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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.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Perk of the Job

An Australian judge, quoted in the Law Society Journal, has expressed his dismay at the standards of court dress adopted by 'some female solicitors'. He said "the worst offenders are usually well-built women who expose at least the upper halves of their breasts and as they lean forward to make a point to a judge sitting on a higher level, they present a most unwelcome display of bare flesh".

Speak for yourself, Justice P.W.Young. The average age of an English JP is about 57. For many of the fifty percent of magistrates who are of the male persuasion this 'problem' presents little difficulty. Some of us see it as a harmless perk of the job, and would never be distracted from our flint-hearted determination to administer justice by the comeliness or otherwise of a lady solicitor, nor by the depth of her decolletage .

For those disturbed or, heaven forfend, distracted by such sights, they may always choose modestly to avert their gaze, and to contemplate the oddments on the bench, the staplers and the blotters, the water carafes and the pile of holy books. Yes, that's it, the holy books.

Try it, Justice P.W. Try thinking pure thoughts and leave the rest of us to enjoy the view as we choose.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A Cunning Plan

The Council Tax martyrs have reminded me of an oddity from a long time ago. A young nurse died in Saudi Arabia in odd circumstances. Her father, a retired detective, was convinced that a particular person had murdered her but was inhibited from saying so by the fear of being sued for libel.

To get round this he stopped paying his rates (the precursor of Council Tax) and was duly summoned before the magistrates. In the courtroom, which was filled with reporters he had tipped off, he made all of his allegations knowing that court proceedings are privileged, and that he was thus safe from being sued. The reporters could then publish what he had said.

He was probably pushing his luck when it comes to contempt, but he got what he wanted anyway.

Spot-on (2)

Blog Doctor writes about mentally-ill people who are commonly dumped in the prison system for want of any alternative.

I know of one court that had a duty psychiatric worker on one day a week, and the bench would remand cases with a mental-health dimension to that day. It worked fairly well, until the money ran out. Now they are back to using the prisons just like my colleagues and I do.

Joined-up?

Many court legal advisers and managers were out of contact over the last few days because their Government-issue mobile phones had been cut off. Nobody had paid the bills, you see.

The Middlesex Guildhall, in Parliament Square, is to be the site of the new Supreme Court. This means that its work as a Crown Court will have to be moved elsewhere. Plans are being laid to re-jig the committal paths to all of the Crown Courts in London. An important part of these plans is the building of six new courtrooms at Isleworth. This court is a former hospital in a suburban setting, and has plenty of land.
Hounslow Council has refused planning permission for the development.

In an attempt to base all parts of the criminal justice system on the same geographical areas it was decided that the basic layout would be aligned with the 20-odd new police areas. Work proceeds apace. Plans for the required police force mergers have largely been put on ice. HMCS has decided to carry on regardless.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Canned Martyr

Another old lady has managed to martyr herself because she is cross with her local council.

I said all that I wish to say on the subject in this post.

Plus ca change.........

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Last Word (Pro.Tem. At Least)

I have been paying too much attention recently to the Press and its influence on and reporting of the Government's 'policies' on Law'n'Order, and I shall try to give both a rest, at least until the next time that I become exasperated beyond endurance.

Just a few thoughts before I leave off the subject:-
Today's 'Sunday Times' has a report on sentencing by magistrates. It claims that the judicial softies in the North-East are the easiest on defendants, and that the spirit of Judge Jeffries lives on in Uxbridge, where the bench has a high rate of imprisonment (the report says 32% are jailed immediately - I very much doubt that figure which must apply to either-way offences only). The Chairman of the Uxbridge bench explains that his court deals with work from Heathrow, which suggests that a higher than average proportion of serious offences are dealt with by him and his colleagues, and that seems fair enough.

Something else that caught my eye was this:-
Children’s charities criticised the “lenient” treatment of a drunk woman who took her premature baby, still connected to an oxygen bottle, into a pub. She was given a one-year conditional discharge by North Tyneside magistrates
Are we being urged to imprison this woman, for what is certainly outrageous conduct? Or is this really a Social Services problem, which the bench realised, leading them to impose a discharge to allow the professionals to try to sort out this sad situation?

