Monday, 29 August 2011

Magistrates being populist - isn't that the whole point?


The Magistrate is one of the finest exports to the civilised world that England has created and the Prison Governors Association aren’t happy with them. They are calling the Magistrates’ approach to the rioters a feeding frenzy of sentencing. But they have failed to understand is that the Magistrates have not bowed to political pressure but have carried out their constitutional duty to reflect public opinion handing down sentences according to the law which has been broken. Here we have a person (or people) which come from the community, from all walks of life and from infinite backgrounds who sits as judge and jury to people from the community, from all walks of life and from infinite backgrounds. In short the Magistrate is the very embodiment of egalitarianism. 

The PGA would have a point if the Magistrates were hand-in-hand with the politicians and sentencing according to direct interference from on high but this is not the case. Since the beginnings of the riots public opinion was crystal clear that this was not the behaviour befitting of English Society. Seeing the masses appearing with brushes and brooms to clear up the mess left behind by the Neanderthals the night before is clearly a sign that we are, on the whole, a civilised society.  With such an outpouring of community spirit it would have been wrong for Magistrates’ not to have reflected the sense of outrage and in doing so have acted appropriately and proportionately. Contrary to the PGA’s opinion we should be grateful that the Magistrates’ are free to reflect public opinion in this way. Once a case escalates to the higher courts then it is only legal opinion that counts. 

We only have to look back to the proceedings against the killers of James Bulger who were handed down life sentences at the Crown Court and the judge ruled that they should serve only 8 years before being considered for parole. The then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, and the public at large, were outraged and he increased this to 15 years only to be overruled by the higher courts and the European Court of Human Rights. The result is that the perpetrators of one of the most heinous crimes carried out in the 1990s were released after only 8 years, their release being approved by the new Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett. 

The fact that the prisons are full to bursting should be of no significance to the Magistrates’ opinion. The fact that legal niceties may interfere with satisfying the public's need for right, proper and proportionate punishment of offenders should be of no significance to the Magistrates’ opinion. And certainly the fact that the Prison Governors Association isn’t happy should be of no significance to the Magistrates’ opinion. Before writing this piece I spoke to a Magistrate friend of mine for his opinion of the PGA's statement. He referred to a recent desperate case of child abuse where he was absolutely adamant that he was going to sentence the maximum possible and refered the case to the Crown Court to do so. I asked him about sentencing guidelines to which he responded "stuff the guidelines, you would have done the same if you heard case". And this to me says it all. I didn't hear the case as I'm not hearing the cases of the rioters so it is up to the plucky Magistrates’ the last bastions of the judiciary who can truly reflect public opinion.