Thursday, May 10, 2012

De Haut en Bas

The far reaching changes to bench structures that were brought in at the turn of the year as a result of budgetary pressures have  had a few months to settle in, and we are seeing what works well, what just about works, and what doesn't work at all.Most magistrates have been messed around to some extent. The Voluntary Early Departure programme was successful in reducing staff numbers, but because the Treasury would only make one-off sums available to fund it up to the March cut off date the whole business had to be done in a tearing hurry.
What this meant in practice was that there was little or no time for people taking over from the outgoing staff to work alongside them, as any sensible company would arrange, to pick up the myriad little tweaks and fixes that make a complex organisation function. Creating a workable rota was (and still is) pretty tricky, when some new benches have more than 400 magistrates spread over several courthouses, and those magistrates may or may not be youth or family qualified, they may or may not be chairmen, or a number of other factors need to be considered. When I see how the staff at my court have coped with being thrown in the deep end I sometimes think that it is a miracle that we have been able to function at all. The Treasury's iron fist has clamped on to staff levels so tightly that no replacements are allowed for sick leave maternity leave and holidays. This throws extra stress on the remaining staff, and in most cases their response has been a credit to them. 
Perhaps the worst thing from the magistrates' point of view is travel. As the mergers began, the Senior Presiding Judge ruled that any magistrate had to sit at any courthouse in their Local Justice Area (LJA). Unfortunately, he omitted the words 'if necessary' and as a result JPs have been sent all over the place, often for no business reason. Some LJAs use one courthouse just for trials, another for remands, and, perhaps one for youth. This means that magistrates have to move around to experience a variety of work and maintain their competences. In other cases, particularly in large geographic areas there are two or more courts that have  a mixed workload, so there is no need to move around other than to meet new colleagues. Of course it is vital to mix up the legacy benches to create over time a unified bench culture, but the price of all this travel is high, both in money and in time. Most people drive to court, but a substantial minority use public transport, which can be highly inconvenient even in London, a city that is reasonably well served with buses and trains. As an example (based upon a real person) someone who lives in Northwood, and used to be attached to Uxbridge court can be sent to Feltham to sit. The Transport for London website says that this journey takes two hours each way, with several changes of bus and train. If someone is to have four gruelling hours added to their court sitting day, there ought to be a solid business need for it. And if they pass a colleague travelling in the opposite direction, there is no excuse for the waste. As I have said before, Buckinghamshire is one LJA and a friend who lives in and used to be based at High Wycombe can be sent to Milton Keynes. The return trip is from 80 to 120 miles (the latter being apparently quicker) so a the JPs' car mileage rate it costs between £45 and £67 to get him to court. Sooner or later the penny will drop in the MoJ and the costs will be found to be unjustifiable as well as unnecessary.

20 comments:

  1. Much too sanguine and charitable in your comments about the new arrangements Bystander. Before these changes the system was an administrative farce. Now it's a disgrace as well as a farce. I've served as a JP for 8 years and only now do I fully understand what 'public service' is - trying to do your best in the face of a bureaucracy (HMCTS) determined to make it as difficult as possible for you at every turn. The MoJ / HMCTS drive to convert volunteer magistrates into unpaid civil servants continues to gather momentum.

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  2. "the costs will be found to be unjustifiable as well as unnecessary"

    At which point a penny-pincher at HM Treasury will point out that JPs volunteer to serve, and therefore, presumably, will be more than willing to fund all these travelling expenses themselves (or see blokes they know to be burglars etc. hanging round just waitying for the house to be empty, because there wasn't a JP to bang them up). HM Treasury staff, of course, know how *legitimately*, I emphasise) to set off burglar alarm provision against tax.

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  3. Now, call me cynical....go on...but isn't this the usual way of getting rid of employees?

    Job's still there if you travel but if you don't like it we quite understand and here's your P45...

    The thing is DJs do travel and are flexible so we need to match it.

    We all knew the cost savings were nonsense from the start which is why HMCTS couldn't answer the questions. And we all know JLOs are struggling to cope. Mind you, the workload is mysteriously dropping close to the Olympics.

    Another agenda is on the cards...in the corridors of febrile power. Assisted by the MA shifting us into community centres.

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    1. The underhanded attack on magistrates expenses was dealt a tasty undercut by the combined efforts of individual JP's contacting their MP's & the efforts of the MA. Never underestimate that! The MA are the magistrates - don't undermine them, you are walking into the classic management tool of devide & rule. If you are unhappy with the route the MA is taking then go to your branch meetings & become involved!

