Monday, April 14, 2014

Not Guilty Doesn't Mean What It Used To

The case of Nigel Evans, who has been acquitted of a string of sexual offences, has pointed up the sheer injustice of the present system that prohibits the acquitted defendant from recovering the costs of his defence. Mr. Evans claims to be out of pocket by a six-figure sum that represents the bulk of his life savings.

The investigators and prosecutors have at their disposal the full resources of the state, including the freedom to choose the most senior (and thus costly) counsel to present their case. If the case fails, m'learned friends will be paid by the state, whereas the other side are on their own. There is so much at stake in a case such as the Evans one, and the trial process is so complex with so many potential pitfalls, that anyone who can afford it is well advised to fight fire with fire and brief a top silk himself. So he is damned if the does and damned if he doesn't.

As I have said before much of our work involves domestic violence these days, and we now see applications to make a Restraining Order on acquittal, so we are saying, in effect: "We find you Not Guilty, but we are making an Order to ensure that you don't do it again".

I can hear Rumpole turning in his grave. He would have said that you can no more be a bit guilty than you can be a bit pregnant.

Off to the Sticks

I have just finished writing a reference for a former colleague who has moved to a rural area. Unfortunately she is unable to obtain a transfer to a bench near her new home. This sort of thing happens all the time, as the radical reorganisation of our courts as well as the remorseless shrinkage in the size of the magistracy has led to a majority of benches putting a near-freeze on recruitment and transfers.

It is hard on someone who has gone through the training process and then gathered valuable experience of sitting to find him or herself out in the cold like this, but limited recruitment must continue to allow the bench to renew itself, if we are not to end up as a bunch of pensioners (like me, I hear you cry).

My ex-colleague has volunteered for Witness Support (which is what the reference is for). That is a very important and necessary organisation, and I wish her well.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Recorder on the Record

This sits-vac ad is not one that we see every day. The post is surrounded with historical overtones, while being a key position in the administration of the nation's justice system. There are probably two or three dozen judges who could do the job, but only four or five dozen people know who they are.

I shall not apply, for more reasons than I care to mention, even if the undeclared salary were not to put me off.

Good luck to the successful candidate. I hope that he or she is not allergic to champagne.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Domestic Science

For many years neither the police nor the courts took domestic violence as as seriously as we do today. There was an underlying assumption that a man (usually a man) had a right to beat his wife, and old-time police were quite accustomed to turning up at a domestic incident only for both parties to turn on the officers.

All magistrates have now been trained in DV issues, as have the CPS and the police, and the resultant cases form a large part of our workload. There seems to be a higher proportion of not guilty pleas as cases are often a matter of  'he said, she said'. which can be tricky for a court to sort out. There is also a good proportion of withdrawn complaints. A screaming late night row including blows being struck can bring a police visit, but in the morning when the booze and the adrenalin have worn off the victim may well go back to the police to make a withdrawal statement. Such cases are now looked at carefully, and the CPS may go ahead using the statement made at the time, but that is not always a certain solution.

Recently we saw a case in which the victim had to be coached by our excellent Witness Care people before she would  even come to court, and when she finally took her place behind the screens that we had provided, she simply said "I don't want to give evidence". What do we do then?

The lady solved our problem by failing to return from the lunch break, when the CPS threw in their hand.

One person who saw this case asked me why we didn't proceed against the lady for contempt. I didn't answer directly, but my expression probably gave a clue. Not a chance as far as I am concerned.

Evans Above

Nigel Evans MP has been cleared by a jury in the latest celebrity sexual misconduct trial. So be it; that is what juries are for (although as I have said before, there may be a trend emerging of juries deciding that enough is enough of a certain type of trial).

Nevertheless, I cannot feel comfortable about police and CPS staff making carefully-worded comments on the courthouse steps to the effect that 'we considered it all carefully' and suchlike. If the jury says no, then no it is and no it stays. Nobody should go behind that.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Lucky Break

I have nothing to say about the people involved in this but isn't it a coincidence that Press photographers happened to be on scene at exactly the right time and place?


That Takes Me Back

I was recently asked by the Council to sign a notice requiring the removal of vehicles and caravans from privately owned land in the Borough. The Council's officer gave evidence on oath to substantiate his Information and after a few questions we said that we were satisfied. So far, so simple, but I was reminded that it is a good ten years since I last dealt with one of these applications.

Back then, we were regularly asked for summonses that, if granted, would be taped to the vehicles and caravans that were illegally sited. It was almost unknown for anyone to turn up next day in response to the summons, so an order would be made that authorised the Council to tow away the offending wheels. The owners would then slip quietly away before the deadline.

Just once, we had two travellers turn up to the hearing. They were two young women, one cradling a small baby. I explained that if the Council's application was in order we would be obliged to grant it, but that we would listen to anything that they wanted to say. It turned out that the one with the baby had recently arrived in the Borough, heavily pregnant, and was delivered of her child in the local hospital a few days later (thus putting herself at the head of the queue for housing).

"I can't see the problem" she said in a soft brogue "All we want is a house or a flat".

She almost certainly got one.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Old Bill Gets Cheapie

This report  is disturbing.

Like many JPs I have signed dozens of applications to seize criminal property. Over time these amount to a lot of money.

There must be something not-quite-right about authorising the police to seize money that is, or may be, the proceeds of crime, and then allowing them to keep half or thereabouts of the proceeds.

That is likely to tempt officers to skew their enquiries in the direction of stashes of cash, but worse, it is an encouragement to corruption once they have their mitts on the readies.

Seized cash should go into the Consolidated Fund, along with all the rest of HMG's petty and not-so-petty cash. Can anyone justify the present rules? Damned if I can.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

It Wasn't Meant To Be Like This, Was It?

The trial on which I was due to sit yesterday illustrated much of what is happening to our justice system as resources are slowly withdrawn from it. The case was set down for trial in January and so we assembled at ten o'clock sharp. There were three magistrates, a legal adviser, a Crown Prosecutor (in fact a barrister acting as an agent) a defence solicitor, the defendant and his mother, sitting anxiously at the back. Three of the five witnesses had arrived and were in the Witness Care suite upstairs.
When a case is set down for trial the parties complete a booklet that lists the expected witnesses as well as any that can be agreed without the need to appear.. Dates are set for the prosecution to be directed to serve the necessary disclosure (statements, interview records, CCTV and suchlike) on the defence. Both sides sign to acknowledge their responsibilities.
Yesterday we heard that the CPS had missed the deadline for service by a good six weeks, and that most of the disclosure had been handed over at court last Friday. Inevitably we were asked for an adjournment and equally inevitably we refused (the rules of that game have changed irrevocably since the case of PICTON).
Without going into too much detail, what happened was that we gave the parties ten minutes to sort themselves out. We filed back in to hear the Crown offer no evidence, whereupon we dismissed all four charges.
Any magistrate will recognise this situation, and it has almost certainly happened in a lot of courts today as it will tomorrow. There will be no sanction on the CPS for a gross failure of its duty to cope with a simple bit of paper handling that just required a low-ranking clerical officer to look at it.
It's expensive, it's unfair, and it just isn't right.
I wish that I could feel that someone in the MoJ cares, but sadly they seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.


Just for the record:- You cannot be sent to prison for failing to buy a TV licence. Ever,

But you can be sent to prison for failing to pay any fine for any offence (but it's difficult, and the numbers are small). Inability to pay is not the same as refusal to pay.

I wish the press knew this.