This too:-
Newcastle magistrates were also criticised for freeing a thief with 51 previous convictions. William Armstrong, 31, was given a conditional discharge in 2004 for a burglary committed just a day after being sentenced for theft.
looks daft on the face of it, but I have imposed similar penalties in particular circumstances. I know nothing whatever about the case concerned, so let me speculate:- Multiple theft convictions usually follow from a drug addiction. A court has imposed a long and complex community order involving supervision and drug treatment together with other requirements. A day later he steals again (because he is still a junkie) because the treatment hasn't started - in fact the file has only just been opened. Common sense says that you discharge the latest offence to allow the order a chance to work - to do otherwise would simply negate all the work that has been done to get him to this stage. If he then goes on to breach the order, then fair enough, you put him inside. That's a bit too complicated to get into a newspaper headline though isn't it?

Anyway, I'm going to lay off the Government and the journos for a while. Let's see what the Home Secretary comes up with in July. He must know how King Lear felt when he cried:-
"I shall do such things, I know not what they are, but they shall be the terror of the Earth"

Now where did I leave my blood pressure tablets?

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Spot-on

From 'The Sun Says' in this morning's edition:

Tony Blair’s crime speech could have been written by Sun readers.
Yes, quite.

I was casting around trying to recall who it is that Tony Blair reminds me of in his desperation to leave not an inch of ground on his right where crime is concerned, and it came to me in a flash.

Back in the Fifties and Sixties in the Deep South there was another populist politician, admittedly lacking Blair's superficial charm, called Governor George Wallace. He knew his voters, and he memorably remarked "I ain't gonna be out-niggered by no-one".

Very different men, but the same underlying principle. "I am their leader. I must follow them".

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Serious Stuff

This is not for everyone. It is a long and densely reasoned plea to the Prime Minister from an eminent Oxford academic asking for a reconsideration of the Government's approach to justice.

It makes sense to me, and it might make sense to you. The piece appears on the Downing Street website, and one can only hope that it will penetrate the intellectual firewall that Prime Ministers seem to acquire after a number of years in office.

Vicious Circle

I had one of the old regulars in a few months ago. He must have been coming in to my court for well over a dozen years, invariably for low-level public order offences. The staff know him as 'Smelly Daniel' because he exudes a powerful whiff wherever he goes. Our ushers keep a can of air freshener handy with the Kleenex, and it is well-used when Daniel is in. On this occasion matters were not helped by the fact that he had fouled himself in the cells, and was still wearing most of the same clothes. The escort staff were keeping a wary distance.

He is a wreck of a man, an alcoholic of course, and has lived in and out of hostels and on friends' sofas for years, with time spent sleeping rough. He would hang around the bus station or the precinct, until the police became fed up enough to arrest him. He would routinely turn up in custody, and we would usually fine him but then write the fine off against time he had spent in custody. This is a rough-and-ready way of dealing with the type of person from whom you will never extract a fine.

He was given one of the early ASBOs. It forbade him from being drunk in public and from going to the station for an indefinite period. Inevitably he has breached the order several times, and he has progressed from being fined to being imprisoned, and he has previously received two six-month sentences. Following standard procedure, we committed him to the Crown Court for sentence, since all else has failed to deter him.

The Resident Judge at our local Crown Court doesn't like us sending up ASBO breaches but in this case we had no choice, and I expect that this time Daniel will have got something like nine months. I leave it to you to decide whether this is the right use of a desperately overcrowded prison, and whether such a sentence is a proportionate response to a drunken nuisance with a fondness for the bus station.

There is nothing that the system has to offer this man, and his future seems destined to be exactly the same as his recent past: a cycle of prison and drunken vagrancy. I am satisfied that he is being dealt with as the law requires, but I beg leave to wonder what is the point of it all.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Aw Shucks (3)

We appear to be finalists in the 'New Statesman' New Media Awards in the 'Contribution to Civic Society' category. That's very pleasing, and I am grateful for whoever put this blog forward.

The nice people at what used to be known as 'The Staggers' when I was at University did send me an email, but I was in family mode at the time (and that's when I lost access to my former email address). Thanks chaps.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Case Stated

Most appeals from magistrates' courts are heard at the Crown Court, but where a point of law is involved the Divisional Court may hear an appeal by way of Case Stated. What this involves is the clerk and the bench involved preparing a summary of the court's conclusions and of its findings as to law.

I am currently involved in one such. The clerk drafted the Case and he and I then reviewed it. My colleagues on the case were consulted, and I certified that the Bench's view was correctly set out in the document.

