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The Magistrate's Blog (2005-2012)

This blog has migrated to www.magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk This blog is anonymous, and Bystander's views are his and his alone. Where his views differ from the letter of the law, he will enforce the letter of the law because that is what he has sworn to do. If you think that you can identify a particular case from one of the posts you are wrong. Enough facts are changed to preserve the truth of the tale but to disguise its exact source.

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Location: Near London, United Kingdom

The blog is written by a team, who may or may not be JPs, but all of whom are interested in the Magistrates' Courts.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Apocrypha (10)

I was listening to a less-than-riveting piece of evidence the other day when I was struck by the fact that nobody lives in a house any more. Everyone refers to their "property". I suppose that this is the result of the scores of turgid improve-your-home-and-make-a-bundle TV shows that are inflicted on viewers these days, but it manages to be both pompous and inaccurate. Property is a lawyer's word with a particular meaning, but we all know what a house is.

I may have to start clarifying matters when people refer to their property in the future. Just to ensure accuracy of course.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Sits. Vac

We need more magistrates. The workload is steadily increasing, and we need to see a net increase in our numbers in the next year or two. We have a steady trickle of retirements, and people move away, or change job, or suffer health problems.

What's the job spec. then? First of all, a commitment to serve the community, and secondly common sense. Thirdly enough time to do it, and employers' attitudes will of course vary. You must be able to sit a minimum of 26 half-days a year (although most courts sit full days) but that level means that you will take a long time to gain worthwhile experience of sitting on different sorts of cases. Most people sit for about 50 half-days, but some, such as yours truly, sit a great deal more. The Lord Chancellor grumbles about high sittings, but if the court rings me up and says that if I do not sit tomorrow they will have to close a courtroom, then I shall go in.

There is no pay, but travel and subsistence are reimbursed, and those who lose earnings can claim up to a certain amount per day. There are special arrangements for the self employed.

I shall not go into too much detail, but if anyone is curious, have a look at the Magistrates' Association site (link in the sidebar) which goes into things in depth. If you think that it might be for you, go and sit in your local court a couple of times (speak to the usher and tell them why you are there, and in some courts you might get a better seat and even a running list - you certainly do in mine).

If, having done that, you have any particular questions, either put them on the comments or email me, and I will see what I can do to help.

(Later) - I must just add one thing. Most people who apply are not appointed, but there is no shame in being rejected just as there is no honour in being chosen. Of course the assessment process is there to filter out those who are truly unsuitable (and one of the most damning is if the applicant is looking for a bit of prestige) but the committee have a duty to balance the bench in various ways to try to reflect the local community. Take the case that there are ten suitable applicants for five vacancies, but that the six most suitable are all men. Some of the less-suitable women will be appointed to maintain balance.

Someone wrote that Justice of the Peace is an honourable office, but that appointment is not an honour. It's a voluntary job of work.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Private or Public?

I dealt with a drink-drive case recently that hinged on whether a particular piece of ground was private or public, and, if the former, whether it was ground to which the public has access. This issue often arises in drink-drive offences that take place in pub car parks, and the case law is such that courts nearly always find that such car parks are in fact public places.

In the most recent case counsel had prepared photocopies of various judgements to help us, and one particular case rang a bell in my mind. I read it and I realised that it was a trial that I had sat on. The defendant appealed, and I was quite chuffed to read that the higher court had agreed with the magistrates.

Chatting about the case later, we were reminded of the sad tale of the eldest son of an aristocratic landowning family who had organised a gymkhana and fair on his family's estate. Some way into the day he was driving his Range Rover across a meadow when he stopped to speak to one of the local policemen who were supervising traffic in and out of the site. Eldest Son had taken some champagne with his pals earlier, and he was shocked and indeed furious when one of the officers required him to take a breath test (which he duly failed). Protesting loudly he was taken off to the nearest police station where the evidential machine produced a reading around double the limit.

Solicitors were instructed and the case came before the local bench, by which time learned Counsel had been engaged. The defence hinged on the fact that ES had been driving on his family's land where the Road Traffic Act does not apply. Unfortunately for him, the court found that the fact that the field was being used as a car park by members of the public made it fall within the category of a public place, albeit only for the two days of the event.

