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Magistrates (Democratic Selection)

Volume 934: debated on Wednesday 29 June 1977

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4.36 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the democratic selection of magistrates; and for connected purposes.
The Bill that I am proposing, although in a sense seeking to make only a minor constitutional amendment, is, I hope, consistent with good constitutional principles. I suggest to the House that in any part of our system of government, whether the Executive, legislature, or judiciary, we should be concerned—and all democrats should be concerned—to ensure that at least two principles are applied.

The first principle is that as far as possible the method of recruitment and selection to Parliament, the Civil Service and the judiciary should be by a system that is open and understood, so that anyone who wishes to join any of these bodies knows exactly how to do so, and anyone who wishes to propose another person for these bodies should also know how to do so. That is the principle of openness.

Secondly, everyone concerned with democracy should also be concerned that no branch of our government, either by accident or design, becomes the exclusive privilege of any one social group or class, any one economic group, or any particular section of our community. It is important that as far as possible Parliament, the Civil Service and the judiciary should be representative of the community at large.

The part of our system of government that I want to change is the magistracy, because I do not believe that it fulfils either of these two requirements. The magistracy is a very important part of our judiciary. It deals with 98 per cent. of criminal cases, and large numbers of magistrates are responsible for carrying out this work. As for openness, I do not think that anyone could seriously argue that the present system of selection of magistrates is not shrouded in secrecy.

A Central Office of Information leaflet, which is a guide to becoming a justice of the peace, enshrines this secrecy almost as a matter of principle. The leaflet states that the advisory committees that advise the Lord Chancellor should not have their identities disclosed so that
"they may be shielded from undesirable influences in performing their duties".
I should have thought that the truth was almost the reverse of this proposition. The more one shrouds the system in secrecy, the more likely it is that there will be undesirable influences. The more open the system, the more people can recognise the undesirable influences if they exist. It is desirable that the system should be more open.

On the subject of how representative magistrates are, the leaflet states that the advisory committees are told that they should take a number of factors into account in making their recommendations. The committees
"must also ensure that each Bench is broadly representative of all sections of the community which it has to serve".
The committees are also told to take into account the need for a balance between men and women and also a balance between political parties.

I undertook a little research in my own constituency in Lichfield and Tamworth to see whether the bench was representative on any of these counts. Of the 29 members of the bench in Tamworth only two are weekly wage earners and the great bulk of the bench is composed of company directors, farmers, business managers and groups of that sort. In Lichfield, the other half of my constituency, three of the 45 magistrates are weekly wage earners and the rest are representative of the other groups that I have just mentioned.

I must make plain that a consideration that the advisory committee must take into account is the political structure of the bench. If one considers the political balance in Tamworth one finds that out of 29 magistrates—and one must remember that Tamworth has been consistently a Labour town and intends to remain so—just six are Labour party supporters. That is some sort of indication of the lack of balance and representation of the area. Both benches have few young people—and by young I mean people in their 30s. As for the balance between men and women, both benches, as one would expect, are overwhelmingly dominated by men. If one looks at the balance between town and country, one finds that the small villages are most heavily represented, not the urban area of Tamworth. The village of Fisherwick, with a population of 123, has two magistrates, while the urban area of Trinity in Tamworth, which has three important settlements and a population of 10,000 to 11,000, has only three magistrates.

This imbalance goes right through the system. It may be that Lichfield and Tamworth are exceptional and that throughout the rest of the country the balance tends in the other direction, but I regret that the evidence is entirely contrary. If anything, Lichfield and Tamworth are mildly more representative than other areas. The most recent national figures, which date from 1972, showed that 84 per cent. of magistrates in England and Wales came from the Registrar-General's social groups one and two, that is, the professional and managerial classes. It is significant that that figure has hardly changed during (he last 20 years in spite of the injunctions of the COI leaflet, the words spoken by most Lord Chancellors on this subject and the feelings of most hon. Members.

The bench is not socially representative in any way at all. It is important that we should find some means of ensuring that the magistracy is what it was originally intended to be, that is, composed of people living in the community, from the widest possible range, sitting in judgment and deciding on cases within the community so that the lay view can be brought to bear.

How can one reform the system? The proposal in my Bill is that, subject to certain controls, the district councils should take over the responsibility for recommending appointments to the bench. Of course the district councils could be advised by the law officers who are employed by all district councils as chief executives or in other posts. The appointments should be made openly and there should be a vote. Everybody should know who was recommended and why certain people were rejected.

The other part of the proposal in the Bill is an appendix to lay down the principles that should apply to the appointment of magistrates and the criteria that I have suggested for a balance on the Bench between age, sex, social background political background and geographical spread within the area.

Finally, the district council would have responsibility each year for publishing a list of its magistrates and of these various classifications to show how the bench was changing and to show whether it was becoming more or less representative over a time. That information should be available to the public. Particularly on matters of political affiliation, it is vital that such information is up to date. Hon. Members may be aware that there is a common phenomenon whereby as people grow older, as their judgment becomes blurred and their brains are not what they used to be, there is a tendency for them to move from the Labour Party to other political parties. When that happens, it is obviously something that should be recorded in the composition of the bench. A person's political affiliations of 20 years ago should not be regarded as true for all time.

I make this modest proposal to the House and I hope that it will be accepted.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bruce Grocott, Mr. John Cartwright, Mr, Ivor Clemitson, Mr. Bryan Davies, Mr. Geoff Edge, Mr. Bruce George, Mr. Doug Hoyle, Mr. Russell Kerr, Mr. Kevin McNamara, Mr. George Rodgers and Mr. Ken Weetch.