Working in Partnership – Criminal Courts 3

Probation’s relationship with the court administrators affected relationships with magistrates but again if we were all to avoid retreating into stereotyping each other, some of the complexities needed to be understood. A number of factors were at work, mediated through the personality of the individuals involved:

  • Justices’ clerks were involved in the selection, training of in some sense oversight of Magistrates. It was easy for them to feel as if the magistrates were their staff who needed to be protected from undue influence by external forces such as solicitors or ourselves. Some would therefore view us with suspicion and try to keep us at a distance from their magistrates.
  • Justices’ clerks were responsible for the smooth running of the Courts and we could be a disturbing factor – requiring adjournments to assess cases, raising problems about timely submission of reports, competing for priority organisation of business with solicitors etc.
  • Justices’ clerks were, like us, professionals, trying to manage magistrates who were essentially a group of in this context, non professional volunteers, so there was with some, a potential for a sympathetic understanding of problems in working with the magistrates. They also understood the problems of managing an organisation and so could recognise some of the problems probation managers faced in dealing with their staff.
  • The administration of justice is heavily process based and at administration levels, always struggles to respond to individual needs, to show flexibility, whereas probation work was all about individual needs and personalised responses to problems. The clerk is responsible for process and legality – the magistrate for the individualised response to a case.
  • The administration of justice is concerned also with upholding the authority and the dignity of the court. It is the very embodiment of that sense of authority about which many probation officers have serious doubts. People enter the probation service with the idea of finding the good in those who are at odds with authority, and therefore with a tendency to sympathise with their sense of grievance about their dealings with authority. Both probation and justices clerks may be concerned with delivering justice, but we tended to approach the task from very different places.

Working in Partnership – Criminal Courts 2

Closer acquaintance with magistrates of course revealed issues that could be hidden by the theatricality of the court hearings themselves. There were of course as many different views amongst the magistrates as anywhere else. They tended to be concerned with each case and their ‘story’ and less interested in statistics and policies. Such issues as these had to impact on how we built partnerships with them. Oddly, in this respect, magistrates were more similar to probation officers than we on the whole realised – both groups were very suspicious of ‘managerial’ approaches and wanted to respond to individual circumstances. As a practitioner this often seemed frustrating because the way a magistrate might see an individual offender’s story could of course be very different from the way we saw them. It was as though there was a persistent tendency for us in probation to see that in the offender that might mitigate the crime or argue for a positive approach to how to deal with it , whilst for the magistrate they could often see the individual story as one of moral failure arguing for punishment.

Working in Partnership – Criminal Courts 1

For probation, the Courts were another sector with which we had to work closely. I must admit that for most of my career I avoided working too closely with criminal Courts. As a practitioner, I had found Court work mystifying or frightening – others were happy to work in courts and even enjoyed it, so I was very happy to leave it to them. However, later in my career as an Assistant Chief Officer, it fell to me to lead on our work with Courts for a while so I had to get to grips with it. Again as a quick summary, Courts were complex to the extent that you had to think about working with sentencers and separately with Court managers. The balance of power was very different in Magistrates Courts from Crown Courts of course – in the latter the Judges ruled whilst in the former, the Court clerks were in some ways more important than the magistrates. Both were preoccupied with issues of process – these are what took up most of the time of all those involved in court whether in terms of the niceties of proper procedure in Court, or in terms of the means by which the interests of a whole range of groups were managed in the Court environment.

Magistrates Courts were also understandably concerned with blame. It was very different in Crown Court where judges, lawyers and probation officers were all professionals managing the system in their different ways. Magistrates were there to represent the community and however sceptically one may have viewed their fitness to do this given the relatively narrow backgrounds from which most were drawn – certainly in the 1970s and 1980s – they were properly concerned to protect the law abiding from the offender. Probation officers’ instincts may have been to be hostile to what we all too easily saw as “hang ‘em and flog’em” attitudes but we had to find ways of giving professional advice that sprang from what we knew rather than from what we believed.


Working in Partnership – Police 4

This healthy combination of skills and culture was most commonly expressed through offender management projects. They had different names at different points of their life – eg PPO – persistent and priority offenders. Their origin came from a growing recognition in the police that large numbers of offences were being committed by a very small number of prolific offenders, and that reducing crime would therefore be more effectively achieved if those identified offenders could be targeted. It is true that there was a degree of ambiguity about the term ‘targeted’. It did seem that in some schemes, no-one really knew what was meant by this and the practice of schemes was worked out ‘on the hoof’, but pragmatic partnerships did develop some practices that used police and probation skills. In due course, drug treatment provision was connected to the process.

