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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, April 30, 2006

Abuse of Process

Marcin Tustin raises an interesting point in the comments on the asylum thread:-
Can magistrates strike out prosecutions coming before them as an abuse of process, on the grounds that the Crown has put the defendant in an impossible situation?

For a thorough guide to Abuse of Process you should have a look at Andrew Keogh (just use the site's search facility).
I am not a lawyer, but I have heard a few Abuse arguments. These tend to be threatened more often than they are advanced, but justice requires courts to look carefully at what parties are asking them to do.
We accepted an AoP argument only last week, but it is too fresh to blog, so I shall give you an outline of one that we heard a few years ago.
There was an incident at one of the major businesses in our area, in which strong words were exchanged between a worker and his supervisor. Tempers ran high, there was a scuffle, and one or more blows were struck. The protagonists were separated, and later that day a meeting took place, chaired by the shop steward of the union, in his office. The shop steward very properly mediated the dispute, and a form of words was agreed that was intended (or so we found, having heard evidence) to lay the matter to rest. A letter was drafted on Union notepaper, and signed by all present.
Some days later one of the parties went to the police and alleged an assault. The other party was arrested and charged.
The defence argued that the procedure in the Union office was intended to be the end of the matter, and created a legitimate expectation that this would be the case. We were pointed to the case of R v Croydon Justices, and both parties addressed us at length, as did our clerk. We found for the defence, went back in, and announced that we were staying the proceedings as an abuse of process. That was it, legally, and when we debriefed over coffee with the clerk we concluded that the case law had pointed us to a decision that was also fair in all the circumstances.
So Abuse arguments are an important protection to the citizen. They invariably involve a lot of law and they can be challenging to a lay bench, but with a professional performance by the parties' representatives and quality advice from the clerk, we can be happy that we have come to a just conclusion.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Apocrypha (16)

When I win the Lottery I shall have the Queen's printers prepare me a document, laid out by the finest graphic artists, and on the most expensive hand-laid parchment.

It will be a re-telling of the tale of "The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf".

Once it has been printed, and bound in calfskin, I shall present a copy to each and every one of the people who control our motorway matrix signs, and urge them to commit it to memory.

For those who even then fail to get the point, may I just say:-

AFTER THE TENTH SPURIOUS WARNING PEOPLE STOP TAKING NOTICE OF YOUR SIGNS! WATCH THE CCTV AND TURN THE BLOODY THINGS OFF WHEN THE EMERGENCY HAS PASSED!

Get it, chaps?

Good Link

The BBC website has a very useful in-depth look at prisons which contains some thought-provoking facts and figures. Well worth a look if you have a little time to spare.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Lunatic Asylum

I am not in the least bit surprised at the brouhaha over the release of foreign offenders into the community after they have served prison sentences when many of them should have been deported.
My court's area is very diverse, and we often have to deal with foreign nationals. Some of them go to prison, but on release they just go back to being asylum seekers, a status that can easily continue for years. The system simply can't cope. To give an example, there are many Chinese nationals who have entered the country illegally. They are for the most part entitled to no benefit, nor are they allowed to work. There is no room for them in detention (and no prospect of building any more space, for planning and financial reasons) so they scratch a living, often by selling counterfeit DVDs and CDs or other pirated goods originating in the Far East. We have imprisoned some of these people (we had no alternative, since they had breached suspended sentences) but their lawyers' argument has some weight - if he can't work and can't claim, what's he supposed to live on?
In addition, there is the fact that China refuses to accept them back, so deportation is more or less impossible. Add to that the fact that we have no real idea who many of them actually are since they arrive in the UK without documents.
I am not making a political point here, as I don't think that it's a party issue. Nobody could have forseen the millions of people who are moving around the world in search of a better life (it isn't just a UK problem either) and there are no plans and no strategy to deal with them.
Just a final example of the sort of problems we face: DVLA will not issue a driving licence to an asylum seeker if his identity is uncertain (as in so many cases) as that would involve the Government issuing them with an official document. Therefore they cannot take a driving test and by definition cannot insure a car. And yet they take the kind of crap jobs that often involve working odd hours in out of the way places, so to get there they buy an old banger and take a chance on driving it. When they are caught and come before magistrates you can imagine the difficulty.

For Those Who Like This Sort Of Thing This Is The Sort Of Thing You Will Like

The estimable Harry Hutton has produced a short film and put it on his blog, Chase Me Ladies.

