The suggestion by the new head of the Magistrates’ Association that convicted criminals should, after some time has elapsed, be allowed to sit on the bench is nothing new. Wasn’t it Lord Denning who said that a conviction for knocking the helmet off a policeman on Boat Race night should not necessarily be a bar to the bench?
It would perhaps be unkind to describe Richard Monkhouse’s thoughts as a publicity stunt, but they really do not merit much consideration. Does the public really want ex-criminals sitting in judgment over them? And if they can become lay magistrates, it will soon be argued that it would be against a person’s human rights if they are not allowed to qualify as a solicitor or barrister and go on the bench. In fact I wonder why no one has gone to Europe on the subject already.
And what is a conviction anyway? Are cautions to be included? After all, these are often the result of coercion. And how serious would the conviction have to be? Would it be determined by the length of the sentence? That might produce an interesting new ground of appeal: please reduce my sentence to under three years so I may become a magistrate in a few years’ time.
Another issue (how has the word ‘problem’ disappeared?) is that appointing minor ex-criminals to the bench is a slippery slope. Fine (well, possibly) if 20 years ago the applicant did knock off a police helmet – although I remember the time when a conviction for assaulting an officer meant an immediate custodial sentence. But if the scheme works then the time limits will shorten and so will the seriousness of the offence. Think how income tax was to be temporary and how criminal damage was downgraded little by little so the right of trial was removed in more and more cases.
Years ago, at Bow Street, a rather disagreeable magistrate was sitting when a fellow barrister, whom he disliked, stumbled from the cells to answer a charge of drunkenness.
‘I don’t know whether to sit in the dock or in counsel’s bench,’ the man said.
‘Today you are a prisoner and will sit in the dock. Tomorrow you may be appearing as a barrister and will sit on counsel’s seats. If ever you are a magistrate, you will sit where I am sitting now,’ was the acid reply.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor