Thursday, December 27, 2007

Testing Times


It has been reported that driving tests are to become much harder, and more instruction will be required than hitherto. At present to take the test following professional tuition costs at least £1000. These proposed new measures will double that at the very least. Add on the insurance and it could easily require £3000 to become a licenced driver.
The cost will become out of reach for the great majority of young people, other than those with well-off parents. Does anyone think that will stop thousands of young people (especially car-mad boys) from driving all the same?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas

To all of you, whoever and wherever you may be.

Here's a thought for the people at work safeguarding us over the holiday, for the prison staff and their charges, and for the families of prisoners, who often pay a heavy price for the crimes of their family member.

Here's to my 30,000 JP colleagues, only a few of whom will be called in to court today, and to our court staff who have endured yet another year of reorganisation and insecurity, much of it still unfinished business.

Here's to the wise and learned senior judiciary - I wish you well in your patient attempts to deflect Ministers from inflicting further injustice upon us.

Here's to the people in the print and broadcast media who take the humble blogger more and more seriously with each year that passes.

And here's to the quarter-million or so people who have had a look at this blog in the last year - I hope that I have shed as much light as I have generated heat.

I'm off to pop a cork.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A Senior Judge's View


This article in The Times confirms much of what I have said here over recent months about the trend towards out-of-court disposals and the threat they pose to justice.
The full text of Lord Justice Leveson's speech is here.
The section headed 'Diversion' is particularly important.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sitting On The Crook of the (E)Bay

A couple of months ago I granted a search warrant for a CID Sergeant who came into court during the lunch hour. The Information said that a prominent local business had been systematically robbed by a member of staff, who had disposed of the loot on Ebay. The document specified the Ebay name of the alleged thief, so when I got home I could not resist looking it up.
As the officer had said in the Information,several of the products on sale were unique to the suspect's employer. Of course Ebay gives a history of satisfied customers, and that revealed over 400 previous transactions.
The warrant was executed, the suspect arrested and charged, and he has now been passed upstairs to the Crown Court, given the aggravating features of breach of trust and a systematic course of dishonesty, with a cumulative high value.
Yet again a petty criminal thought that he was on to a good thing, and had no idea that he had left a clear trail behind him.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

This Could Be Interesting

A Minister has floated the idea of banning payment for sex.
Two things come to mind:-
Firstly, Ms Harman, have you ever read about King Canute?
Secondly, As a lawyer you will be aware that you belong to the world's second-oldest profession. What chance have you got of outlawing the oldest?

Of course we should be merciless in dealing with traffickers and pimps. Of course we should offer compassionate and supportive help to these poor young women when they emerge from their near-slavery.

But to ban payment for sex? The lawyers will have a field day on the definitions involved, and the courts will have some very interesting knots to untangle.

Sorry, Harriet (we have met, but you won't remember me) - have a nice Christmas, a decent drink, and a sober re-think.

Dangerous Nonsense


The press is full of reports such as this, declaring that mobile phone use will in future attract a prison sentence. This is largely nonsense, and the CPS (who have issued the press releases that started this story) know that it is.
The law has not changed. All that has changed is the CPS' guidance to its own staff as to the correct offence to charge when someone causes mayhem on the roads while distracted by using a telephone. In the worst cases (and they will be few) the CPS will charge Dangerous Driving (as they are free to do already) or its most serious version, Causing Death by Dangerous Driving, which for some years has carried up to (I think) 14 years inside. But it isn't up to the CPS to decide what's dangerous, as opposed to careless, it's up to a jury. And juries are notoriously ready to convict of the lower charge, perhaps because any jury will include people who have used a phone while driving. This applies even more so to Manslaughter - in fact it was the acquittal rate that led to the introduction of the offfence of causing Death by Dangerous Driving.
This is a spin exercise, part of the CPS strategy to raise its profile.
Mobile phone use is a problem but so is enforcement - if someone is driving in the dark on a motorway, who or what is going to detect his use of the phone? Technology may provide an answer one day, but it won't be soon and it won't be cheap.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Think Yourself Well Served

Charon QC blogs about a controversial payment of a few thousand pounds.
Why don't we Brits appreciate how lucky we are?
In almost any country an allegation of impropriety involving less than ten, or a hundred, grand of our Earth pounds would be greeted with a shrug.
I do not seek to excuse anyone, but we Brits almost certainly have the world's least corrupt politicians, judiciary, and public servants. And being Brits, we assume the opposite.

Talking of Fishing

It's difficult to disapprove of the fishing licence system, since the cash raised goes directly into maintaining fishing waters, and the licence costs less than 50p per week. When we see cases of unlicensed fishing we impose fines and costs that rub in the message that it's cheaper to get a licence.
I was surprised to learn recently that we now have the power to ban someone from holding or applying for a rod licence for up to five years. I simply had to ask the lawyers the penalty for Fishing While Disqualified, but none of them knew, and we had too much work on to take time to look it up.
I know that defiance of a court order is a terribly serious business, and that we should visit the wrath of the law on perpetrators, but I don't think that I could keep a straight face while dealing with one of these. Do we give him an endorsement? Make him take a new test? Is there a test?
While the Police and CPS continue to usurp the judicial functions of the courts in ever more serious cases, with conditional cautions and penalty notices, why is my list cluttered up with this kind of stuff that cries out to be dealt with by fixed penalty?

Spams and Scams

As I wearily click through my Inbox deleting the daily influx of spam that has slipped past my electronic sentinels I sometimes wonder if anyone out there can really be gullible enough to fall for the tired old Nigerian 419 scams, the magic penis pills and all the other come-ons. I blogged about a phisher who nearly got away with it here. Then last week we saw before us a man accused of operating the well-known 'you-have-won-the-lottery' scam, which is a variation on the advanced fee fraud theme. Someone had fallen for it and had been relieved of over £25,000 in upfront fees to get their huge winnings released. That's the last I shall see of it as the case is off to the Crown Court to be dealt with, but it does explain the persistence of the scammers - you can send a lot of emails for twenty five grand.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

Solid Principles

Stan Still, in a comment on another thread, refers to the Victorian Nine Principles of Policing.
They bear repetition, and seem as valid today as they were in 1829.


1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.

2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

3. To recognise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.

4. To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.

5. To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

8. To recognise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.

9. To recognise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.


Handle With Care

Dickinson Dees is the largest firm of solicitors in Newcastle. Their website has this brilliant Advent Calendar with a computer game behind each window.
Don't even think of looking at it unless you have a little time to spare!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

News

Courts have made the BBC news twice today. Here is further evidence of the move away from court hearings in favour of so-called 'justice' dished out by police and prosecutors, and this reports on the continuing unfairness of the 'victim surcharge' that does not go directly to victims and applies only to fines - and even then only those imposed in the Magistrates' Court. John Humphrys interviewed a current Bench Chairman - I hope that nobody gets into trouble.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Without a Paddle

The newly-famous 'Canoe Man' couple are now in custody, he remanded by a court, she being interviewed by the police. The magistrates concerned did not have a difficult decision to take in the man's case, as the prosecutor will have opposed bail on the grounds that he would fail to surrender if bailed, quoting in support his obtaining and using false travel documents, and his previous attempt to disappear. In addition he faces, if convicted, a considerable prison sentence, providing a further incentive to abscond.
The case is not likely to come to trial for many months (unless they decide to plead guilty to get their one-third discount off sentence) but if (NB)they are convicted a hefty sentence is unavoidable. Just the passport offence is worth 18 months or more, and if press reports are true there will be plenty of aggravating features that you can find in the guidelines:- sophisticated planning, large sums involved, and so on.
The case has certainly awoken the public's interest and has driven Gordon Brown's travails off the front page.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Thought Provoking Stuff