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  4. The penny can't actually drop; it's already been cut from the budget.

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    1. northbucksJP10 May 2012 14:31

      As the coalition government continues to advocate localism, its own Ministry of Justice continues to go in the opposite direction. Like Bystander's friend, I am a Buckinghamshire JP who faces a 100-mile, four-hour round trip to High Wycombe if called on to attend there, instead of my local courthouse at Aylesbury. Bucks is a long, long county, and if I should go to Wycombe, I am sitting with people I don't know in an area I don't know, which makes traffic cases that much harder on which to sit in judgement.

      That same Ministry is about to suggest out-of-hours single-magistrate hearings in local community centres and police stations to get cases concluded faster (whatever happened to CJSSS and SDJ?), emphasising the need for local justice. So where's the logic in all this?

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  5. little or no time for people taking over from the outgoing staff to work alongside them

    Standard practice, in the U.S. at least. The only exceptions I know of are restaurants, where it is common for new employees to "trail" existing ones.

    no replacements are allowed for sick leave maternity leave and holidays

    Also standard practice.

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    1. So doing things on the cheap and badly is now standard practice in business?

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    2. Does your experience of life suggest otherwise?

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  6. Being a consultant, it's the same in companies. A far-flung executive will issue a directive with the 'I've told you what to do, find a way to do it attitude'.

    Also...

    How long before a civil servant looks over the basic case facts and allocates a maximum time to the hearing?

    It could happen.

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  7. And the responsibility for ensuring that listing arrangements are rationalised to ensure minimum expenditure falls on Bench Chairmen, if I have read the letter correctly, which is quite some responsibility (even for someone as capable as BS).

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  8. Anon May 11TH I do got to MA meetings and have made several representations...go read the article in the Times they endorse and see how we'll be saving lots of money by sitting in community centres...yup, that one again.

    Sorry, the points made by Bystander only emphasise the limited effects of the MA in representing us.

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  9. As usual it is knee-jerk reactions ill thought out that lead to more waste not savings

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  10. Brontosaurus11 May 2012 11:28

    The Government just cannot stop themselves from messing up public services. In trying to make things more 'cost effective' or 'efficient' they end up with a bureaucratic, unworkable nightmare. They have done it to the health service. They are doing it to the police. Private sector management and policies does not work in the public sector. It is as simple as that.

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  11. The Times article summarises the findings of a report that was commissioned to find out what the public thought about magistrates. Early on, it became apparent that many of the questions that the Panel had planned to ask needed to be dropped, because in general people know next to nothing about magistrates. The findings reflect the opinions gathered from consulting a wide range of court users and community groups, and are not MA policy, or even a blueprint for the future. Rather, they show that in these changing and truly uncertain times, the MA is taking the bull by the horns and looking at what more imaginative ways there might be of using magistrates (as in reviewing the use of OoCDs) rather than let short-termism, ignorance and expedience determine the future of this extraordinary institution. The opinions of those who comment here are as welcome, indeed especially so because of their evident interest, as those of everyone consulted to date. Let's have a real, open and informed debate.

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  12. SouthLondonJP14 May 2012 08:31

    I am sorry but my contempt for the MA frankly knows no bounds. This is not about public recognition of the role of Magistrates. To be honest, I don't care a jot about whether Mr and Mrs Law Abiding Citizen knows what we do. I DO care about law breakers knowing about what we do...from the sharp end.

    Sitting in a featureless community hall is hardly the way to impress the gravity of the situation for someone facing criminal charges. And I am waiting to hear how the MA proposes we deal with matters which may require some sort of security down the local church hall with the ladies of the WI preparing the flowers for vicar...

    The MA (and by this I mean the Centre, not the local brances who on the whole do the best they can) insted of rolling over and sucking up to the latest Minister need to get out there and actually CAMPAIGN for their members. If they can't (or won't) do that then the membership with walk.

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  13. Thankfully they are not laying of magistrates.

    Next they might decide you can do more difficult cases and so you might not be sending as many people upstairs. Magistrates are cheaper than judges.

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  14. Rumour has it that there will be another tranche of Magistrates' Court closures. Just three for the whole of Gtr Manchester is mentioned. Used to be 10, now 8.

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  15. Rumour has it that there will be another tranche of Magistrates' Court closures. Just three for the whole of Gtr Manchester is mentioned. Used to be 10, now 8.

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    1. I'd heard that rumour somewhere before.

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