A jewel beyond price

By | 18th October 2011

2011 is the 650th anniversary of the office of Justice of the Peace.

Most people will be only dimly aware that over 95% of the judicial work in the courts of this country is carried out by unpaid volunteers who have taken an oath that they “will well and truly serve” the Queen “in the office of Justice of the Peace and do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of the Realm without fear or favour, affection or ill will.”

“Justices of the Peace” have in fact been around for even longer than that! After trial by ordeal, with its illogical outcomes of innocence only being presumed after the accused had succumbed to the ordeal by fire or ducking stool and survival of the ordeal meaning guilt, there was a period when offenders appeared before their villages or local communities where innocence depended on the number of “oath bearers” or “jurors” an alleged miscreant could muster. If he could muster more than his accusers, he was innocent. Better than trial by ordeal but still far from perfect!

King Richard the Lionheart had appointed “Keepers of the Peace” in 1195 in order to maintain order in parts of his unruly realm (not sure about the Sheriff of Nottingham though!) and in 1327, an Act said that “good and lawful men” were to be appointed in every county to guard the peace. But it was not until 1361 in the 34th year of the reign of Edward III that the King appointed “Justices of the Peace” to meet in each locality four times a year.

Incredibly, these “Quarter Sessions” lasted until 1972 although the courts had of course long since been running all year by then.

The Justices of the Peace Act of 1361conferred the title of Justice of the Peace and set up the system and conferred the powers which JPs still hold today.

There have been changes, of course, but broadly speaking magistrates still do the job they were given in 1361. In 1389 it was decided that they should be paid 4 shillings (20 pence) a day but payments lapsed and they were never offered a rise!

Today, magistrates still give freely of their time and energy, for no material reward, to preserve the peace and safety of our towns and villages which is so essential for the right and peaceful ordering of our communities.

At a time of economically straitened circumstances it is understandable that the Government of the day should be keen to reduce the nation’s deficit by cutting back expenditure. But it is also unforgiveable that these unpaid stalwarts of our judicial system should be plagued by fears that their local courts will be lost (a fear which in many places has already become a reality) and that highly paid and professionally qualified District Judges are appearing more and more in Magistrates’ Courts thus reducing, at any rate the perceived, value of the local magistracy.

The late Lord Bingham, former Senior Law Lord and Lord Chief Justice, once described the magistracy as “a jewel beyond price” and it is to be hoped that we do not allow the jewel to become tarnished in any way and certainly not as a result of misguided attempts at so called economic efficiency. After all, what other system offers over 95% of judicial work for no material reward?

In the US there is a system of magistrate judges who generally sit as court appointed experts with other legally qualified judges. I am aware that so called e-disclosure experts are often appointed as court experts to advise the civil judge on the intricacies of e-discovery being argued before the court. It does not yet happen in this country, but if it were to be introduced, and I have heard more than one judge mention the idea with approval, the e-disclosure (here)/ e-discovery (everywhere else in the common law world) expert so appointed should be proud to bear the name of magistrate associated with the “good and lawful men” (and nowadays, quite rightly, women) who daily dispense justice around the country for no pay!

Truly, a jewel beyond price.