Magistrates have been instructed by senior members of the judiciary not to respond to ‘unfair and inaccurate’ attacks made in response to the news that they will receive greater sentencing powers, the Gazette can reveal.
In a letter entitled ‘magistracy in the media’, seen by the Gazette, national leadership magistrate Duncan Webster OBE JP said he was surprised and deeply disappointed ‘to see the personal nature of some of the attacks on the magistracy, including from prominent members of the legal professions’.
Last week, Dominic Raab announced that he would double the maximum prison sentence – currently six months – that magistrates can hand down and they will increasingly be allowed to sentence serious cases such as fraud, theft and assault. Raab’s assertion that the measure will help to cut the Crown court backlog has been questioned by the Law Society and Criminal Bar Association.
The news attracted strong criticism on social media.
In his letter, Webster said: ‘Criticising and commenting on the policy, its impacts and probable success is one thing, but some members of the legal profession decided to launch personal attacks on the magistracy calling it “amateurish”, “unprofessional”, “untrained” and “anachronistic”. One lawyer made a statement posing the caveat “be afraid”. Not only are these comments disrespectful, they are also wholly inaccurate. Moreover, they reflect adversely on the legal advisers who work alongside magistrates and support us with their professional legal advice; so too on the Judicial College who manage our training.’
Webster said he spoke to the lord chief justice ‘and we consider that it would not be appropriate nor dignified for the magistracy to counter these comments publicly’.
However, he said it was important that magistrates knew that during their conversation, ‘the lord chief justice expressed a degree of shock that such attacks had been made against a branch of the judiciary and at the ill-informed and antagonistic comments by some members of the legal profession, and other commentators’.
The lord chief justice ‘conveyed to me his complete confidence that magistrates will exercise their powers appropriately and responsibly’, Webster concluded in his letter, which was emailed to all magistrates.
Last week Bev Higgs, national chair of the Magistrates’ Association, told the Gazette that she was disappointed by the reaction of some within the defence community and criticised the ‘unwarranted hostility’ towards magistrates.
In a separate development, the government today announced a £1m campaign to recruit 4,000 magistrates from a wide range of backgrounds, ‘from teachers to bricklayers, to stay-at-home mums, and any individuals who can display reason and sound judgment’.