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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.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Short Sentences

Kenneth Clarke is carrying out an overdue review of prison policy; for nearly two decades the agenda has been driven by a culture of longer and more severe sentences. In my time on the bench the prison population has pretty much doubled (it weren't me Guv, honest!)and the Justice Secretary is asking why.
It's a complex issue, and I certainly don't have all the answers. What I do have is a good understanding of many of the questions. Here's a selection:-

At Magistrates' level, it's actually pretty unusual to send anyone inside. I sit quite often, and I can't think offhand of more than a few immediate (i.e. not suspended) sentences that I have announced in the last six months.
Discount for a guilty plea, automatic release at halfway, and prison discretion to use tagging and other early releases means that JPs' real power, for a guilty plea, is to lock someone up for just over eight weeks. At that level the prison can only warehouse prisoners. There is barely time even to assess them, let alone carry out any rehabilitation work.
The vast majority of people who go inside from my court do so having been refused bail. Large numbers of those remanded in custody either do not receive a custodial sentence or are given a term that is less than they have already served. This is often the case with alleged domestic violence - but if we get one of those wrong we have a dead woman on our hands.
It is a truism that short sentences are ineffective at rehabilitation, and even the undoubted incapacitation effect is too short to be of much real use. The question that nobody has addressed is how non-custodial sentences such as unpaid work and community orders are to be enforced without the threat of prison as a last resort. Lads who just walk off their unpaid work, or cut off their tag, will be untouchable.
If JPs lose the power to imprison such people, as well as persistent disqualified drivers, very high-level repeat drink-drivers, shoplifters with 50 previous convictions and the like, the number of offences is likely to rocket. Drive disqual. and excess alcohol are summary-only offences with no power to send them to the Crown Court, so young Wayne can drive on his merry way, licence or no licence.
In the Crown Court the impact of IPP (indeterminate) sentences has been greatly to lengthen time served, as the prisoner is not released at the end of his term, but has to be assessed by the Parole authorities. In a Kafka-esque twist, many prisons cannot offer access to the courses and facilities that will allow them to show that they are no longer a danger, so the prisoner languishes in his cell, unable to help himself.
Sentencing for drug offences can be awesomely severe, more so in many cases than for physical violence. One of my old schoolmates received 20 years in 2002 for importing cocaine; I guess he will still be inside.
Then there is the question of community sentences. Probation has been under-resourced and buggered about for so long that many sentencers are sceptical about the way in which community sentences are enforced. If we order 'supervision' as part of the sentence, did we really have in mind a monthly phone call from a probation officer, after the initial period has elapsed?
I have no idea what the government will decide to do. The question may be linked to the excess capacity in many magistrates' courts and the overloaded lists of most Crown Courts. Increasing the lower courts' powers might help clear the logjam - after all a goodly proportion of cases sent upstairs by magistrates end up being sentenced within the lower court's powers. Whatever happens, it will certainly be linked to saving money, along with all of the other changes in the system.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

This Almost Beggars Belief

A Crown Prosecutor and barrister has admitted dropping cases for cash.
I am not one who is easily shocked, but this is something that I would have found incredible at first sight. This man has betrayed so much that our society values that I can only expect the judge to hand down the most severe sentence when the time comes.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lost Cause?

Along with many more distinguished commentators I have tried to pass on the fact that


NO COURT IN ENGLAND AND WALES USES A GAVEL! NONE! NEVER! NAPOO! NADA! JAMAIS!

NOT A FRIGGING ONE!

GET IT?

The Members' Section of the Magistrates' Association site illustrates a story about court closures with:

.

Bah!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Devil Is In The Detail

The Retiring Room and the area round the coffee machine were abuzz yesterday with magistrates and clerks talking about the proposed court closures and Bench amalgamations. Most people accept that changes are inevitable and that only larger courts will be able to deal with the workload with the efficiency that we need to show.
Our courthouse will survive, and we will have no trouble absorbing, along with the the two surviving courts in the area, work displaced from the small courts that are marked for closure.
A lot of work has to be done to make amalgamated Benches function smoothly. Our proposed new Local Justice Area could be one of the good ones, as the three London Boroughs concerned have good transport links and similar demographics. Unfortunately, as is the case across the country, different courts follow very different organisational practices, This is the inevitable result of having a centuries-old system that was, until a dozen or so years ago, managed by a Courts' Committee of local magistrates.
The rotas will present the first problem. My court issues a rota three months at a time, after ascertaining JPs' availability. We are free to swap with a colleague of appropriate training and experience if something crops up. The court up the road has a rota for each day of the week, so if you are a Tuesday person you will never sit with a Friday colleague. I would hate that. Will the new Bench have one Bench Chairman or three? Or will there be one Chairman plus a Deputy for each courthouse? What about key committees such as the Bench Training and Development Committee? One or three?
As I say, there's a lot of work to do. But we have made it work for 649 years so far, so we can cope with this lot.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Life Goes On

