Wednesday, February 03, 2016

For Which Relief Much Thanks

Those of us who were beginning to despair at the flat-footed callousness of Chris Grayling's tenure at the MoJ are starting to look with wide-eyed wonderment at the systematic dismantling of the Grayling legacy being carried out by Michael Gove. Only a couple of weeks ago I had a quiet chat with a decent, respected and hard-working defence solicitor who could see no glimmer of light in the darkness that was enveloping the defence profession. There were credible plans to remove many well-run firms from the Duty Solicitor scheme, and to pare the fees of the remainder to the unsustainable bone. Small firms had become unsaleable, their owners unable to retire with any security.

Let's take a deep breath, and survey where we are now, resolving to find a solution that will aim to restore fairness while keeping a wary eye on the costs involved.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A New Viewpoint

A couple of weeks ago, I went to my local court (in which I have never sat as a magistrate) as a McKenzie Friend..

An old friend of mine was arrested over Christmas and charged with drink-driving. So far, so bad, and he was anxious to plead guilty straight away, and take his punishment and ban. I went along just to be certain that he understood what was going on, and had the weird experience of standing next to him in the armoured-glass dock. The front of house court staff were very helpful and polite, and not at all fazed by my presence. The seats were hard but the coffee machine worked, and the ushers were on the ball, introducing the Duty Solicitor, who was also friendly and informative. The bench listened carefully to what my friend had to say, and he came across as sincere and frank. After he had said his piece (guilty plea,  apologies, and so on) the bench went into a huddle and called up the legal adviser.
What the bench was considering was whether the circumstances of the offence might have allowed a Special Reasons argument. I could see their thought process, and then the chairman went on to explain the situation clearly. They put the case back, to allow time to consider, so in a quiet moment when the bench was out we approached the Clerk and said that we would like to give Special Reasons a run. We were give a date six weeks hence in another town, and my friend was bailed to then.
I can't go into any detail at this stage, but the bottom line is that the defendant has little to lose (apart from costs) and a lot to gain if he escapes a ban.
When booking the new date, the clerk checked that I understood the issues, which I did. The CPS prosecutor gave me a sideways look and said that one of his colleagues had recognised me from my home court, so yes I probably did understand..

Let's see how we get on.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Bail - The Least Understood Thing We Do?

There has been a bit of huffing and puffing about the (possible) Jihadi star of a grotesque snuff movie, who jumped bail to go to the Middle East a year or two back. Of course some will ask why he was on bail, but there seems to be no realisation that the law prescribes a right to bail . Every JP is aware of the exceptions, which, simply put, amount to a substantial fear that the defendant will abscond, interfere with witnesses, or commit further offences.

The commenters in our more thick-ear newspapers, seem to prefer the idea of locking up anyone who finds himself under suspicion. Quite apart from the principle of incarcerating the unconvicted, what would that do to our swelling prison population?

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Beware of Stealth Lawmakers

This report is worrying, particularly in view of the shifty way in which the Criminal Courts' Charge was sneaked through Parliament at the eleventh hour before the election forced a halt. Now I do not have the time nor the inclination to pore through this stuff, especially as my dear granddaughters have taken up so much of my time over the last week.

Let us remain vigilant against sneaky rules made by the same bunch of Sir Humphreys who have served us so badly for so long.

Is there a single civil servant out there who can, granted anonymity, explain what is to happen with the pile of cash that has been imposed (if not collected) by the appalling and callous CCC?

I thought not.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

December 25th 2015

Twelve months from now I shall no longer be a JP, rather a retired magistrate. Judiciary, be they the Lord Chief Justice or a humble magistrate must retire at 70.

In the meantime, can I wish a merry Christmas to all of my 20,000-odd colleagues, to all of our court staff, and to the lawyers, probation officers and others who do so much to make our justice system work.

Can I also spare a thought for the thousands of casualties in our society, including prisoners. Some of those in prison are so seriously damaged that they must be kept away from society for everyone's sake. Others have just slipped through life without the nurture of a family and remain outside society's fabric.

I hope that no magistrate ever fails to ponder "there but for the grace of God go I".

I certainly do.

Merry Christmas

Monday, December 21, 2015

I Can Only Agree With This (credit to The Times)

Democracy must always insist on equality before the law. At the heart of this principle is the belief that all citizens, regardless of their faith, creed or gender, are equally worthy of legal protection and redress. If the rule of law is to treat everyone as equal, there can be only one rule of law, administered by the state according to known precepts. The forthcoming inquiry into the judicial role of Sharia councils in Britain is, therefore, significant and welcome. Where such councils act as courts in a parallel legal system, they encroach on the rights of those whose interests are given short shrift by Islamic jurisprudence — often women and children. The inquiry must find such cases, and government must put a stop to them.
Most cases brought before Sharia councils are family matters. As far as civil law is concerned, the councils’ decisions have little binding power. Sharia councils have no official jurisdiction over divorce settlements involving property, cases involving custody of children, or any criminal matters.
However, the councils can grant couples a divorce where their marriage contract itself was religious, not civil. Islamic law, as it is enumerated in the Koran and the collected statements of the Prophet, makes it difficult, though not impossible, for women to seek a divorce. Even where a marital dispute is about cohabitation alone, therefore, women’s rights are not properly respected.
Property and child custody issues will be touched by most divorces too. It would be deeply worrying if the inquiry were to find Sharia councils overreaching by coming to conclusions on these matters. Whereas British law emphasises the best interests of the child in determining custody, for instance, Sharia rules grant custody to the father if the child has reached the “age of transfer”, regardless of the facts of the case. A 2008 ruling of the House of Lords appellate committee, the predecessor of the Supreme Court, rightly branded this system “arbitrary and discriminatory”.
Anyone who has suffered discrimination before a Sharia council is legally entitled to a hearing before a civil court with genuine jurisdiction on these matters, but it can be difficult to claim that entitlement. Few people know the details of their rights of redress under 20-year-old legislation, least of all those who have been told that the decision of the panel before them is final. Even with all the information, the threat of ostracism by the community can deter victims of discrimination from coming forward.
The inquiry should also address those activities of Sharia councils currently recognised by the law. Any two parties who want to resolve a dispute outside the courts can choose to appoint an arbitrator to decide the matter and, if they invoke the Arbitration Act 1996, that decision can then be upheld in civil courts. The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal thus claims to offer Muslims the “opportunity to settle disputes in accordance with Islamic Sacred Law with the knowledge that the outcome will be binding and enforceable”.
British courts must enforce their own decisions alone. Under present law, they may have to uphold a Sharia tribunal’s decision to award an estate to sons and not daughters, simply because all parties signed themselves into a system of inheritance that privileges men over women in accordance with religious law. The civil law should not be so pliable as to yield to the competing jurisprudence of whatever faith wishes to reshape it.
Any agreement reached through coercion or other forms of pressure can always be overturned in a civil court. Coercion often goes hand in hand, however, with enforced silence. Attempts to muzzle victims of discrimination are almost impossible to prove. The inquiry must investigate this, but it can never know what it has not found. The only true protection is a single, sovereign rule of law.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bunkum

