The other week saw the end of an era. The Lancaster Bench of magistrates ceased to be, replaced the following day by a countywide Bench. We now have a Lancashire local justice area which means magistrates sitting at Lancaster could potentially be from anywhere in the county.
This is of some significance as the Lancaster petty sessions was formally established by legislation passed in 1827, but had been in operation for many hundreds of years prior to that.
This centralisation of the Bench is being run out nationally. It was anticipated Lancashire would become the largest Bench in the country, with more than 700 JPs, until one Bench was created for the Greater Manchester area.
This isn’t the first time we have had the amalgamation of Benches as we used to have local courts in Morecambe, South Lonsdale and Hornby. These Benches merged into the Lancaster Bench in the 1970s and there was some opposition at the time. Then, as now, the justification for this “progress” was mainly financial.
It has been suggested centralisation of Benches will lead to resources being used more efficiently. I am unsure as to whether this will be the case. I accept it may be simpler to deal with the administrative side, but envisage any savings made would be lost in other ways.
Magistrates are not paid for fulfilling their valuable role, but are reimbursed expenses such as travel costs. If magistrates from the Lancaster area travel to courts in, say, Burnley then the costs will increase dramatically.
There may also be logistical problems in getting to courts at the other end of the county. I can foresee occasions when courts are delayed, or even cancelled, due to the fact magistrates simply cannot get there.
The economical argument aside, I believe local justice should be administered by local citizens.
Their local knowledge means courts can be run efficiently and effectively. I am told the majority of our magistrates at Lancaster are willing to see how things work out, and I wish them well.
However, I can’t help but think this is another example of things being altered just for the sake of it.