Peter Hitchens writes in a newspaper:-
I think prisons should be harsh, austere places where wrongdoers work hard to pay for their keep, to make restitution to their victims, and to save for their release.
If only we had such prisons, instead of the squalid, disorderly warehouses we do have, our streets would be calmer and safer, and many would never be tempted into crime.
That is why I also believe in proper justice, fair trials and the presumption of innocence. Nobody should go inside unless we are very sure he deserves it. And I think that the punishment in jail should be imposed by the authorities on our behalf, not by the prisoners.
It would be easy for me to join other commentators in laughing at the miseries inflicted in prison on those who are despised even by the 'normal' criminals, though quite why we should applaud the cruelty of heartless robbers and men of violence, I do not know.
I fear that a growing number of innocents are in jail because it is easier to convict them than it is to arrest, let alone to convict, violent brutes who can and do frighten witnesses into silence.
But I do not join in.
And even the guilty, including the very worst offenders, should be punished in an orderly, measured and limited fashion, according to law, not driven into suicidal misery by lawless persecution, with no hope of an end to it.
So please be kind enough to read what follows (though not while you are having breakfast) and ask yourselves if this is what you want happening in your name, least of all to an innocent person.
I am unconvinced that this man is guilty of the dreadful crime alleged against him – a rape supposedly inflicted on his own stepdaughter, mysteriously 'remembered' many years later after a bitter family row about her drug abuse, with no evidence but one person's word against another.
Two members of the jury were likewise unconvinced of his guilt which, in better days, would have been enough to prevent his conviction. His wife and his employer, also, think the charge a nonsense.
It makes no difference. He now faces seven years in segregated units, supposedly to save him from violent attacks.
His wife describes his life: 'Food is invariably contaminated and inedible – urine in mushy peas and mashed potatoes, semen in rice pudding and custard, bleach in boiled potatoes, dirt, filth and hair in rice, sputum and faeces in everything.
My husband is frightened that he may contract hepatitis or HIV...verbal abuse is constant... physical attack only a matter of time...help and advice non-existent...clothes, bed-linen and towels are again contaminated...there are piles of faeces in the communal showers.'
Yes, I know I'm supposed to be Right-wing. And, do you know something? I really am.
But that doesn't mean I can ignore this sort of thing, let alone laugh about it. It's evil, wrong and a scandal, however Right-wing you may be.

Well, Mr.H., I am not especially right-wing but I can't ignore it either.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Still Some Way To Go

My Bench Chairman tells me that a few weeks ago he spoke to a group of new people who have passed selection and are due to be sworn in shortly. He gave them the usual pep talk about not talking to the Press, and generally not making a fool of yourself in public, and he gave them the bad news that henceforth speed limits were for obeying, however cross that makes White Van Man in the mirror. Three points earn a letter from the Lord Chief, six earn a severe letter, and nine mean you are out. In some circumstances six points for one offence will see you shown the door, as happened to a colleague a couple of years ago. They all nodded sagely, but as they drove away after the session one of the new people was right behind the chairman, mobile phone clamped to her ear for a good five minutes. A few words of advice are on the cards here.

Good Heavens!


The front page of today's 'Daily Express', the soi-disant 'World's Greatest Newspaper' carries no reference to Diana or Madeleine. What's happening down at the D.Ex? Is Mr. Desmond off sick?
Still, at least it's got a house price scare.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

New Guidelines

The present Sentencing Guidelines were revised in 2003 and came into use in January 2004. A lot of legislative water has passed under the bridge since then, and the Sentencing Guidelines Council has begun consultation on a new edition. There is also a report on a new approach to setting fine levels, a subject that often evokes widely differing approaches from bench to bench and from area to area.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Fail-To-Surrender Monkeys

New Sentencing Guidelines have just been issued for failing to surrender to bail. The full document is here.
This is one of the commonest offences that we see in court, and covers a wide spectrum of culpability. On one occasion a defendant did not answer when called at 10 o'clock, so at about 11 we issued a no-bail warrant for his arrest. He turned up just before lunch and was arrested at the front desk by our resident police officer. He was brought straight into court looking dreadful. He was sitting in the heroin crouch, the hunched position that many junkies adopt when their hit has worn off, he had various grazes and bandages on bits of his body as well as clearly visible sutures on his face and arms. It turned out that he had in fact been anxious to get to court, and in his haste had managed to step in front of a car while trying to catch his bus. He had spent a couple of hours being patched up in A & E, hence missing his trial. He knew the system, so he had a chit from the hospital to confirm his story. There was nothing we could do, since we had sent the witnesses away, so we put the case off to another day. When that happens, the court loses a day's work, the clerk and magistrates are frustrated, and the witnesses are inconvenienced. In this case we took no action but where there is no valid excuse we impose a penalty, that might be a fine (sometimes deemed served by a night or two in the cells if the chap was picked up at the wrong time) a curfew order or a short prison sentence.
Current thinking is to be firm with those who fail to turn up, but of course a hard core minority of our customers lead such chaotic lifestyles that they either lose the bail form, or can't read it, or are too drunk or stoned to care.

Friday, November 30, 2007

No Surprise Here

The Times reports on the continuing decline in criminal court business and the enormous rise in so-called offences brought to justice by the simple expedient of slapping fixed penalty tickets (with a 50-50 chance of their going unpaid) on petty offenders, and calling that 'detection' of crime.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Attitudes

A surly-looking young man of about 20 is in front of us. Over six months ago a bench ordered reports on him with a view to imposing a community penalty. It took Probation two attempts to get him into their office for interview, and that only lasted half of the scheduled time as he became abusive and walked out, objecting to being asked questions about himself. He did not appear at court on the day the report was due, so an arrest warrant was issued. It took a while to pick him up, but picked up he was, and that's why he was in front of us. Unusually, the report suggested that there was little alternative to immediate custody, as no community penalty was likely to be effective. So that's what we did - four months. As I started my pronouncement the custody officers came into the courtroom, and that's when his mother and girlfriend gasped and burst into tears. As he was being led away he shouted across to me: "So I serve two months then, that right?" His solicitor waved for him to be quiet and said that she would see him downstairs, but that wasn't good enough and he yelled: "Well, what is it?". I watched in silence as he was hustled through the doorway to the cells.
This is probably the first time in his life that he has come up against a problem that he could not solve by shouting and bullying. So he will do his two months in a Young Offender Institution, will miss Christmas, and then be released. But I couldn't help wondering what the future holds for him. He is functionally illiterate and completely unqualified of course, but that's not what makes him unemployable. There is always work for a fit young man, often at decent money, but since he is constitutionally unable to accept orders he is no use to anyone. Heaven knows where he will end up, but I am not optimistic.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Fines Again

Sitting in a Fines Enforcement Court the other day we had 19 people appear before us, of whom two were working, the rest being in receipt of benefit. The politicians who are urging greater use of fines on us, and asking us to go easy on community orders and prison, ought to come and spend a morning with us one day.
As usual, there were a fair few TV Licence cases, every one a single mother, and most of them fined in their absence. When this happens the bench sets a fine based on average income, so once we had means information we reduced them to a manageable level, to be deducted from benefit at £5 per week. We cancelled outstanding fines where the defendant had served a prison sentence but had failed for one reason or another to get the fines 'lodged'. That's just the fines though - compensation remains payable after release.
One chap stunned us though. The fine was nine months overdue with nothing paid, and he had been brought in on a warrant. We went through the details, and I gave him my best glare over my specs and said: "This fine is due now. It has gone on long enough. Can you pay it today?" "Yes, Sir. I've got a card, I'll pay it now". Three judicial jaws dropped as the usher took him off to the office. Next year we will be getting card swipe machines in the courtroom. Most people, when asked if they have a card claim that it's maxed out, but we always give it a try anyway, and in nine cases out of ten it goes through all right.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Christmas Plug


David Williams, the artistically-inclined JP, has produced some Christmassy cards. More details from his website.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

There May be Trouble Ahead......(reprise)

This report and this one along the same lines looks horribly plausible. Tony Blair lived in fear of lurid tabloid headlines about Law 'n Order, but Brown seems more concerned with the money. Cuts of the magnitude suggested by the leaked document (and that's all it is, of course) would require enormous changes to the justice system. The magic bullet is likely to be a complete recasting of the sentencing regime.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Red Hot POCA

Magistrates, at least on my patch, are seeing more and more applications under the Proceeds of Crime Act. Before this Act was passed, there were occasional applications to detain money that was alleged to be the proceeds of drug dealing, but nowadays anyone in posession of a large chunk of cash (and today that is as little as £1000) without a solid explanation of its provenenance, may have it seized by the police, who can then ask magistrates to detain it (usually for three months)as the proceeds of crime or as being intended for use in crime. After a period, that may be around a year or so, we will hear an application to forfeit the cash to the Crown. Many of these applications are not opposed (since they are civil in nature, Legal Aid is not available) but a few, usually involving hefty sums, may be defended. Over the years I have seen applications to detain sums from a thousand or two up to several million pounds, and a remarkable number of people have walked away from their money.
We work to the civil standard of proof (the balance of probabilities) rather than the stricter criminal standard, so we take account of all the circumstances of the seizure. If someone is busted for drug dealing and has £25000 in cash in his loft then certain conclusions seem to be in order.
It's all interesting stuff, and I remember pointing out a long time ago that the Feds never got Al Capone for racketeering, but for tax evasion. Nowadays the money laundering rules make it harder than ever for criminals to benefit from their scams - not impossible, just harder.