So he was convicted, and that conviction was upheld on the subsequent appeal. Summer event time is upon us again, so do be careful even if you think that you are on private land - there could be a nasty surprise in store.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Yet More Bail

I dealt with nine overnight cases the other day, and in each one the only issue was whether or not they were to be granted bail or remanded in custody. The Bail Act provides for a presumption in favour of bail unless there are 'substantial' grounds to fear that the defendant will abscond, commit further offences, or interfere with witnesses. What is 'substantial' is up to the bench and that is why bail decisions are among the real red meat of the magistrate's job.

Some cases were simple. The man who had a huge amount of cocaine (street value north of a quarter-million) and who therefore faces something like ten years, didn't apply for bail as his counsel had presumably told him that he had no chance because of the clear incentive to do a runner. Remanded in custody for a week. At the other end of the scale was a woman of 35 who appeared to be on the edge of being mentally unstable and who had smashed some glasses in her boyfriend's house and then had an unavailing poke at the police when they turned up. She couldn't be sent back to the address, of course, but her worried-looking mum was in court and offered to take her in, so I told her that she would be bailed on condition that she lives and sleeps at mum's place. The 18 year old street robber who had failed to answer bail on two separate mobile phone muggings was refused bail because he is looking at a considerable stretch despite his youth.

The trickiest was another woman of about 40 whose heroin addiction has led her to have a 14 page criminal record, almost all of it for small scale theft and deception. She had been arrested while she was already on bail for two similar offences, and by the book she should have been remanded in custody, for the obvious fear of further offences. She has four children, and is five months pregnant, and that's what clinched it for me. I re-bailed her, avoiding the eye of our resident police officer who was bound to be thinking that I was a soft touch. Perhaps I am, but she is non-violent, does most harm to herself, and I just wasn't prepared to send a pregnant woman to Holloway with the weekend looming.

Her tattooed boyfriend did call out "thank you Sir" as he left, so it's nice to have one satisfied customer at least.

Final score: five bail, four custody.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Tragic Shooting

I have just read the Met Police statement on the man who was shot by officers yesterday, and it appears that a dreadful mistake has been made. I have nothing to say about the incident - there will be a full enquiry of course, and whatever its findings I am sure that we will all recognise that in the present situation, just as in the earlier Irish conflict, mistakes will happen and innocent people will die.

What does strike me is that the gloating that took place after the event in the press ("One Down Three to Go") and on the Internet, where it was as intemperate as we must expect from this most uninhibited medium, now looks particularly foolish and disgusting.

Yet again, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. This is going to be a very long road, I am afraid.

Friday, July 22, 2005

I'm Flattered - Well, Up To A Point, Anyway

I have just noticed that in a post a few weeks ago, we got a mention in uklawyers legal newswires (by Steve Butler and Joe Reevy) number 55.

They quote the blog header, and say we are 'sometimes entertaining'.

Thanks guys, that's about on a par with the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy describing earth as 'mostly harmless'.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Encouraging News

A 15-year-old boy has won a landmark High Court challenge to the legality of child curfew zones used to tackle anti-social behaviour.
The teenager said the use of dispersal zones in Richmond, south-west London, breached his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Unaccompanied under-16s found in zones after 9pm can be held and escorted home, whether badly behaved or not.
The police and Richmond Council argued that it reduced anti-social behaviour.
The High Court ruled that the law did not give the police a power of arrest, and officers could not force someone to come with them.

Lord Justice Brooke said: "... All of us have the right to walk the streets without interference from police constables or CSOs unless they possess common law or statutory powers to stop us.
"If Parliament considered that such a power was needed, it should have said so, and identified the circumstances in which it intended t
he power to be exercised."


(from BBC News)

This is a poke in the eye for the authoritarians in the Home Office, and it is truly heartening to see one of our most senior judges standing up for the citizen's ancient rights.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Now That's What I Call Plucky

We heard a fairly simple trial today about some motoring offences involving drink and a bent motor car with a few other odds and ends that I can't mention without getting too close to giving the game away.

The defendant was represented by a barrister and was what lawyers call (often with discreet smacking of the lips) a 'private payer' so the bill for solicitor and counsel was coming out of his own pocket.

