The Magistrates' Association
The system of administration of justice by lay magistrates is more than 600 years old but it was not until 1920 that it was proposed to establish an association of magistrates. The idea came from Alderman Wilkins, a magistrate for Derby, and at the invitation of the Lord Mayor of London about 200 magistrates met at the Guildhall in the City of London, which resulted in the first meeting of the Magistrates' Association at Central Hall, Westminster on 28 October 1921, at which Lord Haldane was elected the first President.
The Association is governed by a Council composed of members from throughout the country and the first Council meeting - at which 29 members were present - was held at the Home Office on 25 November 1921.
Although in its early years the Association's membership was fairly small, it included among its members some very illustrious justices. Margery Fry, who was one of the first women to be appointed a justice in 1921, was a driving force in the Association.
The Association encouraged its members to undertake basic training immediately after appointment and to keep up with changes in law and procedure. It was not until 1949, when the Royal Commission drew attention to the subject, that the real importance of training was recognised by the government. Most of the Commission's recommendations regarding training were implemented in the Justice of the Peace Act 1949, which provided that the magistrates' courts committees should make and administer schemes of instruction in accordance with arrangements made by the Lord Chancellor.
At its inaugural meeting in 1921 the Association had around 500 members. By its Silver Jubilee in 1945 it had 5,288 members and 16,354 at its fiftieth Anniversary in 1970. In 2001, the Association's membership was over 28,000 of which over 26,000 are active (ie serving) magistrates. The Association can claim to represent over 85% of magistrates on the bench as well as many on the supplemental lists.
The Association was granted a royal charter in 1962 and subsequently assigned a coat of arms. Under the charter, the Lord Chancellor of the day is ex officio President of the Association and the Lord Mayor of London an ex officio Vice President.
Training of Magistrates
The changes introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 1948 and the Justices of the Peace Act 1949 proved so far reaching that in 1953 a system of Magistrates' Courts Committees was established, with responsibilities for administering Magistrates' Courts, engaging staff and providing courses on instruction for Justices. Ten years later anxiety was widespread about their failure to fulfil their training function on an adequate scale by voluntary means and, after discussion with The Magistrates' Association, which by this time had gained considerable expertise in its training role, The Lord Chancellor introduced compulsory training for all newly appointed magistrates in 1966. Statutory responsibility for this remained with Magistrates' Courts Committees; but the Association found itself called upon to play a rapidly expanding role in promoting training conferences and organising courses of instruction. Nationally, the Magistrates' Association arranged a series of training activities, for the most part as residential conferences, focusing on issues of current concern. These are intensive, hard-working meetings whose object is to establish and maintain a good level of practice throughout the magistracy as a whole. Its 58 Branches also conduct training programmes on a local level.
The Justices of the Peace Act 1968
This Act provided for the gradual reduction of the age of retirement from the bench from 75 to 70, and confirmed the position of the Clerk as legal adviser to the Justices. The fact that 98% of all cases, which come before the criminal courts of England and Wales are disposed of by JP's with no required legal qualifications continues to surprise many people. The justification is based largely on the relationship which had developed over the years, and in 1968, received statutory authority, between JP's and their clerk - the JP's bearing sole responsibility for their findings on fact and on the credibility of witnesses, the clerk advising them on the law and the extent of their powers
Crown Courts replace Assizes and Quarter Sessions
The Courts Act 1971 drastically altered the legal system which had continued for 600 years by providing for the abolition of courts of Assizes and Quarter Sessions and their replacement by a new Crown Court. In a presidential address to the Association, Lord Hailsham described this as 'by far the biggest measure of law reform in this particular field for at least a century and, in some respects, since the institution of the assize system in the reign of Henry II'. It was concerned mainly with the re-organisation of the higher courts, but it was important for JP's because it enlarged their powers by enabling them to exercise full jurisdiction in Crown Courts over the whole of England and Wales.