I have just seen this. Interesting.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Change Fatigue

For almost a decade now the courts' system has been through change after change. London, for example, went through studies and consultations in the late Nineties prior to setting up the Greater London Magistrates' Courts' Authority, then a shadow Authority ran for a year before the GLMCA proper opened for business in 2001. It was abolished in 2005, most of its plans unfulfilled, but with management disrupted and confused. The Department for Constitutional Affairs ran things until 2007, when it was renamed the Ministry of Justice and reorganised. Over this time we lost our Justices' Clerks, and our local independence. By next year London will have just two Justices Clerks, but their functions will bear no relation to the traditional ones. Shortly after Her Majesty's Courts' Service took over (under the DCA) the budget was slashed, and financial stringency came to dominate the way courts were run. Now we are being - yes, reorganised.
The latest wheeze is to 'cluster' courts in groups of about four, with sub-groups of two. All of the admin will be done in one centre and files will be ferried about by road. HMCS managers, most of whom are career civil servants rather than lawyers, refer to the 'business'. Most magistrates are reserving their judgment, to see how things work out this time round.

Friday, November 16, 2007

More Good Sense From the Lord Chief

Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, has made a speech pointing out the inevitability of the renewed prison crisis, caused by the Blair Government's constant tabloid-pleasing tweaking of the criminal law that has greatly increased the length of sentences without proper plans being made as to where these prisoners are to go.
He told politicians: "Such a debate will be of no avail, indeed it will probably not be a possibility, unless those taking part are prepared to put to one side the opportunities that this subject always provides for scoring political points and to consider, objectively, what is in the best interests of our society."
Sorry, My lord - there's no chance of that.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Whoops!

This High Court Judge appears to have let his sense of humour run away with him. Judicial humour is a minefield, and the only safe policy is 'don't' (although I have thus far got away with my feeble efforts). His Lordship's remarks would, if he were a mere magistrate, certainly qualify him for an interview with the Bench Chairman and the Clerk, who would probably, if he were a first offender, offer him certain advice.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Worth a Try?


Drink-driving offences have resulted over time in a large body of case law. The consequences of a conviction for driving over the limit can be severe, including loss of employment and vastly increased insurance premiums in the future, so it is not surprising that many motorists and their lawyers have wriggled this way and that to find a legal get-out, and it is also not surprising that the higher courts have methodically plugged loopholes as they became evident. So most drivers who fail the breath test plead guilty straight away, and are sentenced pretty much in accordance with the Bench Book guidelines.
Every now and then someone with the resources to hire specialist Counsel and expert witnesses will have a go at one or another technical defence. The last one that I saw relied on a case called Cracknell -v- Willis (1988) which said, in essence, that the reading of the evidential breath machine could be challenged by evidence that the driver had in fact drunk less than needed to justify the machine's reading. To do this there would have to be evidence from the driver and also, preferably from witnesses who could say exactly how much he had drunk. In addition expert evidence is needed to say what his likely reading would have been if he had consumed the amount that he claimed.
In this particular case several witnesses claimed that the man in the dock had sipped abstemiously at no more than a couple of pints, and the expert said that given his weight and the time lapse he would have blown about 15 on the machine, rather than the 66 that appeared on the printout. However, there was no evident fault with the machine, all of the self-checks had been satisfactory, and the printout carried the words 'no errors'.
So he had his day in court, and was duly convicted. That's when we found that he had done something similar a few years ago, so on top of a fine and his enormous lawyers' and experts' bills we disqualified him for three years.
In the post-court debrief, over a cup of tea, we discussed what we had learned. We were a bit surprised that the House of Lords had allowed this challenge to the presumption that the machine is accurate, and the Clerk showed us the full judgment in which one of Their Lordships has dissented, saying that this would create a dangerous precedent, but that he would rely on the common sense of the magistrates. I am sure that very occasionally there will be reasonable doubt that results in an acquittal, but in this case, as one of my colleagues said:- "That alcohol came from somewhere".

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Excellent Example

I happened to be in Westminster the other day, and I walked past the MPs' car park entrance, guarded as usual by a mixture of armed and unarmed police. The machine-gun-toting officers stood a little way back from the gate, and there were a couple of yellow-jacketed PCs standing at the front. One of them was a London bobby out of Central Casting. About fifty-ish, burly, and of an avuncular mien, he had his arm round the shoulders of an American tourist while her companion took some photos. He used what I guessed to be a well-tried line:- "Well, Birmingham eh? We've got one of those in England. What happens in the one in Alabama?"
That's English policing at its best. We need more like it.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Tough - Like, Really Tough

If you do a Google UK search for "Tough Community Sentences" you get over 650 links returned. The phrase returns time after time in Government announcements, and it has turned up again in the detail of the Queen's Speech, in the second bullet point. Of course it is nonsense. Every time that the Government runs up against the reality of crammed prisons and its inability to build its way out of trouble in the short and medium term it says: "Ah, but this time we are going to make community sentences tough, really really tough. Honestly. So tough that they will protect the public really well. Honestly. Yes I know we have announced tougher community sentences many times in the last decade, but this time we mean it." How many people think that withdrawing the option of a suspended prison sentence for summary-only offences was driven by the needs of justice, rather than panic at over-full prisons?
How are we supposed to sentence the sixth-time Drive Disqualified, or the third-time drink driver? A Suspended Sentence Order with appropriate requirements such as unpaid work served to punish and deter. Take away the deterrence, and what do we have?
Common Assault is the usual charge in Domestic Violence cases, and that too is summary-only. One of the available community requirements is the Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme (IDAP) to address the underlying issues. First Class. But the programmes are nearly all full, and there can be a wait of many months to get an offender on to one (this applies to a number of programmes). Once the punishment is decoupled from arrest and convictions by months or years it increasingly ceases to mean anything to the offender.
So next time you hear that phrase, "tough community sentences" spare a thought for an old JP hurling abuse at the radio. Bah!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Vindictive

The unlovely 'Sun' headlines a story about Pete Doherty taking (surprise, surprise) heroin, and demands that magistrates do their duty and lock him up straight away. I did a piece about Mr. Doherty on a Five Live phone-in the other day and I had to rebut the suggestion that he is getting specially favourable treatment from the courts. He is simply a junkie, with no suggestion of dealing or importing. What makes him different is that he can afford the stuff without turning to crime, since he is a millionaire. The courts approach drug users from the direction of community orders involving drug treatment. Locking up all junkies would be simply sadistic and totally pointless, and only rehab therapy has any chance of getting them clean - and even that is of variable and sometimes disappointing efficacy.
Mr. Doherty is currently on a suspended prison sentence coupled with a drug rehab requirement and probation supervision. If he breaches those requirements or reoffends he will probably go inside, which will please the 'Sun' no end, since they will get a headline out of it. But anyone with a trace of realism or of compassion (and in this case either will lead to the same conclusion) will see that getting a high-level junkie like him off such an entrenched habit is not going to be easy and is bound to involve lapses disappointments and setbacks. In times of disaster, Winston Churchill would resolve to 'Keep Buggering On'. That's the way it has to be with this particular junkie, too.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Vanity Management


Her Majesty's Courts' Service (at least in the London region - I don't know about anywhere else) has decided to direct its energies and much of its management's time and effort to obtaining the Charter Mark. The Charter Mark is a relic of the John Major years and was born of the same desperate mindset as the Cones Hotline (remember that?). It struck me then as a tired gimmick and I have not changed my view since. Its principal function is to enhance the career progression of the managers involved and to add gloss to their CVs.
This nonsense will soak up management resources as well as many thousands of pounds of hard cash that is desperately needed elsewhere in the service. Staff are already being encouraged to hang on to any 'evidence' that some court user, somewhere, has been pleased with the service he has received. New noticeboards are appearing on which morale-boosting Charter Mark stuff will be posted, stuff that will be greeted with the weary cynicism that usually greets whizzy new ideas from HMCS.
Meanwhile, at the sharp end, many courts now have to manage without an usher. The usher is the first point of contact when defendants lawyers and witnesses arrive at court. Most of them do a superb job, dealing sensitively with people who can be stressed or just plain difficult. Dealing day by day as they do with court users they know more about real customer (customers? what are they buying?) service than all the managers put together. They are not paid very much, unlike the cohorts of consultants and clipboard-holders who will 'work' on Charter Mark applications.
I hope that I will still feel this cross when I go to the glossy reception at which taxpayers' wine and canap├ęs are served to accompany the smug and self-congratulatory speeches and presentations when the awards are made. Unfortunately decent wine and Prue Leith's catering can have a corrupting influence. Cross your fingers for me.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Bunking Off Again

I blogged some time ago about the difficult task of sentencing a parent (almost invariably a woman) for her child's failure to attend school. The posts are here and here.

