'The role of magistrates is critical in making these reforms work,' he said. 'Your courts are at the heart of the process ' where 97% of criminal cases begin and end. I am placing great reliance on your abilities to use the new powers and processes to make the justice of the magistrates' courts speedier and even more effective.'
'Anti-Social Behaviour Orders are a major new development. They come into force next week on 1 April. They can be applied for by the police or local authority against an individual who acts in an anti-social manner - that is, a manner which causes, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to one or more people in someone's household. To protect those who feel intimidated from complaining the Act allows witnesses, other than those who are the subject of the offending behaviour, to give supporting evidence.
'Applications for orders will be made to the magistrates acting in their civil capacity. These orders are preventive. But if the behaviour does not stop, firm action can be taken. Breach of an order is a criminal offence triable either way with a maximum penalty on indictment of five years in prison.
'You will know well the problems caused by the deliberate and determined trouble-maker. They wage campaigns of racist abuse. They can terrorise entire streets and housing estates. The result is ordinary people who live in constant fear and distress. Local authorities have done their best to deal with the situation, but, until now, the legal powers they have had at their disposal have not been adequate.
'Anti-social behaviour orders represent a significant step forward in ensuring people can live in an environment free from harassment and intimidation.'
The Lord Chancellor said that the Government's work on criminal justice reform has been extensive. Last year's Crime and Disorder Act was a major piece of legislation which made far-reaching changes to youth justice - which the Government has identified as a key priority.
'We have changed the way in which we deal with the planning and development of criminal justice. 'Joined up' plans for the criminal justice system are about to be produced next week. We recognise the importance of working together at a national level; and at a local level. This is not just a 'nice idea' - it is necessary. 'Joined up Government' is now the name of the game.
'These measures show the Government's confidence in the role to be played by the magistrates' courts in the delivery of criminal justice. The magistracy is a fundamental part of the modernised justice system we are building.
'But society can be hard in its judgement on what it perceives as inconsistency. The public, and the media, look critically at the decisions of bench against bench. They can interpret differences as proof that the magistrates are uncertain amongst themselves, and that nature of justice that you get depends on where you live.
'The discretionary power you each hold as magistrates in an individual case is of course a strong and indispensable tool; it can sharpen the focus of the justice you dispense. I certainly do not think that discretion should be curbed. But I would ask you to appreciate how significant it is. It carries the potential to harm the standing of the magistracy as a whole. You therefore must exercise your discretion in individual cases with great care within a system that needs to secure continuing public confidence.
'This is what makes the sentencing guidelines produced by the Magistrates Association so important. The guidelines exist to help you in that process, to give you more information in reaching your decisions. And they help to assist the magistracy maintain an overall consistency of approach. I urge you to follow the guidelines, which are drawn up for your benefit and the benefit of the magistracy as a whole.'
Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs)
1. ASBOs were introduced by Section 1 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and will be implemented on 1 April. Together with Sex Offender Orders, which were implemented last December, they provide a new type of preventative civil order, breach of which is a criminal offence.
2. The order will work like an injunction. The police or the local authority, after consultation with each other, will be able to apply for a prohibitive order by way of complaint to the magistrates court,
if a person (over 10 years old) has acted, since the commencement date, in a manner that caused, or was likely to cause, harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as himself, and if such an order is necessary to protect persons in the local government area in which the harassment, alarm or distress was caused or likely to be caused from further anti-social acts by him.
3. When the complaint is contested, the magistrates' court will hear the evidence and will either dismiss the complaint or make an order. The Home Office has estimated that there will be in the region of 5,000 applications a year.
4. Breach of any prohibition of the order will be a criminal offence. The maximum sentence on indictment will be five years in prison or a fine. As magistrates' courts will be acting in a civil capacity, the civil standard of proof, i.e. the balance of probabilities, will apply. This means that witnesses will be able to provide evidence to the court from their own direct observations of the behaviour, when victims feel unable to come forward.
5. There is a right of appeal to the Crown Court against the making of an order. Any appeal is by way of re-hearing. An application to vary or discharge an order can be made either by the police, the local authority or the defendant.