Neighbourhood Justice

On Tuesday I attended a meeting of the magistrates of the Sussex Western Bench in Angmering.  The magistracy is an important, and I believe, under-appreciated national resource.

Magistrates are volunteers who serve as a vital link connecting the criminal justice system to local communities.  We should be proud of this institution which sees lay representatives of the community - not lawyers - sitting in judgement on their peers.  It has been a feature of our system for centuries.

So it was highly appropriate that both the Lord Lieutenant of West Sussex and I were able to thank local magistrates for what they do.

I share the concern of Magistrates that 'out-of-court' disposals such as on-the-spot penalties are not always appropriate.

So I am proposing to give magistrates a role in scrutinising how such penalties are issued - a scheme which has successfully been operating in Hampshire.

And I am also looking at how cases could be brought much more quickly before magistrates.  It's important that justice is swift, but it must also be sure.  We need effective measures to deal with offenders firmly and prevent further crime.

I also want to strengthen the role that local communities can play.  From this month Neighbourhood Justice Panels will be set up across the country to deal with antisocial behaviour and low-level offending - the sorts of problems raised at my public meeting in Pulborough last week.

These Panels, which could include local magistrates, will not be an easy option for wrong-doers.  They will bring offenders face to face with their victims and citizens.  Offenders could be required to make amends, for instance repairing the damage they've caused.

Neighbourhood Justice will be one of a package of measures for the radical transformation of justice that I will set out in a White Paper this summer.  The aim will be to deliver swift and sure justice and put communities back in charge.

When I visit Arundel's Town Hall and see the old court room which closed more than 25 years ago, I am reminded that courts were once very local.  I believe that with new thinking we can reclaim the idea of community justice - and I hope that local magistrates will have a key role in delivering it.

Christopher N Howarth