The local Council has provided my court with an aide-memoire that details the steps that lead to prosecution, but also includes the following:-
Erratic or non-school attenders are two-thirds more likely to commit crime or become the victims of crime. This includes very young children where attendance patterns are set for the remainder of their compulsory education.
Erratic or non-school attenders have less than a ten per cent chance of achieving five good (grades A-C) GCSEs

Makes you think, doesn't it?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

In Camera

This weekend the prints are full of allegations that a member of the Royal Family has been the subject of attempted blackmail. Quite properly the victim's identity has been protected by the court, but unusually the first hearing was held behind closed doors. The alleged blackmailers have been remanded in custody to appear at the Old Bailey.
This has raised a number of issues, and it remains to be seen how the Old Bailey trial is arranged. Just as it would be with any victim he or she will be allowed to give evidence while screened from the public (probably using CCTV). The Judge will forbid any identification of the victim.
However. We live in a world in which news travels fast, and in which the media have a ferocious appetite for any news item that will sell a few more papers. Our tabloid press confess without shame that they bribe police officers for information and will pay what they need to pay to anyone who has the news they crave.
The two alleged blackmailers are in custody. Some of their prison officers and perhaps some of their fellow inmates know who they are. At this moment many journalists have been despatched to check their contacts, and if necessary, to buy information from just-released prisoners, off-duty prison staff - anyone.
And even if editors quail before the wrath of the judges, there is nothing to stop the facts leaking onto the Web, free of any threat from the British courts.
I give it a week, tops.

Signs Of The Times

The Legal Advisers who work in my court are a cheerful lot. Every one of them is either a solicitor or a barrister. They have their own room in the courthouse, in which there is a small sink, which they use to wash up the crockery they use during their breaks.
Above the sink is a large yellow sticker, adorned with heavy black stripes, bearing the legend:

CAUTION - HOT WATER

Doesn't show much confidence in the ability of qualified legal professionals to work out the bleedin' obvious, does it?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Poppy Day

The first eleven days of November are days on which poppies should be worn (or so I understand Debrett's to rule).
I have always worn a poppy in court at the appropriate time, as do many of my colleagues and most of the court staff.
Does anyone think this inappropriate?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Picky

This magistrate has found his religious principles to conflict with his duty as a member of the Family Panel (that decides on matters involving children, adoption and suchlike). It is strange that the report refers to his 'employers' - I don't think I am employed by anyone except perhaps the Queen. I think I agree with the official spokesman's view. Parliament is sovereign, and in a free and secular society we have to accept that.

New From Enid Blyton - Five Go Adjudicating

This beggars belief and I entirely agree with the Mags' Association's condemnation. It reinforces the point that some politicians just don't seem to get it where crime is involved.

Further and Better Particulars Required

There has been a lot of media comment about this case, that was sentenced the other day. On the face of it a community sentence of three years' supervision (that's what used to be called probation) is way below the scale for what I presume was a Section 20 GBH, which carries a maximum of 5 years' imprisonment in the Crown Court, where this case was dealt with. Presumably the magistrates who decided on venue thought that this would be beyond their powers and sent it upstairs (unless of course the defendant elected jury trial).
But there must be more to it than this. The judge will have had a pre-sentence report in front of him, and will have had reasons for sentencing as he did. This looks like a case where the judge's sentencing remarks should be published, to explain the reasoning and to make the debate an informed one.

Later:- Here is the Telegraph's report. And here it is in The Times, which tells us that the man is a paranoid schizophrenic and that the Community Order includes a requirement for mental health treatment. I suspected that some such issue would be present.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Doctor's Order

It is not necessary to agree with Theodore Dalrymple (aka Dr. Anthony Daniels) on every issue to admire the quality and the thought provoking nature of his writing.
Here is a good example of his oeuvre.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

More Official Stats

These are the latest official crime figures. I haven't yet had time to read the document, but I will soon. Some of you may find it interesting.

Mitigation

Every magistrate will have heard a lot of mitigation, as lawyers attempt, with varying degrees of conviction, to persuade the court that their client's offence was, you know, not all that bad really. The good ones are pretty good. The bad ones can be embarrassing. The commonest by far is that the illness and/or death of a parent/sibling/granny/pet/fellow druggy has so devastated their client that they were compelled to steal a car/drive on a ban/go back to drugs/beat up a stranger/whatever.
The latest, delivered with a straight face, was that Mr. Defendant is in the pub having a quiet beer or three when his wife calls to say that someone is in their garden breaking things. Mr. D. leaps into his car and rushes home, arriving at the same time as the police - who nick him for drink drive. Would we be so kind as to find special reasons not to ban him?
So if his wife had not had these problems, how was he planning to get home?

CJSSS Update

Magistrates (including me) are currently being trained in the operation of the CJSSS initiative. I will write about that when I have a bit of experience of its working. I am currently scratching my head over one of the training videos, which shows various staged courtroom scenes (some of which caused great hilarity among the watching magistrates because of the fact that everything went so smoothly and the lawyers seemed to be both competent and co-operative).
Inspector Gadget has had the same training but from a different side of the fence.
My trainer today assured me that cooperation between police CPS and the courts would ensure that the whole system will work. Ask me in two months.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Oh Dear

A BBC grand fromage called Sir Michael is being interviewed by Paxman as I type this. He says, as he has said in earlier interviews, that there will be "less programmes" in the future.

Truly, the vandals are at the gates.

Shadows of War

We are increasingly seeing cases into which issues arising from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have intruded. One case in the last year or so involved a young soldier who was due to start pre-Iraq training in a week's time. It was a case where a driving disqualification was discretionary, and we were asked to consider not imposing a ban to allow him to drive home from camp to see his girlfriend in the eight weeks he had left in the UK. In another an NCO was abroad training for a specialist role and the defence applied to defer his trial for a month, when he would be back in the UK. We were shown a letter from his Commanding Officer stating that the role for which the NCO was being trained was an important operational one. The CPS opposed the application and said that he case should go ahead like any other. In yet another case, (and one of a type that I expect to see more of) a serviceman of long service and good character had driven while way over the drink limit; medical and other reports suggested that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder might be present following a strenuous tour in Iraq during which he was in a constant state of fear, and saw some horrible events.
We treated each case on its merits - not always an easy decision though. We can't just have carte blanche for anyone who has served in the war zone to behave as they like. On the other hand those who have served their country are entitled to have their cases considered carefully. As I said, I fear that we have not seen the last of these.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bad Loser

Someone pointed me toward one of the pro-speeding sites the other day, where I found this:-
ECHR Abandons Justice
The European Court of Human Rights as shown itself to be a worthless government lacky (sic) by ignoring fundamental principles of 'justice'.
The court ruled that the human rights of drivers were not breached by UK law forcing them to incriminate themselves if charged with exceeding a speed limit.
This reminded me of the old legal aphorism:-
The Magistrates were corrupt/freemasons/stupid = I lost my case
The whole system is corrupt = I lost my appeal
British Justice stinks = I have just had my lawyers' bill
The other thing that came to mind was the 'Citizen Kane' scene in which Kane goes into his own newspaper's office when it is clear that he has lost the election. His editor holds up the front page proof :- "KANE WINS. Heads are shaken. The alternative front page is held up:- "FRAUD AT POLLS".

Would You Do Me A Favour?

