Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Once a week I put on a suit and go along to the local courthouse, where I am elevated from plain Mister to Your Worship. This wonderfully inappropriate form of address is the only public reward for being one of the country's 30,000 unpaid lay magistrates who deal with over 95 per cent of criminal cases in England and Wales. We are also entitled to put the letters JP after our names, for Justice of the Peace. But this is discouraged by the Lord Chancellor, as Charlie Falconer still titles himself, lest we be thought to be putting on airs.

Sometimes magistrates must do things that stick in the throat a bit. Last week, for example, the bench I was on had to try a man for doing something I didn't even know was illegal. He had stuck a For Sale notice in his parked car, as thousands do. I had always assumed this was a perfectly innocent practice. Wrong, unless the car is in your own drive. Apparently you need a street-trader's licence from the local authority to sell anything at all on the public highway. Accordingly, the defendant having failed to convince us he wasn't the car's owner at the time, we found the case proved. Since he was of previous good character, we ordered him to pay a small fine plus a modest contribution towards the prosecution's stonking £1,900 costs. The council also applied for forfeiture of his Audi, worth several hundred quid, which had been garaged at public expense for the year it had taken the case to come to trial. So be warned: this is not a good way to sell a car. I left court after a hearing that had tied up nine people for an entire afternoon (two lawyers, one prosecution witness, a Polish interpreter, an usher and a legal adviser, plus one defendant and two JPs) feeling faintly enraged: had this been a minor criminal instead of a minor civil matter, a first-time offender would probably have been dealt with straight away, at nil cost to anyone, by means of that admirable device, a police warning.

But magistrates must not let personal feelings colour their judgments. They take an oath to uphold the laws of the land. If they feel a particular bit of legislation is more than they can stomach, they can always resign from the bench. Quite a few did so at the time of the poll tax, when the courts were swamped by citizens refusing to pay up. Now it seems probable that scenario could repeat itself, when the hunting ban comes into force next February and the country's newest brand of law-breaker is hauled before the courts, possibly in large numbers and accompanied by bands of supporters blowing hunting horns. There may not be many magistrates who hunt themselves, like the Staffordshire JP Chris Jackson, who has threatened to resign from the bench and defy the law, or Derek Pearce, a member of the Beaufort Hunt, who has sat on the North Avon bench for nearly 20 years and is one of more than 50,000 people who have signed the Hunting Declaration. But there must be plenty of rural beaks whose chums hunt and whose sympathies lie with the ban's opponents. Last week Lord Falconer gave them a warning: 'Were a magistrate to break any relevant law enacted by Parliament, or refuse to enforce it, that would be likely to constitute conduct incompatible with the requirements of their office.' This may have the effect of stiffening judicial spines, but it could also prompt some to abandon the bench before they find themselves facing their neighbours in the dock. …

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