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APPPAG MINUTES OCTOBER 2011

Minutes of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group, held on 18 October 2011 at 5.00 pm in Committee Room 8

Community Justice

Speakers: 

Lord Dholakia, Inquiry Panel Chairman

John Thornhill, Magistrates’ Association Chairman and Inquiry Panel Member


Lord Ramsbotham opened the meeting on behalf of Lord Corbett, who was unwell and had sent his apologies. He noted that there were three further meetings planned: on 22 November Lord Leveson would be coming to speak on the Sentencing Council; on 24 January 2012 there would be a presentation on the multi-faith prison chaplaincy and the community chaplaincy; and on 6 March 2012 Professor Alison Liebling would be coming to talk about public and private sector prisons. He drew members’ attention to Professor Liebling’s new report, a follow-up to the report she wrote on prisoner-staff relationships at Whitemoor in 1998, and the value of pursuing that too on this occasion.  

He also wished to give notice of a meeting on the morning of Wednesday 16 November, when members were invited to join members of the Arts and Heritage Group in a visit to the Koestler Exhibition on the South Bank. It was a tremendous exhibition this year, and members would have the opportunity to meet not only staff from the Koestler Exhibition but also some of the artists. Following the recent joint meeting on the role of the arts in prison, he strongly encouraged members of this group to attend if they could.

Finally he wished to welcome Paul Goggins MP to his first meeting in the role of Vice Chair. It was very good to see him.

There were two speakers for this evening’s meeting, neither of whom needed much introduction. He invited Lord Dholakia to speak first, as the leader of the Inquiry.

Lord Dholakia began by explaining the background: ‘The Magistrates’ Association approached me about six months ago. They felt that after 650 years of the magistracy in  this country, during which it had evolved in its role and functions, it was necessary to look again at the issue of summary justice. I felt this was the right thing to do, for a number of reasons.

First of all, I have always believed that the role of the magistrate is very much underestimated in public discussions. The way that criminal justice impacts on the magistracy and on magistrates is very important, because that determines what they do, and what they don’t do.  Secondly, the discretion they often use in reaching their verdict is an important factor. Third, how does the community convey its confidence, or lack of confidence, in the magistracy?   And therefore we embarked on what we called a public engagement programme. All of us could sit down and write our own views and say what we think about the magistracy. But I think it was necessary to approach people in various parts of the country to seek their views.

So the first thing we wanted to do was to gather an understanding about the future of summary justice, and the second thing about the role of the magistrates in the changing situation. Nowhere was this more important than in the recent riots in this country. Suddenly you saw the role of magistrates highlighted. Are they sentencing too harshly? I understand why, when I was driving in my car, I heard the Chairman of the Magistrates Association on the radio putting his own point of view.  But unless something like this happens you very seldom hear about the magistracy.

So we hope that at the end of the consultation period we will be able to produce a report which will form the basis of discussion with various criminal justice agencies, and with the Government. I hope there will be some debates – looking at people like Paul Goggins and others in the Commons, and some of us in the Lords – to be able to raise awareness of this particular report.

What are the questions we will be putting to those we are consulting? The questions are straightforward. Does the public still support the concept of ordinary – not legally qualified – citizens being involved as members of the judiciary in the delivery of justice? Does the public have confidence in magistrates? Do magistrates provide a good quality of service? What do we mean by ‘local justice’? Is this still a meaningful concept? Restorative Justice: what is the role of the magistrates? Should magistrates be involved in pre-court, or non-court decisions? Should magistrates be involved more fully in the administration of sentences - for example to play a part in helping achieve the aim of the sentence? Should magistrates be more involved in the rehabilitation of offenders, something about which I always keep harping. Is the makeup of the magistracy properly reflective of the society in which we live? And should the magistrates’ court be more open?
So, you may say, how did we go about it? So far we have visited Swansea, Oxfordshire, Trafford, Barnsley, and London. This weekend it’s Shropshire, followed by a visit to Leeds. Each of the consultations has been attended by anything from 25 to about 1800 people. Who are the participants? First of all we invite all the criminal justice agencies, and others active in the local area, to come along. We also bring in the general public, people who are interested. For example this weekend one of the initiatives being taken is to involve local television, to project what we are trying to do.  What have they so far found?  Obviously we haven’t started writing the main report, but just to give you some idea of what is coming through: we are talking basically of 30,000 volunteers in this country involved in this process. What do the public think about it?