The final paragraph reads:- (edited)

QUESTION

The question for the opinion of the High Court is:

1. Whether the justices were entitled to refuse an application by the prosecution to (change a part of their case)

Following our refusal of the application (based on consideration of two reported cases) the prosecution collapsed. We now await the judgement of Their Lordships, who will either uphold us or tell us that we got it wrong.

I look forward to finding out.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Press Gang


The BBC reports the frustration of a Chief Constable at the latest example (of many) of the Government dancing to the tune of the tabloid press. Time after time Ministers have forced through laws in an increasingly desperate attempt to appear tough on law and order, reacting to events rather than pursuing a coherent strategy. The result is the unholy mess that we are in now. At a time when most crime is falling, the public are convinced that it is out of control, and they are equally convinced that the judiciary has gone soft despite evidence that points to the opposite conclusion. The flagship 2003 Act, not all of which is yet in operation, is likely to have to be revised, as the Government falls foul of yet another example of the law of unintended consequences. Surely a Government stuffed with lawyers must have heard that hard cases make bad law?

The Prime Minister is to make a speech at the end of the week setting out his plans for yet another rag bag of reforms as he tries to regain control of the justice agenda.

Meanwhile, back at the courthouse, we still have business to do, and we shall carry on doing it. We shall leave the higher courts to carry on sorting out the anomalies and impracticabilities of the flood of new laws, while we carry on as we always have done, dealing with everyday business, the vast majority of which has changed very little. The political and media obsessions of the moment only apply to a tiny minority of cases, and magistrates will get on with applying the law in the 95% of cases that are our responsibility.

JPs have endured nearly a decade of organisational turmoil now. I wonder when, if ever, we will be given time to settle down and make the changes work as they should?

Hammered

Yesterday's Telegraph carries a long piece about the latest law-and-order panic. At the top of the article is a large graphic of a gavel.

Sloppy work, lads. No court in England and Wales uses a gavel. No, not a one.

That's the Americans, you see.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Useful Tip For Drivers

I saw a young man the other week who had been charged with the attempted theft of an expensive car. As so often happens the owner had left his car unlocked and the keys in the ignition while he went to the kiosk to pay for his petrol. Looking out of the window he saw a young man getting into his car. He ran outside shouting for someone to call the police and found that the thief had locked himself in and was trying to start the engine. For reasons that I won't go into he didn't manage to start it, and was eventually arrested. In court he turned out to have a decade's worth of convictions (and he was only in his mid-twenties) mostly involving car crime or theft, sometimes both at once. He is currently on a driving ban and a community order, and his solicitor told us that this is going well. "Not well enough to stop him trying to nick a £30,000 motor" thought I.

He has previous for the sort of offences that suggest he has been in a good few chases in his time, and I imagine that he fancied trying out the latest offering from Bavaria. Our local traffic police have some smart new BMW 5-series, so the chase could have been on your TV in time for Chistmas - the Battle of the Beemers (with additional footage from the helicopter unit).

So, at the risk of sounding like Dixon of Dock Green (for the quarter of readers who are outside the UK, that was a Sixties TV series about an avuncular old copper who finished every episode with a short homily) lock your car while you pay for your fuel, won't you? And even if you don't lock it, at least take the keys out.

I saw a similar case a few years ago where a couple went to buy petrol, the man went to pay, and the woman thought:- "I'll just pop in to get some milk" and did so, leaving the keys behind. The opportunist lads who jumped in and screeched off decided to play dodgems with parked cars before the police arrived and the chase started (as it eventually did). The final bill for damage was upwards of £50,000, and if the owner's insurance policy is anything like mine, there is no cover for theft when the car is left unattended with the keys in it.

Mind how you go, now.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Dramatis Personae (1)

Over the years I have found one of the most rewarding aspects of being on the bench to be the endless stream of fascinating characters who have passed before me, playing their respective roles as defendant, advocate, prosecutor, witness, legal adviser, and court staff.

Alan Samuels was a well-known local solicitor who specialised in defending criminals. The local paper carried his exploits every week, and years before I even thought of joining the bench I was struck by one of his cases that was reported in the local rag.

His lady client had been caught leaving Tesco's with a bottle of Scotch and a pound of rump steak concealed in her bags. Even Alan could see that she was bang to rights, but his mitigation was a masterpiece of its kind. "My client" said Alan, "is at a loss to understand what motivated her to take these goods, because she is, sir, both a vegetarian and a teetotaller". It was chutzpah, but chutzpah of a high order.