This document on the Prison Reform Trust's website is heartfelt, closely argued, supplied with statistics and, I am afraid, quite long. It tells, better than I have been able to, about the chaos caused by IPP sentences.
The PRT also have harsh words, all of them deserved, about the slapdash way in which these laws, like so many others, were railroaded through with an eye on the tabloids and none at all on the practical realities.
So would those of you who are not just passing through the blog on your way to buy Viagra or to view improbable acts of debauchery, take a few minutes to read the PRT's document carefully?
The people responsible for this fiasco should be, and will not be, ashamed.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

New Judge

Tudor Owen, a well-known barrister (unsurprisingly, he is of Welsh extraction) has been appointed to the Circuit bench, and allocated to Snaresbrook Crown Court. He is a long way from the judicial stereotype, being a qualified pilot of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft and an expert aviation lawyer. He has regularly come out on top in courtroom tussles with the Civil Aviation Authority. Last time I heard, he had a part share in a WW2 aeroplane and a Gazelle helicopter, but if he has to live on his salary, they may have to go! He is also a devotee of fast cars and fast driving - the latter may also have to go. He is a member of the Garrick, so he will always be able to wash the dust of Snaresbrook from his judicial throat with a glass of the Club's claret.
Good luck, your Honour.

It's A Bit Different In Russia Too

Says The Times.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

And Another Thing

Speaking of Americans being different....

Have a look at the single comment on this post. Now that's what I call off-topic.

They Do Things Differently In America - Part 142

Next time Mr. Toad starts banging on about speed cameras I am going to show him this.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Nota Bene

Someone has commented on another thread about note taking in court; a query that often arises. I am not an expert, but it works something like this:-
Individual magistrates make notes as they see fit. Some take detailed notes, others summarise what they see as key points. The legal adviser takes a longhand note, but this is not verbatim, and is used where there is a dispute over just what was said. Quite often, in a trial, the three magistrates and the clerk will all look up their notes to settle a point. As an aside, advocates ought to know that when all three justices have stopped taking notes they have probably been speaking for long enough!
In the higher courts the proceedings are taped or recorded by an official stenographer or writer. In addition there is usually a clerk from those instructing them sitting behind each Counsel taking notes. The Judge's notebook is a red square bound book with numbered pages. I have no idea if there is a standard practice for note taking, but I have seen different judges using varying combinations of writing instruments - the standard Bic, pencils, fountain pens, highlighters and different coloured pens of all kinds. Most judges seem to carry a schoolboy-type pencil case. The notebooks are important records and the judge will keep them filed. I have in mind one circuit judge with whom I sometimes sit whose room has one wall completely taken up by shelves of red notebooks.
The official reporters who appear on most judgments are Smith Bernal, and transcripts are available from them, but these are costly because of the work involved in producing them.
If anyone who works in the higher courts wants to correct any of this, feel free.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

NOMS In The News

The Independent has an interesting take on the NOMS debacle, with which I mostly agree. The prison crisis has come back with a vengeance and tampering with early release and sentencing guidelines will not solve the problems.
The Government can hardly say they weren't warned this was coming.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Uneasy

The criminal justice system is essential to the smooth running of society; if I didn't believe that I wouldn't be a part of it. In the same way the ancient office of Coroner is a vital safeguard against inconvenient people being quietly bumped off by those with a reason to want them out of the way.
And yet, and yet.....
There are two major legal events going on in London at the moment, one the trial of the Metropolitan Police for 'health and safety' failures over the death of Jean-Charles de Menezes, and the other the Diana inquest.
These proceedings will cost many millions of pounds and will divert the attention of people who have more important things to be getting on with. What will be their effect? For one thing, whatever verdict is reached in each case there will be those who dismiss it and continue to wallow in conspiracy theories. If the Menezes case results in a conviction a judge (paid from the public purse) will fine the Met (ditto) a vast amount of money that will reduce the effectiveness of the way the Met does its job. This should have been dealt with by a grade-A bollocking delivered by the Home Secretary to a Commissioner standing to attention with his hat on, with an instruction to see that it never happens again.
The Diana inquest will achieve nothing whatever except headlines because the conspiracy vs accident theorists are entrenched in their positions, beyond the reach of reason.
What a vast and pointless waste of time and money these two freakshows represent. Still, it will at least stave off penury for the legions of lawyers and bag-carriers involved.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dark and Ugly

In the last few months I have seen some of the dark and ugly side of human behaviour. Since I was dealing only with remands, the early stages of cases, I must say that any of the people I saw might be innocent, and that the decision as to their guilt will not me taken by me.
In deciding bail we must take the prosecution's case at its highest, so we hear a summary of the case as well as background information, and have sight of the defendant's previous record. In one case we saw a man accused of battering his pregnant wife in the street, the assault including a kick to the stomach - she, inevitably, has attempted to withdraw her statement, and was sitting sobbing at the back of the court. The prosecutor told us that the victim had told a neighbour that the attacks had been going on for some time, but that this was the first involvement of the police.
Another time we saw a young man whom I recognised as a regular customer. He has always had a surly and difficult attitude, but this time he was charged with a nasty sexual assault on a young woman. He seemed pretty proud of himself, and had made grossly obscene sexual remarks to female officers on arrest and at the police station. From the five minutes that I saw him I suspect that he may well fall into the dangerousness criteria of the 2003 CJA and end up with an . IPP. As you know, I have reservations about IPPs, but in his case I suspect that the streets will be safer for women while he is inside.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Coincidence

The Five Live current affairs programme last Sunday morning featured, in the second half, a brief contribution from a magistrate who chose to remain anonymous for some reason. Small world.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Great Idea

One of my newer colleagues is the Bench's equivalent of Tigger - very bouncy but not always well controlled. He is youngish and very keen, and adds to the overall balance of the Bench.
I sat with him in the summer when we were faced with a tall young man who admitted a public order offence. He submitted a means form showing something like £47 per week Jobseekers' Allowance, and we were, as usual, gloomily contemplating just how little we could fine him when Tigger nudged me, and whispered: "Why don't we ask the jailers to see if he has any cash in his property?". So we did, and they did. He had £177 on him when arrested, which seemed curious for a workless man on less than seven quid a day. We fined him and added the victim surcharge and costs, which came in all to £172. That left him his bus fare home - we do try to be reasonable, you know.

The Drop

A few weeks ago I had the chance to practice a technique in which I was becoming rusty - The Drop. Years ago we often used suspended committals to prison as a way to loosen the wallets of recalcitrant finees. The Drop is the art of telling the man in the dock that you are committing him to prison, and then timing to a split second the words 'however this will be suspended....' - usually after putting the top back on your pen and taking off your glasses.
I was able to do it twice in one day. The first was a fine defaulter who had paid not a penny in seven years, and the second an offender who was just - and only just - on the safe side of the decision to suspend. It's a bit theatrical, but in these cases it got money out of the first chap, and put, I sincerely believe, the fear of god into the second.

More About NOMS

In my second-best court suit I have a neat clicky ballpoint pen that carries the printed logo of NOMS. I was given it at a conference in some swish London venue.
Now that we read NOMS is to be abolished, I am amused to find that the pen has lasted longer than NOMS did.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Oh No, Not Again!

The Home Secretary, who has up to now been sensibly subdued, has been got at by the marketing men, and assumed Straw/Blunkett/Clarke mode. Let us hope that this is just a planned conference-season piece of bull.
If not, lord help us all.

News to Me

I am grateful to Tony T for the following from the Sunday Times:-

Justice agency to be scrapped

The agency set up to improve the running of the criminal justice system is to be disbanded after being dismissed as monstrous bureaucracy. The National Offender Management Service was supposed to streamline the monitoring of criminals from the courts through prisons and into the probation service

Has anyone else heard about this?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Encouraging

I had lunch today with a man who was a school contemporary of my son, and who remains a good friend of us both. As some people do, he more or less threw away his early twenties in a series of dull jobs, and then he discovered the extra gear in his gearbox, changed up and put his foot down. He is now well into a law degree at a highly respected university, and I realised, a short way into our conversation, that he has developed a powerful and questioning intellect from which old chaps like me can learn a lot.
He will do well in time, and it dawned on me that in an era of increased life expectancy and longer careers it is no great handicap to qualify as a lawyer at 35, because you may still be working at 70, unlike those who qualified ten years younger.
I was educated in the Fifties and Sixties, and those who failed to make the grade at 11-plus, or O-level, or A-level were expected to bow to their fate and disappear into the maw of commerce or the public service. Nowadays a young man or woman who may just have grown up a little more slowly than their peers can, if they have the grit, start again and succeed. I truly wish them well.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Toad In A Hole (2)

