KWIB interviewed Nicola Butler a self-confessed ‘people person’ and physiotherapist, dedicated to making a difference.

On her newest venture, Nicky is now presiding as a Justice of the Peace in Scottish courts. We heard all about how her decision to train and practice as a JP has given her yet another opportunity to give back to the community and to make a difference in people’s lives. Will this woman stop… she’s making the rest of us look bad!

CB: Nicky, can you tell our readers what a Justice of the Peace is?

Nicky: A Justice of the Peace (JP), is a lay magistrate appointed from within the local community and trained in criminal law and procedure. JPs sit alone (as opposed to a panel of three in England and Wales), and deal with the less serious crimes such as; breaches of the peace, minor cases of assault, vandalism and theft, misuse of drugs, road traffic offences such as; speeding, careless driving, driving without insurance, MOT or license, fraud and more recently – cases of minor drink driving and domestic violence. JPs always have access to advice on the law and procedure from their legal advisor.

CB: What are the duties of a JP?

Nicky: The roles of a JP include;

  • Making informed decisions
  • Controlling the court
  • Ensuring that the accused understands what is happening to him/her.
  • Dispensing justice in a clear and concise manner.

All courts operate slightly differently but in Falkirk, JPs sit for a week at a time.

Best practice requires arriving at court much earlier than the start time to familiarise oneself with the court sheets for the day – how many cases calling? What types of cases calling?

JPs also have ‘signing’ duties e.g cases of simplified divorces, unpaid utility bills. JPs may also be called upon by police at any time of the day or night if they require a warrant signed to make an immediate search of a property (when a Sheriff is unavailable). JPs must also keep up to date with any changes in legislation e.g. recent change in penalties for the use of a mobile phone whilst driving. They must also attend ongoing training sessions on a monthly basis.

CB: What was it that inspired you to become a JP?

Nicky: I have always had somewhat of an interest in the justice system and I am a ‘people person’ through and through. Not only have I seen, but I have personally experienced a family member making some ‘foolish’ decisions during teenage years which has had a devastating impact not only on him but on extended family and friends. Unfortunately in today’s society there are so many opportunities for young men and women to make poor choices. I have then witnessed one poor choice leading to another and another and snowballing.

If individuals appear in my court to answer to a first or second offence and can be convinced that there are serious consequences for misdemeanors it would be my hope that, if justice was dispensed appropriately at this stage, that these individuals will make sure to never find themselves in this position in the future. I have heard people say that they wish things could have been different and they wish things could change. But I want to be the difference and facilitate that change.

CB: It is fair to say that as a JP you have a direct impact upon the accused, the victims and the wider community – do you ever feel the pressure?

Nicky: My goal, in anything that I do is to give 100%, to give it my all and to deliver perfection. However, being human I, like everyone else, make mistakes. I am aware of the consequences in my own life when I made a mistake. However, I have been readily accepting of the consequences given that they are my actions and decisions. When presiding in court I am acutely aware of potential ramifications for an accused/victim and general public should I ‘get it wrong’. Any pressure that I feel under is therefore pressure that I put on myself, in my endeavor to ensure that every decision is the correct decision and that everyone in the community has a fortified belief in our legal system.

CB: In another life, would you ever consider retraining to become a judge of the High Court? If not – why not?

Nicky: ‘Mmm’ – With regards to retraining I have thought seriously about this and I am still not ruling it out – never say never! With regards to the High Court though, the cases heard would be particularly heinous and I am not sure that I could hear the minute details of these violent and horrible crimes on a daily basis. I have a lot of admiration for those who have chosen to do this as their vocation.

CB: How important as a JP is it to exercise fair treatment?

Nicky: It is absolutely and utterly imperative that JPs exercise fair treatment. Criteria for appointment as a JP include capacity for fairness and sound judgement. When sworn in, JPs take the judicial oath which states that they ‘do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will’.

Article 6 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental freedoms, confers the right to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.

CB: How have your previous life experiences prepared you for work in the JP courts?

Nicky: I have been working as a physiotherapist in the NHS for 30 years. During this time I have treated tens of thousands of patients and many of these patients have attended treatment with similar medical diagnoses. However, once I have gleaned a thorough history including their general health, past medical history, social history and any anxieties or concerns they may have, the shared treatment goals may vary hugely.

Similarly, two individuals may appear in court on the same charge but with diversely different histories and mitigating circumstances (Is this a first offence? Have there been numerous previous similar offences? Was there any provocation? In a case of multiple offenders – did the accused play a major or minor role etc.). Thus the disposals for similar offences may vary – a first time offender who may have been somewhat provoked – may find their sentence is deferred for a length of time for a good behaviour report. If this individual returned to court with a clean report, the likelihood is that they will be admonished. Whereas, a serial offender who played a major role in a misdemeanor is likely to receive a fine of community payback order.

With regards to how my profession has prepared me for the role as JP, thorough notes are essential when presiding over trials, excellent listening and communication skills are imperative alongside the ability to read body language. These are skills, which I have been able to transfer to the bench.

CB: Additionally, how does your work as a JP impact your life now?

Nicky: I would have to say that there is never a dull moment!

If I am not studying for physiotherapy purposes I can be studying to improve my skills and abilities as a JP. Despite the intensive training prior to becoming a JP there is a requirement to attend ongoing monthly training. This can be local (Falkirk/Sterling), but sometimes further afield (Perth). Travelling out of the area in which I normally sit however, provides an excellent opportunity to meet other JPs – swap stories and experiences and in my case – glean as much information as possible from more experienced individuals.

