Today I had the good fortune to drive one of the car loads of Trentham High pupils to Stafford magistrates court for a schools competition.
Pupils took roles in a mock trial, conducted in real court rooms, from a brief they had been given and prepared for in advance. The team from each school comprised at least; 3 magistrates, two prosecution lawyers, two defence lawyers, a legal advisor, a prosecution witness, a police witness, a defence witness and the defendant.
4 schools had entered the competition for our local area and the teams rotated such that each school was in the trial twice, as each side of prosecution vs defence; Trentham vs Biddulph, Biddulph vs Endon, Endon vs Thomas Boughey, Thomas Boughey vs Trentham. The magistrates team for each trial was seven rather than three, allowing for three from each of two schools and headed by a real magistrate. The pupils had worked hard and conducted their trials extremely well. The schools were judged on how they conducted all their relevant roles.
For me as an observer it was a fascinating day. The day was extremely well run, when we arrived there was a large team of real magistrates and court staff to welcome us, show us the courts, assist with the organization and answer questions.
At the point in each trial when the magistrates retired to consider their verdict, other magistrates talked to the rest of us in the court room about magistrates and court processes and answered questions. Some points discussed covered that magistrates are unpaid. They get expenses, not like MPs for duck houses and the like, but much more modest covering basic travel and a small lunch allowance. The process for becoming a magistrate starts with an interview to assess the ability to apply fairness and common sense and involves training with regular updates and appraisal. Ideally they include a representative range of population between the ages of 18 and 70. My personal opinion is the cut off at 70 is unfairly ageist and there must be people over 70 who could make a good contribution as magistrates. If magistrates have good skills in common sense I would think they should be capable of assessing for themselves whether any issues, connected with age or not, affect whether they should continue or step down. Magistrates have to do a minimum of 35 half day sessions per year. To me this would for some people be difficult in terms of being released from work.
Magistrates preside over the more minor cases leading to non-custodial sentences or short custodial sentences. Major cases are referred on to crown court. There is a chance of appeal against a guilty verdict. Defendants who plead guilty can expect a reduction of about a third in the punishment. Interestingly if a defendant states they are innocent but that they want to plead guilty to avoid the trial process and get it over with quickly, their plea can be denied by the magistrates. One pupil asked an extremely pertinent question. If a defendant wants to plead guilty in this way, but is denied this, then they are found guilty at trial, do they get the normal reduction in sentence? The answer seemed to be that the initial intention regarding the plea should be recorded so that out of fairness the reduced sentence should be given.
For one of the trials, while the magistrates were out deliberating a poll was done of us observers in the court, of which there were a fair number, as to whether we would find the defendant guilty or not guilty. We agreed unanimously on a not guilty verdict. However, when the magistrates returned the verdict was guilty. That was very interesting. Ordinarily even if the magistrates don’t unanimously agree, this is not revealed. But for the purpose of this exercise it was explained that the pupil magistrates were evenly split 3-3. That wasn’t one school on one side and one on the other, there was a split within school groups. So in the end the real magistrate had to decide. A real case like that would likely go to appeal.
Thanks to all the magistrates and court staff for giving up their own time to put on this valuable event for the schools. Thanks also to the teachers and other supporters. It was a very positive experience for all. A district judge spoke at the end and gave every encouragement to the pupils, praising their hard working and responsible attitude, which is the real norm in young people in contrast to the impression which could be gained from some of the real individuals facing trial at the courts. He pointed out that there were no losers in the competition, as they had all won by entering and contributing so well. Each school gained a trophy and all pupils got a certificate. A great enjoyable and informative day out was had by all.
Congratulations go to Endon for winning the competition. They go on now to compete with others at a larger regional level as part of this national competition.