One of the major things that came out was this. I had expected magistrates to get a lot of flak, ‘they don’t represent public opinion, they don’t represent us’, but no.  Offenders, victims, the general public came along, looking at the role of magistrates, looking at their effectiveness, and nowhere did we find any complaints that magistrates were not performing their task adequately or that we should get rid of them. Secondly, as to powers: have they got enough powers when it comes to sentencing? Should their powers be restricted to what they have now, or should it be extended?  As to the latter, this wasn’t about being more punitive, but many felt that the period in prison was so short that they hardly received any probation or other support. So would it help them to have a longer period in custody?

The third thing was the need to get involved in some of the pre-court situations. Should magistrates be involved in visiting local groups, in providing what are commonly called outreach programmes, explaining their roles in the community? What about their post-court responsibility?  Should they take part in restorative justice? Should they take any role later on, to see how rehabilitation works in relation to individuals? Those were the areas that came through in discussions with local communities.  

They were very keen on ensuring the representative nature of the magistracy. Quite often people talked about the importance of having a magistracy that was diverse, yet the impression being given repeatedly was that we do not necessarily represent everyone in local areas. There were a number of reasons: unemployment, people not being able to get time off work, and so forth. And then looking at the role of our magistracy liaising with other agencies: at one time magistrates were very keen on their liaison and information service. Now that work has very much come to an end, but how much is to be gained by working with the probation service in relation to the sentence that is being passed.

So these are some of the issues that have come out. We hope to complete this work and I hope the report will be ready by about April next year. These were just my observations from the meetings. Some of my colleagues here have been involved in these discussions too, and I am very grateful to them. Can I now ask John what his observations were?  

John Thornhill began by thanking Lord Dholakia and saying that there was a fair measure of agreement between them on progress and objectives. He continued: ‘You will know that we are celebrating the 650th anniversary of the 1361 Act, where our Plantagenet forefathers believed that there ought to be ‘those worthy who could keep the Sovereign’s peace’ following the period of the Black Death and the upheaval in the country, and to ‘keep that peace in the communities of the land’.  The two inherent principles of the 1361 Act are still there today: that is, keeping the peace, and keeping the peace in local communities.

Of course one of the problems is: how do we define a local community now? That’s an issue we have to tackle, and that was part of a debate we had last Friday: is ‘local’ what we used to think it was?  Or is that something broader now? Does local mean ‘the whole of a county’ or just a small urban area? Those are issues that we have got to tackle. But if we work to the two abiding principles of the 1361 Act, then we are asking the questions: how can we still achieve those in a modern society – and one that has modern technology? Do we really need to bring the offender a long distance to a court room to dispense justice, or can we use the modern technology to dispense justice equally effectively? There may, of course, be occasions when that is necessary.

The real issue is: do we still need magistrates? For someone like the Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association to ask that is in a sense dangerous. But I do think this is a question we ought to be asking, and to be asking openly and generally. I have to say that, from what I’ve heard at the public forums we’ve attended, I’ve been very heartened by the measured response. It was interesting to note in one event that both a defence solicitor and an ex-offender said that in their time in their different criminal careers, they had seen a significant development in the way magistrates’ courts, and magistrates themselves operated, to become, as both put it, more professional. What we don’t want is to lose that very important element, which is that magistrates come from the local community, are members of those communities, and are not professional judges.   But I do believe that the offenders have a right to expect us to behave in a professional manner, and that is very different.

Magistrates come from a wide range of backgrounds. On my bench we had a river pilot at one time.  Recently I was stuck coming back from an event in Cardiff, the train was cancelled at 10.30 at night and I was coming back to London. We got as far as Bristol Parkway and there was a high speed train sitting at the platform. A couple of my fellow passengers were a little bit disgruntled at this point, and said ‘Why don’t we hi-jack it?’  The thought of a member of the magistracy hi-jacking a train… But I said ‘I know a man I could ring. A fellow magistrate is a driver of one of those trains, and he could tell us how to drive the train back.’  So the broad spectrum that magistrates’ experiences bring to the magistracy is valuable. Whenever I am sitting in court, I never ask my fellow magistrates what their background or job is because I don’t think that’s relevant. Their experience will bring to that court a very important factor, as well as the local issues. We believe that as members of the judiciary we still have a role to be part of local communities, to understand what’s happening in those communities, to appreciate why offences are being committed in those communities, and to maintain those very important links.  We do that, we hope, through our work with probation, and the police, and other agencies in the criminal justice system, always of course maintaining our judicial independence, because that’s vital. I think that’s what the public expect. I think in many ways that’s also what has come through in the public forums that we have had: that there is an authority figure, independent of all the others, to balance all sides of the story, and make that decision for the benefit not only of the offender and victim but also for the local community.  That’s why we have asked the question: should that local justice still pertain today?

