Everywhere you turn in the justice system, there's a crisis. Off the top of my head (in alphabetical order): crumbling courts, disclosure, duty solicitors becoming extinct, legal aid fees, police officer numbers, prison standards, probation reform. We can add another crisis to that by-no-means exhaustive list: magistrates' courts.
Last week justice campaigner Penelope Gibbs tweeted that the reason why advocates might be tearing their hair out over delays is because the listings function, since the system was centralised and digitised, has become chaotic. There are 'huge gaps' in magistrate rotas, Gibbs said. Magistrates in one area are being informed to vacate their diary at two days' notice. Several courtrooms are sitting empty. Some courts are sitting with two magistrates instead of the usual three. The listings office is putting people on the rota not even knowing if those magistrates (who, by the way, are volunteers) are free.
The situation is untenable, Gibbs says: 'It also ends up with those with the most time sitting again and again, thus reducing the diversity of the bench, since this tends to be the older ones. It’s crazy to have got to this [point].’
As if things weren't bad enough, staff morale isn't great either. Earlier this week, a legal adviser, speaking from the floor, told several justice fringe events at the Labour Party Conference that he and his colleagues 'have to pile through a legal sausage factory'. Magistrates’ courts deal with 97% of criminal offences and ‘we’re really struggling and we’re getting no support’, said the adviser (who asked, when I approached him afterwards, not to be named).
John Bache, chair of the Magistrates' Association, tells me that the number of magistrates has halved over the last decade and that there are simply not enough to keep the courts running effectively: 'Benches of two, even in trials, are becoming increasingly common and magistrates are too often being called on at the last minute to fill gaps in the rota.'
The situation will get worse - more than half of sitting magistrates are due to retire in the next decade. 'We need to see a properly funded recruitment drive across the country to ensure that the next generation of magistrates is in place without further delay,' Bache says.
Getting the government to invest money could be challenging. But what won't cost the lord chancellor a penny is getting rid of the ridiculous rule in his Directions for Advisory Committees on Justices of the Peace guidance which states that committees should aim to interview an average of three candidates for each vacancy, so as 'not to waste time and resources in interviewing a disproportionately large number of candidates for the number of vacancies the committee has to fill'.