Not to put too fine a point on it, his defence case was a crock of..... no, let decorum reign and let me say that it was not too strong. He had admitted enough to the arresting officers to guarantee his conviction before any bench that I can imagine, and just to make certain he had dotted all of the whatsits and crossed all of the doodahs in a taped interview. Nevertheless, Not Guilty was the plea, as is his right, and an attractive young barrister (yes, the attractive is irrelevant, but I am allowed to notice) made the best of a bad job. To make matters worse for the defence the relatively inexperienced Crown prosecutor had to be elsewhere at short notice so a barrister was drafted in from Chambers. As luck would have it the Chambers clerk had already despatched all of his young tyros so we got, thanks to the cab-rank rule, a fifty-ish brief who had obviously got a lot of legal mileage on his clock.

Following her client's instructions the defending counsel put forward his story, that was both implausible and legally hopeless. She had a polite go at the police officers' evidence, but I really started to admire her when her client went into the box and dug himself even deeper into the mire. She kept her composure, and her closing address to the court was properly researched, impeccable as to case law, and delivered with bright-eyed conviction.

Conviction is what her client got too.

I admire her because faced with one of the worst defence scenarios since the Little Big Horn she did a professional job and carried on fighting for her client until the inevitably bitter end. She knew when she first got to her feet that she was on a loser but she gave it her best shot for her client. She had almost certainly advised him to plead guilty and get a bit off his sentence but he wanted to carry on, so carry on she did.

That's what makes the Bar (and criminal defence solicitors) so special in my view.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Disappointingly Prosaic

The rolling nineteenth-century prose of the Vagrancy Act 1824 made it an offence:-

to "willfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely expose the person with intent to insult any female". In a training handout that I was given years ago there was an asterisk against the word 'person' and a footnote that for the purpose of the Act 'person' meant 'penis'

This is the main offence committed by "flashers" - but note the necessity for there to be an intention to insult a female. This offence did not have to be committed in a public place. It was triable only by magistrates and carried three months imprisonment.

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 replaces these provisions with:-

66 Exposure
(1) A person commits an offence if-
(a) he intentionally exposes his genitals, and
(b) he intends that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress.
(2) A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable-
(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or both;
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years.

Not only has the lovely old statute that we all knew by heart been replaced by a drab piece of Parliamentary draftsmanship, but the offence may now be sent to the Crown Court. In the lower court the penalty has doubled, and the maximum penalty has increased eightfold.

It won't make a ha'porth of difference though, since your stereotypical flasher is not one to make a fine calculation of the penalties before hauling out his person - oh, sorry, I meant penis.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Golden Minutes

I have just been reading the comments on my Trial and Error post and the issue of the Police caution has come up. When we are hearing a trial, I give especial weight to what was or was not said in the first five minutes after arrest. It is a deep human instinct to react indignantly when wrongly accused - just try telling a child off for something that he did not do, and see how you get on. To take a simple example, if a driver is breath tested in a pub car park but waits until his trial three months later to claim that he was just moving the car to park it safely before walking home, we are entitled to wonder why he did not say anything to the officers at the time.

On another topic, one of the questions that friends ask me most frequently is "What do you think of Judge John Deed?" Well it is complete tosh of course, and a real-life Deed would be out on his ear in no time, but it is enjoyable tosh. I lunched with a roomful of judges last year, and they were all eagerly discussing what Deed would be getting up to in that evening's episode. I think that the idea of a judge being sexy rather appeals to them, and they empathise with the idea of sinister and manipulative civil servants trying to keep the judge in order.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Confession

I felt truly uncomfortable at court today, and then I went and did something that I did not believe in, for the sake of appearances.

In the pre-court gathering of the magistrates who were on duty today a senior member of the court staff came and told us that he was awaiting guidance from Head Office about the approach to be taken to the two-minute silence in memory of last week's murder victims and about the exact wording of the tannoy announcement to be made. My immediate reaction was that the Courts Service could direct its staff as it pleased, but had no right to tell any member of the judiciary what to do. My second reaction was one of irritation that highly paid staff of Her Majesty's Court Service saw the need to direct a standard script to be used from Truro County Court to the Old Bailey. Surely this sort of thing would be far better left to local judgement.

