Reforming the shrievalty (ii): 1888

Where some of the money went: the Sheriff of Oxford’s javelin men, escorting the judges of assize, 1845 (Illustrated London News, 15 March 1845)

In 1888, the Select Committee of the House of Lords on High Sheriffs conducted an inquiry into the ‘mode of appointment, the duties, and the obligations of High Sheriffs of Counties’. The historical summary includes the information that medieval sheriffs ‘collected escheated estates, fines, oblatas, amerciaments of divers sorts, escuages, aids, tallages, and casual profits’. The report also states, somewhat alarmingly, that ‘the High Sheriff himself knows little what the extent of his duties is’, the point being that most of his duties were performed by the Under Sheriff. The report seems to have been prompted by difficulty of recruiting High Sheriffs. ‘The obligation on all owners of land to act as High Sheriff is felt to be a great hardship. In Lancashire, Yorkshire, and perhaps one or two other counties, there is no difficulty in finding rich men ready and willing to act as High Sheriffs; but generally there is “a growing reluctance to serve,” and some difficulty in finding fit persons.’

There had been a spate of ‘Gentlemen who have urged Excuses against being called upon to serve the Office of Sheriff’, the reasons given being ‘want of means’, ‘ill health’, and ‘other causes’ – the latter comprising ineligibility of one sort or another, including ‘not a landowner’, ‘previous service’, ‘no residence in the county’, or being an M.P. Between 1875 and 1888, of the 998 gentlemen nominated, 98 urged ‘want of means’, although the excuse was accepted in only 63 of those cases. In Essex, during those years, only five urged excuses, three for ill health and two for other causes. In Suffolk, by contrast, 21 urged excuses (the highest figure for any county), nine of those for want of means. In Essex, the average expense incurred by High Sheriffs was £300, one of the lowest figures; in Norfolk it was £800, in Lancashire £1,400, exclusive of the Sheriff’s own expenses (£300 in 1888 equates to about £38,000 in 2018, £1,400 to £178,000).

One of those who gave evidence to the Select Committee was C. B. O. Gepp, Under Sheriff of Essex, and Secretary of the Under Sheriffs’ Association. Gepp was Under Sheriff to twenty-two High Sheriffs between 1883 and 1906 (two High Sheriffs during those years went elsewhere), the third of six Gepps to hold the post between 1827 and 1987 and the fourth of ten members of the same firm (now Gepp Solicitors) to hold the post up to the present day. It was C. B. O. Gepp who provided the figure of £300 quoted above, as being the average expenses over the previous seven years, ‘including all costs of entertaining, that is to say, either his staff, or luncheons for the grand jury’.

A particular concern of the Committee’s was the need to provide a carriage and horses for the use of visiting judges. In Essex, during those seven years two or three of the High Sheriffs had their own carriage and horses, which reduced the expense. Gepp proposed that each Sheriff should pay, say, £50 ‘and use a permanent carriage as it were, and also permanent servants and a county livery’. In the recent past Essex had had a shrievalty fund, which was used to pay for the javelin men who formed part of the sheriff’s procession; but that role was superseded by the police and so the fund fell into abeyance.

In Essex a carriage continued to be used to meet judges until 1915, when a motor car was used for the first time.

[Report from the select Committee of the House of Lords on High Sheriffs; together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix (1888).]

Reforming the shrievalty (i): 1258 and 2008

The sheriff who gave the shrievalty a bad name, as imagined by Howard Pyle (1883): but which sheriff of Nottingham(shire), and which king?

From time to time the monarch (in the Middle Ages) or parliament (in more recent times) has felt that the role of the sheriff needed investigation and reform. Some of the most far-reaching reforms were included in the so-called Provisions of Oxford, to which King Henry III gave grudging assent in 1258 – part of wide-ranging constitutional reforms promoted by Simon de Montfort. The principal change as far as sheriffs were concerned was that they were to hold office for only a year at a time, and should not make any charge for his services. Restricting the office to a single year made it difficult to find enough suitable candidates, but it recognised the fact that corruption flourished when sheriffs held office for too long.

