Magistrate slams Government 'meddling'

A LONG-SERVING magistrate has accused the Government of “undermining” sentences handed down to offenders and damaging the justice system.

Will Clarke

A LONG-SERVING magistrate has accused the Government of “undermining” sentences handed down to offenders and damaging the justice system.

Dr Richard Soper said he was taking early retirement because of increasing frustration at Government interference, adding: “I have lost heart and I no longer feel my time is being best spent in court.”

He said “careful thought” by magistrates at sentencing was being ignored by early release schemes and that public confidence in the courts system was being damaged.

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In his farewell speech to gathered lawyers, court clerks and staff at Bury St Edmunds' magistrates court Dr Soper said the UK courts system, which had been the model for justice to the world for 600 years, was “increasingly being interfered with by the government”.

He claimed justices' powers were being significantly undermined with both sentencing and jurisdiction powers being stripped away.

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He said policies like handing justices' licensing powers to district and borough councils and some “serious” offenders being handled by police “behind closed doors” were eroding the “main principles of the process of justice open to media and public scrutiny”.

He was also highly critical of sentencing guidelines which he said had become a “straight jacket” for magistrates' sentencing decision making powers.

“I have lost heart and I no longer feel my time is being best spent in court,” he said. “Over this last period I think my time would be better spent in the surgery.

“For many years we have had the farce of automatic release after half the sentence, now they often get out after only a quarter and the sentencing court has no input in that decision and I think it should.

“It is frustrating when that careful thought seems to be undermined; it reduces confidence in the system.

“Greater central control is being extended over this previously independent organisation. There used to be six courts in west Suffolk, now there are three and soon there will only be one. The idea of local justice is disappearing fast.”

Earlier this month the EADT reported on moves to close courts at Sudbury and Mildenhall - centralising justice at Bury in a possible new court complex.

And, according to his own findings, the respected Bury GP said offenders who received unpaid work simply weren't turning up in 40% of cases.

Addressing Dr Soper, David Ratcliffe, justices' clerk for Her Majesty's Court Service, commended the magistrate on his service: “To lose someone of such standing is a great loss. Your reputation goes before you.”

Defence lawyer Paul Booty, said: “Whatever your decision it has always been fair, even when you have not always given us an easy time. This bench is going to suffer a loss.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Since 1997, crime has fallen by a third - and the way criminals are dealt with by the justice system has been transformed. The Government's approach to law and order has made our communities safer and supported victims and witnesses.

“Sentencing is a matter for the courts and they have a range of disposals available to them for individual cases. Where magistrates believe they cannot deal with a case adequately within their sentencing powers, they can refer the case to the Crown Court for trial or sentencing.

“Tough community sentences can be more effective than a short prison sentence for some offenders. That is why in March we announced £40m to further support the probation service so that magistrates have tough community sentences at their disposal. Recent statistics show that frequency of re-offending for community sentences have fallen sharply by 13%.

“The vast majority of offenders comply with their order and complete them within the time required. If an offender breaches the terms of their order they face being taken back to court to receive a further order or a prison sentence.”

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