So police and probation officers worked together to:

  • develop ways of identifying those cases that posed the highest risk of frequent re-offending
  • discussing with the offenders that they had been targeted and why – there were advantages to police explicitly telling offenders that they would be subject to additional scrutiny. Offenders easily felt that they were being victimised by police attention and so an explicit discussion about the way this scrutiny would work brought greater honesty into the process.
  • make home visits to discuss progress
  • provide practical assistance to find work or deal with financial pressures
  • intervene to help with more complex family problems, literacy and numeracy problems, social skills deficits and difficulties in coping with peer group pressures

Some merging of probation and police roles no doubt took place – it was never possible to give sufficient definition to activities by the workers that would have made the roles entirely separate. However, the policing activity was mostly concerned with the surveillance and monitoring of the offenders and the probation activity was more focussed on tackling some of the more complex criminogenic behavioural and relationship issues.


Working in Partnership – Police 3

One feature of this difference of culture was that the police tended to feel that they were leaders of strategies to tackle crime. This could lead to significant tensions with the Local Authority who thought the police should operate under the leadership of democratically elected Councils. At its worst however, ‘partnership working’ for the police could seem to mean that all agencies should help the police with their priorities. The culture of extravert management of the media environment that characterised many police officers was set against a culture of suspicion and a lack of confidence about working with the media that tended to characterise probation. Police officers could then set off with immense confidence assuming that the rest of us would be there to follow their lead. However, many of the human relations skills that were a feature of probation work could mean that many probation managers were better equipped to foster genuine partnerships across agency and community boundaries. Where the parties were mature enough to work through the emotional tensions that derived from these organisational cultures, police and probation could find some very successful ways of working together. Probation could take advantage off the confident public leadership of police, and police could draw on and support the expertise of probation staff.


Working in Partnership – Police 2

Probation and police differed also in their relationship with the ‘political’ environment. By and large, probation succeeded by being out of the limelight in the media and a low priority for political attention. We could be funded under the radar of the predominant punitive culture of political debate about criminal justice. Police however were much more on the front line, politically. They could be active manipulators of the popular interest in and fear of crime. They needed to have a ‘front page’ political profile in order to get public assistance with crime detection and prevention. The quality of ‘intelligence’ available to the police was affected by their public reputation. Probation often had very mixed feelings about this – envy to some degree and there were frequent complaints in the service that our leaders did not give us a stronger public profile. We would often be cynical about the police – crudely, we thought that if crime was reduced they claimed the credit and if it rose, they blamed under funding. (As I edit this section in 2017, we seem to be going through the same process. New crime figures show a rise in crime and immediately there is a barrage of publicity about reduced funding for the police, and minimal discussion of factors such as employment insecurity, rising inequality, increased levels of child poverty etc.)


Working in Partnership – police 1


Police were of course a key partner for probation officers. They could be objects of hostility against whom our clients needed to be defended and every probation officer would be regaled by their clients with hard luck stories or complaints about the behaviour of the police. Mutual suspicion was very much the norm in cities at the early stage of my career, with police dominated by a rather hard nosed and sometimes unhealthy culture, male, moralistic and at times unfortunately also corrupt. At one time, the provision of bars in police stations and the tribal quality of police relationships reinforced in some places an alcohol fuelled self righteousness. (In more rural or small town communities, the atmosphere was different and more collaborative, in my experience at least.) Probation in contrast was inclined to imagine it held the moral high ground, protected as we were from the realities that a police officer would have to face at 11pm on a wet Friday night. We were often all to ready to conceive of our caseload as comprising unfortunate victimised people, who were coping with aggressive policing techniques. We were no doubt as ‘tribal’ as the police in our own way, without the same justification.

One of the striking changes through the second half of my career has been the breakdown of this perception of police and of its counterpart in the police that probation officers were simply gullible and making excuses for bad people. I will say more about this partnership later on, but in the context of the current discussion, the tension between our agencies was fed by the different cultural patterns in each agency. Again to over-simplify, the probation service had a reflective culture and the police a task centred or action oriented culture. Police also operated a much more hierarchical system – identifying the right level at which to make contact was more crucial. A good relationship with the appropriate senior officer was essential in a way that was not the case in other helping agencies. We had to learn to turn these differences to advantage.