For the first time, he had to take an oath upon entering office, that he ‘will do right to all people according to the power which he has from his office and that he will not fail for love nor for hate, nor for fear of any, nor for greed, as well and as soon to do speedy justice to poor as to rich’ – words remarkably similar to those in the Declaration which today’s High Sheriffs make.

In order to prevent him taking advantage of his position, the sheriff also had to swear that he would not take anything from anyone except the meat and drink which by custom is brought to his table and then for one day only; that he would not bring more than his own horse to the place where he lodges; that he would not lodge with poor people or indigent religious houses; that he would not lodge with the same people more than twice a year and then only by their invitation; that he would not accept a gift from his host above the value of one shilling; and that he would restrict the number of his servants to the minimum required to administer his bailiwick. All this arose out of the tendency of sheriffs to travel round the county on their business with a large retinue, turning up at abbeys or castles and emptying their larders and cellars.

750 years later, in 2008, the Justice Committee of the House of Commons was more concerned about the way in which High Sheriffs are appointed, and those interested in this should read the Committee’s Report (which includes a very clear account of the process) and the Government’s response.

[For the Provisions of Oxford, see Irene Gladwin, The Sheriff: the man and his office (1974), pp. 161–65, and W. A. Morris, The Medieval English Sheriff to 1300 (1927), p. 170.]

Christmas inside

If you’re ever invited to a carol service in a prison, don’t say no. I can promise you that it will be quite unlike any other carol service you will have been to. Chelmsford Prison’s is held in the visitors’ centre, rated ‘bright and welcoming’ by Ormiston Families, the charity that manages it. We guests assembled a good hour before the men arrived, giving us plenty of time to get through security (quite a business when the party includes half-a-dozen Salvation Army bandsmen and their instruments) and have a chat over a cup of coffee and a mince pie. Our number included the Lord-Lieutenant, a couple of past High Sheriffs, the Bishop of Chelmsford and the Bishop Emeritus of Brentwood, and, besides members of the prison’s chaplaincy team, various outsiders who have shown an interest in the welfare, education and rehabilitation of prisoners.

The VIPs sat in a row facing the body of the hall, so once the men had arrived (in dribs and drabs, depending on which wing they were coming from) and the service was underway we had plenty of opportunity to observe them. As in most institutional congregations there were some keen singers, some uncertain ones (the keen ones helping them find their place in the service booklet), and some total abstainers, not to mention some surreptitious vaping. The overwhelming impression, however, was of total engagement with the proceedings, and when the Bishop of Chelmsford stepped down among them to deliver a moving and inspirational address, they responded with all the respect and perhaps more enthusiasm than the average congregation. But then he spoke to them as individuals, not as an anonymous body of criminals.

A big difference between this and other carol services I’ve been to is that when the men were called up to take a reading or prayers, and when they’d finished, the others applauded, and I took that to be a genuine appreciation of the magnitude of the task those men had undertaken: standing up in front of a roomful of people and speaking unfamiliar words. When the man reading Luke 2:8–14 got to the bit about the shepherds being sore afraid, he interjected ‘and me, I’m terrified’. For the men it was an achievement of a kind they may not have managed before, and as such a step, perhaps, on the road to rehabilitation.

In contrast to the slow build-up to the service, once it was over we dispersed quickly, the men to their cells and the guests out into the street; and that is the main difference between a prison carol service and most others. We’re used to wishing people a Happy Christmas as we go our separate ways, but it’s hard to wish someone a Happy Christmas if you know they’re going to spend it in prison.

A week after the prison carol service we were at the Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) on the outskirts of Colchester, not for a carol service but to present some High Sheriff’s Awards. The MCTC is sometimes referred to as a military prison, and most people’s reaction on visiting it is to ask why civilian prisons can’t be like this. There are many answers to that question, the first being the nature of the inmates (‘detainees’ at the MCTC) and their offences. Most of the detainees have not committed criminal offences, but have breached military regulations: the majority have gone absent without leave. The regime at the MCTC is very different from that in a prison, with detainees on the go for most of the long day and not banged up in cells.

