Until last week, Abid Sharif was a magistrate who had been appointed to the Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale bench in Lancashire. Following an investigation by the Conduct Panel, Mr Sharif was removed from the Magistracy with the approval of the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice.
The Conduct Investigation into Mr Sharif was in relation to comments Mr Sharif had made to the press* , including the allegation that what he described as the “slap on the wrist” justice system threatened to make vigilantes of householders, that police cutbacks were “crazy”, and apparently that criminals knew more about human rights law than their legal representatives.
On the face of it, Mr Sharif was just the kind of ‘ordinary bloke’ that many people would want to see more of in the magistrates’ court. He is a bus driver and family man, and far removed from the type of stuffy middle-class image that many have of those who sit on magistrates’ benches up and down the country. And in many ways, Mr Sharif was simply expressing views that may well be shared by a substantial number of people up and down the country. So what, exactly, was the problem here?
Well, firstly, Mr Sharif had been the recent victim of a domestic burglary himself where those responsible had stolen some £10,000 worth of electrical items and his wedding ring. Mr Sharif told the press that had he confronted the perpetrators in flagrante delicto and used force to confront them, then he would have been sent to prison for assault. He said “If I had been in my house when these people came in and I had knocked one of them out I would be inside for assault and I don’t think it’s fair.”
In some ways I feel a little sorry for Mr Sharif. On the one hand he was simply displaying his human nature openly, and for all to see. He was honest enough, in the light of what is the obvious trauma of having your home and privacy invaded and personal items taken, to express how frustrated he felt. If he had not been quite so honest he would perhaps have held his tongue, and would now still be sitting in Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale – but still harbouring all these opinions that he publicly aired. And in that circumstance he would, of course, still be sitting in cases involving burglaries, day in and day out, which according to the press report occupied in his experience a good part of the court day.
It is clear that what Mr Sharif said creates an issue in relation to his suitability to continue to sit. At the end of the day, all parties to a criminal case need to know that those who are deciding their guilt, and their punishment, are as free from personal bias against them as possible. Can anyone really say that if they were to appear before Mr Sharif accused of burglary any time soon they would be expecting a fair trial?
Mr Sharif was clearly frustrated by many things, from police response times to incidents, to the powers of householders to protect their homes, to the powers that the law gave him and other magistrates to deal with those who came before him. I don’t doubt that many lay magistrates up and down the country share his sentiments and frustration. It is simply that those who play the game and keep their frustrations to themselves are still sitting in judgement on those that come before them, and Mr Sharif has surrendered to his humanity and told us explicitly what we already know: that the criminal justice system in this country is a source of frustration and is, frankly, in a bit of a mess.
* The original press report is to be found at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/10610025/Magistrate-warns-of-Britains-slap-on-the-wrist-justice-system.html
About the author: Mark Fletton is a former barrister.