Simon Wolfensohn is the principal of a small animal practice in a rural town close to Swindon in Wiltshire. For almost 20 years he has divided his time between the practice and serving as a magistrate in Swindon. His other diversions from veterinary work are fly-fishing, flying and running.
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What made you become a JP?
Because of a long-standing interest in the criminal law and its effect on society, and the belief that, while the rule of law is vital to a civilised existence, it is equally important that the common man is able to participate in the administration of justice. Magistrates are appointed for their personal qualities, background and experience, but above all, to my mind, to apply common sense to the law and act as a bastion against the indiscriminate power of the state. I also wanted to find an activity that would take me out of the surgery by way of providing intellectual challenges and doing something worthwhile in society. JPs are unpaid and come from all walks of life, ranging from professionals to postmen, and are broadly representative of society generally, so my veterinary degree had no bearing on my appointment.
How did your involvement develop?
Since being sworn in I have become very involved in all aspects of the magistracy – it's one of those things that can easily take over your life! Sitting in court, training and participating in all the other activities with which magistrates are involved provides many transferable skills that are of use in the veterinary world, especially with respect to staff management and talking to clients. At the moment I am chairman of the Bench in Swindon, which involves a large number of meetings dealing with administrative matters, representing the views of the local magistracy to Her Majesty's Court Service, which runs the show, and in discussions with a number of other organisations such as the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. I am also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Magistrates' Association.
What is a typical day like?
A day in court will see you dealing with a broad range of cases, including shop thefts, motoring offences, assaults of varying degrees of seriousness, burglaries, drug offences and much more. Every day throws up difficult decisions, especially when you are faced with sending someone to prison for the first time – as our liaison judge has said, he has an easier role because generally he just has to decide how long the sentence should be!
What do you not like?
The downside to serving as a JP is that you don't get paid for it and, although you can claim expenses for travel and loss of earnings, you will undoubtedly be out of pocket, as the rates for loss of earnings are pretty low.
Why is it important?
I believe that the current system works pretty well, and I would hate to see the role of the magistrate diminished or taken over by professional judges who are much more a part of ‘the system’.
What advice would you give to anyone interested in becoming a magistrate?
It is another world, which I would totally recommend as a diversion from the day job. You will come away from court having spent a day, or a half day, concentrating on something other than your own pressures, thankful that you do not suffer the privations of so many of the defendants, and safe in the knowledge that you have given your time to something that is both necessary and personally rewarding, on behalf of your local community.⇓
What's the best piece of advice you've been given?
The best piece of advice I ever got was from a very experienced JP, who had been a railway worker in Swindon. He adopted a very serious tone, and I sat up straight and paid attention in the expectation of a gem of advice – and he said, ‘When you get a break, go and have a pee: you never know how long you're going to be stuck in that courtroom.’
What was your proudest moment?
To be elected as the deputy chairman of the Magistrates' Association, the body that represents most of the 30,000-plus magistrates in England and Wales.
… and your most embarrassing?
My most embarrassing moment in court was when I asked a man I was sitting with if he knew who the really scary-looking woman at the back of the court was.‘My wife,’ he replied.