He rarely if ever pleaded guilty, and his often abrasive style in court was backed up by an encyclopaedic knowledge of the law. He would work up a possibly synthetic lather of indignation at some affront or other from the prosecutor, and in moments of stress, especially when his client's case was starting to look a bit wobbly, he might start hurling pencils down on to the table in front of him, while waxing indignant at his frequently-inexperienced learned friend. Alan's performance made it clear that the advocate concerned was, in his opinion, neither learned nor his friend.

In complete contrast, Geoffrey Willows was almost the personification of urbanity. Always immaculately suited, Geoffrey would glide around the courtroom as if on castors. An old fashioned gent, he often led me to speculate how he got on in interview with the surly and chippy members of the underclass who put bread on his table. Well, perhaps not too much bread, but certainly some decent claret.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Management Announcement

For reasons that I do not understand, my password into the bystander@fsmail.net address is being rejected.

Would anyone who has emailed me since I came back please re-send their message to:- bystander@hotmail.co.uk.

Sorry about that.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

You Heard It Here First

The Government's Custody Plus initiative as enacted in the 2003 CJA is almost certain not to make its planned introduction date in November 2006. The reasons are manifold, but principally they involve Probation's inability to cope, and the fact that there is likely to be a prison capacity crisis a few months after C+'s introduction.

Second-hand Story

The year is 1958. A young barrister was delighted to receive his second-ever brief, to represent a motorist accused of driving without due care and attention. Green as he was, our man burned midnight oil over the brief, and appeared on the morn before the bench in a Yorkshire market town. To his chagrin, his best witness was not present. He turned to his instructing solicitor:- "What shall I do?" "Get it adjourned" came the reply. "How?" he riposted. "Just ask!"

He asked the grim-visaged bench for an adjournment, and when challenged, he gave as his reason the fact that his key witness was absent.

The chairman turned to the prosecuting police officer (that's how they used to do it) and said: "The defence have a missing witness. Are all of our (sic) witnesses here?" "Yes sir." "The case must proceed."

The barrister threw all of his considerable advocacy skills into the case, and as he concluded the defence closing statement he sank exhausted to his seat. The bench retired. He was immediately assailed with congratulations and slaps on the back from the other lawyers in court. "Brilliant" "Damn good, young man" "The buggers haven't retired on a case in the last two years. Happen you might win this one".

The bench returned. The chairman took off his spectacles, and fixed his gaze upon the by-now decidedly tensed-up counsel.

"Young man. We were impressed by what you told us, and we do find that there is doubt in this case. But your client will not get the benefit of it. Guilty."

The tag line was that the young barrister went on to join the High Court bench eventually. The moral of the story was that this sort of thing could never happen today. Well, hardly ever, anyway.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Great Leveller

I had to drop by the courthouse today to collect some paperwork. I went in via the front door,which is not my normal route, but I paused as I crossed the threshhold because there was a furtive group hanging around near one of the emergency exits.

On taking a closer look I discerned three ushers, a police officer, a Crown prosecutor and a couple of hastily turned backs.

The common factor?

All having a crafty fag**, of course.

(Public Service Announcement Follows)

** Any American speaker who is alarmed by this should call the British Embassy Cultural Attaché in Washington DC for a clarification. The number is on the website www.brits-are-us.com. Calls are charged at $20 per minute.

Informed and Informative

This

and

this:- (from an official website)

The Sunday Times on 11 June, and other newspapers today have published criticism of some individual judges based on references to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney General, this is a copy of the full statement given to the Sunday Times, only part of which was used, and which provides some more context to this issue.

"The Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice do not monitor appeals against individual judges, and it is not their role to intervene in judicial decisions or consider complaints about them (relating to appeals) because of the principle of judicial independence.

"Judges are accountable for their judicial decisions via the appeal system. A successful appeal to a higher court does not of itself provide a basis for criticism of a trial judge. Where the Court of Appeal does record criticism of the trial judge, the judgment is always sent to the Judge concerned, and where there is any reason for concern about the conduct of the judge it is sent to Presiding Judges. From time to time where judges are not performing adequately they may be given advice and guidance, or training, or different workloads or types of workload by the responsible senior judiciary.

"In cases where the Judge’s conduct is seriously impugned, the Presiding Judges will refer the matter to the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice to consider complaints about conduct.

