Something unexpected appears to be happening to the ancient institution of the magistracy-in some parts of Britain it is evolving into a progressive, self-questioning organisation. Jeremy Clarke has often been on the wrong side of the bench. Here, he finds reasons to be cheerful about justiceby Jeremy Clarke / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
At the head of a tidal estuary in South Devon, the sash windows of the 18th-century customs house which now serves as a courthouse have been forced down as far as they will go and the geraniums in the window boxes are shedding their etiolated petals on to the hot pavement. The driest and hottest summer since the place was built is no longer an automatic conversational gambit. Inside, jackets have been removed and ties are awry. Mr John Hansell, the normally punctiliously attired defence solicitor and slow spin bowler for the local village side, has his sleeves rolled up above his elbows, ready to lob a few leisurely deliveries at the opposition. The chairman of the magistrates, Mr Jeff Beer, an agro-chemical supplier, materialises through a side door and seats himself in the high-backed chair beneath the faded photograph of Her Majesty in her coronation outfit. He is a gangling man, in his 40s, wearing a short-sleeved shirt which appears too small for him and his long white arms look naked and vulnerable. He slams on his glasses, looks vigorously around the room, says, “Good morning, good morning, good morning,” and Kingsbridge’s weekly magistrates’ court is in session.
Today, he is supported by one “winger” only-an outstandingly beautiful woman who sits beside him with feline self-containment, upright and immobile. In front of and slightly beneath him, the clerk of the court, busy affixing paper clips and shuffling papers into piles, is celebrating the sartorial amnesty occasioned by the heat wave by wearing a luminous, inflammatory tie.
It is August 1st, Lammas day, traditional day of the festival of the first fruits and the first “attender” on the court’s list is Mr Gordon Dixon of Hope Cove. Mr Dixon takes his place at the head of the large table around which all the main protagonists-prosecution, defence, justices’ clerk and police constable-are gathered in affable intimacy. He is asked to sit while the representative of the Crown Prosecution Service lays “the facts of the matter” before the court.
It appears that over the past three weeks Mr Dixon has been arrested some ten times for being drunk and incapable in public. A short r?sum? of the circumstances of each arrest is read out. At Marlborough, he was found lying across the entrance of the parish church beside an empty bottle of whisky; it was found he had urinated on a pew, was “incomprehensible” and unable to stand. At Hope Cove he was found lying in a gateway. At Modbury he was found lying in a garden, was unable to give the police his details and urinated in the police car on the way to the police station. In Fore Street, Kingsbridge, he was found lying on a bench, was unable to stand up and had to be lifted into the police car. And so it goes on.
What would be the next backdrop to this sorry scene? A hedge? Stonehenge? Mr Dixon had in fact appeared before Mr Beer this time last week when his case had been adjourned for “reports” on condition that he agreed to submit to regular counselling. But (as a probation officer with a crew cut sadly testifies) Mr Dixon has already failed to keep his appointment with the social worker because he was too drunk to answer his front door when she called round for him. Also, he has been arrested again-drunk on the esplanade at Paignton.
There is a hiatus. A wasp drifts casually in through one window and out of another.
“Stand up, Mr Dixon,” says Mr Beer in a brisk, no-nonsense tone.
Mr Dixon gets to his feet with surprising agility.
“Well?” says the magistrate testily, “What have you got to say for yourself? What are you going to do? We are running out of patience. We are doing all we can for you-we have got all these people running around trying to help you-don’t you feel embarrassed about letting everyone down, urinating everywhere?”
Mr Dixon is 55, has thick grey hair and a fresh Elastoplast on his forehead. He has a tremulous, slightly bewildered manner and stands with one hand on his hip and the other hooked around the back of his bowed head. He is well spoken:
“It has got to the stage where I am drinking too much,” he says after considering the matter for a while. “If I don’t stop soon, I’ll get in a hell of a state.”
“Might I suggest to you, Mr Dixon, that you are already in a hell of a state and this court is waiting to hear what you propose to do to get out of it.”
Again, Mr Dixon pauses to give the matter some thought. “Well, I’m going to have to stop drinking whisky.”
