Put ignorance in the dock

1st November 1996 at 00:00
Citizenship is essential, says the paper on values published today by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. Children should obey the law; they should also understand the law and the legal process. Here, Daniel Rosenthal reports on the contribution that magistrates are making and, below, Diana Lazenby, JP, hopes to banish confusion in court

"To do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of the realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will"

All our ideals of justice are represented in the oath sworn by every new justice of the peace. But what do these noble words mean in practice? Young people are aware of justice as a concept, but how does that awareness relate to what they see and understand about our criminal justice system? Does it matter?

As an ordinary citizen and educator as well as a JP, I believe it matters very much indeed. The system of justice in this country is, uniquely, undertaken by the legal profession in tandem with a lay (but trained) magistracy. The underlying principle of summary trial by peers in the local context means that virtually every young person could be involved at some time in her or his life either as a magistrate or member of the jury. Countless others will find themselves in the dock, acting as witnesses or supporting friends and relatives in court proceedings.

What I see from the bench suggests that, sadly, there is a high level of ignorance about the court and how it works. Most people are not really sure of the difference between judges and magistrates and may not understand why there is no jury. Although attempts are made to ease communications in the youth court, many young people - and most adults - are bewildered by the language and proceedings. This can lead to inadmissable pleas such as, "I'll plead guilty to get it over with".

A host of half-formed questions may remain unanswered in the damp-palmed or angry confusion. How are decisions made about whether a case is tried in the magistrates (summary trial) or the crown court? What is the importance of having a solicitor in certain cases? What is a duty solicitor, and what does it mean to represent yourself? There is the important subject of youth justice. There are crucial issues related to sentencing and disposal options, probation and community service. Such things seem obvious to experienced court users, but mystifying to most observers. More than 90 per cent of all cases pass through magistrates courts. Surely if justice is open we should be doing more to enable better understanding among young people, the group most likely to get in to trouble, or to know someone involved with the courts.

As a justice of the peace I would like people to understand the processes by which decisions are made; that we are trained; that we are aware of the limitations of this system; and that we try to be thoughtful and independent.

As an educator, I would hope for informed, thought-provoking discussion about the criminal justice system. Can greater knowledge create deeper understanding, with less fear among court users? Perhaps some prejudices might get an airing too.

As a citizen I would hope we can sustain a system that contains this element of lay involvement. It will be a useful tool for subsequent generations but one which they can improve.

Diana Lazenby is an educational consultant and a justice of the peace

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