Not Saussure

October 10, 2006

Community Courts

Filed under: Blogroll, Community, Law — notsaussure @ 8:50 pm

The Times reports that

Ministers are shortly to announce ten centres in England and Wales where courts are to be set up. If successful they will be introduced nationally. The move comes after the success of the Liverpool community justice centre, which was modelled on a centre in New York.

The idea is for the public not only to be involved in choosing the judge or magistrate but to give advice on penalties and discuss community problems in meetings with the judge. The judges and magistrates themselves oversee the effect of their sentences.

This seems bizarre. The idea behind sentencing in the UK is that the law, and the penalties for breaking it, should be known and consistent. Parliament indicates the seriousness of the offence by fixing a maximum penalty or sentencing range and then the Sentencing Guidelines Council and the Court of Appeal determine the appropriate sentences given various aggravating and mitigating factors. The sentencing tribunal then looks at the facts of the individual case and the circumstances of the individual defendant, and fixes an appropriate penalty. For magistrates, there’s a whole compendium on the subject.

The idea is that your sentence shouldn’t depend to any great extent on what sort of mood His Honour or His Worship is in that morning. Any departure from this seems bizarre. What is the public supposed to do — what have they been doing in Liverpool — other than follow the sentencing guidelines? And if they do depart radically from them and either the defendant or the CPS appeal against the sentence, what are the Court of Appeal supposed to do — uphold the law or allow themselves to be trumped by ‘community representatives’?

The report continues,

Harriet Harman, the minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, said that the criminal justice system was the last public service not to engage adequately with the public. Ms Harman told The Times: “If magistrates’ courts are to command confidence, they have to engage the local community.”

and Bystander JP ain’t at all amused. He writes, not unreasonably,

This particular magistrate is insulted by the insinuation that some self-selected “community” representative knows the turf better than I do. I was born in my court’s area. I grew up in it, went to school there. The local council paid for me to go to university, and I have worked in the area as a businessman and latterly as a magistrate for the whole of my life. Is that “community” enough for you, Ms Harman?

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