“You are going to have to give up drinking alcohol completely,” splutters Mr Beer, who then stands up, saying irritably, “We’ll retire.” He marches out of the room-followed at a dignified distance by his almond-eyed colleague.
As soon as the door of the retiring room has shut behind them, the atmosphere lightens.
“Ah, the grip of the grape,” chuckles the clerk with the vulgar tie, shaking his head over his pile of papers to general amusement. Even Mr Dixon rolls his eyes in humble agreement. The officials relax, unbend, chatter, stroll around the room exchanging pleasantries. Late-comers take the opportunity to greet friends and colleagues; the defence solicitor, Mr Hansell, sprawls charmingly across the table and negotiates a deal with the lady prosecutor on behalf of another client.
At the quiet centre of the clubbable conviviality, Mr Dixon sits quietly, with his grey head bowed and his thumbs pressed together. As he and I are the only ones in the courtroom with nobody to talk to, and because I too had a silly season and have appeared numerous times before this same bench on similar charges, I leave my place amid the curious miscellany of settees and kitchen chairs set aside for the general public, and offer him a hand of friendship and commiseration.
“You can beat it if you really want to,” I say didactically but sincerely.
“It’s absolutely crazy…” he starts to explain, but is cut off by the usher’s stentorian “court rise” announcing the sudden return of the magistrates from their deliberations. Mr Beer strides in, flops heavily down and sighs noisily through his teeth.
“Right, Mr, er, Dixon. Stand up, please. We are going to fine you ?20 for each offence and we are going to send a notice to the police invoking the 1902 Licensing Act and if, at any time in the next three years, you buy or attempt to buy intoxicating liquor, you will be entitled to a fine. Do you understand?”
He registers Mr Dixon’s mumbled assent and goes on: “Furthermore, if anyone sells you intoxicating liquor, they will be entitled to a fine of ?500 and if they are caught supplying intoxicating liquor to be distributed to you, that is, someone buys it on your behalf, they will also be liable to a ?500 fine. Is that clear?
“I had a friend once who was addicted to alcohol. He managed to kick it-but if I had caught him embarrassing himself as you have been I’d have knocked his block off. Have you no friends who would do the same for you?”
With this piece of manly common sense, Mr Dixon’s financial circumstances are ascertained (he is on income support); he is ordered to pay the fine off at ?2 per week and dismissed.
“Go on,” says Mr Beer indulgently, “I don’t want to see you here any more.”
And the usher shows Mr Dixon the door.
u u u
Sir Thomas Skyrme, eminent historian and author of The Changing Image of the Magistracy, claims:
The system of lay justice reflects, through citizen participation, the traditional English involvement of the layman in the administration of justice. It enables the citizen to see that the law is his law, administered by men and women like himself, and that it is not the esoteric preserve of lawyers.
Until fairly recently, however, although the majority of the citizens of England and Wales might possibly have believed in the equality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the street and to steal bread, it is unlikely that they saw themselves as having much in common with the gerontocracy of mauve-faced old squires who had been authorised to administer summary justice throughout the land since time immemorial.
Responding pragmatically to the depopulation and social chaos wrought by the Black Death in the 14th century, a statute of 1361 urged that:
In every county of England shall be assigned for the keeping of the peace one lord and with him three or four of the most worthy in the county, with some learned in the law, and they shall have power to restrain the offenders… and to pursue, arrest, take and chastise them according to their trespass and offence.
Such worthies continued to perform all these aspects of law enforcement for the next 500 years until the peelers relieved them of their policing duties in the mid-19th century and later, the emerging local councils took over their administrative role. Perhaps a system of summary justice operated by untrained members of an oligarchy might have retained some credibility where an illiterate populace continued to believe that the noblesse (or “knobless” as Del Boy Trotter innocently puts it) could be trusted to fulfil their obligation to the lower orders.