Despite the brouhaha over the proposed court closures, courts are still dealing with cases day by day. I had a call at half past nine yesterday morning to ask if I could go to court to replace a colleague who had a last-minute crisis. I didn't have anything special planned, so I hastily changed into a suit and drove to court.
I found myself with two experienced colleagues in a trial court. A briefing from the clerk revealed that the unrepresented defendant was planning to ask for an adjournment because despite three written requests he had not received copies of the CCTV evidence from the custody area of the police station. This was neither unusual nor surprising to hear, and since he had been refused legal aid we listened carefully to his arguments. The clerk told him what the Criminal Procedure Rules say about this kind of thing, and we ruled that the case should proceed. I can't say much more about it, but it was a typical example of a generally decent citizen, with a solid job, strong family ties and a sense of social responsibility who had come to grief over the use of a Class B substance.
He had put a lot of effort into his defence, but like most lay people faced with a court he relied on a number of frankly irrelevant details. I stopped him at one point and told him as clearly as I could that our findings would be based on the elements of the offence, and that, for example, what the custody sergeant said to the arresting officer when he was being booked in was not relevant to the case. We convicted him, and then it became clear why he was so anxious to avoid conviction. His well-paid job requires a security clearance, and his employer has a zero-tolerance policy towards anything involving drugs, so apart from the fine, his world has come crashing down about his ears.
We had a bit of time after that so we helped other courts, one case standing out because the low-level con artist we had to sentence had 157 previous convictions, many resulting in prison, four of then since last September. His solicitor did her best, asking for a fine and compensation, but we didn't even need to retire to decide to send him inside for 16 weeks. No reports were necessary; we had enough information and he instructed his brief not to ask for fresh ones.
I fully understand the moves to abolish short prison sentences - this bloke exemplifies how useless they are in preventing reoffending, but what else could we do with him? At least he won't con anyone for the next eight weeks.

Ingrates?

One of the courts down for closure is Salford. The Salford Bench has put a lot of commitment into the Community Justice initiative (about which I have severe reservations) over recent years, piloting the 'Community-Lite' ideas that were dreamed up when the glossy and well-funded North Liverpool 'Community Justice Centre' quickly showed that the full CJ agenda would be ruinously expensive if extended across the country. Salford did their best, but now closure awaits.

In the mercifully-fading years of New Labour's tinkering with the justice system many millions were thrown away on nonsense like the Respect Agenda, Night Courts, Community Justice (remember the wheeze to sit courts in the church hall?) Intermittent Custody, Custody Plus, and more. Let's hope the new people in charge are hard headed about sticking to proven core functions.

Just A Thought About The Closures

The proposed court closures that were announced yesterday are estimated to save £15.3 million a year. So if you multiply that by five, and add in the one-off saving of cancelling the (already overdue) maintenance backlog, that comes to about £98 million. The Budget proposes total savings of £83 billion in five years, so the closure programme will save about 0.12% of the total.
Every publicly funded programme will be defended by those involved in it, and I am as aware as anyone that the financial crisis must be tackled head on, but justice is of real importance to our society and to individuals - is it worth damaging the administration of justice to save 12 pence out of every £100 that has to be saved?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nice Try

A former Law Officer is the latest in a series of Labour ministers to fall foul of the motoring laws.
As a lawyer, she did her homework, but the bench was evidently unimpressed.

Rumour Central - Update

Here's the list:-

from the BBC

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Rumour Central

The indispensible CrimeLine says:-

Court Closures

CrimeLine understands that the Ministry of Justice will tomorrow announce 150 magistrates' court closures (approx 40% of the courts currently open).

Legal aid reform

CrimeLine understands that the Ministry of Justice will later today announce a consultation proposing major scope and legal aid eligibility changes, resulting in a cut to the criminal legal aid budget of almost 30%.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Depressing and Sad

Baldybeak, one of our regular commenters, has pointed me to this report on a subject that may well drive tomorrow's budget from the front pages of the downmarket tabloids.

Just leave aside Venables' crime for a moment, hard as that may be. Let us tuck away the pity that anyone must feel for poor Jamie Bulger, although that pity is right and proper.

