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MAGISTRATES decide this week whether to mount a legal challenge to the Lord Chancellor and Home Secretary over a plan to pass the job of enforcing court orders from police to magistrates courts.
They say severe underfunding will limit courts' ability to enforce orders and fines.
Duncan Webster, general secretary of the Central Council of Magistrates Courts Committees (CCMCC), the body leading the challenge, said: "If they don't have the resources, MCCs are going to find it difficult to enforce the fines imposed, reducing the effectiveness of fines as a penalty."
The Magistrates' Association (MA) is "very concerned" and has warned of "an ineffective criminal justice system" without proper funding of the transferred work.
The Justices Clerks' Society (JCS) backed the concerns of magistrates but president Tony Heath said the issues should be resolved by negotiation not legal action.
On counsel's advice, the CCMCC will apply for leave for judicial review if Lord Mackay refuses to delay the 1 April 1996 transfer date and fails to consider concerns over both funding and legislation needed to support the MCCs' enforcement role.
It has written to Lord Mackay several times about its need for a fast response because of the pressure created by a three-month judicial review period for the transfer decision.
The £8 million to be transferred from the police budget to the MCCs to fund the new work is significantly less than is needed, and will only cover London courts, claims the CCMCC. The budget is too small because of police giving a low priority to enforcement over recent years, it says.
Concerns also exist over the amount of work transferred. MCCs had welcomed taking over fine enforcement, believing they could do it well.
But they are now told they will take on 14 areas of work including maintenance and community charge defaulters, orders for compensation, probation, community service,supervision, suspended sentences, attendance care, and breach of young offender institution licences.
Both the MA and CCMCC say they were not consulted on this workload. The JCS says the LCD has yet to work out essential details over costing, legislation and arrangements for police to assist in certain enforcement cases.
An LCD spokeswoman said: "We will take their views seriously. We are looking at the details and will reply shortly."