Irvine Will Abolish Magistrates Courts

Article excerpt

Byline: STEVE DOUGHTY

LOCAL magistrates courts face abolition under reforms set in motion by Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine, it was revealed yesterday.

A 'review' of the criminal justice system is examining a plan to sweep away the traditional network of courts run by independent JPs.

The magistrates' courts - which date back to the Middle Ages - would be replaced by a monolithic court system controlled by Whitehall and run by professional lawyers and judges.

There is also a question over whether lay magistrates should have a role in trying cases at all.

Any such moves are certain to cause a political row - magistrates are widely seen as a bastion of common sense and local knowledge, preserving justice from the grip of the state and professional lawyers. It would also cut away the main voice left to the public in running the courts and sentencing criminals.

Allowing defendants for the first time to 'plea-bargain' - negotiating a lesser sentence if they plead guilty - is also being considered. The practice, common in the United States, is officially frowned on in Britain but known to happen in the courts.

The radical schemes are being looked at by an inquiry team headed by Appeal Court judge Lord Justice Auld, according to a progress report on its work.

And in a move sure to alarm Euro-sceptics, the judge hinted at new links between the English justice system and those of European Union countries.

Some ministers are keen to merge the criminal justice system into a European network, a change that would mean abandoning most of the principles underlining British justice.

The judge has launched an 'intensive programme of meetings' which involve 'discussions with leading European judges and jurists,' the report said.

The Auld review of the criminal justice system was launched five months ago with the aim of increasing the efficiency and fairness of the courts and finding ways of building public confidence in their workings. …