Thursday, 16 September 2021

Long-serving magistrate retires

A HENLEY woman who was a magistrate in the town for 19 years is to step down from the bench.

A HENLEY woman who was a magistrate in the town for 19 years is to step down from the bench.

Rosemary Duckett will have to retire as a justice of the peace when she reaches her 70th birthday later this month.

The former teacher, who now serves at Oxford Magistrates’ Court, was invited to take on the role in 1978.

Ivona May-Smith, the then-chairman of the Henley bench, knew her as they were both members of the town’s NSPCC committee.

Mrs Duckett, who lived in Bell Street at the time, wanted to serve because both her father and grandmother had been magistrates in Aylesbury.

However, she deferred the offer for two years as she was about to give birth to her fourth child Edward.

When she did join the bench there were 15 magistrates under chairman Robert Braxton and deputy chairman Jeremy Langton. Each had to attend at least 26 court sittings of about half a day every year but most attended 35 or more.

The court sat in a building in a large former house in Northfield End every Tuesday with an additional juvenile and domestic court session on Wednesdays.

The magistrates were also responsible for issuing alcohol and gambling licences and had committees which met once a month. These tasks are now entrusted to South Oxfordshire District Council.

There were also road safety and traffic advisory committees made up of magistrates, town councillors and police officers.

Mrs Duckett recalled: “It was local people administering local justice and because we knew what was happening in our town we wanted to stamp out any trends that were emerging with particular types of crime. The main thing you needed — and still need today — is common sense. You don’t need any qualifications. They definitely wanted a broad range of people from lots of different professions so that it reflected the whole community.

“I think we knew a lot of our ‘clients’ personally — nothing was ever too major or serious but I remember there were lots of fights outside pubs in Henley town centre, which were quite interesting.

“You would hear the first witness giving their statement and wonder how on earth you were going to decide what had actually happened.

“However, by the time the fifth or sixth witness had spoken, it was like putting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together and seeing the full picture.

“A lot of it was also motoring offences as there were no fixed penalty notices back then. Every single case had to go through us.

“I enjoyed working at Henley very much. It was a lovely building within walking distance and the panel worked extremely well together — we very rarely disagreed on anything.” Mrs Duckett, who first served as chairman in 1982, once had to deal with an aggressive defendant who was going to be remanded in custody for a week.

“I was very nervous and I chose my words poorly,” she said. “I asked, ‘are you happy to be remanded in your absence?’ and he objected to being asked if he was ‘happy’ with it.

“He was shouting and screaming and tried to leap over the bench but a police officer was always present to keep us safe.

“Mr Braxton got the giggles afterwards and the court clerk told me, ‘I’d retire now if I were you’.

“There was another man who was up before us for throwing a bicycle at a police car when he was drunk.

“I told him he shouldn’t get so drunk as to lose control of himself and he replied, ‘I wasn’t drunk — I was only relaxing my mind’. It’s tough but you have to keep a straight face in those circumstances.

“Sometimes people would be outright abusive and would have to be punished for contempt of court but if they were just being a bit cheeky you’d let it go.”

Mrs Duckett, who now lives in Marlow Road with her husband Antony, said she was “very disappointed” when the closure of the Henley court was announced in 1998. It shut the following year.

She said: “I suppose it all came down to money in the end. It must have been a lot more expensive than having one main court in Oxford, which is how it ultimately ended up.

“We made a very good case for why Thame should close instead. Henley has a station and good bus links so it’s far easier to reach if you don’t have a car. We were very conscious that some people would have to take taxis to get to Thame but we didn’t succeed.

“It’s very different sitting in Oxford because you don’t have the in-depth local knowledge behind cases. It has become so big — there are about 250 magistrates and the office has a hard time getting everybody to the right place at the right time.

“We used to have a probation committee at Henley and that was really useful because you could see how people were progressing after their conviction.

“Some people simply need punishing but others struggle because they come from a difficult background and need help and guidance getting on the right track.

“The committee meant you had a much bigger picture of how your work was helping the community.”

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