The removal of local justice

Julie Iles ran as Conservative Candidate for Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner after years of service as a local magistrate.

An unexpected consequence of standing for election as the Police and Crime Commissioner in Surrey has been my resignation as a magistrate.

Regular readers of TopOfTheCops will know that when Lord Justice Goldring issued guidance, stating that magistrates were required to resign if they were standing for this office, I was part of the delegation that secured a change to this position. My concern then was not only for magistrates who had already been selected as candidates but also for other magistrates who had been, or were likely to be, appointed to serve on Police and Crime Panels as LJ Goldring had also called for them to resign.

I was always very clear that I would resign as a magistrate if I took office as PCC because I felt the two roles were incompatible and I communicated this through my blog on the campaign website in August. Throughout the campaign I was on leave of absence from the bench but I had hoped to resume sitting if I was not successful in being elected as PCC.

Having been clear on this I was surprised when a complaint was submitted to the Lord Chancellors Advisory Committee. I was less surprised when I saw that it came from a Labour Party activist who was a sub agent for the Labour candidate. His claims were that I used my role in the judiciary to validate my campaign, that I implied I would continue as a magistrate if elected and that I would use my position as a magistrate to deliver on election pledges. Having responded in writing perhaps my biggest surprise was that the Advisory Committee did not dismiss the complaint as pure political mischief making.

Taking these claims in turn surely it would have been strange if I had not referenced the fact that I was a magistrate? I had been for the best part of ten years and my desire to make a difference in the criminal justice landscape stemmed at least in part from being a magistrate. I said throughout that being a magistrate gave me a genuine experience of the impact that crime had on peoples’ lives. I did not imply that I would continue as a magistrate in fact I had publicly communicated the very opposite. Finally I was not elected to the office of PCC so any issue about using the judiciary to deliver on election promises was completely redundant and yet I was asked to attend a conduct investigation panel.

One of the qualities that used to be valued in magistrates and actively tested in the recruitment process was that of “common sense”. Convening a panel of four people plus a note taker seemed to me to be the antithesis of a common sense approach, a waste of the public purse and a case of being seen to follow the process, dot the i’s, cross the t’s and cover oneself. I attended although I had already made up my mind to resign regardless of what their findings might be.

Two other things were also raised. One was an email from the Divisional manager for Victim Support. She had written to me after the election because they were rolling out a presentation across schools and it was something she wanted me to help with as I already worked with schools in Surrey for our Magistrates in the Community scheme. My bench chairman felt it was inappropriate that this lady wanted to develop the connection we had made during the course of the campaign. I explained that I did not know this lady beforehand, we had met twice formally during the campaign and I would not see her again in the course of any court room duties. In any event if someone is known the magistrate would recuse themselves from taking any part in proceedings.

Second was a tweet I posted some weeks after the election when our Surrey PCC, Kevin Hurley, appointed his deputy. Mr Hurley is a former policeman and so is his deputy. I do hold a view that police policing the police is not what was envisaged in setting up the office of Police and Crime Commissioner – you only have to look at recent big headline stories to know that introspection has not served the public well. My tweet was simply a signpost to the announcement followed by ”another ex- policeman just what we need?” It was a question to stimulate debate on social media.

On both of these things the panel did not explain, though I asked repeatedly, in what way I might be biased in performing any court room duties. Magistrates have no dealings with Victim Support and neither the PCC nor his deputy have powers to direct arrests or how any investigation is conducted and therefore are not instrumental in matters being judged in court. However the panel did talk about the perception of bias and given the famous quote “perception is reality” how can one fight a perception that cannot be explained ergo guilty until proven innocent.

In spite of my resignation the panel have still reported their recommendations to the Office of Judicial Complaints, namely that I would require formal advice before returning to the bench. As I am not returning I can at least save the Lord Chancellor from troubling himself with this.

I am capable of independent thought, I have freedom of speech in this country and I’m not prepared to give up all outside interests in order to carry on being a J.P.

This whole sorry process sums up the spread of the nanny state and the removal of local justice. None of the people on the panel knew me much less had sat with me in court to form any opinion as to my impartiality. It’s a poor return on the investment that the court service have made in my training and development and the input that I have given back to this voluntary service. It seems that the senior judiciary are uncomfortable with the role of the PCC but if magistrates are to hold them at arms’ length we will never have a joined up approach to keeping the Queens peace, accepting community responsibility for our safety and preserving law and order.

 

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