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The Government has come out in support of justices' clerks, stating that their role of providing the best possible advice and support to magistrates should not be compromised or diluted.
Its views come in a consultation paper, "The Future Role of the Justices' Clerk", issued as part of moves to modernise and improve the operation of the courts. The paper calls for a more strategic and united system of criminal justice agencies, including amalgamation of Magistrates' Courts Committees (MCC) and a greater separation of the legal and administrative functions.
The paper states that the 1995 introduction of the justice's chief executive as MCC senior officer has prompted a need to re-examine the post of the justices' clerk and the framework of the role.
Malcom Marsh, honourary secretary of the Justices' Clerks' Society said: "We welcome the paper as it means the issues raised are now a matter of public debate. The society met with the Lord Chancellor last November and he has recognised the concerns raised then and which have been covered in this paper.
"We pointed out that courts' committees across the country were losing justices' clerks posts without considering the implications of those losses, especially on the quality of legal advice being given to lay magistrates."
He said this led to justices' clerks becoming separated from the people they serve and advise. Marsh added that "while the model on separation of the legal and management roles might be logical in theory, and may be possible in the set up of crown courts and county courts, the same analogy cannot be drawn in magistrates' courts where the judiciary is made up of a majority of lay people. There needs to be a role as both manager and lawyer for justices' clerks in the local area."
Ministers also decided in the paper that justices' chief executives do not have to be legally qualified, but that from 1 January 1999 all new court clerks will be qualified as a solicitor or barrister.
The consultation period ends on 30 November this year.