Thurrock Local History Society: My life as a magistrate

Thurrock Local History Society 20 September 2019
Dennis Parker- My life as a local magistrate

Basildon Magistrates Court

DENNIS said this would be his last talk, his first talk being in 1940 about what he learned as a St John Ambulance cadet. He grew up in Grays and started work at the age of 14 as an office boy for an insurance company for £1 a week.

In 1976 Hew Watt, owner of Orsett Hall phoned him to say he had been recommended for a Justice of the Peace (JP), only his employer was told. He later found out it was Mrs Hazel Catton, mother of the late Jonathan Catton who had put his name forward. He had to explain to his employer his duties as a JP and they were happy to let him serve and sent congratulations.

The institute of JPs came into existence in King Edward III’s time in 1361. They worked part time, covering felonies and trespass. It was a cheap and efficient way of keeping the peace. By the time of Elizabeth I there were 309 statutes. By 1600 their remit covered price regulations, bridges and highways, licensing and wages, also relief of the poor. Courts worked on a shire or county basis, quarter sessions hearing more serious crimes. In the beginning JPs were drawn from landed gentry and after the industrial revolution used people with local knowledge.

There are 13 court houses in Essex and at first our area only had Southend on Sea and Chelmsford, with 26 courts a year – now one a fortnight. The bench was first formed in Thurrock in 1842 as part of Brentwood Division, the population of Thurrock being 10,000 then. In 1856 the Orsett Division was formed, Mr Wingfield of Orsett Hall was chairman, with seven other justices who were rectors from the surrounding area. They met at Orsett Union and covered various offences including desertion and problems in the cattle trade.

In 1560 there were 62 JPs in the country, now 61 sit on the Thurrock bench alone. Women became magistrates in 1918.

98% of all cases that come before the court are presided over by a JP, who are advised as to law by their clerks, with very few appeals; they also attend Crown Court and the Court of Appeal with two magistrates.

Magistrates have to undertake a number of training courses including those for youth offenders and family court; Dennis took his at Cambridge University. A JP has to take two oaths (which Dennis took at Grays), one to swear allegiance to the Queen and the second to serve the Queen and her subjects. He must be courteous and fair at all times, with a good working knowledge of criminal law. Dennis also had to take a test case before he became chairman, at Danbury Park, which he passed with flying colours. On his first appearance as court chairman the court was filled with OAPS, a joke by his clerk, who had invited them all. The chairman is responsible at court, the only JP who speaks; where there are two magistrates and a judge who cannot agree, the magistrates’ decision is final. The sentencing powers of a JP cover dishonesty, fines (up to £500), probate and custodial sentences (6 months maximum, but up to £50,000 for river pollution) and drink/driving offences. Grays had three courts and was very busy.

During his time as a magistrate Dennis frequently visited prisons and detention centres. He was called upon day and night by police to sign search warrants for drugs etc. If called on a Saturday morning, only one JP was needed – this was for someone apprehended on a Friday, and the police can’t hold anyone for more than 48 hours without charge.

Dennis retired from work at 60, deciding that computers ‘were not for him’, leaving him to attend court freely, enjoying Crown Court. He served at Basildon and read out funny items from the court; one woman who swore at him was kept in the cells for a day. The cut-off age for the magistrates court is 70, with 72 for the crown court. After that JPs are on a supplementary list when they can sign documents as witness, but can’t sign a summons or search warrant. On the licensing committee you can visit pubs but mustn’t accept a drink.

He was often invited to speak at the annual Magistrates Association dinner, later finding out it was partly because he didn’t ask for a fee! He still has his joke list. Each year the Queen invites one magistrate from each court to Buckingham Palace at a reception given by the Magistrates Association; in 1978 Dennis was chosen out of 61 magistrates and met Prince Philip.

When he retired he received letters from the House of Lords and the Lord Lieutenant of Essex thanking him for past services and wishing him success in retirement. His happiest times were in the Family Court for adoption cases and had enjoyed his many years as a magistrate.

This was a lively talk, giving an insight into the workings of the law.

Our next meeting is at 8pm on Friday 18th October at the Grays Adult Education Centre in Richmond Road, Grays, when our speaker will be Will Palin, giving an illustrated talk on Greenwich and the Sheerness Project. Visitors are welcome.

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