27 NOVEMBER 2004, Page 9


Qnce a week I put on a suit and go along to the local courthouse, where I am elevated from plain Mister to Your Worship. This wonderfully inappropriate form of address is the only public reward for being one of the country's 30,000 unpaid lay magistrates who deal with over 95 per cent of criminal cases in England and Wales. We are also entitled to put the letters JP after our names, for Justice of the Peace. But this is discouraged by the Lord Chancellor, as Charlie Falconer still titles himself, lest we be thought to be putting on airs.

C ometimes magistrates must do things that stick in the throat a bit. Last week, for example, the bench I was on had to try a man for doing something I didn't even know was illegal. He had stuck a For Sale notice in his parked car, as thousands do. I had always assumed this was a perfectly innocent practice. Wrong, unless the car is in your own drive. Apparently you need a street-trader's licence from the local authority to sell anything at all on the public highway. Accordingly, the defendant having failed to convince us he wasn't the ear's owner at the time, we found the case proved. Since he was of previous good character, we ordered him to pay a small fine plus a modest contribution towards the prosecution's stonking £1,900 costs. The council also applied for forfeiture of his Audi, worth several hundred quid, which had been garaged at public expense for the year it had taken the ease to come to trial. So be warned: this is not a good way to sell a car. I left court after a hearing that had tied up nine people for an entire afternoon (two lawyers, one prosecution witness, a Polish interpreter, an usher and a legal adviser, plus one defendant and two JPs) feeling faintly enraged: had this been a minor criminal instead of a minor civil matter, a first-time offender would probably have been dealt with straight away, at nil cost to anyone, by means of that admirable device, a police warning.

ut magistrates must not let personal 1.3 feelings colour their judgments. They take an oath to uphold the laws of the land. If they feel a particular bit of legislation is more than they can stomach, they can always resign from the bench. Quite a few did so at the time of the poll tax, when the courts were swamped by citizens refusing to pay up. Now it seems probable that scenario could repeat itself, when the hunting ban comes into force next February and the country's newest brand of law-breaker is hauled before the courts, possibly in large numbers and accompanied by bands of supporters blowing hunting horns. There may not he many magistrates who hunt themselves, like the Staffordshire JP Chris Jackson, who has threatened to resign from the bench and defy the law, or Derek Pearce, a member of the Beaufort Hunt, who has sat on the North Avon bench for nearly 20 years and is one of more than 50,000 people who have signed the Hunting Declaration. But there must be plenty of rural beaks whose churns hunt and whose sympathies lie with the ban's opponents. Last week Lord Falconer gave them a warning: Were a magistrate to break any relevant law enacted by Parliament, or refuse to enforce it, that would be likely to constitute conduct incompatible with the requirements of their office.' This may have the effect of stiffening judicial spines, but it could also prompt some to abandon the bench before they find themselves facing their neighbours in the dock. When I was writing a book about the magistracy*, I visited courts in Cumbria, home of the most famous of huntsmen, John Peel. The Clerk to the Justices was wearing a Countryside Alliance tie. When I asked one magistrate, a farmer, how his colleagues would react to a hunting ban, he did not hesitate. 'I wouldn't sit there and sentence old friends,' he growled. At least a dozen people would resign from the bench, he predicted, including himself. If that turns out to be a typical reaction, there could be difficulties ahead for country courts, which even now do not always find it easy keeping their benches up to strength.

As a London magistrate, the hunting ban is not going to affect me, unless the authorities decide to treat alleged offenders like major gangsters, whose hear

ings are sometimes held in courts well away from their own manors to avoid jury intimidation. But bringing country folk before urban benches would be to undermine the whole point of the magistrates' court system, which is to provide local justice.

My turn will come when the nicotine narks hit town. If I felt a bit of a fraud handing down judgment on the Polish car-seller, how much more awkward for me, as a smoker, to sentence a chap for lighting up in the wrong sort of enclosed public space. When I did this at school my punishment was to copy out acres of Virgil's Georgics. The government has harsher measures in mind. When the time comes I shall simply have to quit — smoking, I mean, not the bench. Only the pure in lung, like the reformed-addict Health Secretary, will he able to punish the puffers with a clear conscience. Meanwhile it strikes me as odd that the only place smokers will be able to pursue their pleasure with impunity is in die-hard boozers, where you won't even be allowed an absorbent plate of chips. Alcohol causes far more misery and mayhem than cigarette smoke. I'm still to be convinced of the hazards of passive smoking. But magistrates hear daily evidence of the dangers of passive drinking.

T have been reading about the inquiry 1 into alternatives to custody headed by Lord Coulsfield. He prefers community punishments to short, pointless, cell-clogging prison sentences. So do I, so long as they are tough and highly visible to the community itself — cleaning graffiti or canal-clearing, for example. The public still needs to be convinced that such measures work. They are no less sceptical today than the crusty old Suffolk magistrate who was still chairing his local bench when what were then called community service orders were introduced, many years ago. He listened suspiciously as a defence lawyer pleaded that his client should get a CSO rather than a jail sentence. He asked the probation officer who was in court that day to explain what sort of community service the man in the dock might be made to do. 'Well, Your Worship, since this is an agricultural area, maybe he would be of some use on the land,' suggested the probation officer. 'No doubt,' growled the chairman, then added in a loud aside, But how would we spread him?'

*The Magistrate's Tale (Bloornsbwy, f7.99).