It was news to me but most colleagues felt that we should all assemble outside the courthouse just before noon, in response to exhortations in the press and from Whitehall. I deplore this kind of Dianafication of our society, and my instinct was to have nothing to do with it. I feel that public display is entirely un-British, mawkish, and self-indulgent. It turned out that I was the only magistrate not to head for the door at noon, so at the last moment I went out to the front of the court and stood rather awkwardly between a policeman and an usher while assorted defendants and their supporters sat on the low wall smoking.

So why did I do it? I think that I was anxious not to appear to be criticising my colleagues by staying inside and having a coffee, but now I wish that I had stuck to my principles. The Chairman of the Bench was sitting today, and he said earlier in the morning that he felt it right for all courts to adjourn briefly just before 12 noon, and that magistrates should use their own judgement as to whether to go outside or not. But they all went, so I went along with them.

Now I feel rather grubby.

Nobody could feel more sympathy that I for the victims of the terrorists, but I abhor stage-managed demonstrations of sympathy that are directed more at the six o'clock news than at the murderous fanatics - who would be utterly unimpressed anyway.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Trial and Error

When we sit on a trial, especially one that takes a few hours to hear, the whole pace of our work slows right down. Rather than the rapid-fire business of the remand court, when we might deal with 100 items of business in a day, or an afternoon spent sentencing cases that have had reports prepared, we have a chance to hear the whole of a case, from the prosecution’s opening statement to verdict and, if guilty, sentence.

When I first started hearing trials I was struck by the gentle unfolding of the story – after the prosecutor introduces the case everything looks straightforward, and then, one by one, the witnesses come forward, each with his or her piece of the jigsaw. What seems clear at the outset begins to take on unexpected nuances and angles. People tell us what they saw (or at least what they think they saw) and we take account of the way they give their evidence, and how they respond to cross-examination, that powerful tool that sometimes, with one question, snaps the light on in my head, and I can see: “Yes, that’s what happened”.

We are trained to consider evidence in a structured way, and we start by paring the case down to the agreed and the disputed facts. The agreed matters need not detain us, so we look at the crucial facts that will determine whether the Crown will prove its case. Where particular aspects of the law are involved the parties and our legal adviser will have given their opinions and advice in open court before we retire. We might be addressed on case law, on the elements of the offence, or on underlying principles such as the vital need to treat identification evidence with great caution. If I am part of a seasoned bench we might interrupt at the first mention of R v Turnbull, saying “We are familiar with the guidance in Turnbull, but if you wish to refresh our memory further, please do so”. Some advocates cannot take the hint, so our cup of tea, so essential to considering evidence, will have to wait a few more minutes.

Our task is to consider whether the Crown has proved its case Beyond Reasonable Doubt. That is not the same as deciding what really happened though. It is impossible to avoid forming your own idea of the true story, but we must keep that entirely separate from our verdict. The best place for it is in the post-court debrief between the bench and clerk.

A long time ago we heard a not-guilty plea to drink-driving. The defendant’s demeanour, not to mention his tie and the badge on his blazer, made it obvious that he was a former police officer. He was now employed as head of security at a large local business. The canteen lady had been found in possession of a part-used packet of bacon, and he had been sent for. Police were called. The two PCs who attended tried to persuade him not to press charges – the value of the stolen bacon was only a pound or two, and the lady would inevitably lose her job. He was adamant, quoting management orders, and the lady was duly arrested and taken to the police station. A couple of hours later the officers called from the station asking our man to go down to make a statement. He went about an hour later, made the statement, and spent a few minutes chatting about the old days when he had been in The Job. During the genial conversation it transpired that our former Sergeant had been to the Blue Lamp Club (the police sports and social club) earlier and had met a few old pals. He also casually mentioned that he had used the Old Pals’ Act to park in the Police Station car park.

Out of the blue, one of the PCs produced a breathalyser and asked him to take a breath test. He thought that it was a joke at first but he soon found out that it wasn’t. He failed, and was arrested and charged, which is how he ended up in court.

After the trial was over, we were sure that the full story was that the two young PCs had had quite enough of the old Sergeant’s patronising manner, and they were very unhappy about his pressing charges against the canteen lady. So they decided to teach him a lesson, on the basis that those who play everything by the book had better be careful to stay the right side of the law themselves.