There have been some interesting comments on the previous thread, and a deal of misunderstanding. Here we go, then:-
This was a matter of Dangerous Driving (not speeding). Dangerous driving is that where the standard falls far below that to be expected of a reasonably careful and competent driver. It is an either-way offence, which means that it could be tried before magistrates or the Crown Court. Since the driver pleaded guilty I presume that the lower court declined jurisdiction on the grounds that the case was too serious for its powers (it wasn't, apparently).
There was an earlier charge of TWOC since he did not have his employer's permission to use the vehicle but the Crown seems to have settled for a plea to Dangerous Driving. Speeding and No Insurance matters were not charged either.
As to the comments:- Some say this was a victimless crime. Indeed, but that was sheer good fortune. You could say the same about heaving a heavy object off a tall building where it misses passers-by on landing. The PC Milton case was in the lower court, so it is not a guide to subsequent cases in the way that a Crown Court case can be.
On a personal note I entirely agree about the way in which drivers who wish to break the law try to intimidate the law-abiding. I do most of my driving on motorways, and since I try to drive responsibly I am well used to being tailgated on a motorway that is full. I will always move to the left when there is room, but sometimes there is none. Because I am meticulous about maintaining a safe distance from the car in front, some other drivers become desperate to get by, presumably to tailgate the next car in the high speed queue. With the almost total lack of police patrols these days, this is going to get worse until the day that is not too far off, when car speeds will be electronically regulated from the roadside.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Toad In A Hole


Seems about right to me.

A Straw In The Wind

The Minister of Justice has clearly signposted the future direction of legal aid. A relatively modest proportion of the money is spent at magistrate's level, with High Court cases sometimes soaking up millions.
For myself, I have found the restrictions on legal aid irritating, creating as they do delay in getting cases started, and preventing us from granting legal aid in court where justice and expediency required it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Yet Another Plug

I have previously written about courthouse open days, and I have had some very good feedback about them from visitors and hosts alike. This time it is Uxbridge Magistrates' Court, which will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its courthouse with an open day on the 29th September.
The courthouse will be open from 10 am to 4 pm, and I am told that the day will feature a full range of displays from agencies that use the court, along with mock trials, visits to the cells, and much more. Many members of the court's staff as well as magistrates will be present to answer questions on all aspects of their work. Anyone interested in applying to join the bench can talk to JPs with a wide range of experience, and can pick up information on the application process.
The court is a few minutes' walk from Uxbridge Underground station, and there is, they tell me, a good supply of local car parks.
Apparently you will even be able to have your photograph taken in the cells in exchange for a small donation to Victim Support. There will be no extra charge to be let out. Or so they say.

Of Wigs and Wodka

It's been a busy week, and I haven't had time to comment on the fascinating range of stories that have been in the news. Far and away the oddest was the story of the barrister who was sent to prison for fabricating a legal case and sending it to a litigant with the intention of trapping him into using it in court, so that Mr, Barrister could then denounce it as a fraud. Try as I may, I cannot begin to imagine what was in Bruce Hyman's mind. The judge said that a 12 month sentence was the minimum he could impose, and I have to agree.
Talking of lawyers, there is another story about allegedly poor behaviour by solicitors and Counsel in court. I try to run my court firmly but fairly, and to treat all court users with courtesy but it does try my patience to see a solicitor or barrister, on his feet addressing the court, take a swig from a bottle of mineral water. I will politely invite them to use one of the beakers that are available in the courtroom. They wouldn't do it in front of a judge, and I won't let them do it in front of me.
Cambridgeshire is feeling the impact of the large number of East Europeans who congregate there, mostly to fill the demand for agricultural workers. We see something similar on my mostly urban patch, in particular with offences involving drink, for which many 'New Europeans' seem to have a propensity.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Luck or Justice?

I have never seen a case arising from the notorious S172 notices, which are the ones that require the registered keeper of a vehicle to say who was driving it at a particular time, usually as it passed a speed camera. Last week, I was surprised to see an S172 on my printed list, set down for trial after lunch, and I looked forward to a new bit of law.
We went into court, and the smartly dressed defendant was identified. Our usually-bouncy Crown prosecutor heaved himself to his feet and his demeanour suggested that on this occasion, this bunny was not happy. I will spare you the verbiage, but what he had to tell us was that the CPS had failed to get the case papers into his hands -this for a case that had been adjourned for trial four months ago. The defendant was unrepresented, so I asked him if he had any comment on the CPS' application, and whether he was ready to go ahead with the trial.
We refused the adjournment, and the prosecutor bowed to the inevitable and offered no evidence. We dismissed the charge, and the defendant left, taking with him my chance to hear a good old S172 fight.
That's the adversarial system for you. If the Crown, with all its resources, cannot get an A4 file into the right court on the right day then the bench has a duty to bin the case. Which is what we did.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Why Does This Not Surprise Me?

From The Times:-

September 12, 2007

Courts lose details of offender surcharges
A new £15 surcharge came into force in April but the Court Service's computer systems cannot keep track of it (writes Frances Gibb).

The courts have lost track of how many offenders have paid the new surcharge to victims of their crimes because its computer systems cannot cope.

The new £15 surcharge, to be paid by all offenders who are fined, came into force in April. But information obtained by the Law Society magazine, The Gazette, has shown that the Courts Service did not have computer systems capable of accounting for or keeping track of victim surcharges when the scheme took effect.

The computer system still cannot calculate the rate of recovery or even how many people have been surcharged, its Freedom of Information requests disclose.
What a typical bit of late-era Blair lawmaking! Rush in a charge that takes not just magistrates and their advisers by surprise, but also Civil Servants who are supposed to account for it.

Here is the full piece.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I think I Must Be Getting Old

Here's the latest scheme to impose order on our brutal and licentious youth:- BBC report. This has all the hallmarks of the Blair-era No.10 sofa. It beggars belief, doesn't it?

Fan Hits Shit

The interesting thing about this assault on Sir Alex Ferguson is the fact that it's off to Crown Court for sentence. That's because the racially aggravated assault on a uniformed PCSO is an either-way offence, far more serious in the scale of things than the unpleasant assault on Sir Alex.
By the way, I am sorry about the headline, but I just couldn't resist it. It was first used, I believe, when the late Brian Clough punched an unruly spectator, giving rise to the headline "Shit Hits Fan".

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Numbers Game

I am quietly chuffed that the Sitemeter shows we have just slipped past 700,000 visitors, and 1,000,000 page views.

Old Lag


It is reported that Ronnie Biggs has applied for compassionate release from his sentence. Am I alone in feeling distaste at the continued incarceration of a shambling old man, more than forty years after the crime that he committed as a young man in his prime? Those of us who are lucky enough not to be brought low by a stroke or a heart attack will eventually come to a state where nature has taken its course and reduced us to a condition where any further action by the criminal justice system is pointless at best and cruel at worst.
Enough is enough. Let him out to die in peace.

A Bit More About Car Insurance

There have been a number of comments on the previous thread, that bring to mind the following:-
The Motor Insurers' Bureau will compensate the victims of uninsured drivers for bodily injury and for other losses up to £250,000. This is funded by a levy on every insurance policy, and at present that costs £10-30 per policy issued. If an insured vehicle is stolen and then causes damage the owner's insurance will pay for that damage.
In recent times third-party property damage cover has been restricted to £20 million by most insurers. This follows on the Selby train crash which cost well over £50 million. Fortis was the lucky insurance company in that case, but they were of course re-insured, so the risk was spread across the market, as it should be.
Putting a levy on petrol to cover insurance costs is superficially tempting, but the estimates that I have seen suggest that the cost would be very high, and potentially unfair as safe drivers would pay towards the unsafe ones, with no grading of risk. My car costs about £300 to insure, and I drive about 12000 miles at around 28 mpg, so I would need to pay 15p per litre to break even. A 19 year-old with an old Fiesta would pay about £1750 third-party. Let's say he does 8000 miles at 35 mpg, so he would need to pay nearly £1.70 per litre extra. Not simple is it?

