Swiss Family Robinson meets a man with a mission

The Magistrate's Tale
March 21, 2003

The origin of this book lies in its author's previous experience as a juror, described in an earlier book, The Juryman's Tale . Jury experience is a common route towards magistracy.

The format of this new book is unusual. Each chapter has subheadings with italicised themes, for example chapter three contains "The Tottenham trial - I encounter our other courthouse". These give a quaint Swiss Family Robinson flavour, which is surely wrong for a book that proselytises on behalf of contemporary magistrates and the finale of which is entitled "Applying to be a magistrate".

Also distracting are the many italicised segments that report on some courtroom event at Highgate or Tottenham. Although these are interesting, they rarely relate to the rest of the chapter and break up the flow.

Despite these stylistic misjudgements, the main text makes some important observations. Grove notices the weakening of the link between locality and bench. "When the crime rate went up, they closed the court down, didn't they?" a local tells him when he visits his birthplace Colwyn Bay.

But this does not mean the courts have been homogenised, as is clear from his reports of visits to Birmingham, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Carlisle, Leeds and Wrexham.

A vignette from one of these courts exemplifies the continuing gap between magistrates and the conveyor belt of postmodern "desocialised, victim defendants". In this case, the defendant turned up (not to be taken for granted), without a relative (as is typical these days), and replied to the opening request for his name: "Farrell Hope." The chair asked: "Is that hyphenated?" The defendant replied: "I dunno."

The composition of the magistrates' bench has altered significantly since the Royal Commission of 1948. Today, it is a blend of the professional and the white collar. There is gender parity and improved representation of ethnic minorities. Magistrates are also better trained, through depressing but essential prison visits; an imaginative weekend programme at the Ashridge Business School; and mock trial scenarios conducted by Peter Milford of St Vincent's College, Gosport.

But where in the book is some description of deliberation? The process of induction and training of a magistrate is conducted by the justices' clerk, today known as a legal adviser, who has a Yes Minister -style relationship with the magistrate. Some description of their deliberations would have been valuable.

Grove places his account in the political context of the review of criminal courts by Lord Justice Auld (who provides a foreword) and the strong play made by the Justices' Clerks' Society for a judicial role.

The most interesting part of the book is the report on new Labour's juvenile justice policy, which despite its punitive rhetoric appears to be flexible and quite imaginative, with much wider options than those available for adults. Grove has spotted what the novelist Doris Lessing saw two decades ago - that British society is at risk from an anomic outclass it has created (with or without drugs).

I can foresee him graduating to a youth court when he has the legally necessary experience, and I look forward to his observations. But, until then, I note that what the bench needs more than anything is young justices. Only magistrates below the age of 30 will be recognised as peers by most defendants who come before them.

Paul Robertshaw is senior lecturer in law, Cardiff University.

The Magistrate's Tale: A Frontline Report from a New JP

Author - Trevor Grove
ISBN - 0 7475 6055 2
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £14.99
Pages - 290

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