Continuing the series recalling Justices of the Peace duties over the years, this is an article published in Christchurch’s Press newspaper, November 1900, in which a reporter asks an elderly (unnamed) J.P. to look back over his time serving in rural communities. It gives one man's view of being a J.P. in the late 1800s.
Respect… well, some…
Q. What is it like to be a J.P.? Is it difficult, does it take up much time?
A. "Well, it is supposed to be nice at first. It is believed to be an honour to be able to sign J.P. after your name, and to have the police and other people touching their hats, though, as for constables saluting J.P.s, that custom has fallen into disuse. It isn't difficult to be a J.P. if you take no trouble… there are so many parts. The law part is heavy, as anyone perusing the manuals and law books can see but with care and perseverance, I think I passed fairly creditably”.
Drunks Leave Town
Q. How did you come to be appointed?
A. "I was asked by the Resident Magistrate to act in repressing the nuisance of drunken labourers in the neighbourhood. After some persuasion I consented, and since then one or two nuisances have disappeared from my locality, and the place is all the better for it. I always tried to get the other Justices with whom I was sitting to impose sentences which were sufficiently stiff, and, if possible, give a little free advice to the defendants. I could see that sound and clear advice often had better effect than excessive penalties”.
Q. Did you ever convict any innocent persons in error?"
A. “Not that l’m aware of. On one occasion a warrant to arrest an innocent man was signed, and the constable was well on his way to serve it when I stopped it under a suspicion that the information laid for the alleged offence was untruthful. It was recalled in time. There have been other episodes. Some months after I sat on a Bench which sent for trial two men for the same offence, one of whom was the informant. On another matter a warrant was brought to me for correction in which the name of a witness in a case had been substituted for that of the defendant a man alleged to have stolen some pigs.
On another occasion a man complained his house had been entered and cash, exactly 70 pounds, taken. His statement seemed clear and the police sergeant was keen on the matter, believing it a straight forward case of theft. ‘Well’, I said, 'go and examine the man's house, and the box from which the cash was stolen”. The man suddenly became very anxious. I asked him to wait with me while the search was made. The sergeant returned with the exact amount of the cash found in the place as described by the informer. I gave him a talking-to about fabricating false accusations and frightened him with a threat to confiscate his 70 pounds – then left matters lie”.
View From the Bench
Q. Talking of lying… how do you handle those who don’t tell the truth in Court?
A. "The greatest trouble in Court is caused by lying witnesses, and if I could have had it my way such persons should only be allowed to make a statement for what it is worth compared with the rest of the evidence. It would assist Justices and Magistrates immensely if they were to tell a lying witness to stand down, and refuse to allow him or her to be sworn again. The perjurer may begin evidence without realising its effect, but if not detected by the Bench many a poor innocent person would be sent to languish in gaol”.
Q. And setting fines?
A. “The adjustment of fines is rather a difficult matter. Sometimes the fines appear erratic, due to there being a large maximum penalty fixed which to some Justices looks smaller than it does to others. Except in extreme cases of wilful mischief, injury to the public services, etc., the fines should hold some relation to a man's earnings. But it is, and will be, ever a matter of difficulty to arrange an exact scale of fines.
Q. Where have you ministered?
A. “On one occasion I held Court in the porch of a chapel, and one or two inquests were heard out on the grass where the accommodation of the dwelling was not suitable, the jury at one of these standing to attention while I occupied a soap box for a seat, and a rough bush table served to write the depositions on".
Q. And the most unusual?
A. “It was left to me on one occasion to sign a summons to myself in my own Court, and take down my own evidence! Now, that's unusual!”