But after the anti-Jacobin hysteria following the French Revolution, magistrates came increasingly to be seen as prefects of the so-called Industrial Revolution: no longer the impartial Christian gentlemen administering local justice who could themselves be called upon to pay the fines of their indigent neighbours. Also, by this time, the reputation of the magistrates in London and the “poor courts” under their jurisdiction had already sunk so low, under constant charges of inefficiency and corruption, that they had been replaced by government-appointed lawyers who became the first full-time stipendiary magistrates.
With the introduction of motoring offences and the appearance of the articulate middle classes in the courts, the summary justice system and the magistracy were reformed to accommodate them, but vestiges of the old suspicion that most justices were sclerotic, paternalistic old reactionaries with little contact with the mass of the population persisted. The property qualifications were not abolished until 1905. As recently as 1947, a quarter of all sitting magistrates were over 70-some were over 90-and only one out of every 100 was under 40. PG Wodehouse’s portrayal of Bertie Wooster quailing before a ferocious octogenarian at Bosher Street on the morning after Boat Race night, charged with stealing a policeman’s helmet, may not have been far from the probabilities of life well into the 1950s: neither, perhaps, was the generally held opinion that the magistracy was still over-represented by the upper middle classes, the Freemasons, the military and the Conservative party.
In recent years, however, the Lord Chancellor’s office has made strenuous efforts to rejuvenate the magistracy by making its 111 local advisory committees less secretive and directing them to recommend a more representative cross-section of the general public for selection. Subsequently, this ancient institution has found a second wind and is fast catching up with present-day realities. As it is a legal institution, designed principally to interpret “truth” and to issue judgements based on the supposed behaviour of that mythical absolute, the “reasonable man,” it does not aspire yet, fortunately, to post-modernism. But the magistracy today is a modern, progressive, self-questioning organisation, composed of public-spirited volunteers drawn from a variety of occupations, creeds, political beliefs, ethnic minorities and sexual proclivities. Out of the 30,088 magistrates, 14,043 are women. Some magistrates are in their late 20s and the upper age limit for new applicants is now 55. Many magistrates are otherwise unemployed. Yet, even in the broadsheet newspapers, the impression persists that magistrates are eccentric anachronisms. This may be partly due to the extraordinary persistence of popular prejudices and beliefs (such as the notion that wolves habitually eat people, or that West Ham still play attractive, attacking football) and partly to the natural preference of journalists and other dramatists for burlesque over actuality. In fact, the last decade has seen the most radical change in the magistracy since Richard the Lionheart appointed the first Justices of the Peace in 1195.
Of course Marxists may grumble that the present change is simply the result of a revolution in the production relations of international capitalism which has altered the material base of English society and, in turn, its ideological superstructure; and simple economics are an important factor in the continuing viability of the magistracy. Magistrates are cheap. They hear two million cases a year-95 per cent of all criminal cases-and for their troubles they get ?5.35 a day towards lunch and travel. They don’t cost much to train either. Surely they must be one of the cheapest forms of justice in the mechanised world.
Their reformation has considerably widened the experience of the bench-and at no extra cost to the government. Today, the person standing before three magistrates charged with, say, assaulting the police, is now more likely to see that the law is administered by men and women like himself. He will see that they are relatively young, from his parents’ rather than his grandparents’ generation (the peak age for offending is 18 for males and 15 for females) and possibly still prone to irresistible urges themselves. They may be one of the five per cent of the annual intake from the “ethnic minorities.” They will certainly be products of a post-imperial Britain and perfectly aware that Mafeking has been relieved, once if not twice.
Colin Watson, clerk and training officer to the Justices of Plymouth, advisor to the Devon magistrates’ court committee and secretary of the Lord Chancellor’s advisory committee for Plymouth, responsible for the selection, training and supervision of 142 magistrates, introduced himself in a broad Northern accent: “You might not be able to understand me accent mooch, lad, but you’ll just ‘ave to put oop wi’ it.”
“What’s that?” I said, taken aback: “Yorkshire?”
“Aye. And yours is London, I suppose.”
