A view from the Bench

Having stood at the rostrum at National Napo AGM’s moving campaigning motions over many years, it was particularly gratifying that the 2015 motion brought by myself and Chris Hignett on the Abolition of the Criminal Courts Charge passed by Conference was swiftly followed by its being scrapped by the recently appointed Justice Secretary Michael Gove.

Whilst it would be premature to claim that the Ministry of Justice threw in the towel on the iniquitous charge on hearing of Conference’s decision, it does illustrate how informed and concerted campaigning to one of the more toxic legacies of Chris Grayling’s tenure in office was successfully overturned. Having recently completed my first year appraisal as a magistrate in SE London, I would like to share one or two brief impressions on my experiences which have a particular bearing on how Probation is viewed from the bench.

One of the mandatory training requirements for newly appointed magistrates is an introduction to the work of the

Probation Service and it was with wry amusement that I completed the training day induction ably presented by two of my former colleagues just at the point when the service was experiencing the TR carve up. The trainers were constrained by what can only be dubbed as the NPS civil service ‘omerta’ from answering a number of pointed questions on how the service could possibly offer the level of service delivery that magistrates’ had grown accustomed to, but there was a wellspring of empathy for what many saw as politically motivated organisational

change. A point uttered to me at a more recent local magistrates training event on the respective roles of CRC’s/NPS when a bold vision of ‘innovative change’ from the new providers was being outlined from the presenters. ‘It sounds like the chaos visited on the NHS,’ was one of the comments.

Whilst the seismic historic changes afoot in Probation are for those of my magistrate colleagues who are aware of my professional background a distant echo of wider changes that currently beset the magistracy. With 91 pending court closures; drastic reductions in numbers of magistrates; e-technology in the form of iPads being offered to magistrates to help in court; ill-considered legislative changes and morale sapping attacks on the value of public service; issues relating to the diversity of the bench; allocation of work and professional training needs, as well as the alarming increase in the numbers of unrepresented defendants appearing before the court.

The abiding contribution that Probation continues to make at the local level to the fair and effective running of the criminal justice system is undimmed. I was on a sentencing bench dealing specifically with Domestic Violence cases and the valued contribution of well-argued pre-sentence reports (albeit the familiar quips on jargon, undue length and grammatical solecisms have been around for many a day) enabled all the proposals to be followed. However, there will need to be, I believe, a much greater level of accountability for the content of Rehabilitation Activities Requirements (2015 Conference motion) from new providers and I would like to see the powers contained in Section 173 (CJA 2003) for magistrates to attach a review requirement to a community order extended to test effectiveness, but also so that the much touted “innovative change” from the new providers has greater judicial scrutiny (a point made by the Magistrates’ Association in its recent written submission to the Justice Select Committee inquiry into the future of the magistracy).

I have been able to offer professional insight when as part of the bench magistrates retire to deliberate on sentence and believe that my contribution has been positively received. It has also been a salutary experience to sit when custody has been imposed (according to sentencing guidelines but at the margins discretion still obtains) and there is still it seems a foggy appreciation of the broader impact of the provisions of ORA 2014 in terms of supervisory input. So maybe a forthcoming comment piece from Napo in the Magistrate Magazine might highlight some of the unions expressed TR concerns? Interestingly enough The Magistrates Association 2016 AGM is being held at York Racecourse (where in 1998 I moved my first motion on renationalising private prisons and former General Secretary Judy McKnight alerted me to the fact that the motion was on the BBC’s Ceefax!)

Mike Guilfoyle
Professional Associate Member/ Magistrate SE London

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