CB: A JP always sits with a qualified legal advisor. But, in your opinion, to what extent does the legal system effectively combat the troubles that these people are facing at their root cause?

Nicky: The role of a Legal Advisor (LA), is to provide the JP with independent legal advice (on matters of law), practices and procedure. While it is for the JP to make the ultimate decision on any dispute/charge, JPs are not legally qualified and so rely on the LA for advice should this be necessary.

The interview process is such that JPs will only be put forward for training if the can demonstrate awareness of the trials, troubles and tribulations that anyone can face at any time, I suppose it could be said that much of their qualification to preside is because of this ‘life experience’. However, by simple definition the law is a set of rules that prescribe the rights and duties of members of society. For society to have a continued faith in the legal system, there must be penalties for breaking the law.

CB: Do you ever find yourself wishing to look past the offence committed by the person before you?

Nicky: Society will only maintain confidence in our legal system if justice is served. We live in somewhat troubled and dangerous times. However, think how much more dangerous it would be without evidence of justice. Consider, for example people who use their mobile phone whilst driving. I have seen some horrific photographs of mangled vehicles that were driven by individuals (some now deceased) whilst operating their mobile phone. How dangerous would our roads be if an increased number of individuals ‘flouted’ the law stating that they must not use mobile phones whilst driving? Would you feel safe?

It is never a case of overlooking an offence but carefully considering all the facts and mitigating circumstances, in the hope that the disposal given will cause the offender to leave court determined not to reoffend.

CB: Are there ever any cases where you can see basic and fundamental inequalities at the root of the accused person’s actions?

Nicky: Not inequalities but… ‘motivating’ factors driving misdemeanor. Some individuals unfortunately seem to have experienced multiple difficulties throughout their lives, some from a young age but these factors are always taken into account;

  • Is there remorse?
  • Was something premeditated or as a result of an aggravation?
  • What are the personal circumstances (in particular their means/partner/children)?
  • What was the age/sex of the victim?
  • What was the amount of loss, injury or damage?

Consider two accused appearing in court on a charge of shoplifting. One could be a married father of three young children who had recently been made redundant. He has no previous convictions but on hitting ‘rock bottom’ resorted to theft to put some food on the table/ pay red-letter bills. He is devastated. Now consider the prolific shoplifter (numerous previous analogous offences), who does not appear to have ‘changed’ his ways despite previous fines/ community payback orders. Both have broken the law but for differing reasons and these reasons would always be taken in to account when passing sentence.

CB: In these circumstances, do you find it difficult to deliver a verdict and a sentence?

Nicky: I wouldn’t use the word difficult. When passing sentence, I would endeavor to let the individual know that I appreciated the difficulties/traumas leading up to the offence but intimate that, despite the mitigating circumstances, they had chosen a wrong path of action.

CB: Do you find being a Justice of the Peace a rewarding role? If so, why?

Nicky: For as long as I can remember I have wanted to help people – hence my chosen occupation. I see being a JP as another role in which I can help people albeit in a very different way. As we have previously discussed some individuals can ‘lose their way’ a bit for various reasons and may find themselves facing a criminal charge even at the age of 16/17. In my work as a physiotherapist much of the consultation involves advice/information /exercises to prevent further ‘flares’ or worsening. I find it extremely rewarding when individuals in court at any age heed the advice/ information given at disposal, reflect on this and are never in court again.

CB: And when you’re not in court, you work as a physiotherapist for the NHS! How do you find the time and energy for both?

Nicky: By practising what I preach to my patients! I try to ensure I get 8 hours of sleep in any 24 hour period an endeavour to eat healthily, stay hydrated and exercise regularly-ish!

CB: Could you ever imagine yourself doing anything other than physiotherapy?

Nicky: I have a few other voluntary roles, which I thoroughly enjoy and in an ideal world I would love to spend a day a week with a different ‘hat’ on. Unfortunately this wouldn’t help with the mortgage, so I will stick with the physiotherapy for another few years and when I retire I will expand my horizons.

CB: By now, we are all aware of the growing constraints of the NHS, do you find that the nature of your work as a physiotherapist has changed?

Nicky: Oh, the nature of my work has changed dramatically. When I was at college I was taught how to lift patients – these lifts have since been banned for quite some time. Patients with spinal pain (especially lower back), were advised a period of bed rest. Evidence has since shown that people with spinal issues need to keep moving. Patients post-surgical procedure could be hospitalised for days/weeks but some of these surgeries are now day cases.

These days there are so many varied website applications that patients can access to aid, not only musculoskeletal issues but, can also receive advice on healthy eating, exercise and help with mental health issues. An extremely vital part of a consultation is ensuring my patients are sign posted appropriately so that they can continue to make progress between appointments.

CB: In part, do you think that this change in structure and face-to-face client time prompted you to look beyond work for new challenges and ways to give back to society and enrich your life, (such as your Justice of the Peace role)?

Nicky: I still see many patients every day but an episode of care could be a few consultations (as opposed to nearing double figures a couple of decades ago), so I still have the same amount of face-to-face contact – just with many more people. I often hear people discussing their five or ten year plan and as I spent time reflecting on alternative areas where I could help/make a difference, I was drawn to the Justice System. I am hoping to continue this relatively new vocation for the next few decades.

CB: It seems as though your life is split between two occupations focused on helping people, did you always know that your expertise was in this area?

Nicky: I am not sure if I would say it was an area of my expertise. But I have always wanted to bring out the best in everyone I meet!

Catherine Butler
Assistant Editor-in-Chief