service d/v programmes.
2. Inspections of CRC by CRC and NSPs by division – seeking out best practice and sharing it and highlighting poor practice and sorting it.
3. Independent reviews when something has gone wrong e.g. the Worboys case.
When the Probation Service was split into CRCs and the NSP there was no notion of standards introduced at the same time so unsurprisingly the inspectorate initially found little effective work being done with offenders. So the first thing Dame Glenys did was find some money to introduce and implement a set of inspection standards.
The standards are split into 3 domains – leadership and staff, specific case and general.
The ratings are ‘bad’, ‘requires improvement’, ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ and awarded in each of the three domains and overall. If CRCs want to be part of the next round of re-bidding for contracts then they need to engage. The number of CRCs will fall to 10 and the number of NSPs rise to 10 and they will cover coterminous areas.
As a general rule there’s an expectation that CRCs will rate as ‘requires improvement’ and NSPs as ‘good’.
No CRC will get a good rating where people are not being seen but dealt with only by telephone. Under the next generation of contracts telephone contact won’t be an option.
Probation required to offer rehabilitation, to manage the risk of harm to the public and to ensure the court’s sentence is carried out. NPS is good at managing the risk of harm because they have the greatest to manage but CRCs are weak in this element. There is a mismatch between the aspirations and skills of the CRCs and what they’re delivering. CRCs are not making money so they’re cutting staff and that has inevitable knock on effects.
Over the last 10 years the number of community orders given has reduced by 52%; DRR and alcoholic treatments were down; and the number of accredited programmes is decreasing. Over the same period SSOs are up 31%. Evidence is that community orders are more effective in rehabilitation than short custodial sentences, which often do more harm than good.
There are serious failings in RARs and unpaid work. The MoJ is requiring that RAR days are more detailed and specific and more timely. A 2017 review of RARs suggested they offered little work or relevance. A RAR day is not necessarily a day but could be 5 minutes. It requires legislation to get shot of RARs so they are here to stay for the time being.
Unpaid work has increasingly been regarded as an extra and the punitive element rather than in of itself valuable for rehabilitation. Offered properly unpaid work should provide rehab, vocational skills, time keeping, prep for work. The job of supervising unpaid work has been undervalued where these are the members of the probation team that an offender is likely to spend most time with.
Absences need to be dealt with more promptly and effectively.
NPS tend to fall down when assessing the risk of harm. Oral reports provided in court are sufficient in providing offender background to allow sentencing but don’t necessarily provide enough information for the CRC to plan/implement/deliver the sentence.
Post Sentence Supervision is not going that well and suggested reforms include mirroring the actual custodial sentence and the PSS up to a maximum of 12 months PSS; a split approach e.g. PSS once out of custody but still on licence; and a needs led approach up to a maximum of 12 months PSS.
NSPs are very good at trying to re-engage offenders before getting to the point of triggering recalls. Where CRCs are good at recalls but it is not obvious they know when it should happen. RARs muddy the issue here because they are not specific enough and the underlying quality of the work done is not good enough.
There is a total lack of public and that undermines confidence in justice understanding. One of the issues of a divided supplier is that there is no one to champion probation.
Delegates had the opportunity to attend two of the three workshops.
1. Sentencing female offenders: considering the provision currently available and the specific issues when sentencing women.
I didn’t attend this but one shocking stat that came out was that where women go into custody only 6% of children remain in the family home!
2. Talk Listen Change: working with the cause of the problem - domestic abuse perpetrator programme.
This was delivered by what had been the local branch of Relate. It was interesting and included an exercise demonstrating the tension of living with domestic violence. They were great but very local and mostly delivering programmes for the family jurisdiction and don’t currently work for probation.
3. The Sentencing Council
After providing a brief overview of the Sentencing Council’s work we did a sentencing exercise on Class A drug possession. They are reviewing the drugs guidelines because of the significant changes since 2012 in types of drugs, dealing and the appearance of psycho actives. They expect to put out a consultation in spring 2019 with new guidelines due out in early 2020.
They are currently working new assault guidelines.
We thank Amelia for her thorough roundup of the events. If you have any queries about any of the above, please click here to contact the Membership Team.
Two motions were proposed and passed at the AGM and have now become MA policy.
