I was on the Herefordshire Bench for 4 years (that’s the bench not a bench!). I was proud to be one of our local JPs and in a privileged position where I might be able to make a small difference to people’s lives in a positive way. Somehow too I saw it as a continuation in some small way of my legal career which felt good for me on a personal level.
Magistrates deal with a lot of dull stuff ..driving without insurance, peeing in a public place, not paying fines…all important of course but a bit mundane on the whole. It’s not all mundane though. They see murderers in court for the first time; they make absolutely vital decisions on whether to deprive an individual of their liberty before they have been found to be guilty of any offence ..these are the decisions as to whether to remand in custody or release on bail; they see and judge offences involving assault on the person, in varying degrees of seriousness, and of course within that overall category they pronounce on crimes of domestic abuse.
So how do magistrates deal with domestic abuse? Do bear in mind here that I am writing from my own limited experience in a particular region in the UK and bear in mind too that I can only talk about matters of public knowledge and express a very personal opinion thereon.
In short my overwhelming impression from my time in office as a JP is that magistrates fail again and again the woman (and yes whilst not politically correct to say so, the victim is nearly always a women) who has gone through the utterly unenviable process of reporting a case of domestic abuse and then acting as a witness for the prosecution in court. I believe that a tiny 2% of domestic abuse cases ever reach court. How much we should owe then it as a society to these victims to seek to do justice by them…not rough but perfect justice.
Here now I can declare that one of the reasons for standing down as a JP Is that I do not actually support a system where lay people, hastily trained in bits of the law and even more hastily trained on not bringing prejudice to bear cast judgement on people’s lives. Bring back judges trained and skilled in the art. I would add to this general conclusion that, from what I saw, how the bench deals with domestic abuse cases in particular is woefully inadequate in just about all aspects.
The standard response, if the defendant is found to be guilty ( a very big “if” as so often there are no other witnesses and so often there is a power relationship which has led to the actions the subject of the case and which permeates the trial), is to send the offender on a course. The offender and victim often receive the sentence within arms length of each other and very often leave the court room arm in arm.