Now look at what Venables did, and then what happened to him. He committed his dreadful crime at the point in his childhood where he was already terribly damaged. He was then flooded with interventions from police lawyers social workers, psychiatrists, the lot. They did their best, I am sure. But Venables' teenage years were spent in institutions with other troubled adolescents, looked after by dedicated trained professionals who for all their efforts could never hope to emulate a home.

There were, I presume no girls. No clumsy teenage yearnings and fumblings, none of the growth of trust in and liking for another that most of us experienced.

So, approaching thirty, he may have developed an unhealthy sexual interest in young children, an interest that was facilitated by the omnipresence of pornography on the Web. Anyone reading this is no more than a few clicks away from graphic depictions of extreme sexual activities.

I am as revolted as anyone by what he did as a child. I am also saddened by the inability of all those people and all that money to keep him away from the swamp that he has now stumbled into.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

You Can't Please Everyone

The comments thingy sends me an email of new posts, and occasionally they refer to one of my pieces from some time ago. One such arrived yesterday, filed under 'apoplectic'.

Here's a taste:-
You are obviously oblivious to anything or anyone who does not play a part in your particular social set , maybe if you cleared the foggy breath of champagne lunches and evening port and brandy sessions from your itinerary and lowered yourself from your carriage for a moment to walk amongst us lowly peasants you could comment on "Knowing" our behaviour first hand. Most are out working to pay the state to employ "You" as a PUBLIC SERVANT, your attitude toward mankind is a naive and drunken rhetoric !


Where did he get those ideas from?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Heterodox

Stephen Dubner, one of the authors of 'Freakanomics' has come up with a bit of original thought in The Times (no more links to Times stories on the blog because the paywall will soon be in place).
Discussing the proposal to lower the drink-drive limit from 80 mg/100ml in blood to 50mg, he makes the point that if you overdo it in the local and choose to walk home then you are between five and eight times more likely to die than if you drive, due to the disproportionately high death rate among intoxicated pedestrians. Of course, the corollary is that you are unlikely to kill anyone else on foot.

Not Fair

Thanks to Tim for pointing me to this BBC report. It's a Scottish case, and I don't know a lot about Scottish law, but I do agree with Tim that the sentence seems harsh and disproportionate. It points up the potential unfairness of any minimum sentence; there will always be the occasional case where injustice results from tying the Judge's hands.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's A Goner

Birmingham Magistrates Court: £94m

Proposal to build a state-of-the-art new court building in the centre of Birmingham.

(from BBC news site)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anorak Corner




Aviation has been one of my interests since I was about 11. I grew up three miles from London Airport and spent my spare time in and around the place, especially in the Queen's Building viewing areas. I still cannot pass by an airport without peering over the fence.

So, with apologies to those of you who are not interested, can I just ask if I am the only one to be unimpressed by the A380 Airbus (aka superjumbo) because for all its awesome technology it is just plain ugly? Even against the venerable 747, it's a dog. Compared to the elegance of a Comet (or for that matter almost anything from the De Havilland stable) or the Caravelle or the DC9/MD series, or the practical perfection of the old 707, or the show-stopping beauty of Concorde, it has the grace and poise of a second-hand fridge.

The old engineers knew that if it looked right, it was right - just look at the Spitfire, the A4 Pacific locomotive, the cream of the Royal Navy's fleet, and pretty much anything designed by Brunel. Must the fact that the A380 is the product of a thousand EU committees condemn it to permanent attendance at the Ugly Bug Ball?

I fear that it does.

More Good News

The High Court has scuppered another one of the last Government's oppressive measures that resulted in acquitted defendants facing heavy legal costs as their right to recover them was limited to Legal Aid rates that are a fraction of what a private client would have to pay.
Excellent.

I Smell Trouble

I wrote in April about a mysterious delay in the annual review of magistrates' travel and subsistence rates. Since then, nothing, other than indications that the agreed and established formula was not to be used this year.

Just For The Record

The papers this morning carry reports such as this one about yet another rich person buying his way out of a speeding ticket (that would have been his fourth). I have no comment on the judgment as I didn't hear the evidence and I don't know the minutiae of the law involved, but one thing that I did notice is that the news gathering machine has ignored, as it usually does, the fact that the appeal bench was made up of three people - a circuit judge and two magistrates - and that deliberations are on the basis of one-man-one-vote.

Friday, June 11, 2010

What Are The Odds Against This?