The stated purpose of the prison service is to enable prisoners to lead law-abiding and useful lives, both while they are in prison and after they are released: in other words, to rehabilitate offenders and prevent them from reoffending. No one would deny that the success rate is pitifully low. The MCTC has the same purpose but with an impressively high success rate, because it devotes considerable resources – more than would be acceptable in a civilian prison – to useful training that will result in better soldiers and sailors and airmen, or, in the case of detainees who are discharged after they have served their sentence, better trained to find suitable employment.

They are motivated, as I see it, by two principal factors. First, because the Army, Navy and RAF have already invested a lot in the detainees, and with a little further investment in the form of corrective training they can get them back on the right track, and the initial investment will not be wasted. Secondly, there is a culture in the Armed Forces which it is not always easy for civilians to understand: a very strong sense that when someone joins the Forces, and in particular a regiment, they are joining a family; and on the whole, up to a point, we stick by members of our family even when they break the rules and however annoying they are.

The difference between the MCTC and the prison service is that in the big wide world society does not look upon criminals as being members of our family, and has not invested very much in many of those who end up in prison; so why should we spend more money on them than the bare minimum needed to lock them up, out of sight and out of mind. This is not to say that there are not a great many individuals working in prisons to produce the same sort of results that are achieved by the MCTC; but there are not enough of them, and are never likely to be.

The High Sheriff’s Awards at the MCTC were initiated by Lady Ruggles-Brise, High Sheriff in 2011–12, based on the existing system of awards in Chelmsford Prison. At the MCTC they are made on the recommendation of the Commandant to staff who have made an outstanding contribution to the establishment. This year, in addition, we made an award (for what I believe is the first time) to a detainee, thus mirroring the practice within the prison: a soldier serving his second sentence for going absent without leave, who has distinguished himself by befriending new detainees at high risk of self-harm and suicide, and shown himself to possess great leadership potential. He is due to be discharged, to take up a new career using the welding skills he has acquired at the MCTC. Efforts to persuade him to stay on have been unsuccessful so far; if he did, he might even join the select number of former detainees who have gone on to be commissioned and rise to high rank.

From the MCTC we went to an event in Clacton to celebrate the achievements of boys who have completed programmes run by Lads Need Dads. It was a poignant occasion, particularly in the context of visiting MCTC and Chelmsford Prison. Lads Need Dads is one those brilliantly simple and obvious ideas, so simple and so obvious that no one really thought of it until Sonia Shaljean came up with it. But anyone who has worked with children, and in particular with children who have found themselves caught up in the criminal justice system, knows that far too many boys grow up without a positive male role model to follow. If you have spent time in the Youth Court or the Family Court you will know that most of the young people who fall out of education and into crime have either been in care, or live in a family that, for a variety of reasons, does not include their dad.

Sometimes boys will be lucky enough to find a father-figure outside the family: it might be a teacher, or a Scout or cadet leader, but this is less likely for boys from more troubled backgrounds. One excellent father-figure I met recently was teaching carpentry to a boy who was on a Referral Order, which means the boy had had to go through the criminal justice system before he could find the help and guidance he needed. I think he’ll come out of it all right, and will go to college to do the necessary training and get a job in construction, but it’s a pity he could only get there by committing a crime and going to court.

That is why the work done by Lads Needs Dads is so important, and why their achievements have been recognised by, among others, the Centre for Social Justice, the Police Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, and successive High Sheriffs. And it seemed particularly appropriate, and not especially surprising, that one of the MCTC staff to whom I gave an award earlier in the day had been nominated for his work with Lads Needs Dads: a mentor himself, but also an active recruiter of other mentors within the Military Provost Staff, of whom it was said that ‘his emotional intelligence, positive role-modelling and mentoring ability have directly helped the charity’s beneficiaries’.

