I see a Conservative thinktank has suggested the creation of professional justices of the peace. I thought we had them already and called them stipendiaries. (Oh, very well, district judges.) But if we don’t, how should we react to the suggestion that the dying breed of grey squirrels known as ‘lay justices’ should be given a transplant by the creation of a sub-breed, the ‘paid lay justice’? For a start, that’s an oxymoron in itself.
Back in the 1960s lay justices were in ascendency, replacing the red squirrel stipendiary whenever a retirement came up. This was the path summary justice would take: quick and inexpensive.
But, as is often the case with utopian ideas, it did not pan out. Lay justice was neither quick nor inexpensive and, worst of all, nor was it reliable. There was also infighting in the greys. Some members would not sit with each other and if they did would wilfully disagree. Suitable candidates were rejected because the ruling clique feared the new member might undermine the status quo.
And, if you can have an even more worst, the bench was not to be trusted by those who appeared in front of it – solicitors and clients alike. It coincided with a time when the public also came to realise that the police were not as lily-white as had been believed. For too long the lay magistracy tended to refer to officers as ‘our constable’. In turn the public began to realise that, with that sort of attitude, there was no point in having a case which involved a conflict of evidence heard by a lay bench.
Of course, the red squirrels were not perfect. It was impossible to get a fair trial before one particular stipe who sat in north London and there must have been others, but most were sufficiently legally educated to put aside their prejudices – at least until sentencing. The rule that the best tribunal is an impartial single judge still applies.
If it is diversity we are after, there are plenty of BAME solicitors and barristers who are not from Oxbridge who’d welcome an appointment without the need for the creation of a hooped squirrel.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor