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The end of the justices’ clerk and other changes, or not

It’s a sad thing when one discovers that the job title that your late father once proudly held will soon be no more.

Back in the 1980s my father was the Justices’ Clerk at Gravesham (Gravesend) Magistrates’ Court, or to give him his full title, ‘Clerk to the Justices for the Petty Sessional Division of Gravesham’. The term ‘Petty Sessional Division’, meaning the area over which the court had jurisdiction, has already passed into history, being replaced by ‘local justice areas’ in 2005, and now it is the turn for the term ‘justices’ clerk’ itself.

Before I proceed I should explain, for the benefit of those who don’t know, exactly what a justices’ clerk is.

Unlike judges most magistrates who dispense justice in the magistrates’ courts are not legally trained. They are volunteer lay people: pillars of the local community – head teachers, doctors, successful business people, and so on. They do have some training, but they are most certainly not lawyers. Obviously, they often require legal guidance when they decide cases. The guide is someone who does have a legal training: the justices’ clerk. The clerk usually sits in front of the magistrates in court, on hand to assist when required and to bring any point of law to the attention of the magistrates (but not to make decisions for the magistrates). Each magistrates’ court will have several clerks, and one of them will be the ‘Clerk to the Justices’, who not only provides legal guidance for magistrates in court but is also in charge of the day-to-day running of the court.

As I said, my father was very proud to be the Clerk to the Justices. He had worked hard to get there: training in his spare time to become a barrister whilst holding down a full-time job and bringing up a young family, then doing his time as a clerk at Old Street and Wells Street courts in London, then as Deputy Clerk to the Justices at Chatham, before getting the top job at Gravesend.

I have now found out that the term is also to be consigned to history, by the Government’s Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill, which will allow court and tribunal staff across all jurisdictions to exercise specified judicial functions, and give legal advice to magistrates sitting in family and criminal proceedings (I will not go into the details of quite how this will differ from the present system). I’ve read the Bill (it’s not very long – you can find it here), and to be honest I’m not exactly sure what those doing the work of justices’ clerks will be called in future (eminent legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg has used the term ‘court legal adviser’ to describe those given the functions of a justices’ clerk), and quite what the person in charge of a magistrates’ court will be called, I’ve no idea – I don’t see how they can be called the ‘Clerk to the Justices’ when there is no longer any such thing as a ‘justices’ clerk’. Maybe these things will be clarified by forthcoming rules.

Whilst I doubt that my father would be happy (it is ironic that Dad took early retirement from a job he loved, because he was fed up with the constant change and interference from above), perhaps these changes will be for the better. With no disrespect to clerks everywhere (I was once one myself, an ‘articled clerk’ – a term that has also been subjected to change, morphing into ‘trainee solicitor’), I always thought that the term ‘clerk’ was somewhat lowly to describe the person in charge of a magistrates’ court, and caused the job to be devalued in the eyes of the public.

And what is the relevance of all of this for those who work in, or find themselves caught up in, the family justice system? Well, I doubt that they will notice much difference – magistrates will still make decisions, guided by legal advisers. Whether there will be any improvement in the system, we will have to wait and see.

However, the Bill is significant not so much for what it contains, as for what it omits.

Most of the provisions in the Bill were included in the previous Prisons and Courts Bill, which was withdrawn when the general election was called last year. However, the Prisons and Courts Bill contained much more, including a provision to allow courts to appoint a publicly-funded legal representative to undertake the cross-examination of alleged victims of domestic abuse, so that they aren’t cross-examined by their alleged abusers who did not have legal representation. The omission of this excellent provision from the new Bill is giving rise to concerns that it may not see the light of day again.

Once again, we will just have to wait and see.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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Comments(5)

  1. David says:

    John – my Dad was also a Justices’ clerk (Wiltshire) and one year president of the justices’ clerks society. Like yours he became frustrated with interference and de-valuation of the role. Sad to see the role disappear.
    David

  2. Katie Bruce says:

    Hello John,
    I worked with your father Samuel Bolch from late 1970’s through to 1989. I worked in the Process Department and finally became Court Listing Officer. He was the best and have fond memories, of a kind man, who was very fair.

  3. Brian Buckhurst says:

    Hello John,
    I was your father’s deputy clerk to the justices until 1980, when I became a clerk to the justices in Somerset. Subsequently I became Justices’s Chief Executive for Avon and Somerset until, ironically, that job title was consigned to history and I ,too, took early retirement. I had the greatest respect for Sam and he taught me so much. Particularly in terms of questioning the validity of those who questioned his views! We also enjoyed each other’s company socially and I never really replaced the warmth and fun of our relationship. If you pick this comment up, do please let me if Sam is still enjoying his retirement. Kind regards, Brian Buckhurst.

  4. Colin Iles says:

    Hi John,

    I too served as Deputy to your father, and was in that role when he retired. I have fond memories of my time at Gravesham and value the advice and guidance he gave. Sadly, I think his decision to leave the service was timely. Shortly afterwards the Lord Chancellor took miniterial responsibility and he decimated the service! The removal of the role of Justices Clerk had been long-planned, and was probably being devised in the Lord Chancellors Department as Sam left. From the early 1990’s there was a move towards imposing a civil service style management system, and the Justices Clerk role was seen as anachronistic. In 2003 Parliament (I think unintentionally) removed the obligation to appoint a Justices Clerk, and this gave the Lord Chancellor the opportunity to allow the role to disappear. A sad end to a historic role.

    Regards

    Colin

  5. David says:

    Well well, there are one or two names above I recognise.

    I started out in 1978 as office admin Grade ‘A’ in Taunton under Fred Winder – my brother-in-law was Principal Assistant there, Nigel Fitzhugh, who went on to become JC at Neath. I went to Derbyshire (High Peak, Ken Wormald), got called to the Bar, then on to Trafford, where in time I became Deputy to Roy Lomas and subsequently Acting JC in 2000, a couple of years before the 10 Metropolitan MCCs in Greater Manchester were abolished in favour of one (with Dame Glenys Stacey, not yet a Dame, as ‘CEO’), together with the redundancy of 10 JCs – except actually it was 8 because one of them became the single JC and they didn’t have to make me redundant, just stuck me back as Deputy on the old salary*.

    The takeover (“Merger” – ha ha) by the Civil Service in 2005 was good for me, because it gave me unfettered access to my pension at the age of 53, albeit much reduced, but enough to live on, so off I went with a merry whistle. Would have done much better financially if I’d stuck it out another couple of years but I couldn’t stand it any more. Example – when the new Senior Civil Servant took over as uber-boss for Greater Manchester (an ex-Crown Court clerk, not legally qualified, couldn’t understand why we needed to be), he expressed surprise that magistrates were trained by us clerks, at some expense – why couldn’t they train themselves, like judges did? Unsurprisingly (because some mags – we had about 1800 of them plus half a dozen DJs – thought they didn’t need clerks at all except to lug the papers about and bring them tea), some magistrates agreed with him.

    I miss the staff, but nothing else.

    * For the first time in >13 years, I’ve just looked up current salaries for legal advisers. Seems to be all ‘tiers’ now, but the highest salary achievable is substantially less than I was getting as a deputy in 2008 when I left – and my salary then was on the low side compared to some others across the country.

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