In order that his bench be as representative as possible, Mr Watson constantly reassembles an ever-changing “jigsaw” of candidates from both genders, from within the age group stipulated by the Lord Chancellor, from the 12 occupational categories which have to be spread evenly throughout the bench (education, civil service, and so on) and from all the geographical districts and political allegiances in the city of Plymouth. Of the 60-70 applicants eligible for appointment in his area each year, only a handful will fit the profile of the existing vacancies: “When we sit down to decide which name to recommend to the Lord Chancellor for appointment,” he tells me, “we may have many who have all the qualities we require for somebody who has to sit in judgement on others. But if they have declared on their application that, for instance, they lean towards one political party or another, and we are desperately trying to get people who favour another, we have to pass them over until the following year when the situation might have changed.
“It might also be the case that just because an individual is a bloke, for example, he won’t be appointed that year because we are trying to effect a balance on the bench between the sexes.”
The application form for prospective justices of the peace gets around the potentially touchy subject of personal political allegiance by asking:
Do you vote at General Elections?
Yes. For which political party?
So presumably, if someone votes conscientiously for the Monster Raving Loony party and would rather not say so, he can tell a small fib and tick the “no” box. At the moment, Mr Watson is finding that those prepared to admit on paper that they regularly vote for the Conservative party are relatively thin on the ground in Plymouth and he is anxious to attract a few more to correct a small political imbalance in his bench. But he emphasises that he welcomes applicants from any political persuasion whatever: “Reds, Blues, Greens, Yellows, Independents, Plaid Cymru-you name it.” I take him literally and suggest the Revolutionary Communist party and Hizb ut-Tahrir, but it is all the same to him: “Yes, yes, it’s all quite possible,” he says expansively.
“My perception when I started in 1960 was that the magistracy was the landed gentry and no one else. Now times have changed. My committee considers it vital to make efforts every year to recruit from all walks of life, including from among those who unfortunately cannot find work and from what one would call the blue-collar workers. I’ve recently written to a number of firms operating in Plymouth’s business parks asking for a notice to be displayed in the canteens saying something along the lines of ‘Have you ever thought of becoming a magistrate?’ In other parts of the country I’ve even noticed recruitment posters for magistrates on the back of buses.
“Of course younger people may be too busy to give up their time for a voluntary activity. But the Lord Chancellor’s department has issued a directive that the age profile of the magistracy must be reduced and we certainly do try to achieve that.”
On the way out, I complimented him on the air conditioning and his well-designed, user-friendly complex of courts and offices. “Yes, we work in the same temperature all year round.” Then, conspiratorially, he tells me: “Except they don’t ‘ave proper winters down ‘ere mooch anyways.”
Raymond is a charity worker in his late 20s who has recently been recruited to a bench in east London. He is gay; and as he is a quarter Chinese, a quarter Jamaican and half British, he prefers to call himself black. He is alive to the fact that the combination of his age, colour and “sexual orientation” puts him well into the vanguard of those hitherto excluded groups now being recruited to bridge what is seen as an unseemly and widening gap between sentencers and sentencees. So far, he says he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the apparent objectivity and impartiality of his colleagues.
He dismisses the initial training in “human awareness” that he received as “lamentable: too little, too late,” but he has yet to encounter overt racism from other members of his bench. He says the discriminatory comments he has overheard have been “of the unthinking kind like: ‘why do poor people have so many children?’ or, referring to homosexuals, ‘what must their rectums be like?'”
“Are they an opinionated lot?,” I ask him.
“Well, yes, they are-perhaps that is why we put ourselves forward in the first place. In any case, to be able to form and hold an opinion about something or somebody is a major part of the job. But they are not unfriendly at all-if that’s what you mean-in fact with literally hundreds of magistrates on our bench, my social life has never been better. And we go on some lovely outings.” I had a nightmarish vision of stopping off at a beano pub on the way back from a boozy day out at Margate or Southend and finding the place packed to the rafters with magistrates.
