Justice: 24th May 2011

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con)
I am exceptionally grateful to you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I have perhaps rather better news—it is at least different news—than we heard in the previous speech. I would like to talk briefly about the outstanding work of magistrates and the invaluable role that they play in the criminal justice system.

Magistrates were created some 650 years ago—we are talking about a very long-standing office—and they are to be congratulated, as I am sure we would all agree. There are now 29,000 magistrates in England and Wales. Their minimum requirement is to sit for 26 half-days a year. Some 98% of all legal proceedings are conducted in magistrates courts, which perhaps puts into perspective the outstanding contribution that they regularly make to the justice system. Magistrates bring to bear their considerable experience, knowledge and wisdom to both criminal and family matters. It is perhaps a testament to their ability to dispense justice fairly and properly that they are so rarely challenged in any higher place. In the last 650 years, magistrates have faced many changes and challenges. Their outstanding chairman, Mr John Thornhill, whom I spoke to today, has told me that, notwithstanding all the changes, magistrates always bounce back.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con)
On the subject of magistrates bouncing back, is my hon. Friend aware that magistrates’ allowances and subsistence fees are under review for a possible reduction to bring them in line with the rest of the civil service? However, there is a crucial difference: our magistrates are volunteers, not salaried staff.

Anna Soubry
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I am sure that everyone in this place would join me in congratulating him and his wife, who is sitting up in the Gallery, on celebrating their 25th—their silver—wedding anniversary.

Moving swiftly on to the important point that my hon. Friend makes, our magistrates are indeed volunteers. They receive a small subsistence allowance. I am sure that, like my hon. Friend, many hon. Members will have received letters and e-mails from magistrates in their constituencies who are concerned about plans to reduce their daily allowance and cut their mileage allowance.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
It is important to emphasise that the lay magistracy already makes our judiciary in England and Wales one of the cheapest in any comparable Council of Europe country. We would be cutting back a system that is already very efficient.

Anna Soubry
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Lay magistrates normally sit in threes, as opposed to the stipendiary district judges who sit alone. Despite that ​fact, lay magistrates are considerably cheaper than stipendiary judges. I am not suggesting that they do a lesser job, however. Both are integral to our criminal justice system.

Another great challenge that our magistrates face is the cutting of 93 magistrates courts. That has been debated at length in this place and in Westminster Hall, and it is a matter of great concern. I do not have much difficulty with the reduction in the number of magistrates courts, but I accept that many people are concerned about the ability to deliver local justice and about the extra strain that this will put on our lay magistrates, who are volunteers, through the extra mileage and work that they will have to do.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con)
My hon. Friend is entirely right in what she says about magistrates. She has mentioned court closures, and we are losing our magistrates court in Goole. When that happens, it will be quicker for some of my constituents to get to King’s Cross than to the replacement magistrates services in Beverley.
 
Anna Soubry
I take my hon. Friend’s point, and I am grateful for it. I would counter it, however, by saying that those of us who are familiar with the Crown courts will know that defendants and witnesses who appear in them make the effort and appear there without too much difficulty. I struggle to see how there will be much difference when a defendant or witness has to travel to a magistrates court that is further away following the closure of a more local one.

There are many myths surrounding our lay magistrates. The days of the stereotype of the middle-aged lady—not that there is anything wrong with middle-aged ladies—are long gone. The days are gone when women of a certain age and from a certain social class dispensed justice, usually wearing a hat—not that there is anything wrong with hats, I must also swiftly add. We now see magistrates drawn from all walks of life, and rightly so. Their experience and knowledge is also often brought to bear in the Crown court, when they sit with a Crown court judge to decide appeals. They perform an invaluable role there.

I have only one complaint, and I am grateful to my constituent, Mr Roy Plumb, in this regard. He lives in Kimberley, and he served as a magistrate for many years. He performed the role admirably. However, at the age of 70, he was forced to retire. The irony of the situation is that he was born on the very same day in the very same ward of the very same hospital as our esteemed Lord Chancellor. It is somewhat ironic that, while our Lord Chancellor was being appointed to his role, in which I hope he serves for many years, Mr Plumb was being forced to retire, as are other magistrates who reach their 70th birthday.

I am against ageism—of course, I would say that as I get older. It is wrong to assume that, just because someone is of a certain age, they will perform in a certain way. Just because someone who is under 30 is appointed to serve as a lay magistrate, which Governments of all persuasions have sought to encourage, it does not mean that they will necessarily bring to the bench more youthful ideas or be able to identify more closely with ​young people. I subscribe to the notion that it does not matter what it says on someone’s birth certificate; the test is whether they are young at heart and fit in mind, and whether they have all the faculties to exercise sound judgement.

I know that the previous Government were questioned by people of all political persuasions—this is not an issue of party politics—on whether magistrates should have to retire at 70. Crown court judges can often sit until they are 73 and I believe High Court judges do not have to retire until they are 75, or at least they can sit in court until that age. I would suggest that this seems a little unfair to magistrates, especially, as I say, with our great Lord Chancellor being able to continue to serve for many years to come.

I am sure that all would agree with me in celebrating and thanking our lay magistrates. I urge the Government to view ageism as a thing of the past, so that our magistrates should not have to retire at 70. Mr Plumb might be able to return to the bench. We should certainly give great credit to his campaign and wish it well for the future.