The likes of sayings “You’re nicked!” and “Caught banged to rights” are not usually what a magistrate hears when dealing with the deeds of accused miscreants at the first level of the British legal system. Guest speaker at the latest meeting of the Probus Club of Basingstoke was Tony Hersh JP, who gave an insight into a day in the life of a Justice of the Peace.
He has been a magistrate in Basingstoke for about 5 years having spent a career in clinical research. He spoke about the history of magistrates, how long they have been in existence and the changes in their powers over time.
All cases start in this first tier of court justice which has a bench of usually three magistrates and work without a jury. They are limited to dealing with what are known as “summary offences” which include most motoring offences, minor criminal damage and common assault. Sometime burglary and drug offences. More serious cases, known as “indictable offences”, are sent to the Crown Court.
He illustrated the types of punishment open to magistrates using the Sentencing Guidelines which provide a boundary on magistrates’ judgements. They can impose fines, community service, driving bans and imprisonment up to 12 months. They can remand someone to prison to await trial at Crown Court which is one of the most difficult decisions magistrates have to make. Many months can pass before trial and if the defendant is then found not guilty, they receive no compensation for having spent time in prison.
Of particular interest, he demonstrated a series of actual cases ranging from shoplifting to fraud and assault among others. He presented the evidence and the stance of the prosecution and defence, and the various sentencing options open to the magistrates. The audience was asked what they thought was appropriate before he disclosed the actual sentence imposed and the reasons behind it.
Anyone can apply to become a magistrate and the court service desire such volunteers to represent society at large. Naturally checks are made about applicants and references are sought but people can apply from aged 18 upwards. Considerable training is undertaken but retirement comes at the age of seventy five. However, the ability of retaining the honorific of JP after your name can be used until your demise.