No. 1 Court, Bow Street, just off Long Acre in Convent Garden, is a much more austere and impersonal affair than the court at Kingsbridge, Devon. There are no windows to stare out of when things become tedious; any natural light invading the room filters in through a dirty old skylight. The wood-panelled court is small and all the stations of the various officials are separate, boxed in and on different levels. The public have to squeeze in at the back behind a large glass partition where it is impossible for anybody to hear anything on the other side unless they press one ear against the glass and keep one finger in the other. Several unfit looking men and women wearing the white shirts and insignia of a private security firm keep order by wandering in and out, slamming the doors and further antagonising those straining to hear, with unselfconscious, loud and prosaic conversation. And to judge from the way the expression on the faces of those blundering in through the swing doors changes from uncertainty to despair to embarrassment before they push their way out again, I am not the only one in the building finding his way around by intuition and guesswork. Frustrated, I put on a “concerned relative” look and go to sit in the inner sanctum, on the padded bench designated for friends and relations of the accused.
At Bow Street, the diversity of regional and class accents is striking; ranging on the one hand from the lady usher’s Roedean-verging-on-Texas: “All steynd please,” to the sing-song Welsh accent of the young chap accused of “putting himself in a place to beg or gather alms.” The stipendiary magistrate himself, Mr Bartle, articulates his oriental politeness by projecting flattened vowels from the back of his gullet out between taut, wide lips:
“Why were you begging for money in the street?”
“Because I don’t have any, your honour.”
“Do you have any accommodation?”
“I’m well on the way to getting some, sir.”
“Absolute discharge,” he says waving away the case as if he is mildly scandalised that it should have been brought before him in the first place.
After watching the elaborate stage business of the provincial lay magistrates as they process from the courtroom to the place where the decision is made, Mr Bartle’s peremptory on-the-spot pronouncements come as a shock. The nod of a stipendiary JP is summary justice indeed. Apart from these snap decisions of a solitary stipendiary and a bit of wood panelling, however, there seems little difference between a magistrates’ court in the centre of the metropolis and one in rural Devon. True, there is probably less organised crime and more incest in the countryside and more mobile phones being cloned and fewer negligent slurry spillages in inner London. But the overriding impression in both places is of well-dressed, well-fed, well-meaning people conducting complicated legal business around the shortcomings of the weak, the meek, the slow, the addicted and the destitute; of an erect, confident people presiding over a race of cowed, tattooed, smoking folk.
By no means all attenders give the appearance of being disadvantaged, though; there are lots of young alpha males enjoying a surge of testosterone, as well as middle-class people up for driving offences and the occasional out-and-out sociopath. But in both London and Devon there is a similar lack of vindictiveness on the part of the magistrates-often to the undisguised incredulity of some of the police witnesses and court officials-unless the attender happens to be in the rare and unfortunate position of being in receipt of a decent salary, in which case he or she gets clobbered.
The Bow Street version of This is your Life continues with an elderly drug addict with a “mental condition” who has been HIV positive for the past ten years and has to be spoken to via an interpreter. The charge is read out and Mr Cipriani listens intently as the account of the walk-in theft of a purse from a restaurant is whispered into his ear. After the d?nouement he seems perfectly willing to entertain the suggestion that the culprit was himself, but Mr Bartle wants to hear more about Mr Cipriani’s personal life before passing sentence and remands him for “reports.”
Then we have a handy looking youth, Mr Cares, with permanently cocked eyebrows, a tan and a combative No. 1 crop with tramlines. He stands before the magistrate, who is still writing notes about Mr Cipriani, and lets go a throaty belch with loud and enviable insouciance. Mr Bartle looks up from his page and squints at him questioningly, trying to ascertain whether he had heard what he thought he had heard, and if he had, whether it was an unfortunate lack of self-control or a matter of no consequence in the man’s culture, or whether there had been a deliberate attack on the dignity of his court. After a brief staring contest, the youth gives a deadpan, unapologetic “pardon” and the magistrate returns to his writing pad.
Mr Cares is charged with being drunk and disorderly and with assaulting his friend, Mr Norman Dawes, while queuing at a hot dog stall. He pleads guilty to the first charge and not guilty to the second. The prosecution alleges that the unpleasantness had arisen after Mr Cares had called his friend a “long-haired twat.” This is refuted by Mr Cares’s solicitor who claims that his client had been “merely complimenting his friend Mr Dawes on his haircut.” There follows claim and counter-claim about who hit whom first and about the extent of the injuries sustained by Mr Dawes (who is not present) until Mr Bartle feels that he has heard enough and fines Mr Cares ?150 and awards Mr Dawes ?100 compensation for a cut cheek. Then he carefully folds away his half-moon spectacles and stands up.
