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Safeguarding the Rule of Law – Magistrates Matter

In South Africa this week, Judge Thokozile Masipa brought home to the world one of the fundamental principles of justice. There must be proof, beyond reasonable doubt, that a crime was committed by the person accused. She was judging the case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African athlete accused of killing his girlfriend behind a locked lavatory door. On Thursday, Pistorius was cleared of murder in a case that dominated the world’s television screens for much of 2014. ‘The state has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder,’ Masipa told the Pretoria High Court. ‘There are just not enough facts to support such a finding.’

Proof, beyond reasonable doubt, is fundamental to a fair trial. They complement the rights to liberty, to access to justice and to a fair trial before an independent court, including equality before the law, says Stanley Brodie QC who has contributed, along with Simon Reevell MP and John Howson to Politeia’s new publication ‘Magistrates Work! Restoring Local Justice.’ Nor, says Mr Brodie, should justice be delayed. Yet in this country such rights are now being undermined due to the short-sightedness of the wrong kind of officialdom. In this extract from the publication, Stanley Brodie writes:

In the anniversary of Magna Carta, we would do well to remember, Magna Carta provides that justice will be neither delayed nor denied. Hence the well-known aphorism: justice delayed is justice denied. In England such rights are now being threatened as access to justice has been undermined by the closure of magistrates’ courts.

When the Ministry of Justice was obliged, like other government departments, to make cuts, it proposed a disingenuous course under the bizarre banner: ‘Court Reform Delivering Better Justice’. In December 2010 it announced the closure of 93 magistrates’ courts and 49 County Courts in England and Wales. It was, of course, policy which was being developed under Labour. Clearly, closure of so many operating courts would diminish access to justice, not improve it. Longer and more expensive journeys for litigants, magistrates, and other services are some of the difficulties created.

These are not merely irritating inconveniences. The closure of so many operating courts in the interest of so-called efficiency seriously diminishes access to justice, and risks miscarriages of justice. If, instead of being able to attend at a convenient local court, a defendant, for example, in a criminal trial may have to travel many miles at significant expense which cannot be afforded, (e.g. travel costs, time off work and other expenses), the defendant may decide it is simply not worth fighting the case. One may get litigants pleading guilty to avoid the inconvenience and costs of attending a distant court. The same impediment would apply to victims and witnesses, who may seek to avoid attendance at court for the same reasons. So no fair trial, no proper advice from a lawyer, and potential miscarriages of justice. That would result in a denial of justice.

The Ministry is wasting an enormous amount of money in employing civil servants to perform management functions which the magistrates are willing to do voluntarily and without payment; yet to make spending cuts it is prepared to sacrifice or put at risk the fundamental rights to access to justice and a fair trial.

In Magistrates Work! Restoring Local Justice, I and my co-authors explain practical ways of using existing funds, initiatives and facilities to house and promote a more local magistracy. Moreover, the Justice Secretary should follow his own instincts to tackle the overblown bureaucracy that diverts hard cash from the frontline provision of justice, especially the magistrates’ courts. Such a step would be consistent with current economic policies. It would help reverse the consequences of recent cuts with little or no extra cost to the public purse. But above all it would mean that justice was done and seen to be done.

Justice comes at a price. The trial of Oscar Pistorius will not have come cheap. But while in South Africa the principles on which guilt or innocence are judged have been flagged up for the world to see, here in England, the march of officialdom has undermined the operation of the principle of swift, open and fair access to the justice system, and the irony is that it brings no additional savings to the public purse.

*Stanley Brodie QC is a co-author of Magistrates Work! Restoring Local Justice, with John Howson and Simon Reevell MP, published this week by Politeia.

Stanley Brodie QC

Stanley Brodie is the most senior member of Blackstone Chambers and has been a QC since 1975. His practice is in commercial and financial areas of law and he has experience of domestic and international arbitration, and public law. He was co-author for Politeia of Magistrates Work! Restoring Local Justice (2014) and The Cost to Justice: Government Policy and the Magistrates’ Court (2011).

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