Between them the MCTC and Lads Need Dads have much to offer when it comes to showing how to rehabilitate offenders and, better still, stop people offending in the first place. Rehabilitation is a subject that has been much in the news as a result of the horrific events at Fishmongers’ Hall and London Bridge on 29 November, when two young people, Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, were murdered by someone attending a workshop they had helped organise for a prison-based education project, Learning Together. They passionately believed in the possibility of rehabilitation for even the worst offenders, and although at first it looked as though the incident might have undone all their good work, it soon became clear that it had raised public awareness of what they were striving to achieve. If we cease to believe in the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption, our society will be all the poorer.

Doing bird (or not, as the case may be)

Camouflage is an outdoor game, something like a cross between hide and seek and grandmother’s footsteps, which involves hiding behind anything you can find or lying as still as you can in long grass before dashing to reach base. Luckily it was a fine dry day, and I was dressed for an outdoor lunch; anyway, one should expect to get a bit muddy if visiting an organisation called the Wilderness Foundation. I’d been before, for a general look round, but returned to join a session of the programme for women on probation, part of the Essex Women’s Support Service run by Open Road for Essex CRC. The principle behind the programme is that simply being outdoors has a positive impact on mental health, with the additional benefit of activities that build confidence, in a safe and (normally) all-female environment. It’s the ideal situation in which to talk through problems and come to terms with past offending. For me to be able to chat to these women as we sat round their campfire eating lunch that they’d just cooked was a real privilege.

Relaxing round the campfire, before the excitement of Camouflage

Just why there should be a special programme for women offenders is a question that was first raised for me by the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester, writing in The Times in September 2018 to explain why she was leading a debate in the House of Lords calling for a change to the way women are sentenced. As a magistrate, I should have read the Equal Treatment Bench Book more carefully, and remembered the simple rule, that treating people equally does not mean treating them the same. Numerous studies have shown that, compared to men, women suffer disproportionately by being sent to prison. The Bench Book tells us that ‘although women are less than 5% of those in prison, they account for over 25% of self-harm incidents, an indication of the traumatic impact of imprisonment on many.’ Women are less likely than men to find employment on release from prison, and more likely to lose their accommodation; even more damaging, because the impact is wider, if they have children they are likely to be taken into care. 84% of women in prison have committed non-violent crimes, and are often themselves the victims of crimes more serious than those they have committed; their offending is frequently the result of coercion by abusive partners. The closing words of Mim Skinner’s excellent book Jailbirds sum up the situation simply and clearly: ‘It is almost never beneficial to imprison women’.

A good place to start if you want to get an idea of what life is like inside women’s prisons, and to understand why most would be better off outside

The issues have been widely discussed since the publication of the landmark Corston Report, published in 2007, and although some progress has been made in parts of the country, much remains to be done. An important step was taken in Essex in September with the setting up of the Women’s Service Action Team (WSAT) under the chairmanship of Alex Osler, Director of Essex CRC. This brings together representatives of the various agencies who are working with women offenders in Essex, Southend and Thurrock, with the aim of increasing the provision of community-based alternatives to custody and reducing reoffending. Experience in other localities, notably Greater Manchester, has shown that this ‘Whole System Approach’ to tackling offending is extremely effective.

A key component of the Whole System Approach is the provision of women’s centres hosting a range of services and activities. Good examples can be found in this region in Northampton and Cambridge, but until now the size and geography of Essex has made it seem too difficult to set one up here: but now one has been opened in Harlow by Safer Places – the Rosie Centre – that will not only provide for the immediate area but could also serve as a model for similar centres in other parts of the county. They are quite rightly very excited about the potential of this venture.

Their experience will feed into the conference that I’ve been working on with the WSAT and the national charity Clinks that will be held in March 2020. This will explore all aspects of provision for female offenders, looking at examples of current good practice in Essex and beyond, and seeing what can be done to improve the situation in the future, whether it’s more and improved community programmes, more women’s centres, or (and this is so often the crucial factor) suitable accommodation for vulnerable women who are at risk of offending or reoffending. I feel very much more hopeful than I did a year ago.

Song against Sheriffs

The original Latin. Sheriffs were also known as ‘vicecomte’, the Norman French equivalent of sheriff.

