Some of you may remember the summertime saga of how the country’s Senior Presiding Judge, Lord Justice Goldring, attempted to ban magistrates from standing as Police and Crime Commissioners or doing anything that might be dodgy for being excessively political, you know, like delivering leaflets, before TopOfTheCops exposed them, wound up some PCC candidates, and within a week or so normality had resumed.
Well, this week we have been working with the Observer to reveal that when, on New Year’s Day Lord Justice Goldring moved on from that role, it was not before having left a little present behind, in an attempt to control magistrates interactions with the new PCCs.
The guidance issued in November is JO Circular AC(13) of 2012 and it leaves magistrates with few illusions as to who is boss, and few options as to what to do with PCCs. The guidance labours the point that individual magistrates are not in the public bodies listed as needing to cooperate with the PCC, and that the higher-ups in the Court Service can do that themselves, without magistrates help, thanks-very-much. No need for you mere JPs to bother your pretty little heads about it.
The emphasis of the document is very much that those Magistrates who have to work with PCCs should keep them at arms length, and though the impact of the August-U-turn may be felt in its more measured tones, the proposed restrictions are no less alarming.
There is practically a ban on magistrates being involved in public meetings with PCCs, as each instance would require the individual permission of the senior judiciary. Now, traditionally, plenty of magistrates have had their own separate involvement in politics. They may sit as Councillors. They may be MPs. They may want to keep their options open as to those roles. It doesn’t ring true with me that they would have felt the need to go cap in hand to a senior judge in order to participate in a public meeting with a PCC.
Some magistrates have reported receiving the guidance with a note requiring them to inform or involve senior court staff even if they have private meetings with PCCs, and this has not gone down well. Some magistrates feel that they know well enough what proper boundaries are, without an official being required to act as bodyguard/spy, and many will wonder what has changed since the days of magistrates being entitled to spaces on Police Authorities. Apparently it was fine then for magistrates not only to meet with the people who governed the police, but actually to be those very people.
The document betrays a concern about anticipated criticism of judicial decisions by PCCs – “In the event of a PCC commenting in public about judicial performance, whether about a particular case or individual judicial office-holder, or the sentencing patterns of a court or individual, in the first instance please contact the Chief Magistrate of Office of the Senior Presiding Judge for advice”.
This appears to show senior judges are uncomfortable with the new commissioners and aware of the potential for popular opinion to inform policing decisions and their sentencing decisions to be criticised.
I’m tempted to think that this latest guidance is evidence of a judicial land-grab as part of their strategy of dealing with elections within the criminal justice system. We are accustomed to judges defending judicial independence, but it seems they are greatly expanding the scope of what that independence might require, slowly squeezing out anyone with an involvement in politics or an independent thought in their head, in some effort to increase the distance between themselves and the new PCCs.
The problem for senior judges is that Magistrates may not wish to be treated like pawns in this game. They may have other commitments they don’t wish to give up. They may have a wider conception of the role of magistrate that goes beyond tick-boxing the existing guidance and that accepts a broader community responsibility for preserving law and order.
Take Julie Iles – formerly Conservative PCC candidate in Surrey, and long-serving magistrate – until someone complained about her mentioning being a magistrate in her campaigning. Dragged before a Judiciary Advisory Committee Panel, she felt that ”It seems that if I wanted to express an opinion I might be picked up on it.” and added ”I think it’s asking too much to give all outside interests up for what is a voluntary service.” She has decided to give up being a magistrate.
Can the courts really afford to lose people like Julie Iles? Can they afford to make the price of being a magistrate so high? Can senior judges’ conception of judicial independence be so strong that normal judges, like magistrates, can have no actual independence from those senior judges themselves? Perhaps the senior judiciary are the real threat to judicial independence?
I want to wish the best of luck to those magistrates who find the strength to hang on and who see the possibilities presented for working together with PCCs on a local basis to tackle the crime problems in their local communities. I hope that the Senior Judiciary do not make it impossible for that to happen, and I commend the public service of those magistrates who have tried to make it work, but no longer feel they can.