Motion 1: This AGM believes that it is time to raise the retirement age for magistrates
Proposer: Patricia Peters JP – Cheshire MA
Seconder: Paul Brearley JP – Greater Manchester MA
The argument for:
‘I proposed this motion as several of my colleagues in Cheshire have been writing to me as their MA representative, asking that the MA to support the raising of the age of magistrates. Many of my colleagues are nearing retirement age and feel that they still have much to offer.
‘We are all acutely aware of the shortage of sitting magistrates, and these are the very people who have been plugging the gap, without whom the court business would be even more stretched. While judges retire at 70, they are able to return and sit on very important tribunals, with their age going unquestioned. We simply do not understand why this should not be the case for magistrates.
‘I - like my colleagues - very much want to see new, younger people join the magistracy. However, the fact remains that the pressures of modern life and time constraints are not conducive to the performance of civic duties. Employers are becoming even less likely to allow employees to take time off, and those with childcare duties just don't have the spare time to give.
‘Over the last few years, I have seen so many experienced and talented people forced to retire after many years’ service on the bench - but with more years left to offer, if they were afforded the opportunity. From my perspective, this simply does not make sense. I am really pleased the motion was passed by a good majority and very much hope for a time when magistrates will be invited back to sit after the age of 70.’ Patricia Peters JP
‘I have over a number of years said goodbye to many talented, dedicated magistrates as they are forced to retire - many of whom would have liked the option to go on until they were 72 or 75.
'Our panel in Greater Manchester is currently under-resourced by 25%, which places a huge amount of additional pressure upon those of us who are left. Imagine my dismay when the upper age for jurors was raised to 75? So colleagues to whom I say goodbye to on one day can then be called upon to sit as jurors for the next 5 years? There is no logic to this at all.
‘The MoJ say that increasing our retirement age will stifle the progress of diversity or attracting younger potential magistrates. I say the increase in our retirement age and the wish to increase diversity and attract younger magistrates are not in any way incompatible - we can and should do both.
‘So I was very keen to second the motion at the AGM because I felt that the MA needed this resolution to support a serious conversation with the MoJ. They (the MoJ) have helped create the current situation and they hold the key to try and resolve it.’ Paul Brearley JP
The argument against:
‘I was a magistrate for 20 years. When I retired at 70, I had no problem leaving. Sure, my experience went, but how do others gain similar experience if we all had another 5 years? The argument that one’s intellect doesn’t suddenly vanish at 70 is valid, but so what?! Judges have the same retirement age and though the jury age has risen to 75, we are not jury members.
‘I have two main issues. Firstly, there is a view outside the magistracy that we are an old, predominantly white, middle class group of people. It is true that we probably don’t reflect society in class, ethnicity, occupation or more importantly, age. If there are current sitting problems, we should devise better ways of attracting a more diverse group of people to become magistrates. Giving us a further 5 years ignores the problem.
‘Secondly, if we had an appraisal system and appraisers who were robust enough to weed out the poor performers at any age, then we could sensibly argue for no age barrier at all.
‘Finally, when I chaired the MA, this topic was discussed with politicians from all parties. They didn’t have to say “no”, their look said it all.’ Richard Monkhouse JP
Those in favour – 91
Those against - 36
The motion was carried and is now MA policy.
Motion 2: This AGM believes that delays in magistrates’ courts caused by cases not being prepared before the court date have reached unacceptable levels.
Proposer: Brent Robinson JP – Worcestershire MA
Seconder: Tracy Sortwell JP – Cambridgeshire MA
The motion was unopposed and overwhelmingly carried, and is now MA policy.
Jude Zendle, MA Training and Development Officer, recounts a jaunt around the city.
'In tandem with the conference, the MA also runs a Partner Programme. This allows partners and family members of the conference attendees a chance to explore the host city, visiting carefully selected sites and having lovely meals. A perfect day!
'Our initial plans of a Manchester walking tour were thwarted by forecasts of torrential rain.
'Fortunately, Manchester is packed with things to do – from food, to music, to museums. We focussed our visit on the Spinningfields area of the city. Most popular with participants was the John Rylands Library – a fabulous Neo-Gothic building which is home to a collection of unique books and artefacts, including the earliest fragment of the Gospel of St John and the personal papers of Elizabeth Gaskell.
'We also visited the People’s History Museum which is the national museum of democracy – well worth a visit to see their extensive collection. Manchester is a city of firsts – the first passenger railway, first professional football league, birthplace of vegetarianism and the Women’s Social and Political Union – and I would highly recommend anyone to visit and discover this fascinating city!'