Last week, the think-tank Policy Exchange published a report entitled Future Courts, which looked at how to speed up the judicial system, enabling those charged with minor offences (who have pleaded guilty) to be sentenced quickly. The report suggested that magistrates should be based within police stations in order to dispense “on-the-spot justice”, and also sit at evenings and weekends.
According to the BBC, the response to the report was mixed; minister Damian Green (official title: the catchy Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims) stated that magistrates are valued because of their “local knowledge” and that their role should be “maximised”; Richard Monkhouse, chair of the Magistrates’ Association, acknowledged the value of having JPs working outside of the courtroom, but was concerned about how this would work in rural areas.
But this isn’t a new idea. Before petty sessions became formalised in the nineteenth century, magistrates did work outside of courtrooms, and outside of the 9 to 5 working week. They worked from their homes, and from local inns, to deal quickly with minor offenders and to refer more serious cases to trial at Quarter Sessions or Assizes. And yes, Mr Monkhouse, this system also worked in rural areas.
Bedfordshire magistrate Samuel Whitbread was known to start dealing with the queue of complainants outside his study by eight o’clock in the morning, sometimes starting work whilst still wearing his dressing-gown. Alan Cirket has noted that many people ‘were accustomed to be active before breakfast, especially in the country’ [1. Alan F Cirket (ed), Samuel Whitbread’s Notebooks, 1810-11, 1813-14 (Bedford, 1971), 8], and so it was logical to also start magisterial work first thing. Magistrates could deal with cases seven days a week, and as Christmas Day and Boxing Day were not regarded in the same light as they are today, cases were also brought on these days.
Accessibility was a key issue amongst rural magistrates. Although most expected people to visit them at their homes, some did attempt to deal with cases at places convenient for local people; so Wiltshire magistrate William Hunt, for example, travelled to various local pubs to hold sessions. These had the added benefits of being spaces that could deal with large numbers of people, and could also offer food and drink to those present [2. Elizabeth Crittall (ed), The Justicing Notebook of William Hunt, 1744-1749 (Devizes, 1982), 9].
These informal proceedings held by local magistrates were where most people came into contact with the law during the 18th century [3. Peter King, ‘The Summary Courts and Social Relations in Eighteenth-Century England’, Past & Present, 183 (2004), 126]. My PhD research into summary proceedings at this time shows that the overwhelming majority of people – complainants and defendants – before rural magistrates were from the lower echelons of society.
These were labourers, servants or sometimes artisans, who might not be able to afford to prosecute someone at Quarter Sessions, but who would visit the magistrate to seek resolution of a petty crime or conflict. This might be simply through mediation – the magistrate getting the parties to agree after a quarrel – or through financial restitution, for example, by paying for an item alleged to have been stolen.
The system was note perfect. Samuel Woolley, a Nottinghamshire stocking weaver, recorded in his diary the absence of his local magistrate, Gervase Clifton, for an eleven month stretch one year [4. Carolyn Steedman, An Everyday Life of the English Working Class (Cambridge, 2013), 141], suggesting a lack of accessibility, lack of involvement in his local community, and competing interests for some magistrates. Some had more than one estate or home, meaning that their time could be split between their various properties; or some might prefer to take part in the London ‘season’.
There also might be issues about how impartial the magistrate was. As many were local landowners (although in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, magistrates began to be drawn from a slightly wider social and occupational background), they might find it hard to be objective with some cases – for example, with men coming before them charged with poaching from their estates.
Although magistrates were not supposed to deal with cases involving themselves, it did happen. Kent magistrate William Brockman recorded a case involving a theft from his property, reported by his wife, for example. In other cases, magistrates took a keen interest either in certain cases before them, or cases heard before their colleagues. Wiltshire magistrate Richard Colt Hoare keenly recorded the poachers who had been convicted each year, many of whom would have poached on his Stourhead estate.
So the system wasn’t perfect, or infallible. But the important point is that members of the local community knew how they could get justice. They knew where to find the local magistrate, and they didn’t have to stick to office hours if they had a problem.
And justice could be dispensed quickly. A magistrate could issue a fine, broker an agreement, draw up a recognisance and get an individual to agree to keep the peace or to behave. So there is a precedent for magistrates to work out of the confines of the courtroom, and it is interesting that there is the prospect of us returning to a more flexible system of justice such as our Georgian ancestors would have known.
Here is the Policy Exchange’s infographic explaining its summary justice report findings: