Rewiring the circuit court system

Although the Bar opposes altering the circuits, some in the profession think change is desirable, says Rebecca Towers. Rebecca Towers is a freelance journalist.

Circuit leaders are preparing to vigorously oppose any government plans to dismember the six-circuit system.

Although the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) has assured The Lawyer that the judges' circuits are not under review, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, has not totally ruled out change in the future.

And many in the profession are worried about the motives of a government keen on legal reform. They believe the circuit system is next in the firing line following the Government's reorganisation of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the police and the probation service.

The Government is reported to favour a new structure for the circuit system based on the ten police, CPS and magistrates' courts regions in England and Wales.

Dan Brennan QC, vice-chairman of the Bar Council, has told the government that there is no need to alter the circuit system.

Leader of the Western Circuit, Nigel Pascoe QC, agrees. “While it is always sensible to consider boundaries, the circuit system works particularly well. [It provides for] high educational and professional standards and conduct,” says Pascoe.

James Hunt QC, leader of the Midlands and Oxford Circuit, is similarly committed to the existing structure.

He says: “We are always willing to look at any schemes to make the circuits run better. But I'm a great believer in the maxim, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it' – and the circuits are far from broke.

“It would be unfortunate to institute change in a system which has evolved since the 12th century… unless there is a real and demonstrated need for such change,” adds Hunt.

Another who claims an “implicit belief” in the judges' circuits is leader of the Northern Circuit, Richard Henriques QC.

There are many facets to the current system, explains Henriques. These include “tradition, organisation, discipline and the ability to welcome itinerant high court judges six times a year to learn from them and to communicate to them regional concerns”.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine's enthusiasm for the reorganisation of magistrates' courts, the police, the CPS and the probation service into ten regional units would mean the creation of four new circuits with no traditions or administrative operations. This would result, according to Henriques, “in an overall fragmentation of the established circuit courts”.

However, the Law Society's criminal law commentator, Roger Ede, thinks future proposals to reshape the circuits “fit in with the plans in other areas of the criminal justice system; to make areas more coterminous with other [criminal justice] agencies”.

He adds: “What you've got at the moment are areas based on historical reasons rather than logical reasons. It makes sense to try and rationalise these. It would lead to a more efficient delivery of services and resources could be allocated in a more logical way.”

The Legal Action Group (LAG), however, raises wider concerns about the reorganisation and relocation of criminal justice agencies.

For example, the Home Secretary's plans for decentralising the CPS aim to improve relations between the CPS and the police. But the LAG's head of policy, Vicki Chapman, is concerned that the move may jeopardise the impartiality the prosecution currently exercises in reviewing cases.

“There is a danger that as soon as Crown prosecutors become involved in primary investigation and decision making, they will be inevitably drawn into police culture, sharing goals with the police and even more committed to securing convictions than is now the case,” says Chapman.

One barrister calling for a change in the circuit system is former senior CPS official Neil Addison. In a recent Fabian report he supported the reorganisation of crown Courts and magistrates' courts into the same 42 regional areas as the police and the CPS – a move which, according to Addison, would provide consistency in all the criminal justice areas.

Opposition to changing the circuits on the grounds of tradition “is a myth”, says Addison. “The Bar does not understand its own history.”

Prior to the 1972 merger of the quarter sessions and assizes, there were three types of criminal courts – the petty sessions for the magistrates' court, quarter sessions based on county boundaries and the assizes based on the circuits. It is the return to this tradition of a decentralised criminal justice system which Addison advocates.

Under current legislation the Lord Chancellor can appoint judges to preside over any criminal justice area – a fact likely to prompt the judiciary to call for wide consultation on any proposed change.

And it is clear that Lord Irvine can expect stiff resistance from the Bar and judiciary to any radical change to the circuits.