We have links with probation, and we would like to see those links strengthened. We used to have links through what were called probation liaison committees on each bench. We would like to see a statutory requirement for that, and some of your colleagues are kindly working with us to put a proposal as an amendment into the Bill. We believe it is right. Probation staff work in communities and if they can work with us, we can understand more about the community and therefore the role and place of that offender in that community and why they have committed those offences.  I was talking to Lord Bradley earlier. Recently I had a statement in a report that said that the offender had a mental health problem. I know that is an issue dear to Lord Bradley’s heart. What we want to see is, if we have that closer relationship while still maintaining that dividing line, we won’t just receive it as a mental health problem, we will receive more information about why the offender has that mental health problem, so then we can craft a sentence that meets the needs of the community, that recognises the offence committed in that community, and that also meets the needs of the offender.   

We often talk about consistency in sentencing. In one sense I don’t have too much of a problem if there is a measure of inconsistency, because what that shows is that we are responding to the local community.  I remember many years ago in Liverpool we were having some problems on the terraces at local football matches. I won’t tell you which team it was because you will then know which team I support, but it was the other team – that’s all I will say to you. It was right to say then ‘Let’s use the sentencing guidelines that we have, but appreciate that in these circumstances it might be appropriate to respond to the needs of the local community and go to the upper end of the sentencing guidelines’.  We were interested to hear many of the people who have spoken to us about the magistrates’ role at the lower end, too.  At the moment there is a concern about out of court disposals. There is rightfully a place for out of court disposals, but are they sometimes being used inappropriately, for offences that should have come to court? Is there a role that the magistrates can play, either in gate-keeping, or by being responsive to the needs of the local community?

You will have heard of the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre. It’s just up the road from my court house in Liverpool. I think it’s outstanding, but it’s something that we all know, in this room, we cannot repeat. The cost is just so prohibitive. But what we need to do is say: that is what community justice is about. So how can we achieve some of the important underlying concepts of the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre?  Out of that, the problem-solving courts have arisen. In the problem-solving court, the offender comes back every five or six week to meet with the bench of magistrates who imposed the sentence, and a great discussion goes on. When the offender says, for example, ‘I’ve reduced my cider drinking from three bottles to two bottles a week’, for that individual, that is a success. And if the magistrates who imposed that sentence can be seen to recognise that success, then we are building those relationships which we think are vital. That is why we have gone out to ask: do you think those are the sorts of activities which should continue, and if so, is the magistracy the vehicle to continue them?

I can remember going to Leeds when we were looking at the Drugs Courts pilots.  There, offenders were coming back to talk to the magistrates and it was quite fascinating to see the openness of the debates. One who was coming back quite a lot was bringing photographs of the grandchildren. But it was done in such a way that it was obvious that the offender understood that it was members of the judiciary they were talking to. There were two offenders there: one had a problem with benefits and the other had a problem with housing. We all know that that is often part of the underlying reasons for their behaviour. Now nobody seemed to be able to tackle that. But in the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre Keith Fletcher would have said ‘Go down and speak to….’ We need to take that from the North Liverpool Justice Community Centre, because they believe that justice is part of their community and is delivered by the people who know and understand the community.

So that’s what some of us believe quite strongly, and that’s why we went out to the public to see what they felt. I have to say, and I think Lord Dholakia would agree with me, that we have been heartened by the responses we have got.  So we hope to build a future for community summary justice based on some of those principles that we know a large majority of professionals in the justice system, and a large majority of members of the community, and ex-offenders, believe are valuable, not only to them but also to society. I’ll stop at that and answer any questions I can.’

Lord Ramsbotham thanked both speakers for their presentations. He also said how pleased he had been to hear John Thornhill speaking a Criminal Justice Association meeting on young adults in the light of the riots, and how pleased he was that the magistracy was being involved with the Sentencing Council on that. He then welcomed questions.