Monday, September 10, 2007

I Beg To Differ

Another blogging JP has posted his views on the very common offence of driving without insurance. With respect, I think that my colleague has got it wrong about the level of fines, and here's why. Firstly, there is no 'standard' fine any more because the Guidelines (see page 72 of the pink sheets) suggest fines at level A B or C, dependent on the defendant's income. Secondly, there has never been any rule that the fine must exceed any premium, and thirdly, many courts such as mine will always disqualify when there is aggravation such as no licence and MoT.
In the old days when fines were highly inconsistent we would sometimes see people in court, receiving benefits, who owed fines in the thousands due to a couple of no insurance offences, and often a lack of car tax too. Someone on £45 per week, faced with a fine of perhaps six months' income, would simply pay nothing. Since there is primary legislation requiring a fine to be readily payable within a reasonable time, we would end up slashing those fines to a manageable level. Like it or not, that means that someone on £47 per week Jobseekers' Allowance cannot realistically be fined more than about £250 in total, which is what you can collect in a year.
Now that we impose realistic fines, and enforce them vigorously, our collection rate has shot up from barely 50% to nearer 90%. We are shortly to put hand-held card terminals into our courtrooms too.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Totally Incorrect - But I Love It


The Police Oracle website has a listing of police slang. These are some of my favourites - the fact that they are funny doesn't necessarily mean that I approve of them!

100 Yard Hero: A member of the public who is very brave and shouts obscenities at a police officer from a safe distance.
Alabama Lie Detector: Police baton.
Bad Call: What your police partner says when they think you need an eyesight test. Usually uttered after you've pointed out a member of the opposite sex.
BINGO Seat: Bollocks I'm Not Getting Out Seat. The seat at the back of a police carrier where the laziest officer sits.
Black Rat: Originally Met traffic officer. Now in general use. Allegedly chosen as a motif because it's one of the only animals that'll actually eat it's own young!
Black Rover: Warrant card, when used as a travel card on bus, tube or train.
Body: Potential/Valued customer wearing handcuffs.
BONGO: Books On Never Goes Out. See also Uniform Carrier, FLUB and Clothes Hanger.
Canteen Cowboy: Police officer, generally young in service. One who likes to advise other officers, usually younger in service than the cowboy. Can be used as a put down, but usually behind the cowboy's back. eg: 'He's a real canteen cowboy that one'
Do you take warrant card?: Method of payment for goods or services by police officers. Practice believed to have been totally eradicated in the early 1900's. More flexible than your most flexible friend. eg. 'How would you like to pay for this curry?' 'Do you take warrant card?' 'That'll do nicely sir'. It has been said that back in the early 1900's some officers in the UK had totally done away with the need to carry any other form of accepted payment on their person.
FLUB: Fat Lazy Useless Bastard. See Uniform Carrier.
G.T.P.: Good To Police. Many things can be considered G.T.P. Shops that provide discounts, curry houses, night clubs that provide free entry etc.
Gurkha: Someone who has forgotten their powers of arrest. Taken from stories from the British army, e.g. Gurkhas don't take prisoners.
Guv: Officer of at least Inspector rank. Someone who doesn’t get paid any overtime.
Gypsy's Warning: When someone is given a 'quiet word' in their ear. Was in common usage until the 90's when it became politically incorrect.
Ker-Ching: as in noise made by a cash register. Usually said out loud shortly after giving a caution for littering (or any other sec.25 worthy offence.) ten minutes prior to clocking off time. Also see over-time bandit.
L.O.B. A call which did not require police presence. Load Of Bollocks, in less politically correct times was often heard on the police radio, was often given by old sweats as a result to a call.
L.A.S. People who make drunks disappear, take our carefully applied bandages off and know which nurses at the local hospital are currently single.
M.O.: modus operandi. The way in which a criminal commits a crime.
Night duty: Shift that starts at 10pm. Usually called nights. Causes zombie like states in some officers, growth of whiskers, night duty bottom etc.
NonDe: Non descript, used when referring to an unmarked police vehicle taken out on obbo's.
Old Sweat: Description of an officer long in service. possible term of endearment. Considered made it, see it, done it.
Olympic Torch: Never goes out. See BONGO.
Onion: Sergeant. Onion Bargie - Sargie. eg 'watch out the onion's coming!'
Over-Time Bandit: Officer who generally uses ker-ching frequently.
Padding: Unscrupulous police practice of adding to a drugs haul to upgrade an arrest and ensure a conviction.
Peckham Rolex: Tag worn by criminals on release from prison.
Probationer:The officer who just gave you a ticket for no seatbelt.
Section House: Large, usually decaying tower block housing young single police officers. Just like the TV program men behaving badly, but on a much, much larger scale. Also see sl*g.
Shiny Arse: Derogatory term for an officer employed in a long term office environment.
Showing Out: The unethical practice of hinting to an officer upon being stopped that you are a fellow officer and therefore not a sl*g. Done in the hope of receiving unfair treatment which we in no way condone e.g 'Have you got any ID on you sir?' - 'Why yes officer, I think I have my driving licence in my brief side pocket'. 'Do you realise you hit 97mph over the hump back bridge 10 miles back?' - 'Sorry officer, I'm court off nights this morning, I'm rushing home to get my number ones'. 'Have you ever taken a breath test before?' - 'Only when I was at training school, I blew under after having ten pints that day too'.
Spin Drum: To perform a search, generally to search a property. 'We're gonna spin his drum'. Spun Drum, property already searched. 'We spun his drum and found nuffink'.
Station Cat: Officer who preens themselves and finds every excuse possible not to leave the factory, work shy, a borderline shiny arse. Not to be confused with Station Cat: a nice, friendly, fluffy whiskered feline whom keeps itself busy by sorting the rodent population at the nick and living on tidbits thrown to it at refs time.
Strawberry Mivvie: Civvie. Civilian police staff. Can be shortened to Strawbs etc.
Thief Taker: Term of praise for a police officer. An uncanny radar-like ability to spot a criminal. eg. 'he's a good thief taker that one'.
Trumpton: Fire Brigade, very adept at cutting the roofs off of slightly dented cars. Rumoured to be prone to stealing, practice believed eradicated back in the early 1900's.
The full list is here.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Official Prison Numbers

Here are the just-released figures for the prison population. It's one for the nerds, I'm afraid, and the report admits that the margin for error is wide, but it's worth a look.

Help Needed

I have been trying to look up the case law on the question of bail following a guilty plea in the mags' court where the bench commit to Crown Court for sentence. The CPS site refers to R -v- Coe (1968) 53 Cr App R 66. Can anybody point me to this one?

Later - I am grateful for the helpful and prompt reply.

What do the lawyers on here think is the position where D pleads guilty to an either way offence that is way over summary powers (tariff circa 3-4 years) and JJs decide to commit for sentence? D applies for bail. Being post conviction, does he have any presumption of a right to bail, or is is a matter for the bench?

Phew!

I have had a busy couple of weeks. During the holiday peak season many colleagues are away, and if need be I will volunteer to cover vacancies. In addition I had previously agreed to do a Crown Court appeals sitting, and one case ran over the day and I had to go back for another go at finishing it.
One case, a Special Reasons hearing on a drink drive, was interesting not so much for the legal side, as we had little difficulty in deciding it, but for the fact that the defendant had previously been front-page news in the tabloids, and that the SR arguments placed before us included alleged bad behaviour by a TV personality. So I am sorry to be a tease, but that's all I can say about it. There were no press in court (there rarely are) for a story that would certainly have excited the interest of a red-top.
We heard a Racially Aggravated Assault case and I was reminded that most such cases that I see are Hindu-on Muslim, or Black on Asian, or Sikh-on-Hindu, or any one of the myriad combinations of racial conflict that are possible in a diverse area. Casting my mind back, the only one I have seen in recent years involving a white defendant was a man who was rude to a Welshman. I wrote about it here.
One of our regular customers, a surly youth of 18 who has just joined the grown-ups after a lengthy career appearing in the Youth Court, was unable to resist the temptation to brick the side window of a car that had been parked with a sat-nav visible on the windscreen, and make off with the gadget. Unfortunately for him the visible sat-nav was too good to be true as the police had left the car there, fully wired with cameras.
We are seeing more and more Proceeds of Crime Act applications to detain and, eventually, to forfeit cash that police have seized, and the amounts are getting lower. Just a thousand or two is quite common now, whereas a couple of years ago we never saw much less than £10,000. My personal record was over £3 million some years ago, but that's another story.

What a fascinating job this is!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

That's a Relief!


The Daily Mail reports that
A student who was facing a career-wrecking criminal conviction for putting her feet on a train seat walked free from court today.
Kathleen Jennings, 19, wiped tears from her eyes as she was given an absolute discharge by JPs at Chester Magistrates' Court.