The final twist in the tale is that we acquitted him. Once the officers formed a reasonable suspicion that he had been driving and that he had consumed alcohol, they had a duty under PACE to caution him before asking any further questions, and they didn’t. That made the arrest invalid, so off he went.

It’s better than the telly when that sort of thing happens.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Clarification

I have a link on the sidebar to Criminal Solicitor's interesting blog. I think that I should point out that he is a solicitor who represents criminals rather than a solicitor who is a criminal.

Register Your Car - Or Else!

I have grumbled before about the torrent of new legislation and procedure that has come close to overwhelming courts faced with making it all work. So much law has been hurriedly passed that the highest judges in the land have had to apply themselves urgently to make sense of it.

At the end of last year the first cases were heard by magistrates under the new continuous registration legislation, designed to ensure that all cars are either registered or subject to a SORN declaration that they are off the road. This legislation requires magistrates to impose a minimum penalty of £1,000 on those who have neither renewed their excise licence nor made an SORN declaration. This was fixed in the 2003 Finance Act and slipped through, unnoticed by the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Justices' Clerks' Society and the Magistrates' Association. Magistrates are given no discretion and do not have the power to take account of the defendant's means, which runs contrary to one of the basic principles of sentencing, and indeed of justice.

The Mags' Association has approached the DVLA and they have agreed to use the legislation only in 'exceptional circumstances'. No cases have been brought since last year.

So an unjust law is in force, and the enforcing authority has graciously consented not to use it!

What a shambles.

Friday, July 08, 2005

A Word of Thanks

This message, from Sharon, is one of the thoughtful responses that I have received to yesterday's attacks. It is moving, is it not, that the Internet draws strangers with shared values together.

Sir- I am a Probation Officer here in xxx and I recently found your blog and try to read it when I can. I have enjoyed reading about the workings of the UK legal system, from your point of view. However, this morning my husband woke me early to tell me to turn on the TV and see what had happened in London. I live and work just outside NYC and September 11, 2001 will be seared in my mind forever; that was the first thing I thought of this morning; that you were all going through a similar experience (although thankfully on a much smaller scale insofar as casualties and fatalities go). Please know that we on the "other side of the pond" have you all in our thoughts and prayers. I hope that you, yourself, are safe and well, and your family, friends and coworkers are as well. We here in the US received many messages of support after 09-11 and it was meaningful to know that others cared. Sadly, it is my turn to return the favor. Stay strong.

Sharon

Quiz Answers

Here are the guideline entry points for sentencing the various theft-related offences that I posted the other day:-


1) Aggravated Vehicle Taking (i.e. where damage is caused)
Custody
2) Burglary (Dwelling)
Commit to Crown Court
3) Burglary (Non-Dwelling)
Community Penalty
4) Evasion of Duty (e.g. smuggled cigs or alcohol)
Community Penalty
5) Going Equipped for Theft
Community Penalty
6) Handling Stolen Goods
Community Penalty
7) Making Off Without Payment ('bilking')
Discharge or Fine
8) Obtaining By Deception
Community Penalty
9) Social Security Fraud
Community penalty
10) Taking Vehicle Without Consent
Community Penalty
11) Theft
Community Penalty
12) Theft in Breach of Trust
Custody

No two offences are exactly alike of course; theft can be a £10 shoplifting or a £75,000 Porsche so sentences can go up or down the scale, but this will give you some idea of where we start our deliberations.

A Slightly Odd Day

It was an unusual day yesterday. I spent all day sitting in court while dreadful events were taking place a dozen miles to the east of us. Being in a courtroom is rather like being sealed off from the outside world, and we had to get by on snippets of information from the ushers. We heard that the local Tube station was closed, and then the High Street was cordoned off. Some mobile phones had a signal, and some did not, but we had no idea whether that was official action or simple network overload.

We started our list at 10 a.m. as usual, at which time the situation in central London was still unfolding. Three of our early cases involved people from east and south-east London and it was clear that they would face a gruelling journey home. A few barristers could not get to court, but hasty calls to local firms of solicitors ensured that their clients were represented. We sat on into the lunch break to deal with custody cases, so that the contractors could get the prison vans away as early as possible, given the inevitable traffic chaos, and the fact that we commit to prisons in central London.

One of my colleagues was sitting for the last time before her retirement after 18 years on the bench, so she certainly had a last day to remember.