"Figures on successful appeals against a judge's sentencing can only begin to have relevance if they are set against the total number of sentencing decisions made by the judge in question, and those where there has been no appeal, or an appeal has been rejected. It should also be borne in mind that some judges have caseloads involving more complex and serious cases, so they might be more likely to feature in appeal cases. In any event, there are many cases where the Court of Appeal reduces sentences without implying any criticism of the sentencing judge."

"All sentencing decisions in particular cases reflect the full range of evidence presented to the court in that case at that time, and a variety of other relevant factors which judges must have regard to including the statutory framework, Court of Appeal judgments, and any mitigating or aggravating factors."
"The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 introduced a regulatory framework for handling complaints about the personal conduct of judicial office holders. A new body, the Office for Judicial Complaints (OJC) was established in April 2006 to support the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice in their responsibilities for judicial conduct and discipline. The new process followed by the OJC is outlined in full on their website http://www.judicialcomplaints.gov.uk/. The OJC do not look into judicial decisions - the appeals system performs that role. If a complaint is upheld, the Lord Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor may decide to take disciplinary action; for example a reprimand or a requirement to undertake additional training. The ultimate sanction would be removal from judicial office, although for High Court Judges and above, judicial independence dictates that this would require a vote in both Houses of Parliament."


will tell much to those who wish to know how recent events have come to pass.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Oh Dear


TODAY, The Sun demands...

# Suspension for bad judges

# 'Name and shame' lists of judges suspended or disciplined published by the Government

# Abolition of Court of Appeal double jeopardy rule

# Increased deadline to appeal against a lenient sentence to three months

# Judges are made to tell victims they have the right to appeal a soft sentence

# Elected public prosecutors and community judges


So the mob continues to close in.

No sensible person could deny that it is important to retain public confidence in the justice system. If that confidence breaks down we risk vigilantism and its attendant injustice. I have seen some academic research and I have helped with public open meetings which suggest very strongly that when in possession of the full facts Mr.and Mrs. Average Citizen come to pretty much the same conclusion as do judges and magistrates.

This and other tabloid campaigns start from the premise that only a prison sentence is a punishment, and the longer the sentence the greater the 'justice'. They assume that draconian punishments will always deter further offending - if only it were that simple. The campaign against judges has all the perfect ingredients for a tabloid editor such as Rebekah Wade of the Sun to exploit.

Judges (and to some extent JPs) are deemed to be out of touch, old, posh, and tainted with 'Political Correctness' which is the lazy journo's code for someone he or she can't be bothered to debate with.
Senior editors such as Ms Wade move in exalted circles, have nice cars and obliging chauffeurs, dine at Chequers and fly hither and yon in comfortable areas of aeroplanes, their seats paid for by someone else. They are invited to the best parties, and although they are puppets, they are treated with deference that is really being accorded to the proprietor who is pulling the strings.
So what could be more fun than calling in the mob to howl down bewigged old coves who can easily be made to look silly in their 18th century court dress?

It's scary. The campaign is wrong. The statistics are out of proportion and misleading. At the end of the line is the desire to elect judges. Then God help us all. Ken Livingstone, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Hitler were all elected, and it was the decision of the mob that freed Barabbas. It doesn't give you much confidence in the judgement of the ill-informed populace does it?

(Later)


This gives a more balanced view.

Worth Thinking About

Instead of reading the papers over the last couple of weeks I read some books, one of them 'High Society' by Ben Elton, a copy of which somebody lent me some time ago. I find Elton's TV persona irritating, but I have to admit that his track record shows he can write some good stuff when he chooses to. With Elton there is always the sense of a wagging finger in the background, but the book is a worthwhile contribution to the drugs debate. The novel sets out fairly convincingly the way in which drugs are now inextricably woven into our society, from the glossy end right down into the gutter.

Anyone out there read it?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Now As I Was Saying

During my recent abstention from bloggery I also abstained (mostly) from reading the papers. A copy of the Sunday Times caught my eye this morning, and there on the front page, was a headline indicating that a campaign is under way to pillory judges for 'over-lenient' sentencing. "Ho, Hum" thought I. "It looks like business as usual then."

Don't expect a lot for a day or two since there are nearly 200 comments and emails about the blog to read, as well as scores of others about court and other matters. It has taken me over an hour just to delete the obvious rubbish, so I shall make a start on the remainder tomorrow.

Anything been going on then?

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