MAGISTRATES and their clerks could face potential financial ruin amid fears that cash-strapped court committees will be unable to bail them out if they are billed for appeal costs.
Thousands of poll-tax cases, winging their way through the courts, have re-ignited the issue of liability.
And the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) has refused to give an assurance that the LCD will meet the bill if magistrates and clerks are landed with it.
Chair of the Magistrates' Association, Rosemary Thomson, met with Lord Mackay last week to call for an urgent rule change.
“The present situation is highly unsatisfactory, undignified and unfair,” she says.
The immunity which judges can take for granted should be extended to lay magistrates and clerks, says Thomson.
An LCD spokeswoman says: “We are aware of their concerns and we are considering what to do. We want to think through all the implications to make sure we get it right.”
Magistrates' Courts Committees have, in the past, paid on behalf of magistrates and clerks. But the power is discretionary.
The Central Council of Magistrates' Courts Committees has advised members to take out insurance.
But Kevin McCormac, chair of the professional purposes committee of the Justices Clerks Society, says insurance is not always available.
And cash limits on budgets, introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 1991, could also make it hard for committees to support those who are liable.
The central council is fighting for a better deal for committees after a reduction in the budgets for 1995-96.