I recall with measured pride leaving the famed court one of the Central Criminal court (Old Bailey) en route to the 2014 Scarborough Napo AGM having been sworn in as a magistrate to sit on the South East London bench. One of the more memorable lines from the judicial oath which I was required to swear was ‘ I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.’
With this worthy injunction firmly in mind, I approached the day of my first sitting as a winger in the adult court with some mild trepidation and anticipation. I sought out the chair who, sensing my slight discomfort put me at my ease, stating, Just think how the defendant might be feeling on their first appearance’
I have a fuzzy recollection of feeling ‘elevated ‘on the raised bench and made a point of seeking out in my field of vision the probation link worker. I mused at the number of times I had entered courtrooms as a probation officer and hoped that my presence might make a difference in the lives of those appearing who the bench had asked probation to interview.
I would like to share some thought on how judicial decision making demands a sure footed, principled and confident acceptance of the need to recognise diversity.
One of the first challenges to fair and equal treatment of individual cases was the controversial introduction in 2015 of the criminal court cost charge, by the former Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling. This levied a mandatory charge, regardless of income, on all those convicted in the courts. There was a concerted campaign for its abolition, not least by the Magistrates Association (of whom I am a member) drawing attention to some of the more egregious, disproportionate and unjust outcomes. But during the period when courts were required to impose the charge, there was also a palpable anger at the offhanded way expressed judicial concerns were simply ignored and magistrates enjoined to follow the law!
Another reason for worry has been the Sentencing Council statement that it was inadvisable for sentencers when in court to comment on the content of community sentences, as ”assessing the quality of offender management is not within the remit or responsibility of sentencers”. This at a time when critical probation inspectorate reports had called for greater oversight and scrutiny of supervision. This has rightly given cause for concern and resulted in a documented loss of judicial confidence in community sentences. This might be partly mitigated (aside from the reunification of the Probation Service) if the policy of the Magistrates Association to fully enact section 178 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, to enable sentencers to more effectively review community orders made by the court, is brought into effect.
The local bench is desperately short of magistrates from all sections of the diverse community it serves. But, in spite of its many detractors and critics, when I sit on the bench, I still retain a firm commitment to ‘do right to all manner of people’ and try always to remember that justice should be seen to be done.