Back in January I wrote about young Billy Nutt who decamped from the courtroom shortly after I had sentenced him to five months in prison. He was eventually recaptured and given some more time for his escape. Yesterday he was back in again for some petty offence or other. When he stepped into the dock our eyes met, and he gave me a very wary look indeed. We bailed him to get legal advice, so on this occasion he walked out of the main door, rather than leaping through the glass as he did on the last occasion.

It was a busy day, but one thing that sticks in my mind is seeing yet another case of cannabis-induced psychosis. It is quite common now for consultant psychiatrists to refuse to treat patients further when, having been stabilised in hospital, the patient scurries off to his dealer as soon as he is discharged, and smokes himself back over the edge. This chap tossed in some alcohol and cocaine as well, just to ensure that his brains were well and truly scrambled. He has a tendency to become violent so when we sent him to prison we tipped off security who sent a small posse to ensure that he went safely down to the cells. He called me a c*nt on the way to the stairs, but I’ve been called worse.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Some You Win.........

We sat on a trial today, listed for four hours as there were three civilian witnesses and two police officers. As usual, we could not start at 10 a.m. because two prosecution witnesses and one for the defence had not yet arrived and the defence lawyer had not spoken to his client, because the said client had the misfortune to be arrested on another matter last night, so was unavailable for a consultation at 9.30 a.m.

We grudgingly allowed time for things to be sorted out, and we finally got under way just before 11 a.m. By this time the missing prosecution witnesses had turned up, and faced with that fact, coupled with the absence of his only defence witness (who had turned off his mobile phone) our man threw in the towel and changed his plea to guilty.

The offences were quite serious, so we ordered pre-sentence reports since it looked as if a community sentence, or quite possibly prison, were on the cards. Probation started the reports process but it soon became apparent to them that there was much more to our man's background than met the eye at first, so they asked us to put it off for three weeks to allow a thorough look at his offending and his background. We adjourned the case, and I gave him the usual warning that he was facing prison and that he must co-operate with probation (not as obvious as it sounds - 35% don't turn up for the interview and have to be arrested).

So that was the four hours (more than half a court day) gone. We helped other courts with their cases, and finished fairly early.

Our defendant gambled and lost on the possibility of the prosecution witnesses not turning up. Unluckily for him they are employed by a large employer that has a policy of always supporting prosecutions of offences on their premises. Sadly, his gamble was based on a reasonably good assessment of the odds - but there are no certainties.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Theft - Quiz

I have just been looking through my new Bench Book, and I thought that I would put a few groups of offences on to see what people think the guidelines are.

A few points first. All guidelines are for a first time offender pleading not guilty (so no discount on sentence). Aggravating and mitigating circumstances are looked at before passing sentence, but see if you can work out the starting point.

Available sentences are:-

A) Conditional Discharge or Fine
B) Community Sentence
C) Custody
D) Commit to Crown Court for sentence
Looking at the common dishonesty offences, what is the starting point for:

1) Aggravated Vehicle Taking (i.e. where damage is caused)
2) Burglary (Dwelling)
3) Burglary (Non-Dwelling)
4) Evasion of Duty (e.g. smuggled cigs or alcohol)
5) Going Equipped for Theft
6) Handling Stolen Goods
7) Making Off Without Payment ('bilking')
8) Obtaining By Deception
9) Social Security Fraud
10) Taking Vehicle Without Consent
11) Theft
12) Theft in Breach of Trust
Don't forget that these are starting points - courts commonly go up or down the tariff depending on the circumstances.

Monday, July 04, 2005

They Did What?

I could hardly believe my eyes this morning when the front page of The Times claimed that one teenager in ten had carried a gun out of fear. My immediate reactions were twofold - a snort of derision, and then I hurled the paper onto the floor.

The report was such obvious nonsense that I have been looking out for some kind of source for it, and now, on the Murdoch (same chap who owns The Times) Sky News we have it. (heavily edited by me, my comments in italic)

-----------------------

GUN CARRIED BY ONE-IN-10
One schoolboy in 10 has carried some kind of gun in the last year, according to a report on youth violence in London.

Some 1% of children had carried a real handgun, the research showed, but 6% had claimed to have fired one.

