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Magistrates could sit on own in community centres

Magistrates could be asked to deal with minor criminal cases on their own in community centres or police stations, The Times has reported today.

18 May 2012

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The government proposals would apply only to “low-level offending” where the defendant pleaded guilty and “need not involve lawyers”, according to the paper.

The aim of the measures, which “are expected to find a slot in the Queen’s Speech next week”, would be to reduce the time between an offence being committed and its disposal from 140 days to a “few weeks or even days”.

Magistrates would also be encouraged to sit in a personal capacity on neighbourhood justice panels which would organise restorative justice sessions.

John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, told Solicitors Journal that the government’s plans were intended to increase the role of magistrates in out-of-court disposals, currently handled by the police.

Fassenfelt said the police already dealt with 40 per cent of violent crimes in this way and the association was not in favour of adding to the list, which was “extended enough as it is”.

He went on: “We will reserve full judgment until we know the details. What we’re saying is that we should be involved in out-of-court disposals.”

A spokeswoman for the MoJ said the government wanted to “re-energise our justice system at a local level and reconnect it to the communities it serves”.

She went on: “We are considering what further role magistrates can play as they are uniquely placed to help us deliver the swift justice we seek.”

In a separate development, Fassenfelt said the Magistrates’ Association wanted the restrictions preventing people with minor criminal records from joining the bench to be reviewed.

“If you were 17 or 18 and you got involved in a fight which led to an assault conviction, would it be appropriate when you were 35 or 40 for this to stop you?” he asked. “We’re not suggesting that murderers should become magistrates.”

Fassenfelt said the association was also keen to increase the number of younger people on the bench, as 80 per cent of magistrates were over 50. He suggested that new measures were needed to encourage employers to release staff for judicial work.

The Magistracy in the 21st Century, a report published by the association last week, called for action to improve diversity, both by reviewing restrictions on