I think it is extremely funny, but I can't work out why. Many of you will simply be baffled, I imagine.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Teaser

In the last week or do I have been involved in a number of fascinating cases that involve revealing aspects of human nature and a few bits of brand-new law, in one case accompanied by a right try-on by the CPS.

I can't blog any of it, because the cases are sufficiently out of the ordinary to be readily identifiable. I shall therefore have to wait for a few months to allow some cases to appear that will let me merge and composite them with the recent ones so that I can anonymise them.

Sorry.

A Welcome Newcomer

The Probation Officer's Blog is a welcome addition to the links on the sidebar. Probation is an essential (albeit unglamorous, underfunded and often misunderstood) part of the Criminal Justice system; we have been getting some high-quality and well-informed debate in the comments recently, and Probation input will be welcome.

Monday, April 24, 2006

More Hard Times

A Leading Article in today's Times adds its voice to the near-universal condemnation of the so-called Victims' Advocates' scheme. In the same edition Frances Gibb, Legal Editor, writes about the enormous cut in funding that is being imposed on the courts' service just at a time when the demands on it are increasing.

I have not spoken to a single person who works in the courts, lay or professional, who does not see trouble ahead. I have never been a fan of conspiracy theories, preferring as I do the cock-up theory as the most likely explanation for events, but sometimes the idea of a conspiracy looks attractive.

On top of likely trouble in the courts, the Probation Service faces an increase in its workload, from Custody Plus and pressure to improve supervision of prisoners released on licence. It is widely expected that many Custody Plus sentences will be breached and result in prison sentences, at the same time as the Parole Board delays the release of more offenders for reasons of safety. Since the prisons are already full, something is going to have to give.

Whatever happened to joined-up government?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Death On The Roads Again (2)

Lennie Briscoe asks:-
And your thoughts on the female driver who crashed killing
3 children in the car and another motorist and only got 2 years?
I do feel as though something is wrong with the system sometimes.


Well, in this tragic case the woman lost control of her car that was over-full of her and others' children, and crashed. There was no crash barrier at the scene, but one has since been installed. She stands convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. The maximum penalty is 14 years in prison, and the judge gave her 2 years. She pleaded guilty so the judge's starting point will have been 3 years.

I have mixed feelings about this. Of course society takes a serious view of death caused by bad driving, while remaining remarkably unconcerned by the ten people killed on an average day. This woman's driving was bad enough for her to have accepted that it was dangerous, and that she should have been aware that it was dangerous, presumably in that overloading and speed led her to lose control (although she was within the speed limit).

Prison therefore seemed inevitable to the judge. And yet, I ask myself whether the fact of her incarceration will make a single driver more careful - after all, nobody sets out to have an accident. Then there is her 13 year-old son, who suffered the trauma of a bloody accident, and was himself badly injured. He spent time in hospital, and now he is to be deprived of the comfort of his mother for twelve months. How does society gain from that? That leaves us with 'sending a message' I suppose, as well as an element of revenge, although for some people no sentence would ever slake their thirst for vengeance.

The offence falls clearly into the custody band. The judge was quite right to see things as he did, but I would have suspended it, and imposed the most onerous community punishment that I could. But then I am not a judge, and I have the luxury of making the decision in theory, whereas he had to do it for real.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Another Plug

Anyone in the South Bucks area might like to know that Wycombe Magistrates' Court is having an open day on Saturday 22nd April from 10 am to 4 pm. I know a couple of Wycombe JPs and they tell me that there will be displays from different agencies, mock trials, visits to the cells, and even the chance to have your picture taken behind bars. There will be plenty of active magistrates to talk to, as well as court staff.

Recommended.

(sneaked up to the top of the blog by a cunning edit)

Welcome Aboard

Today's Times carries an article by Alice Miles pouring scorn on the stupid plan to allow relatives of murder victims to address the court. I had my five penn'orth here last year.
Sadly, I think that it's unstoppable. It says a lot about the Government's approach to the courts. Who would believe that there are so many lawyers in the Cabinet when they can impose this cruel and legally pointless circus on court and victims alike?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Aggrieved?

I choose not to sit in the Youth Court, but sometimes the adult bench has to deal with a youth (i.e. under 18) if they have just been arrested and there is no qualified youth bench available that day. We will just remand them over to the next available Youth Court sitting, and decide whether to bail them.

Back at the beginning of the year we saw a young man of just 15 who had been picked up for the third breach of his ASBO. The breach involved his being in the company of a similarly ASBOed youth who shared his proclivity for theft, fighting, criminal damage and general mayhem. There was no suggestion that he had committed any offence other than the breach of the ASBO conditions.