Sheriffs had a poor reputation for much of the Middle Ages (think of the Sheriff of Nottingham), not surprisingly given that one of their principal duties was to collect fines and taxes on behalf of the monarch. The post (then as now) was unpaid, and many sheriffs could not resist the temptation to profit from it by exacting more tax than they were required to pass on the Exchequer, or by taking bribes in connection with their duties of administering justice. In 1274 King Edward I ordered an enquiry into widespread crime and corruption at all levels of government, but seventeen out of the forty questions that were drawn up related specifically to sheriffs. Sad to say, Walter de Essex, sheriff in in 1269 and 1270–1, emerged particularly badly from the process. 130 charges were made against him, one of which was the acceptance of a bribe to allow a murderer to go free, and another was the theft of a flock of sheep. His bailiffs were no better than their master, and were accused of 110 crimes, which included the unlawful seizure of cattle and riding peasants’ horses to death and making no compensation their owners.

A Latin poem written just a little later, at the beginning of the 14th century, survives in a manuscript in the British Library (Harley 913) and has been given the title ‘Song on the Venality of the Judges’. It includes these verses on sheriffs, translated by Helen Cam under the title ‘Song against Sheriffs’:

Who can tell truly

         How cruel sheriffs are?

Of their hardness to poor people

          No tale can go too far.

If a man cannot pay

          They drag him here and there,

They put him on assizes

          The juror’s oath to swear.

He dares not breathe a murmur,

          Or he has to pay again,

And the saltness of the sea

          Is less bitter than his pain.

When a sheriff comes

          To abbey or to hall

The best of meat, the best of drink,

          Is brought at his call.

But all this store of dainties

          Does the host no good

Unless a gift of jewels

          Is dessert after food.

His grooms and his beadles

          Must each have his share,

And his lady wife must have a gown

          Of rainbow hues to wear.

Oh, the sheriff’s clerks!

          Needy folk at first,

Poor like others, suffering

          From hunger and from thirst;

But when they get a bailiwick

          How they grow and swell!

Their teeth grow long, their heads grow high,

House, lands, and rents they buy,

          And pile up gold as well.

They scorn their poor neighbours,

          They govern by new rules,

That is reckoned wisdom now

          In our modern schools.

[From Helen M. Cam, The hundred and the hundred rolls: an outline of local government in medieval England (1930), p. 106. The Latin text of the complete poem (British Library, MS Harley 913), with a more literal prose translation, can be found in The political songs of England: from the reign of John to that of Edward II, ed. Thomas Wright (Camden Society, 1839), pp. 224–30. Wright gives it the title ‘Song on the Venality of the Judges’, and dates it to the beginning of the 14th century. The background to the poem, including the shortcomings of Walter of Essex, is discussed in Irene Gladwin’s The Sheriff: the man and his office (1974), pp. 179–182.]

Thank goodness for volunteers

How lucky we are to live in a country where certain private citizens can walk into the custody suite of any of our police stations, without prior warning, at any time of day or night, to check on the welfare of anyone being held in the cells. This was the thought I came away with after spending a couple of hours visiting the police stations at Southend and Basildon in the company of an Independent Custody Visitor (ICV).

Inside the custody suite of Southend Police Station, opened in 2017 (Logan Construction)

ICVs are unpaid volunteers who have no other direct connection with the criminal justice system. The scheme came about as a result of recommendations made by Lord Scarman in his report into the 1981 Brixton riots; initially voluntary, it was made mandatory across the UK under the Police Reform Act 2002. ICVs are concerned solely with the welfare of detainees, to ensure that they are being well treated, are adequately clothed and fed, understand why they have been detained, and have access to the legal and other advice to which they are entitled.

ICVs do not themselves provide advice, and in that way maintain their independence. They arrive unannounced, and have the same immediate physical access to the police station and its custody suite as any police officer. Once inside, they will check the current situation with the custody sergeant and, unless it is deemed unsafe to do so, may access any part of the suite unaccompanied, speaking to detainees in the cells and checking the facilities, from the showers to the kitchens to the store cupboards. We were there at five o’clock in the afternoon, but one o’clock in the morning seems to be a favourite time for an inspection. The aim is to visit each custody suite (at Basildon, Clacton, Colchester, Grays, Harlow and Southend – Chelmsford is currently closed while the station is being refurbished) about three times a month. This is achieved by a team of up to 17 volunteers.

