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Most of the provisions of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act are now in force, the Lord Chancellor told magistr...
Most of the provisions of the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act are now in force, the Lord Chancellor told magistrates.

Speaking at the Magistrates' Association annual general meeting, Lord Mackay of Clashfern reported that he had already approved candidates for the post of justices, chief executive in over half of the committee areas in England and Wales and said that the benefits accruing from having a single head of service were already being felt.

However, it would be longer before the impact of other aspects of the legislation would be felt, eg the amalgamation of magistrates, courts committee areas.

'I have made four orders which will come into force on 1 April next year. Each of the orders was based on proposals submitted to me by the affected committees, and only one of them exactly followed the indicative map which was published in July 1993.

'I mention this because I believe that it amply illustrates what I have always maintained - that I do not consider myself to be bound by the indicative map, and that I am keen to build on local initiatives wherever possible.'

The Lord Chancellor said that he had three objectives in mind when considering the issue of amalgamations - to promote economies of administrative scale; to improve arrangements for the allocation of grant; and to increase the extent to which decisions about the distribution of resources are taken at local, rather than national, level.

'I believe that the achievement of those objectives requires a substantial reduction in the number of magistrates, courts committees, but as far as possible I want that reduction to come about by agreement and consensus.

'It will take some time before all the outstanding amalgamation issues are settled, and that is as it should be. I do not intend to impose a timetable for resolution of those issues. I want to proceed carefully and slowly in order to ensure that the best solutions are reached in the affected areas.

'Since the beginning of October, all magistrates' courts committee minutes had been available for public inspection and from January next year every magistrates' courts committee must hold at least one open meeting each year.

'There are appropriate safeguards in that committees need not disclose confidential matters in their minutes, said the Lord Chancellor.'

These provisions follow the principles of open access to the processes of public service, which are contained in the Citizen's Charter. I have been heartened to see that in some committee areas, where court open days have been held with great success, the spirit of these principles is already being followed.'

Turning to the issue of training, the Lord Chancellor acknowledged the concerns expressed by magistrates that the burden of rquired training was too great.

'Magistrates have a right to expect that the training they are required to undertake will be relevant, well-structured, professional, and not make excessive demands on their time. A balance needs to be struck and that is why I have commissioned a national training needs analysis for magistrates in England and Wales.

'The brief for the needs analysis project is to identify the areas of skills and knowledge that a justice requires at each stage of their magisterial career and to suggest a strategy for delivering training to meet those needs.'

The project is being undertaken by a research team from the University of Birmingham and is the first large-scale national survey of magistrates training to be undertaken in the last thirty years.

The team will report by the beginning of next year. As well as a postal questionnaire to be sent to a random sample of 5000 magistrates and interviews with a representative cross-section of stakeholders in the magistrates' courts service, there will be a series of workshops around the country at which magistrates will consider a range of case studies which arise in the courts and identify the various competencies necessary to deal with the situations efficiently and effectively.

The role of the stipendiary magistrates was also addressed by the Lord Chancellor who reported that the working party he had established was not concerned with either increasing or decreasing their number but with defining their role. He looked forward to their recommendations towards the end of the year.

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