Wiltshire Publications

25 years sitting on the bench – the life of a JP

AT the U3A meeting on Tuesday 14th April Mrs Priscilla Gray spoke about her life as a Justice of the Peace and how it changed over the years since she became one in 1986.     

At that time Magistrates were recommended, proposed, and then interviewed.  Nowadays you may ring up and apply.  Also female magistrates although they no longer had to wear hats in 1986 they were not allowed to wear trouser suits. Men could not wear school/college/regimental ties.

Magistrates are not allowed to draw attention to themselves by the way they dress, they must appear neutral.  They are not paid but can claim travelling and lunch expenses but if they are self employed and need to employ somebody else to cover their absence, these costs may also be claimed.

Those who work often find it difficult to have time off to attend court and then occasionally resign in order to keep their jobs.  Following initial training there are at least two days’ further training a year.

Mrs Gray began her life as a magistrate on the Westbury bench, which then met in Warminster  because they had cells.  The court later moved to Trowbridge.  Smaller courts were useful in that the magistrates knew the locality which offences took place, particularly relevant in the case of motoring offences.

She stressed that magistrates must see each case on its merits.  Usually three magistrates sit with the middle one acting as chair and who speaks on behalf of them all.  Sitting in front of them is a legal adviser who arranges the business of the court.

In 1990 it was decided the smaller benches would be amalgamated and Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon, Melksham Warminster and Whorlesdown (who met at Steeple Ashton) became West Wilts Magistrates Court.  After ten years it was decided there would be another amalgamation and North & West Wilts Magistrates came into being and they sit at Chippenham.

Magistrates also sit on Saturdays and Bank Holiday Mondays and also deal with Youth and Family courts when very difficult decisions have to be made.  Until quite recently they also dealt with licensing matters such as protection orders for new publicans, occasional licences and gun licences.  Magistrates, if they are on duty, may be woken in the middle of the night in order to sign search warrants.

Mrs Gray illustrated her talk with several amusing anecdotes and said she felt it had been a privilege to serve as a magistrate, that it had always been a challenge and she had enjoyed the camaraderie with her colleagues.

There was a question and answer session at the end of a very informative and enjoyable talk which was followed by refreshments.

A reminder that next month’s meeting at 2pm on Tuesday 9th May at the United Reformed Church Hall is the AGM and will be followed by a talk by Veronyca Bates entitled “Pressing Matters” (Fighting the Publisher).