He sat in the custody dock wearing the blank expression that feral young men adopt in the face of authority when it has become imprudent to adopt the foul-mouthed aggressive approach that they adopt when in street-corner groups.

His solicitor (who must have mixed feelings about a lad who brings in such good and regular business from the Legal Aid fund) spoke warmly on his behalf, stressing that he had not misbehaved, other than by being in company that was specifically forbidden by his ASBO. "I have behind me two aggrieved parents" he declared, gesturing at the couple sitting a couple of rows back, and went on to say how unfair they thought the police had been in arresting their son and heir.

That word 'aggrieved' made me think. Perhaps if the parents had diverted a little of their well-honed sense of grievance to their son's behaviour during the years of truanting and eventual exclusion from school there might have been no ASBO and no arrest. He might even be able to read and write as well.

He's a victim all right, but not in the way that the parents think.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Tongues of Men

I have mentioned before that in a diverse place like London the courts get to use a lot of interpreters. For the second time in my experience we had a Tigrinya interpreter the other day, followed by a chap translating to and from Amharic. "Blimey" I thought. "Wasn't that Jesus' language?" Well, no, actually. That was Aramaic, as I found out when I looked it up on Wikipedia
We live and learn.

One For The Nerds

I have come across a few figures that show the cost of running a group of courts (as it happens, Greater Manchester) in 2003.

There were 104 courtrooms, served by 1849 magistrates and four District Judges. Running costs were £21.37 million, and of those staff costs made up 69%, premises 17%, supplies and services 11%, and magistrates' expenses 5%.

Magistrates' expenses averaged £565.71 per head, or about £11 per week each.

Since these figures were put together HMCS has taken over the running of the courts, so don't be surprised if the figures for April 2005 onwards show a sharp increase in central admin costs, will you?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Fixed Penalties - again.

The Mail on Sunday (not my favourite newspaper, but all due credit for this one) carries the story of someone who was given a fixed penalty while seriously ill.

At the risk of labouring the point ad nauseam, may I just reiterate my view that policemen are not equipped or trained to decide whether a penalty is appropriate or not. It would not be fair to ask them to do it. Their job is to deal with the immediate problem, and pass it on to a court for a considered decision.

The Mail story tells us what can go wrong with the 'summary' justice that is so close to Tony Blair's heart.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Cautions for Rape?

This week's headlines have waxed wroth over the news that in recent years some 40 rape cases per annum have led to a caution rather than a court appearance. The tabloids have drunk deep at this spring, suiting as it does their parallel agendas of sexual titillation and of calling down the wrath of God on sex offenders. Kiddie fiddlers are demonised two pages away from Charlene (16 of course) getting her tits out for the lads.

I have absolutely no knowledge of any of these cases, but two things occur to me, the first far more important than the second.

The first is that we are talking about forty cases in a year - a number that is statistically insignificant.

The second is gleaned from the little detail that has been released, reinforced by the experience that I have accumulated over time:-

Rape is an infinitely variable crime - the stereotypical stranger leaping out of the bushes is far less usual than the murky waters of so-called date rape and of rape within families and communities. Nearly all of it goes unreported (which is not to belittle the impact on victims) and when a rape is reported, however unusual the circumstances, CPS and police guidelines mean that there will usually be a charge.

So when for example a sibling-on-sibling rape from 50 years earlier is alleged, for whatever reason, and the perpetrator admits it, is a caution so inappropriate? I won't go on with examples, because we can all imagine others, but let's keep a sense of proportion here - what does society have to gain from a full-on prosecution?

Sometimes the law has to stand back and let go. These cases are probably in that category.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Annoying Facts - 4

Most criminal solicitors and barristers are badly paid, despite their being honest, hard working and devoted to their clients’ interests. A young barrister probably earns less than the bus driver who takes him to the court.

It is nonsensical that someone can receive a police caution for theft or assault or burglary (or rape!) but not for drink driving just above the limit.

Secret? What Secret?

An apparently deranged man has been arrested in the grounds of the White House. Nothing new about that - it happens quite often.

What did puzzle me was the fact that one of the armed officers who grabbed him was wearing a blouson jacket with "POLICE" and "SECRET SERVICE" on the back.

