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THE SENSITIVE issue of working relationships between stipendiary and lay magistrates - including a possible new title for stipes - is being reviewed by the Lord Chancellor.
The review is being carried out by a working party set up to consider recommendations by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, which could lead to structural changes among magistrates.
Lord Mackay has gone as far as calming fears of a growing dispute between the lay and stipendiary bench, largely because of some lay magistrates' worries that qualified counterparts could threaten their role.
"There is a feeling among some lay justices that there is something approaching a conspiracy to abolish them and substitute a professional paid magistracy. That is quite untrue," said Mackay at the Provincial Stipendiary Magistrates' Association annual dinner.
"In 1983 there were almost 26,000 lay justices and today the figure is over 30,000. Their role as trained laymen and laywomen is unique in the administration of justice and much admired in other jurisdictions," he said.
Mackay suggested a statutory merger between provincial and metropolitan stipendiary magistrates. He said it seemed "odd" that there should be separate statutory regimes for the appointment to each jurisdiction.
The title of stipendiary magistrate should be changed, said Mackay. While favouring the title of Judge Magistrate, Mackay said Queen's Magistrate could also be suitable.
It is understood that lay magistrates, who distrust the review because of what it might entail for them, are concerned by what they see as an ambition among stipendiaries to have the rank of district judge.