Recommendations by an influential group of MPs over the role of the magistracy have received a lukewarm response from the government. The Ministry of Justice said yesterday that it welcomed the House of Commons justice select committee’s report, published in October, to help inform its approach to ensure magistrates have the strongest possible role in its justice system reform plans.
However, its response to the report suggests not all recommendations will be fully adopted.
The select committee had recommended that the ministry ensure that at least 90% of court users can reach the nearest venue by public transport within an hour when it determines alternative venues as part of its court closures programme.
However, the ministry made no mention of the 90% figure in its response. Access to justice ‘is not just about proximity to a court’, it said. ‘When proposing changes to the court and tribunal estate, [HM Courts & Tribunals Service] takes into account the potential impact of the proposals on its users. This includes the impact on travel time and whether this would remain reasonable should the change take place.
‘What is reasonable can vary depending on location and on the type of work undertaken in a particular building.’
Addressing concerns over alternative venues' security, the ministry said these would be subject to an HMCTS security risk assessment, covering the types of cases to be listed in the venue as well as the physical security features, such as room layout and the requirement of a separate judicial entrance to the hearing room.
While the justice committee supports increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers from six to 12 months’ custody, the ministry said partial commencement of provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to increase powers for either-way offences only ‘is not straightforward’.
It added: ‘For example, it could risk creating some anomalies in the sentencing framework. That is why we would need to consider carefully the impacts that any change might have before a final decision is made’.
The ministry said a significant reduction in the number of magistrates in the past decade was not indicative of any recruitment difficulties.
It would ‘not be desirable’ to extend magistrates’ retirement age. The ministry said older people were already over-represented and there is no business need for the additional judicial capacity that would be created.
Magistrates are statistically the most diverse group in the judiciary, the ministry said, acknowledging that there was more work to do. Proposals being considered include a fully online application process to recruit magistrates. An ‘equal merits’ provision for the protected characteristics of race, disability and age ‘is under active consideration’.
The ministry accepted that the current appraisal scheme for magistrates needs to be more robust. The Judicial College will consider suggestions for a continuing professional development scheme. But the ministry said the proposal should be viewed ‘in light of the move by the professional bodies away from formal reporting requirements’.
The ministry will ‘carefully consider the case’ for a kitemark scheme to increase employer engagement. The judicial expenses policy will be reviewed next year. ‘Further analysis’ of increasing out-of-hours court sittings will be conducted.
The ministry also proposes to conduct an exercise to establish why relatively few magistrates are interested in applying for family court authorisation.