“Court reyse,” says the usher.
Since the earlier case of Mr Dixon and his remarkable series of common law misdemeanours, the morning’s proceedings, back at Kingsbridge in Devon, have lapsed into an interminable round of pleas in absence, driving offences, adjournments, readjournments, committals and applications for extended and occasional bar licences. In marked contrast with the composed attention of his winger, who leans forward observing the sweaty legal pavane with close interest, Mr Beer lies slumped in a melancholy stupor, coming to life spasmodically with a violent fit of head scratching or arm rubbing, then subsiding into torpor again like a caught mackerel expiring on a beach. A farmer wearing a track suit relieves the monotony slightly by coming to plead guilty to four counts of failing to bury a carcass and four more of failing to attend to a sick animal (fined ?1,300), but it isn’t until a tramp with a beard pleads guilty to stealing a bottle of champagne and a hat as part of a guileless and by all accounts melodious shoplifting spree (absolute discharge), that the lay spectator’s will to live begins to ebb back again.
The next attender, a Mr Michael Prettyjohns of Torquay, stumbles dramatically into the room and tacks across to the defendant’s chair, bent double and clutching his midriff. He is helped to sit down and sags there, ghastly white, unable to hold up his head and looking seriously ill. Mr Beer revives and looks quizzically around to see whether he can detect any signs of scepticism or disquiet amongst the professionals.
Mr Prettyjohns is charged with twice dishonestly claiming that he had not received his unemployment benefit cheque by filling out forms to that effect. Theft by deception. Mr Prettyjohn’s solicitor, the lately arrived Mr Hassel, rises and explains to the bench that his client is ?9,000 in debt, has a “difficult marriage” and two children on the child protection register. In his past, Mr Prettyjohns has had “difficulties with drugs” and although he has made efforts to reform his life, including “taking up fresh premises,” hard drugs have persistently “reasserted themselves” into his life. Then Mr Hassel comes at last to what is surely the most pertinent part of his plea: “As your worships can see, my client is not enjoying the best of health at the moment.” We scrutinise the inert figure slumped in the chair for signs of breathing.
“He is suffering in fact from a collapsed lung. I should hasten to add that he is not in this condition because of the effects of illegal drugs, but looks this way as a result of an outstanding private debt that was ungoverned by consumer regulations [he’s been given a doing].”
“My client is by nature an industrious man and he has expressed to me his desire to get back into the work ethic as soon as possible. I invite you, your worships, to grant that wish and give him community work, rather than a financial or custodial penalty which may exacerbate the problems of my client and his family.”
He bows and sits and Mr Beer says “we’ll retire” and stands and the magistrates go out to consider Mr Hassel’s invitation, and perhaps to deliberate on what sort of work one gives to a man unable to hold up his head, let alone stand unaided. In the magistrates’ absence, the court officials again circulate and socialise around the accused: the lolling figure in their midst looks like a paralytic at a party.
It’s getting on for lunch time and, in half a mind to call it a day and not wait to hear the verdict, I slip out to the lavatory. At one of the two urinals is Mr Dixon, the wandering whisky drinker, standing with his grey head bowed in concentration. It must be a good two hours since his dismissal from the jurisdiction of the court so I congratulate him on his continuing sobriety and continence as I hove to beside him and fish out the todger. He has been in the probation officer’s room, he says, arranging home visits from a social worker and more counselling sessions.
“It’s absolutely crazy,” he says, emphasising each syllable like a litany, clearly bewildered by his own behaviour of late.
“I used to make a bottle of Scotch last three or four days, but now I pack one off in a sitting-it’s crazy.”
“Are you an Anglican?” I ask him, wondering what he was doing in the church.
“Yes I am. I don’t go to services nowadays but I do like to sit in a church when there is no one around, especially when things get on top of me-which they have been…