Police are "concerned" at the results gleaned from Hackney, Newham, Lambeth, Southwark, Brent and Haringey. (Six of the toughest and most violent inner-city boroughs in the country)

A Home Office spokesman said: "The Violent Crimes Bill which is currently going through Parliament contains new measures to ensure that police and local communities have the powers they need to tackle guns, knives and alcohol-related violence. (So this spurious story has been fed to a gullible press by the Home Office to reinforce its political agenda)

"In particular, the Bill proposes increasing from 17 to 18 the age for acquiring or possessing an air weapon without supervision and raising the minimum age at which a person can buy a knife from 16 to 18."
(Which will have no perceptible effect on the problem. The naivety of these proposals beggars belief).

So one percent of schoolboys in the six toughest boroughs in London 'claim' to have 'carried' a 'real' gun.

And that's the front page of the country's senior newspaper. The headline suggested that up to a million kids have gone about tooled up, and the reality is that a few hundred,or even a couple of thousand teenage boys have claimed to be dead hard - probably even more claimed to have shagged Billie Piper.

As they say in the USA - Puh-leeze!




Hate Mail

I found this comment, sent in by a reader, on the Daily Mail website:-

......... I think there are more serious issues to consider, such as why the magistracy and judisciary (sic) of this country hand such appallingly lenient sentences to those who choose to interfere with children well under the age of puberty. This surely can't be right and I am no great fan of the video mobile phone myself. I think it is an invasion of privacy and is an inadvertent version of Big Brother. But until the magistracy and judisciary (sic) of this country is overhauled, the paedophile will continue to be given the now-seemingly acceptable few weeks or months in prison and be allowed to work with children through jobs as janitors and what have you.

- Jamal Osei-Bonsu, Watford, England, UK

Well, Jamal, where to start, eh? Leaving aside your linking of lenient sentencing to video-mobile phones and inadvertent (huh?) versions of Big Brother, the kind of sentence you are worried about doesn't happen, and convicted paedophiles are not given jobs as (presumably) school janitors. But nothing anyone says is going to change your mind is it?

It's the same with speed cameras. I am pretty sure that a majority of people believe the falsehood that they are all about raising revenue, a canard that is assiduously encouraged by the pro-speed lobby. No amount of factual argument will shift that particular idea.

"A lie can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on."

Friday, July 01, 2005

Old Soldier

He was in his sixties, I would say, and from the way that he stood up straight in the dock and looked directly at the bench it was pretty obvious that he had been a soldier in his time. Arms at his sides, he gave crisp replies to the Clerk's questions. He wasn't on our list, and it turned out that he was on bail for a petty theft, but being of No Fixed Abode he was living in a bail hostel until his case came to court. He had walked out of the bail hostel that morning, got on a bus and come to court, where he asked to talk to the magistrates. We had a slot free, so in he came, and he told us that he didn't like the bail hostel because he had to share a room, that he wasn't going back, and that he knew that he was breaking his bail so please would we send him to prison? "I've done a lot of time on the Island" he said "I like Wandsworth best; you know where you stand there".

We were nonplussed. We asked probation to see if a single room was available - it was not. No other hostels had any places. We were reduced to trying to coax him into staying out of prison, but he wasn't having it. So we remanded him in custody, and he stepped off happily through the door that leads down to the cells, with a polite "Thank you sir". The items that he had shoplifted were a Mars Bar and two Bic pens, valued at no more than a pound.

I was a new magistrate at the time, and I have often wondered about that old boy over the years. He was obviously institutionalised (Wandsworth is known as a tough no-nonsense prison and lots of old lags prefer it that way). Having No Fixed Abode is usually a valid ground for refusing bail, since there is no address where the court can send documents. Nowadays I am much more experienced and I am pretty sure that I would grant him unconditional bail, NFA or not. Locking somebody up for such a pathetic theft is totally out of proportion - but - if the same thing happened today and I bailed him, would I really be doing him a favour? He would be turned out on to the street from the court, and then what does he do? Inside he gets three meals a day, his life is entirely regulated by others as it has been for most of his life, and he has a roof over his head.

There is no right answer to that one, I am afraid. In the absence of effective social services for someone like the old soldier we end up spending hundreds of pounds a week to keep him in prison. It makes no sense, but what else can we do?

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