1.3.5 The role of a Justice of the Peace
A day in the life of a Justice of the Peace:
‘Every second Tuesday, I leave home at around 8am and fight my way through the traffic to the nearby justice of the peace court – one of around 450 lay people who dispense criminal justice on a local basis. The matters we deal with are considered less serious than those prosecuted in other courts but they can all have serious consequences.
Although most justices around the country hear cases alone, there is always a Bench of three in our court, as happens in a number of similar rural areas. We meet in the justices’ room between 9am and 9.30am to go through the court list with our legal adviser. As the court only sits once a week, we will be dealing with both sentencing hearings and criminal trials. A social enquiry report has been received for a young man who previously pled guilty to six charges of vandalism to shop windows, causing several thousand pounds of damage. We read with interest, but not much surprise, that he has drug and alcohol problems.
We all put on our black gowns, though smart clothes are also acceptable, and the macer shows us into a courtroom packed with the accused, their supporters and family members. As ‘master of the instance’, the procurator fiscal decides the order to take the cases.
The vandalism case is first. His solicitor draws attention to the abuse problems identified in the social enquiry report, also explaining that the young man has slight learning difficulties and suffers from lack of a father figure. The offending will not stop unless his personal problems are sorted out. We give him 18 months’ probation, adding a condition that he must receive alcohol and drug counselling.
Next to be sentenced is a 45-year-old businessman who was caught driving at 112mph on the motorway. As is increasingly the case, he is not represented by a solicitor. He argues that his family and business would suffer if was disqualified from driving. We leave the bench to discuss it more freely, but all agree that he has failed to make a convincing case. As a result, he is disqualified for four months and fined £600 which had been reduced from £900 because of his early plea.
Defence solicitors are in court for the next five cases – though this time their clients are not present – which are all speeding offences. They are dealt with by fines and penalty points. There are pleas of not guilty in six more cases and trial dates are set.
After a sandwich and breath of fresh air at lunchtime, we are back in court by 2pm, the public benches now almost clear. Six trials are listed but only two go ahead because of the absence of witnesses and the accused in the others. Warrants will be issued for the accused who have not turned up.
The first trial involves a young hairdresser who was caught driving without insurance during a routine police stop. Her mother takes the blame, admitting she changed insurer and forgot to include her daughter on the new policy. As a new driver, six penalty points is the threshold for removing her licence, which is done by DVLA. We agree that the girl should be admonished. Her relief is obvious, though she does still have a conviction, which could cause problems in certain occupations and also when renewing her insurance policy.
A man in his early 20s is next in the dock, charged with a nasty assault outside a nightclub. He pleads not guilty but three witnesses give good, clear evidence describing how he punched a man twice in the face and kicked him on the ground. We find him guilty and also see his four previous convictions, which are pretty horrendous, particularly for someone his age. We consider it the worst type of case that comes before us and so the only disposal available is 60 days’ imprisonment.
The court then clears but the justices remain on the Bench to deal with 40 or so letter pleas. As appropriate, we impose sentences, defer sentencing and set trial dates. As chairman of the Bench, I am then asked by the fiscal to sign a number of warrants calling people to court. We finish around 5.30pm, tired but satisfied, ready for some dinner and a relaxing cup of tea.’