The late Lord Janner, who has just died, was not, by all accounts, a popular MP. After one emotional outburst when he took exception to remarks that he saw as anti-semitic, he said something to the effect of:"Mr, Speaker, half of my family were murdered in the Holocaust" when some unnamed MP called out "Yes, the wrong half"..

He was of course the subject of allegations that he had sexually abused young men several decades ago, despite claims that he was suffering from dementia that would have prevented him from defending, or even understanding the case against him. Recently it was decided that he could not safely or fairly be tried, quite rightly in my opinion.

The passage of time, and nature's decay often put horrrible offenders (and I make no comment about Lord J) beyond the reach of the justice system. Those who believe in divine justice may find it easier to rationalise the easy deaths of appalling monsters than do I.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

This Isn't What I Signed Up For Three Decades Ago

I went in to Court today to fill a gap in the rota. I found myself in a non-CPS court dealing with TV licensing offences, and local authority Council Tax cases arising from non-payment of the tax.
Never the most riveting work, we were faced with a number of poor people , mostly with a poor command of English, and little understanding of what the  cases were all about. The TV licensing cases are usually over in a few minutes but two cases between them took us over an hour.

Then we moved on to the majority that had simply ignored the summons, so we dealt with them by way of Section 9 statements read out by the prosecutor. That's where I started to feel uncomfortable. A colleague had her i-pad with the useful sentencing calculator. We have a fines matrix that ordains someone living on benefits to have an income of £120 per week, but those who do  not submit a statement of means are deemed to have a Residual Weekly Income of £440 per week. Hence, someone whose unlicensed viewing was for six months or more and who does not have the benefit of credit for a guilty plea faces a fine of £440 plus costs of £120 plus a 'victim' surcharge of £44 plus, even today, the Criminal Courts Charge of £150. Announcing these sentences stuck in my throat, given that the offenders are largely poor and inarticulate.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Tomorrow

I shall chair a court tomorrow, in response to the entreaties of our charming and hard working Bench Support Team. I have no idea what cases to expect, but I can be pretty sure of the following:-

08:45 Leave home
09:25 (with luck) arrive at court
09:30  Look to see which court I am in, and with which colleagues.
09:32  Obtain coffee, commence retiring-room gossip.
09:45: See our legal advisor, and either get briefing on the day's business, or settle for winging it if it's all routine)
09;50 Brief colleagues (if we don't already know one another). Settle ground rules for when and if to retire. If we have a new colleague reassure him or her that their views will be fully taken into account, and not to be worried about challenging or disagreeing with the old codger in the middle seat.
10:00  Go into court. Fix all present with a glare, and address a firm "good morning" to the clock at the back of the room.

Now the possibilities diverge: an administrative foul-up (CPS no papers, defendant or lawyer not present, custody cases not yet arrived from prisons, and/or not had time to speak to lawyers. If likely delay exceeds 5 minutes, make plans for coffee and (if Mandy the clerk hasn't got there first) biscuits.

Sometimes we are ready to go at ten sharp, but that is not too usual.

From now on, anything can happen. What do we do when sitting out the back?

Drink coffee and grumble of course.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Back to the Coalface

I chaired a court today, and much of our list consisted of cases for sentence, most of them backed up by Pre-sentence reports from Probation.

In recent months, I have often thought that much of our work would be better done in an NHS context, rather than the criminal justice system. We read one full psychiatric report today that went into great technical medical detail, while concluding that the defendant was fit to plead. Not for the first time we read that a man's fragile but stable mental state had deteriorated catastrophically following his acquisition of a  heavy cannabis habit. I am no doctor, but I have seen plenty of medical reports linking high-strength cannabis use with pushing people who are borderline-psychotic over the edge. Another man was so unwell that we could not realistically set a date for his trial.

Another man came up from the cells  with a quiet warning from  the clerk  that he was likely to be difficult. Sure enough he had refused to speak to the duty solicitor, or to engage with probation. I fixed him with a steely gaze, and spoke to him firmly, demanding  an answer to each question, refusing to acknowledge surly grunts. He was soon compliant and we tidied up his case without any problems.

Absurdly, we are still obliged to impose the Criminal Courts Charge, even though it will be abolished in two weeks' time. I expect that sums due will be quietly written off in due course.