Wednesday, May 29, 2013

No Need To Advertise

I was on the rota to sit a few days ago (Bank Holiday Monday). Our main courthouse dealt with all of the work that has come in since Saturday from the three London boroughs that make up our Local Justice Area. We opened two courtrooms, and the duty clerk told us that we had 22 people downstairs in the cells at ten o'clock. Inevitably there were delays while the CPS and defence solicitors sorted themselves out, so we didn't get started until nearly half past ten.
We saw the usual mix; a few breaches of bail, in which we had to decide whether or not to re-bail or remand in custody, a couple arrested on warrant for failing to turn up at court, some drug dealers arrested in warrant-backed raids on their homes, and some assaults.
One of the bail breachers had been on a 'doorstep' curfew from 7 till 7, and had simply got on a bus and gone to meet his mates. The police don't check every doorstep curfew every night, but our man got involved in a bit of a ruckus four miles from home. He tried giving a false name, but the Livescan fingerprint machine soon identified him, and he  was held overnight to be brought to court. A couple of youths were in the mix, and one sixteen year-old sticks in my mind. A skinny youth, he was uncommunicative and his body language made it clear that he wanted to express defiance. As I addressed him (using, as we must, his first name) he half turned to make it clear that he wasn't interested in what I had to say. His bail breach was so blatant that we sent him off to Feltham, to be brought before a youth court later in the week.
The men ( and they were all men or boys) who had been held overnight were all in custody because of previous bail breaches or simply their previous records.
We were all done by about two o'clock, so we were off into the sunshine, as the Serco prison vans prepared to pull out of the yard at the back.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Straw In The Wind

The MoJ has denied having plans for 'wholesale' privatisation of the courts. (Cue Mandy Rice-Davies:- "they would, wouldn't they?")

Until last Autumn my court had a nice little snack bar, looked after by a lady who supplied reasonably priced refreshments to court users, staff and magistrates. It was a meeting point for lawyers and others, and was run at no cost to HMCTS. Last Autumn the lady decided to move on, and the bar closed. We were assured that a replacement was being sought, but had to go through the full ponderous civil service procurement process. Then silence.

Recently a colleague was party to a conversation with someone from the court management side, in which he was told that the facility would not be replaced as a result of a "strategic" decision at MoJ level.

Could this be that it might be a tad harder to flog off the courthouse with a small business installed, or even that the deal might be tastier if the buyer could pop in a Costa franchise or suchlike?

Go on then, call me a cynic. In the wonderful world of the Civil Service, one man's cynic is another man's realist. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Horribly Plausible

Tuesday's 'Times' (££paywall) front-pages a story that the Courts' Service is to be privatised. The writers are respected journalists with good contacts, and I suspect that the core of the story is based on fact.

Oh dear.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sledgehammer 1, Nut nil

We had a run-of-the-mill no-railway-ticket case in the other day, and as usually happens the defendant sent in a postal plea of guilty. Even with the plea discount, the fine surcharge and costs usually amount to a hefty sum compared with the few pounds that a ticket costs.
This was an unusual one, though, as the previous convictions list showed that the chap was on a suspended sentence of 9 months from the Crown Court last Autumn, so this latest offence amounted to a breach. There was much leafing through law books and scratching of heads before the clerk announced that we would have to write to the fare dodger telling him that he would have to attend the Crown court and try to convince the judge not to implement all or part of the 'bender' as the pro's call it. That will have been a nasty surprise for our man.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Six of One......

We sat on a trial today that had been tagged (as is so common these days) as Domestic Violence. DV trials (when they finally go ahead, as so many do not) often boil down to "He said...She Said...."  in which we have to choose between two conflicting accounts of the same incident.

I cannot go into too much detail, but as the couple, whose relationship was as good as dead, gave their accounts of the incident that had led to charges, I had an uncomfortable feeling of being an intruder on private grief. Both of the parties were articulate and educated, but as the case unfolded  we heard old resentments and suspicions welling up,  that really had no place in a public forum like a courtroom.

In the final analysis we could not be sure beyond reasonable doubt that the Crown had proved its case, so we told the defendant that our verdict was Not Guilty. Tears of relief followed, but the couple, who have two young children, will still face the task of re-establishing a family that will offer stability and love to the children.

