A London youth court magistrate welcomes a shake-up of the criminal justice system which tries to make it harder for the guilty to escape conviction by playing the system. When his own son was mugged on Clapham common, he discovered just how inhospitable the justice system is to victims of crimeby Jonathan Myerson / June 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
The government’s latest criminal justice bill, due to become law this autumn, marks a new departure in criminal justice reform. For several decades now, nearly all judicial reforms have sought to ensure that no innocent person ever faces a guilty verdict. Now this new bill sets out “to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim and the community.” This mantra reoccurs throughout last year’s 159-page white paper that preceded the bill, along with observations such as: “a criminal trial is not a game under which a guilty defendant should be provided with a sporting chance.”
Many readers of this magazine will regard that as code for an illiberal attack on historic civil liberties. I profoundly disagree. My own involvement with the criminal justice system is small?since 1995, I have given up one day a fortnight to serve as a magistrate at my local youth court. Why? Most people assume that, as a professional screenwriter, I’m on an extended research expedition. But not so. I believe in the magistrates’ court system and its unique English variation, namely the amateur judge, the justice of the peace. We are a conduit between people and the criminal justice system, untempered?in the best sense?by legal training or the need to make a living from it.
For while it is the QC-dominated Old Bailey trials that command the headlines, 96 per cent of all criminal cases are settled in the magistrates’ court and almost all youthful criminal careers start (and can therefore be stopped) in the youth court. There is no more important cog in the criminal justice machine. But it remains an under-funded Cinderella service. As a consequence my last few years on the bench have become increasingly frustrating. I give my time voluntarily in the hope of halting a few of those budding criminal careers. But it has become increasingly hard even to bring a matter to trial. What’s more, as certain types of crime have increased?especially inner city street crime?people have started to lose faith in the justice system, what the white paper rightly calls a “justice gap.” So, despite some reservations, the criminal justice bill will be welcomed by most people I know who work in the youth courts.
Most mornings at Balham youth court, we three justices sit, watching the clock, waiting for the trial to commence. Usually we wait in vain. Last July saw 74 trials…