Saturday, October 31, 2015

Droning On

For the first time I saw a case last week concerning the unauthorised flying of a drone near a licensed aerodrome. I can't say much more, but we did decide that a device weighing about 15kg (that's a stone to us oldies) **is capable of causing serious damage to an airliner if there is a collision, so it was off to Hizonner to deal with at the Crown Court.
** See numerous corrections in the comments. Mea Culpa.

Friday, October 23, 2015

There Are Cracks Appearing In The Dam

I have had my say about the Courts' Charge, and I have heard more than enough recitals of the MoJ line about those who use the courts...nada nada nada, but yesterday's Times piece by Jenni Russell was especially persuasive.  (sorry Rupert, but I do have a sub to your organ)

I think that this will get sorted out. Grayling remains beneath contempt.

Gove must reverse this court charge scandal

Jenni Russell
Jenni Russell

The justice secretary knows that penalising those least able to pay is unfair and unworkable
Chris Grayling, the former justice secretary, came up with a brilliant wheeze earlier this year to help fund Britain’s courts at a time of budget cuts. His solution was to get criminals to pay substantial sums towards the running costs, with those contesting their charges paying the most. Since April everyone found guilty in a magistrates’ or crown court would be automatically charged £150-£1,200 on top of any fines, prosecution costs or victim surcharges, and regardless of ability to pay.
Perhaps it looked good on paper. The Ministry of Justice estimated that it would raise £95 million a year. In practice, a source tells me, it’s delivering “significantly less”. Courts deal overwhelmingly with people who are poor and who lead chaotic lives; the homeless, mentally ill, alcoholics and drug addicts, those on restricted benefits. Remarkably, these people turn out to provide a most unreliable income stream. The scheme is unworkable, illogical and patently unjust.
Two months ago a penniless asylum seeker appeared in court in Leicester, charged with defaulting on a mandatory court charge of £180. The Catch-22 was that, as an asylum seeker, he has no income and is not permitted to work. He has no legal way of raising money. Whatever he does in this situation — works, begs, steals or defaults — he will be breaking the law.
A sympathetic burger-van owner who occasionally fed the man was so moved by his case that he paid £60 towards it; he wrote to the court to say he couldn’t afford any more. The magistrate, Nigel Allcoat, was so appalled by the young man in front of him facing jail for a debt that he couldn’t legally pay that he volunteered to contribute himself. He was instantly suspended for his intervention and subsequently resigned in protest at the illogicality and inhumanity of what he was expected to enforce.
Magistrates around the country are doing the same, in an unprecedented revolt. More than 50 of these highly committed volunteers have already gone; more are wavering; 93 per cent object to the charge because they can’t adjust it to fit the circumstances. As one said to me: charging drug dealers, wife beaters, white-collar fraudsters? Fine. A poor person stealing food? That’s insane.
The insanity is evident everywhere. An Oxfordshire woman who stole a bottle of shampoo worth £2.39 was charged £35 costs and a £15 victim surcharge but £150 for the court charge. A homeless woman begging in a Warwickshire car park, a teenager who stole £5 of sweets, a newly released prisoner who needed to wash and stole a tube of shower gel, a hungry woman on restricted benefits who stole Mars bars worth 75p; all these have been given unpayable extra bills of £150, which is likely to see them back in court. The ministry expects 5 per cent of the money raised to be spent on jailing defaulters.
More than two thirds of magistrates say the charge is affecting sentences, often perversely. In an effort to restore justice, some are reluctantly discharging minor offenders just to avoid a disproportionate fine. Others are deciding not to award costs to the Crown Prosecution Service in order to make the charge more affordable.
This system is indefensible, and under the new, reformist justice secretary, Michael Gove, the ministry is privately willing to admit it. “This is a friendless policy. We can’t hit huge numbers of people with irrecoverable debts,” one senior source told me. A working group is looking at restoring discretion to the courts, so that wealthy criminals and the “truly wicked” are made to pay, but the hopeless and the naughty given another chance. Their biggest problem, though, is proving to an implacable Treasury that they have an alternative income stream to replace the notional one.
This summer Gove suggested that the country’s big law firms should help to subsidise legal aid. They were outraged. I think he could go further.
It’s the giant law firms who make vast amounts of money from the legal system. The charges of the top partners have doubled to more than £850 an hour over the past decade. In 2013 the revenue of the top 100 firms rose 8 per cent to 19.1 billion. These are the people who profit from smooth-running courts and can afford to pay. A 1 per cent annual levy on turnover would raise £190 million, twice the courts charge prediction.
Radical ideas such as this are being pressed on the ministry. “All revenue streams are being considered, however controversial or surprising,” I was told. They will be made public by the end of next month, to coincide with the Spending Review.
This government is already in trouble for undermining those who can least afford it with cuts to tax credits. Gove, who takes one-nation compassionate Conservatism seriously, believes that his ministry should operate on the principle that those with the broadest shoulders should carry the most weight. Grayling’s changes were patently unjust; if Gove can reverse them, he deserves to be backed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


As one whose voluntary efforts are under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, I feel small but welcome relief that the MoJ will not now tout its services to the draconian Saudi authorities. The Justice ministry has already raised cash collection up its list of objectives, but this was a step too far.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Friday, October 02, 2015

Compassion? What's That?

This is the disturbing tale of an experienced magistrate whose sympathy for a down-and-out defendant got him into hot water.

The report speaks for itself, I can see the logic behind the official response, but it seems to have been a little heavy-handed.

I am reminded of a case well over a decade ago when a poor deserted woman was prosecuted for a car-related offence that was basically down to her ratbag boyfriend. Nevertheless, the bench was obliged to impose a fine and costs, totalling, as was the case in those days, about £40. One magistrate, who had better remain nameless, found this preying on his mind, and at the lunch break sought out a respected probation officer and asked her, on conditions of total secrecy, to take the cash to the court office, describing it as an anonymous  donation from a well-wisher. As far as I an aware, that was the end of it, Probation officers can be trusted to keep their mouths shut, and that avoided the flat feet of the authorities getting involved.