I was so relieved to see that she walked free from court, as I was terrified that those nasty old JPs would send her to prison.
As they say in America: Puh-leeze!
She has still got a conviction, by the way, contrary to the impression given in the Mail article. I wonder if they took her DNA? Probably not, since she wasn't arrested. At least she didn't have to pay the absurd victim surcharge.

Monday, September 03, 2007

A Bit of Perspective

Like most magistrates I am often asked to countersign documents such as applications for passports, driving licences, shotgun certificates and the like. It's part of the job, and I am happy to help.
The other day I agreed to sign something for a Chinese national (who has full right to be in the UK) and when I arrived, pen and spectacles to hand, I was surprised to be taken on one side by her English housemate. "You ought to know" he said, "I had to stop her from going out to buy you a present half an hour ago". I was halfway towards asking why when the penny dropped. In China, as in so many parts of the world, if you want an official to do any service, however small, a present is expected, its value dependent on the importance of the matter in hand.
I laughed it off and settled for a cold glass of beer, but it did remind me that Britain is one of the least corrupt countries in the whole world, and that I am very proud of that fact.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Two Viewpoints on Heroin

The Times has an interesting article giving two contrasting views on heroin addiction. Theodore Dalrymple's view, towards the end of the article, is one that I have read before; it challenges the conventional wisdom about how to deal with the drug and its consequences. His views are worthy of consideration, since he is a psychiatrist and a prison doctor of long experience.

Motoring News Again

Here's a new take on the eternal speeding story, from The Times.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Screw Driver

We had to wait until 2 pm today to deal with an in-custody case because the defendant had been shipped up to Lincoln yesterday on account of the prison strike, and had to be brought back today. Not cheap, that.

Unintended Consequence


A poster on the (private) Magistrates' Association forum has pointed out that if one of the 16 or 17 year-old Community Support Officers has to give evidence in court they will be entitled to the protections afforded to a child witness!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Unashamed Plug

The Great River Race is a gruelling 22 mile row on the Thames and Matt Preston JP, who sits at Kingston court has sent me details of crews drawn from people who are connected with the court (not including defendants of course).
Read all about it here, and send them a few quid for the local Mencap.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

ASBO Doubts

This piece in The Times sets out concerns that I have voiced on this blog on a number of occasions, such as here, here and here.
This needs sorting out. Any chance of having a look at it, Lord Chancellor?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Clerk to the Justices

When I joined the Bench in the 1980s my court, like every other, had a Clerk to the Justices, who held his office under statute and was to all intents and purposes master in his own domain. He was responsible through the Magistrates' Court's Committee, for the administration of the court, and all of the staff knew who was in charge. He trained the magistrates and, to some extent, the staff, and he had his finger on the pulse of the court. The relationship with the Bench Chairman was particularly important, since the Clerk was appointed by the Court's Committee, and Clerk and Chairman managed the court, the staff and the bench. They had statutory independence, which inevitably meant that there were differences of practice between courts across the country. In due course that offended politicians who wanted to see 'consistency' as they put it, and control as I would put it.
So over a few years the courts were reorganised into regions and areas, and instead of a Clerk to each court, one so-called Clerk (whose functions were now mostly administrative) could supervise a number of courts and dozens of lawyers. That was really the end of the Clerk to the Justices, but the title remained, partly because it would have been prohibitively costly to sack them, and we then had the fiction of a Clerk who in reality could have 500 to over 1000 JPs to advise. When I started the Clerk knew all of his staff and magistrates, and, as one of them said, was a cross between a butler and a family solicitor. He was technically employed by the magistrates, but everyone knew where they stood.
Now there are plans to reduce the number of Clerks to about 50 for the whole of England and Wales, which means that few magistrates will be on personal terms with their Clerk, and that the office has in effect been abolished. Since 2005 Clerks have been civil servants, which means that while their independence is guaranteed when they are carrying out judicial functions or advising magistrates as to law, they must otherwise follow Government policy as directed by the Minister.
All this is a shame. Justice and so-called efficiency do not always sit easily together. Given the choice, I would prefer to sacrifice a little efficiency and concentrate on justice.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Time For Some Serious Thinking

The Observer and the Sunday Times agree that we need to have a considered look at the way in which we are using our police resources. Robert Chesshyre too has a thoughtful piece in the First Post. We have a record number of police officers but in many areas the streets have been abandoned to groups of youths, and local police commanders are unwilling or unable to provide the necessary reaction to criminal behaviour. Of course, there are many other demands on police manpower, but maintaining the Queen's Peace on the streets should surely be a priority.
No doubt some of our regular commentators will see this as an attack on the police and will continue to blame society's woes on bleeding-heart softy magistrates and judges, but the issue is too serious for that kind of simplistic nonsense. Front-line officers carry out the policies of their seniors. Those seniors need to take a cool and clear-headed view of where their priorities should lie, and then tell the civil servants who direct them what the real facts of life are.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Against My Better Judgement

Here (grudgingly) is the David Cameron Caption Competition. Make the most of it as it may be the last one for some time.
All farting jokes and crude sexual innuendo will be binned on receipt. Witty sexual innuendo might just be left in.

News From The Fast Lane


This chap appears to have come to grief over his fondness for driving much faster than he is allowed to, and this one also looks set for an unscheduled holiday.

Later....here's another two.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Sense of Proportion

The Times reports trouble in East Anglia, as a mob attacks a police station. Apparently the trigger for the incident was the arrest of three people for having sound equipment in their van. An 'unlicensed' musical event was due to take place in an industrial estate, and police officers were drafted in from other areas to deal with this major threat to the Queen's Peace.
Now come on, lads:- of course I don't want an impromptu pop concert at the end of my road (even though I don't share the tabloids' horror at the idea that some youngish people might dare to have fun) but was seizing sound equipment really the best use you could make of all those PCs? Across the land youths are increasingly carrying knives and other weapons. In some areas residents are intimidated when they go out of doors; vandalism is rife. 16 year-olds are being sent on the streets as PCSOs while proper grown up officers are wasted on nonsense like this. Perhaps it is indeed time to consider electing local police chiefs, to assist them in focusing their minds on the type of policing that the public wants and needs.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Court Painting

David Williams is a magistrate who has created a series of cards which draw wry attention to some of the things that JPs have to put up with. This one struck a chord with me since I have just heard a trial in which the defence solicitor was dreadfully slow and ponderous and we were in serious danger of nodding off, especially during the 2 pm 'graveyard shift'.


There are some more on his website here.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Apply Within

Some time ago I posted this about recruiting new magistrates, I was chatting the other day to someone who is involved in appointing JPs and he told me that there is a particular need for more people to serve in North and West London, due in part to current reorganisation, and the opening of a brand-new courthouse at Hendon next month. There is no intention to compromise standards, and the interview and screening process remains a searching one, but any candidate who can satisfy the criteria is likely to be recommended for appointment. If you feel like having a go, now could be a good time.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bad Character


It is becoming increasingly common to see applications to admit a defendant's bad character, in particular where his record suggests a propensity to commit offences similar to the one before the court. I have seen a couple of these recently, and in both cases the defendant had nearly 200 previous convictions, so it is hardly surprising that the CPS wanted them in.
The Crown has to make an application to adduce bad character, and that is often done at a preliminary hearing. This is not always the case though, and the law provides that a bench may hear the application, decide not to allow it, and then proceed to trial having read through the defendant's previous convictions, which we are then expected to put out of our minds. Well, we do our best, but it is a challenging feat of mental gymnastics. If little Billy has nine previous convictions for driving while disqualified, but is fighting this one because he claims only to have been a passenger, one does tend to draw certain conclusions - which is what Parliament intended, of course.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Apocrypha (23)

One of the District Judges based at City of Westminster Magistrates' Court is a member of the Magic Circle. I have seen him performing his magic stuff and he is very good.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Wrong and Dangerous Trend

The Times is concerned about the enormous increase in the number of Penalty Notices for Disorder (PNDs). This is the Government's entirely bogus strategy for increasing the number of Offences Brought to Justice (OBTJs). Here is the news item.
Together with Conditional Cautions and other non-court disposals the police and CPS will increasingly take on the task of imposing sanctions on the populace. At the moment they rely on the fact that many people put £80 down to experience, reasoning that it is cheaper than taking a day off to go to court, and is not a conviction (but it does go on their PNC record and will be shown to any bench they appear before in the future).
Now watch for mission creep, as increasingly serious offences are dealt with behind closed doors.
It isn't justice.