So what's the secret chaps?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Limitations

I have written before about the limitations of the criminal justice system when dealing with certain types of people, especially those with learning difficulties or mental health issues. The law and the courts are geared to punish and deter, or, through the medium of community orders, to attempt rehabilitation and reform. None of this is of any use in dealing with people who are, frankly, not really fit to be allowed to live alone but not eligible to be cared for in the health system.

Daniel is a slight young man in his early twenties. He lives in social housing, and receives benefit, as he is likely to do for the rest of his life. His IQ hovers in the 70s. Generally he gets by, and does little or no harm, but he has a weakness for making nuisance phone calls; this is something that the courts take seriously, and for which prison is often imposed. But all four of the calls with which Daniel has been charged were to the police. He didn't have the nous to cover his tracks, and was arrested.

What on earth are we to do with him? In law he is fit to plead, knows the consequences of his actions, and should be treated like any other offender. None of us could even contemplate prison for him; quite apart from the naive and pathetic nature of the offences he would certainly suffer bullying in any kind of custody. So we put the case back for reports, to see if some kind of supervision could be sorted out, but we were not hopeful as Probation usually won't touch a first offender. Unpaid work is probably out on health and safety grounds. The report came back before a different bench, so I don't know what happened to him, but I do know that the majesty of the law is a blunt instrument when we sometimes need a scalpel.

Perceptive


Of the 100-plus comments (edit - now 150-plus) that we have had on the Annoying Facts threads, one, signed Homemade, stands out:-
It never ceases to amaze me how many (mostly angry) posts you get about speed cameras but so few (relatively) on fundamental changes to our judicial system and the erosion of checks and balances in the UK.

I think that you are on to something here, Homemade. You could abolish Habeas Corpus and trial by jury with less fuss than the Mr. Toad lobby makes over the fact that new technology has made it much easier to enforce speed limits than hitherto.

The sophistry deployed by the pro-speed lobby never ceases to amaze me. I have to grant them one thing though - they have successfully managed to put across the untruth that cameras are there to raise revenue, such that a majority of people believe it to be true.

Trawling through the pro-speed websites you come across the most outrageous defiance of logic and common sense, and convoluted arguments that would not have disgraced a fourteenth-century theologian. The other day some oaf was claiming that children are being run over because drivers are too busy watching their speedometers to watch out for pedestrians. There is a word for that, and the word is "bollocks".

Here's a couple of bonus Annoying Facts for the speed lobby:-

1) Cars are easier to control at lower speeds than they are at higher speeds, and the drivers have more time to react.

2) It requires little in the way of intelligence or skill to drive a car, and the traffic laws must be set to the lowest common denominator. Those of us blessed with razor-sharp reactions and finely honed skills, driving our high performance cars, will have to drive slower than we would like because some people out there really aren't very good drivers.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Annoying Facts - 3

Fines on poor people are often too high, and on rich people are invariably too low.

Annoying Facts - 2

Anyone with a clean criminal record is 90% certain to have retained it through sheer good fortune.

Not all sociopaths are members of the underclass. Poor ones express rage through knives and knuckles. Others use Porsches. Or Mondeos.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Annoying Facts - 1

This is a series of facts that (despite their being true) irritate the hell out of many of our fellow citizens. I shall trickle them into the blog one or two at a time in order to irritate the sort of people who most need to be irritated – in my opinion of course.

Speed limits save lives. Slower is safer.

Most drug addicts are happy that way

More to follow, soon.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Suppressio Veri, Suggestio Falsi Again


I have already made my views clear on the subject of sentencing drivers who have killed someone. Today's papers (and it's my fault for being such an avid reader, I know)are full of stuff like the Mail's headline. The driver concerned got 18 months. He will, as the law prescribes, have received a third off his sentence for his plea of guilty. He will also, as the law prescribes, be released at the halfway point of his sentence - just like everyone else - so he will serve 9 months. But he has already served a lot of time in custody pending sentence, a fact that the papers choose to ignore, so that they can trumpet that he will be 'out in four months' or whatever. Now there is a perfectly legitimate argument that his sentence was or was not appropriate. I am just depressed that the press have again resorted to deliberate distortion of the facts to make the story a bit more sensational.

Summary?

One of the Government's favourite words these days, when speaking about reform of the justice system, is 'summary'. Tony Blair uses it all of the time. A quick look at Google produced these on page one:-
First, a radical extension of summary powers to police and local authorities to take on the wrong doers.......

There will be a radical extension of compulsory drug testing for offenders; a doubling of investment in drug treatment; summary powers to deal with drug dealers and with the violence from binge-drinking......