The fact is that volunteers play an important part in every stage of the criminal justice system. Imagine, if you can, that you are a criminal and have been arrested. You may well have been arrested by a Special Constable, volunteers with the same police powers, uniforms and equipment as regular officers, but unpaid and, for the most part, putting in extra hours on top of their paid employment. Essex’s Special Constabulary is the second largest in the country and the fastest growing, with over 530 officers. If you are a young person or vulnerable adult and need supporting through the custody process, the police will arrange for an Appropriate Adult to come to the police station to help you – another volunteer, part of the Appropriate Adult Service run by Open Road. And, as we have seen, you may find yourself talking to an ICV.

If you are charged with an offence you will soon make an appearance in the Magistrates’ Court. Here you may be dealt with by a full-time professional District Judge sitting alone, but more likely by bench of three magistrates, unpaid volunteers, of whom there are about 300 in Essex (more needed!). All criminal cases start in the magistrates’ court, and about 95 per cent are completed there too. The rest, the more serious cases, go to the Crown Court, either for sentencing or trial. If there is a trial, the decision of guilt or innocence will be made by a jury of twelve citizens: not exactly volunteers, because jury service is an obligation from which one can only be excused in certain circumstances, but jurors are not paid, are selected randomly, and are untrained members of the general public. Magistrates are trained, but the fact remains that the outcome of all trials, whether in the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court, is in the hands of people who are not professionals but are, theoretically at least, peers of the defendant.

Another group of volunteers play an important part in the trials process: members of the Witness Service, run by Citizens Advice. For most people, giving evidence in court is a nerve-wracking business, and Witness Service volunteers look after witnesses while they are at court, in rooms set aside for them, and explain the procedure; they will also arrange pre-trial visits to the court so that witnesses are familiar with the surroundings, and may sit with them in court while they are giving evidence.

Volunteers continue to play their part after sentencing. Young offenders (age 10–17) may receive a Referral Order, which involves sessions with a panel of volunteers who are committed to helping young people move away from offending. Other offenders may find themselves engaging with restorative justice, a process whereby victims of a crime have direct or indirect contact with the person responsible, via a volunteer facilitator. Conditions in prison and the welfare of prisoners are checked by volunteer members of the Independent Monitoring Board.

And so it goes on. That’s without beginning to list the many organisations, with their teams of volunteers, that help ex-offenders get back on their feet, find them places to live and work to do, and tackle problems associated with mental health and drug and alcohol dependency. The state of the criminal justice system leaves a lot to be desired, but there’s no doubt that it would be in very much worse condition without the thousands of volunteers across the country who work within it.

The High Sheriff’s Justice Service

The High Sheriff’s Procession, led by the Under Sheriff, with the Lord-Lieutenant bringing up the rear.

The Justice Service evolved out of the services that were held at the beginning of each Assizes, so that we might pray for the judges to be blessed with wisdom and good judgment in their deliberations. You don’t have to go very far back to reach the days when the High Sheriff and his chaplain attended at least the first week of the Assizes, and every day of any capital trials. Indeed one of the chaplain’s duties was to say ‘Amen’ after the judge had pronounced sentence of death.

The High Sheriff’s Chaplain, the Revd Faye Bailey, processing behind The Hon. Mr Justice Newton and The Hon. Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb.

All this disappeared with the abolition of the Assizes in 1972 and the creation of the present Crown Court, which sits all the year round. Instead, most counties now hold an annual service for the judiciary, usually at the beginning of the legal year in October, a practice established in Essex by the then High Sheriff, Lt-Col R. G. Judd, in 1974.

Now that High Sheriffs are no longer expected to provide javelin men for the physical protection of visiting judges, we have to find other ways of fulfilling one of our stated roles, which is to support the judiciary. The Justice Service is one way of doing this, by making our judges and magistrates realise that they are much-appreciated members of the community of Essex. To put it in more touch-feely terms, I wanted to make them feel loved, because I know the judiciary and the legal profession do not feel particularly loved at the moment.

