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A letter to the Lord Chief Justice

Penelope Gibbs
14 Apr 2014

Dear Lord Chief Justice,

Of all your recent public appearances, I most appreciated your appearance in front of the Justice Committee of the House of Commons on 2nd April.  You seemed engaged, animated and open.  Those in government describe you as radical and I now understand why.  In this letter I would like to focus on some of the issues you brought up in that evidence session.

Local justice   You were very radical on this subject and I am slightly surprised no media has picked it up.   You said that you could not see why most magistrates’ court proceedings could not be held in non court buildings.  You related how you used to sit as Recorder in the Swansea Council Chamber and it was fine for the purpose.  You are clearly uncomfortable that so many local courts have been closed and that many people have to travel huge distances to appear in court.  Your views chime with some in government, and with some campaigners, but they go against the grain of the prevailing orthodoxy of the last ten years.  Since courts administration has been centralised, courts have also been centralised in the name of economies of scale and security.  We have been told that, because a tiny proportion of magistrates’ court cases involve an offender who might lash out or abscond, we must have elaborate security procedures for all magistrates’ courts and all cases.  You are right in resisting that mantra.  And in pointing out that in city centres, there is not much point having a separate magistrates, coroners, crown and civil court.

Judicial diversity Despite the fact that you yourself come from the usual mould (male, white, public school, Oxbridge) you are committed to diversifying the judiciary – making it more ethnically mixed, less male, less middle class.  I really liked the fact that you referred to some people needing help to apply to the judiciary, and that this help would not prejudice the recruitment process.  My only concern is that you and the members of the Justice Committee immediately default to the paid judiciary when diversity is mentioned.  As you said, the paid judiciary needs to reflect women and our BAME communities better, and to broaden out in terms of class background.  But the diversity crisis in the lay magistracy is perhaps greater.  You mentioned the too old age profile of the magistracy, and the problem of attracting employed JPs, but not the lack of balance in terms of class and ethnicity.  The crisis in magistrate diversity has become worse partly because all attention in the last five years has focused on the paid judiciary.  It would be good if the focus broadened and if discussions of judicial diversity always included the magistracy.

Relationship between the judiciary and the rest of government  It is one of your priorities to “make certain that that we have a proper relationship with the other branches of the state”, by which you explained you meant a better understanding between the judiciary, parliament and the civil service. This is refreshing and right.  There is huge ignorance both about the justice system and the judiciary in government and vice versa.  But I think you need a programme to achieve this.  Encouraging the Justice Committee to observe courts is good but they may be “low hanging fruit”.  The key is to get MPs and Peers who are on the Culture, Media and Sport committee or the Communities and Local Government committees to observe courts and talk to all those involved.  The lack of understanding of the average civil service department is also great.  One way of overcoming this would be to encourage secondments into the courts service from the rest of the civil service (not just MoJ).  Another would be to actively encourage civil servants to become magistrates. Research done recently by Transform Justice suggested that even the courts service had tried to prevent one of their employees from sitting for the minimum number of days.  There should be an agreement that every government department will allow their staff time off for magistrate duties and managers should talk up this opportunity to enhance relevant skills.  If more civil servants were magistrates, understanding of the justice system would improve and non civil servant magistrates might get a better understanding of government.

You covered many other interesting issues in your evidence, including the dysfunctionality of fraud trials, the wisdom of judges giving evidence to bill committees and whether MPs should criticise sentences.  But enough for now.

Yours sincerely,

Penelope Gibbs, Director, Transform Justice