On law and order, Mr Blair emphasised his 'respect' agenda, with plans for a "radical extension" of police and local authorities' summary powers to take on wrongdoers......

Tony Blair announced new Home Office powers today that will end Britain's tradition of giving safe haven to foreign radicals and will allow foreigners accused of inciting extremism to be summarily deported......


That's one of those English words that has one meaning in the dictionary, but many more when used with the inflections and nuances of speech and writing.

The learned folk of Cambridge define it as:-
adjective [before noun]
done suddenly, without discussion or legal arrangements:
summary arrest/dismissal/execution
and that seems to summarise (Sorry!) the official enthusiasm for fixed-penalty type justice. The Magistrates' Association is very concerned about bodies other than courts imposing sanctions on people, and with good reason. What is a convenience in the hurly-burly of parking regulation and minor traffic law can soon become oppressive when extended to other offences, and that extension is exactly what the powers-that-be are aiming at.

Wrapped in a blanket of weasel phrases such as 'pre-court diversion' and 'conditional cautions' we are on the way to empowering salaried public employees, ultimately answerable to a Minister and therefore anything but independent, to impose penalties way above and beyond fines and including deprivation of liberty on the Queen's subjects.

It's wrong. It may well be introduced anyway. It will inevitably lead to injustice. But on the sofa at No.10, whomever's bum it supports, it will look like efficiency.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Getting The Cash In

I made my first-ever Collection Order for a fine this week.

A few years back the court's performance in collecting the fines it had imposed was frankly pathetic. Any private-sector Financial Director who only got in about half of the money due to him would get his P45 in short order. We are starting to get a grip now, and our rate is over 80%, which is not as bad as it looks, since we often write off sums because they were too high in the first place (usually where a poor person does not turn up to court, so is fined on an average-income basis) or because the fine has been overtaken by events, usually a prison sentence.

We now have a full-time Fines Officer who has powers delegated from the court. Attachment of Earnings and Deduction from Benefit are now standard procedures, and in addition he can send in the bailiffs, or order a car to be clamped. Once that happens the magistrates have the power to order its sale (not that many of the bangers we deal with are worth more than the price of a cup of tea and a sandwich). The defaulter can also be registered with the usual credit reference agencies, which will impair his ability to pile up goods using his credit card while the court goes unpaid. One day soon we should also be able to order unpaid work in lieu of some fines.

If all else fails we can still imprison in default, but that is purely pour encourager les autres, as money is spent on jail costs and the fine is cancelled. Fingers crossed.

New Man At The Top


I had a very posh envelope in my post yesterday, carrying the Royal Cipher on the flap. I opened it with trembling fingers: what was it? A knighthood? An OBE? The sack?

No, it was a letter to all magistrates from the new head of the judiciary, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers (I looked it up; it's in Dorset). From this month Charlie Falconer, the cheery chappie, loses his job as I/C judges and magistrates in the desirable cause of separating the incorruptible and impartial judiciary from scurvy politicians. The Lord Chief Justice is now the boss, but it is such an enormous job, with 400 statutory functions, that he will have to delegate large parts of it to other judges.

In time Lord P will preside over the Supreme Court, to which end the Crown Court is being turfed out of the Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square. I am told that the 21st-century court will not have the bench-and-well-of-court structure of the Crown Courts, but will be on a flat floor. It will need a lot of space, because the most constitutionally important cases might be heard by a court of a dozen judges or so.

The business displaced from Guildhall has to go somewhere, so the Crown Court system in London is going to be re-jigged, with new courtrooms here and there and wholesale reallocation of work.

In the meantime the rumour mill has gone into overdrive, because there is a buzz that the eight percent budget cut cannot be accommodated without tearing up the existing courts' system in London (implemented only recently) and making swingeing cuts. Managers are starting to dust off their CVs (or they will if they have any sense).

Interesting times. Lord Phillips has work to do to ensure that whatever reorganisation is inflicted on us this time does not impinge on judicial independence. Welcome aboard, Guv.

Poetry Corner

I couldn't resist this, lifted from today's Times column by Giles Coren, scion of the well-known North London family-owned humour-milling business:-

The Love Song of J. Alfred Blair

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Or upon a trolley in a corridor,
Which is hardly the Government’s fault,
The NHS we inherited was rubbish, you see,
And these things take time.
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
Which will be entirely deserted
When councils really get the hang of antisocial behaviour orders.
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
But the best thing is to ignore it,
And say something about economic growth.
. . . In the room the women come and go
Unless they’ve been slapped with an ASBO.

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