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Thursday, 11 July, 2002, 09:42 GMT 10:42 UK
From JP to food writer
Judy Jackson
Judy Jackson: Cookbook writer and former JP
Street crime is on the rise, yet the courts and the prisons are overloaded. Here, disillusioned magistrate Judy Jackson explains why she decided to quit last week after 21 years in court.

I was no longer enjoying the job as two years ago, a decision was taken to move all the criminal cases from Marylebone, the court where I sit.

Life of crime
Magistrates hear 95% of criminal cases in the UK
These courts closing at rate of 20 a year
Instead of assaults, rapes, muggings, theft or neighbours' disputes, we were dealing with routine matters such as speeding, running red lights, not paying bus fares.

These cases have to be dealt with, but when it is all you do, it gets monotonous. About six months ago, my son said: 'You never have anything interesting these days, why's that?'

I told him that when a day involves 150 people listed for stopping on a red route, it becomes less interesting. He suggested that I resign. It simply hadn't crossed my mind to leave, so I started a diary to see if it got any better. It didn't, so I quit.

Early days

When I started it was horrendous. There are always three magistrates sitting - the middle one is the chairman and the others are wingers. The joke term at that time was bookends, just there to prop up the middle one.

Holloway Prison
Training included prison visits to see conditions
Most chairmen back then seemed to be there just because they were older and more experienced. They weren't necessarily particularly clever. If I ever asked anything, they would glare at me.

On one famous occasion, the chairman ignored me the whole day. I eventually said to her: 'I may be very junior but I am here.' The next I heard of it was the following week when someone said: 'Did you hear about that row that a junior magistrate had with one of the experienced justices?'

Now magistrates are much more professional and come from all walks of life. I've sat with an inner-city newsagent, sheep farmers, an air steward, an ambulance co-ordinator.

Tough call

I never found sentencing easy. Fines are often not a good idea because the people in front of us have no money at all. Yet magistrates have been encouraged not to send people to prison.

No easy decision: Custody or community?
It's also very sad, reading the pre-sentence report on a person's life: that his father was a drug addict, his mother was a prostitute, that he was in care from the age of five, on drugs at 12.

One of my odder cases was a Tube inspector charged with carrying an offensive weapon, a huge carving knife. He said he was on a diet and needed it to peel fruit. I'm a food writer and I know that a two-inch paring knife is much better for that. We all suspected that he had it for self-defence, which is illegal.

Justice starts at home

Being a lay magistrate has taught me not to jump to early conclusions. I've sat in court and heard the prosecution evidence and thought, 'he did it'. Half an hour into the defence, a different story is coming out.

I won't miss the days when the prosecutor has lost the file

Yet just after I started, two of my boys were rowing over who could borrow the car. I wanted to deal with it calmly and weigh up who should take it, but in the end I just shouted at them.

I won't miss the days when the Crown prosecutor has lost the file, or the witnesses don't turn up and the case has to be postponed or cancelled.

The main problem is money. Because the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] is so strapped for cash and so disorganised, the most extraordinary things happen. One prosecutor's office didn't have a photocopier, so they couldn't copy a document and give it to the defence.

Car crash
Judy's court dealt mostly with traffic offences
Because there are so few police on the streets, they don't catch people doing crimes. But there are a lot of cameras and traffic wardens, so the number of people who come to court to answer motoring offences is enormous. Some are serious, but it just clogs up the system.

Perhaps it's the government's intention to do away with lay magistrates. We do the same job as a district judge but the system is slower because magistrates have to debate each case.

But if you were a defendant, would you rather be up in front of three people who discuss the verdict or one who just makes a decision?

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See also:

10 Jul 02 | UK Politics
15 May 02 | UK Politics
26 Nov 01 | UK
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