Hearts Matter

In 2008, I saw an advert in the Glasgow Herald  asking for ordinary people to apply to be a Justice of the Peace/lay magistrate, and as this was my year of “ saying YES” (now that my children were grown up and it was time to move out of my comfort zone), after careful consideration, I applied.

I was at the point in my life when I wanted to give back something to my community.   I have an hour’s commute to my work as an employment law consultant in Glasgow – so it was usually too late to attend meetings locally, so the day role of Justice seemed to be a good option.  I knew I could do the role – it needed the “capacity for fairness,” “sound judgement,” “communication” and the ability to “manage self and others. “ My background in HR and Employment Law (including a senior role in local government, and being HR Manager and part of the Senior Management Team of Scotland’s only Immigration Detention Centre) meant that the ability to evaluate evidence and draw conclusions based on fact would be helpful.

A year and a half later I was sworn in.  There had been extensive training that meant I shadowed current Justices and attended many seminars and weekends covering issues like the judicial process and sentencing guidelines, and judicial ethics based on the six Bangalore principles.  The training was a steep learning curve for me, but it was all first class, and I fully understood I did not need to understand the law; that was the role of my Legal Advisor.  My role was to listen and evaluate and sentence (or not) within the guidelines my Legal Advisor would give. In March 2010, in Ayr Sheriff Court, I held back tears when I promised to:

“ swear by Almighty God that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second in the office of Justice of the Peace, and I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will. “

The Justice of the Peace Court is a busy court that deals with criminal offences at the lower end of the scale – soliciting prostitutes, theft, vandalism, assaults and breach of the peace, and increasingly, appeals and trials against on the spot fines issued by the police and others around cars/how they are driven, or drinking in public.  Sometimes the accused defend their own case, but many use Legal Aid to get a defence solicitor to plead their case. When individuals fail to attend court, we would issue a warrant for their arrest if the Procurator Fiscal asked us to, and we would deal with some who had come from prison and were handcuffed to a Reliance guard. All of this was done in public, and then after the court was cleared, we dealt with all those who have pled by letter, setting trial dates or imposing sentence in the same way as if they had attended court, as long as there was sufficient information to do so.

And that’s where my problems began.  There were times when it would have been helpful to refer someone to anger management classes or counselling, or to do something meaningful in the community that was still seen and understood by all to be a punishment.   Fines seem to be the easy option unless you are particularly poor, when they can cause greater hardship.  Otherwise, there doesn’t appear to be a link in the offenders mind and the offence (or the victim) when the money comes off your account like any other standing order.

The biggest issue for me was that I didn’t feel I was really making a difference – and that I was Caroline Johnstone, an ordinary woman who watched the news and read the papers.  While I now had a little more understanding of headlines that would scream about some paltry sentence given (but without a full understanding of the facts behind it), there appeared to be wide discrepancies in how judges dealt with similar cases.

And as a wife, mother and human being, I wept with Baroness Newlove as she sat on the GMTV studio talked with great dignity and courage about how her husband Garry had been kicked to death on his doorstep.  I followed Kelly McGee’s attempts to change the law on knives  after her soldier brother was killed , and saw her pleas – and petition – again fall on deaf ears.  I read locally how Michelle Stewart’s ex boyfriend had brutally murdered her in Drongan and how Holly Fallon and Diane were murdered by a sex offender out on bail – but who had got “lost in the system” and wasn’t being monitored.

I wept with frustration as I watched  a mother with a disabled son living a life of hell because no-one would deal with the thugs who terrorised them, but couldn’t move away because of the support network she had built up where she was.  And I worried over my own son who had been punched in the throat while standing in a nearby town’s taxi rank.

Over and over again, I would turn to my husband and say, “WHAT is going to stop this? Is it going to take the murder of a politician or judge’s son to change things?”  And in the end it didn’t take that.  It took the murder of another “ ordinary” boy from Blantyre to start the tsunami of change.

A 19 year old I didn’t know, but I’d have been proud to call him my son. You  could see his heart shining in his face. A boy, who at 19 had raised money for his local hospice, was “always the first to help” and had even spent three months in an orphanage in Thailand.  This was an irreplaceable loss for his family and friends; it was also an irrepleacable loss for Scotland and the world.  And for me, it was the last straw.  How could I, in all conscience, sit administering justice when I believed the justice system was fundamentally flawed so sentences do not deter or change behaviour – or constrain the heartless, those who are unwilling to change or engage?

After Raemmon’s murder, I didn’t sleep much.  In early  February, I read in the Daily Mail that 3000 weapons were confiscated from people on their way into court, my mind was made up; this was what criminals thought of the justice system!  It was time to do something and it would start with my resignation so I could state my concerns publicly.  I went to the first public meeting in Blantyre and saw how they would start to make a difference in their community, but felt that my role would be to lobby for change although I really struggled with knowing what I could do; I’m just one woman after all.

But then I had my journal to clear my thinking, and I had just read  “Small Acts of Resistance” by Steve Crawshaw & John Jackson – and I was reminded of Victor Hugo’s quote about how evil prevails when good people do nothing. I’m sure he didn’t mean perfect people or angels. He just meant the ordinary person in the street who tends to be more law abiding than not. So doing SOMETHING must then be better than nothing!?

And then the Universe stepped in. I ended up in hospital after not feeling well and my daughter brings me an overnight bag – and my journal. And I’m in the heart ward. And in my magazine there is a leaflet about women and hearts. And it’s just before Valentine’s Day. And I’m reading the story of a group of women in “Acts of Small Resistance” who lived in India and because they dared to sit in a pub were beaten up by members if the SRS group. So one woman got MAD! She started a Facebook Group and on Valentine’s Day thousands of people sent the government pink underwear in protest.

As I was thinking about this, and laughing, I thought about the problems of our society and about a comment my friend Karen had said – that the heart of the matter was the underlying aggression and fear. That until that was tackled, nothing would change. So anything I was going to do needed to have that at the heart of things.

And because I was using my journal, I could see the pattern. Of hearts and what was the heart of the matter – and Hearts Matter was born, on 14 February 2011 . And that title works on so many levels:

–  restrain the heartless, those who aren’t prepared to change
– changing hearts and moving towards kindness and community
– people are heart sore of government policy and that their voice goes unheard
-big hearts that are leaving us sooner than they should at the hands of the heartless
– the hearts of families are ripped apart

And so Hearts Matter was born; it was time for me to roar, and time to get the people who are working acting together as one, time to act.  If all I ever am is a ripple that starts a tsunami – then I’ve done something.   And that’s always better than nothing.

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