Don’t extend magistrates’ powers – there’s a better way to reform the court system

Bev Higgs, national chair of the Magistrates Association, is right to suggest reforms are needed to fix the criminal justice system (Letters, 7 October). But no one who has read the Secret Barrister’s assessment of the magistrates courts would want to extend their powers.

A better way forward would be to implement Sir Robin Auld’s recommendation for a new intermediate court with power to sentence up to two years’ imprisonment, under the control of a professional judge (Criminal justice review urges removal of right to trial by jury, 9 October 2001). Amateur judges should lose the power to imprison.

Victims and witnesses should be given new rights – for their statements to be properly recorded by trained evidence gatherers. The witness’s statement should be received as evidence upon which cross-examination would be denied unless the judge, having seen the defence account, believed it to be necessary. No longer should it be possible for violent men to insist that women who have survived an attack should be dragged to court to be attacked again.

Continental inquisitorial justice systems work that way. Germany has a high conviction rate but a lower prison population. It is the hallmark of an inefficient criminal justice system that it has to incarcerate excessively to maintain deterrence. Do it properly and you’ll save money, and get the right results faster.
Richard Lomax

Once again the chair of the Magistrates Association suggests that if only their jurisdiction could be increased to a 12-month custodial sentence, they could relieve the pressure on the crown courts. In fact, magistrates can try cases where the sentence may reach 12 months, although they cannot impose that punishment. It would be necessary to limit the right of defendants to a crown court trial.

The right to have your case decided by a jury rather than lay magistrates is extremely precious, and attempts to curtail this have been rejected in the past. Such a reform could only be introduced following debate in parliament and would meet with much opposition. In any event, not all would agree that a lay court should be able to send someone to prison for a year.
Alasdair Darroch
Retired circuit judge and former solicitor advocate, Horstead, Norfolk

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