I wish them luck, but my hopes are not high.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Safety First

It is unusual to see a defendant brought into court wearing handcuffs. I have only seen a cuffed customer on a handful of occasions over the years, but yesterday I saw another one. The senior Serco guard from downstairs came into court with a written application to bring up the next defendant in handcuffs, and before he spoke the clerk gave us a briefing on the applicable procedure.
Cuffs are to be avoided whenever possible, because of the danger that they will prejudice the bench (or jury) against the defendant, but the court may grant permission under certain circumstances. Yesterday the person concerned had assaulted two staff by punching them in the face, and had then spent some time kicking off in her cell. We felt that cuffs were justified, so up she came.
We had to adjourn her case to get a report on her mental state, as something was clearly wrong.
She was just another example of the people who drop through the cracks between the courts and the NHS.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Not Long Enough?

As so often happens the 38 year minimum sentence handed down to Stuart Hazell has been greeted with cries that it was not long enough, and even that he ought to serve the time, and then be hung. Bereaved relatives of the victim may be excused such thoughts,and the reaction in the Mail's comments varies predictably between gloating and indignation that the sentence was so short.
Richard Littlejohn, the Mail's resident why-oh-why specialist has a go  with his customary vigour about 'honesty in sentencing' highlighting the release of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce who have been released exactly as per the standard procedure but whom the less scrupulous parts of the press are insinuating to have had special treatment.
To be fair, Littlejohn has a point; the way in which sentences are now presented does not increase public confidence in the justice system. My maximum sentence for a single offence is six months, but for a guilty plea it is effectively more like six weeks, albeit a quarter might be spent on a tag.
I fear that sorting this out has gone into the too-difficult box along with umpteen other issues.

Friday, May 10, 2013

It Goes On...

Thanks to the irreverent Popbitch for this:-

Leveson lawyer Robert Jay has been made a high court judge. Which means he'll
now be referred to as Jay J

I have met Judge Judge , and my local surgery has a Doctor Doctor. 

Where do we go from here?

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Big Deal

It is reported in this morning's paper that the penalty for using a mobile phone while driving is to be increased by 50%. I can confidently predict that this will make not a jot of difference to the number of people who break what must be the most-ignored law of recent times.
Many people do not think that the ban on hand held devices applies to them, up to and including HGV drivers, such as the Waitrose driver who drove his 40-ton artic through the narrow High Street of my home town last week with his phone to his ear. I use motorways a lot, and it is quite usual to see a powerful car pottering in the middle lane with the driver yakking or texting away as I pass him, only for him to resume his 100mph progress in the right hand lane a few minutes later.
It is simply impractical to clamp down on this dangerous practice (and texting at the wheel really does take the biscuit) because police traffic patrols have almost disappeared from the roads, and in any event, it isn't possible to see someone using a phone  at night, or in rain.
The long-term solution will lie in technology, but I doubt that we will see the will to use it.

Friday, May 03, 2013

At Last

I have previously said that I have never seen a case of prostitution, either because there isn't any on my turf, or because the police deal with it other than by an arrest.
Now that we are part of a larger Criminal Justice Area, we are getting a bit of  Street Offences work coming through, and yesterday we were faced with two Eastern European women in their early twenties who had been picked up after failing to take advantage of the cautions offered by the police. Neither had any previous convictions (neither spoke English either) so we fined them, and then deemed the fine served by the night they had spent in custody. In case you are interested, whatever they were offering (and we were not told) was available for thirty pounds.
As I was driving out of the car park I saw them sitting on the steps of the courthouse, enjoying the sunshine along with a cigarette.


I wrote some time ago about a regular customer whom I have been seeing on and off for almost two decades. He was back yesterday, for the usual pain-in-the-arse misbehaviour. As luck would have it our duty psychiatrist was at court, so he examined Daniel, and addressed us about what he had found.
The years have not been kind to the old man, and he is more confused than ever, but still has the capacity to flare up.
The system is not very good at handling mental illness, although it afflicts quite a high proportion of the people we deal with. We remanded him for reports, in the hope that he will be transferred swiftly from a prison environment to an NHS one.