The courts system has suffered enormously from cuts in recent years. It’s not a sector that attracts much public sympathy, given the public perception that judges are enemies of the people, barristers are notoriously overpaid, and legal aid benefits only criminals and the occasional high-profile wealthy foreigner. It doesn’t help that the judiciary are not given to grumbling in public, although I can’t help noticing that retired senior judges (in one case, that of Sir Brian Leveson, not even quite retired, but on the eve of doing so) seem to be queuing up to point out the dangers society is facing as a result of funding cuts in general and the withdrawal of legal aid in particular. The Times reported recently a judge saying in open court that the system is breaking at every point: ‘Everywhere you look, our justice system is beginning to be not fit for purpose. Slow justice is bad justice.’ It’s no wonder that in some counties of England, including neighbouring Suffolk, there are no criminal law solicitors under the age of 35.

Last November I must have had a bit too much time on my hands, because I watched the Lord Chief Justice giving evidence to the Justice Select Committee. ‘There are buildings all over the country,’ he said, ‘that were put up in the 70s and 80s in particular… their roofs are leaking, as often as not; their lifts are broken; their air conditioning and heating systems work intermittently… [T]here is a very substantial amount of money that needs to be spent.’ Substitute a non-functioning security gate for the leaking roof and he might have been describing the magistrates’ courts here in Chelmsford – a building opened not in the 70s or 80s, but in 2012. This August, Saturday remand courts were moved to Colchester because the cells in Chelmsford had to be closed ‘under a national protocol relating to high temperatures’, which is official jargon for ‘the air con still isn’t working’. No doubt we all have similar tales to tell.

Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court, opened in 2012 (AHR)

I am sure we all welcome the promise of 20,000 new police officers; some of us are less convinced about the creation of 10,000 new prison places as being the answer to the problems that that system faces, even if they really are new places and not the same 10,000 places that were announced in 2016 but which never materialised. Overcrowding is certainly a problem, and previous suggestions for dealing with that – early release, ending of sentences of six months or less – seem to have been dropped. But in all the rush to lock people more people up for longer we must not overlook the desirability of providing more staff and better conditions in existing prisons, the need to prepare prisoners better for release, and above all to ensure that when they are released they have suitable accommodation to go to, which 40 per cent of those leaving Chelmsford Prison do not. And there has to be a better way of dealing with our women offenders than sending them to a prison a hundred miles away from their home and family.

HMP Peterborough: where most Essex women serve their custodial sentences

And someone seems to have overlooked the fact that between 20,000 new police officers and 10,000 new prison places there is a process, a rather crucial one at that, namely what takes place in the courts, Even reinstating some of the cuts inflicted on the CPS in recent years will not make up for the lack of funding of the courts service. We can all readily appreciate the need for good schools and good hospitals, because we have all been to school, many of us will have children to educate, and we can all expect to need to go to hospital sooner or later.  So we want out schools and hospitals to be the very best. But most people go through life not expecting to go to prison, or to have anything to do with the criminal justice system, beyond perhaps a spell of jury service. Yet any one of us could find ourselves, tomorrow, in urgent need of legal representation, as a victim of crime, or as someone wrongly accused, and how glad we will be then of a well-funded, fully functioning criminal justice system. And I haven’t even mentioned the ever-increasing workload of the Family Courts, where the withdrawal of legal aid has had equally damaging consequences.

The Justice Service is an opportunity for the judiciary at all levels to come together and to celebrate their place in the community: for without our brilliant judiciary, whose wisdom and humanity set a standard for the rest of the world, the way of life that most of us enjoy in this country simply would not exist. And events of the past few weeks, which are still unfolding, have shown how the rule of law, guarded by a wise and independent judiciary, is as important as ever.

The High Sheriff of Essex with the High Sheriffs of Bristol (left) and Kent (right), HM Lord-Lieutenant of Essex (centre), The Hon. Mr Justice Newton (left) and The Hon. Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb (right), the Under Sheriff, and Crown Court judges from Chelmsford and Basildon.