I have a teenage nephew who does a paper round. A few weeks ago he was out delivering his papers when he came across an unaccompanied tortoise, making its unhurried way along the road. He is a kind and helpful young man, so he picked up the tortoise, and approached a nearby policeman whom he asked what to do. The officer suggested that the lad took the creature home, and said that if it was not claimed within a number of weeks, he would be able to keep it. So home the tortoise went, and it now lives with my brother-in-law and his family.
Now as to the odds:- the chance of walking along in the suburbs of a large Midland city and finding a tortoise strolling along must be at least 5000 to 1. But the chance of finding a policeman nearby? More like 50000 to 1.

That's What I Call An Overrun


Thanks to Anonymous Prosecutor for pointing us to this Guardian story about a huge overspend on the CPS website. This is on a par with HMCS' genius a few years ago in paying over £3,500 each for laptop computers, plus a thousand per unit per year for maintenance.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Caveat Emptor


A Court of Appeal judgment caught my eye this morning for a couple of reasons (as well as the fact that it is printed in today's Times). The case of R v Burns reported here settles the significant point that your right to eject someone from your home using reasonable force does not extend to your motor car. The case was seen as being sufficiently important to be chaired by Lord Judge, no less.
The unfortunate, or should we say incautious, Mr. Burns, apparently struck a deal with a 'sex worker' to pay £50 for what my more vulgar friends would call a 'blow job' but which the delicate souls in the Court of Appeal Criminal Division prefer to call 'oral sex'. Unfortunately Mr. Burns' ardour cooled when he got a better look at his rented partner; I infer that a feeling of 'Oh No!' induced rapid detumescence and prompted him to sling her out of the car there and then. The rest is in the report.
I have no idea what sentence was imposed, but I do not imagine that it would have been too severe. Two more thoughts arise; the lawyers' way of referring to significant cases is simply to use the defendant's name, so Burns is likely to join those of Turnbull and Aramah, and Povey and myriad others that are quoted day by day in our courts. It's immortality of a sort, but a sort that I could do without. Secondly, what reaction does he get when he walks into the Dog and Duck for a pint? And what did his missus think? perhaps she will buy him a torch for his birthday.

Surcharge Update

A Parliamentary answer from the then MoJ minister Lord Bach revealed some up-to-date figures on the iniquitous surcharge:-

The victims’ surcharge raised £3.8 million in 2007-08,
the year of introduction, and £8 million in 2008-09. All
of the money raised from the surcharge contributed
to direct non-financial support for victims and
witnesses of crime. Funding was committed as follows:

2007-08/2008-09/2009-10
■ £3 million/£2.6 million/£2.6 million to fund
independent domestic violence adviser services.
■ £3 million/£2.6 million/£2.6 million to the Crown
Prosecution Service as a contribution to the cost of
providing witness care units.
■ £5.6 million/£7 million/£6.2 million to the Victim
Support National Centre to fund enhanced
services to victims and witnesses.
Additionally, £1.75 million was allocated to the victims’
fund each year. There are currently no plans to pay
compensation to victims of crime from surcharge
funds. The explanatory memorandum accompanying
the enabling legislation for the victims’ surcharge
makes it clear that surcharge money should be used to
fund services helping victims of crime and witnesses.

Well, well, well. Guess what? Something like eight million quid has gone to the CPS. Not a red cent has gone to any victim.
The surcharge remains what it was; an unfair and arbitrary tax that funnels cash into quangos that have the sense to include the 'V' word in their name.
Its day-to-day application produces continuing unfairness and occasionally ludicrous outcomes. Fining a large company for environmental offences last year I announced fines totalling some £35,000, costs in the region of £15,000, and a £15 surcharge. On the same day, in the same building, bedraggled and disorganised single mothers from the rough estate down the road were fined for not having a TV licence, and ordered to pay the same £15 charge. Director drives his BMW while over the drink limit - fine £800, surcharge £15. Student evades a £2.80 train fare - fine £75, surcharge £15.
Realistically, given the Government's financial woes, nobody is going to put the abolition of the charge very high up on their list. But it's still a rotten and unjust idea.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

What Do You Make Of This?

The Soaraway Sun carries a story that has alerted my well-tuned bullshit antennae. What do you think?
Unfortunately, if the story turns out to be rubbish, it will hardly improve the morale of "Our Boys" who are so enthusiastically supported by the paper.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Disappointed, Or What?

I took a call last Friday, late in the afternoon, to ask if I would step in to sit today. As befits my eminence and seniority (ahem!) I was asked to take the Remand Court.
The list was a pretty standard Monday one, with nothing much to catch my eye other than a brothel-keeping charge.
Wow! In two decades on the bench I have never so much as seen the kind of person known to the Met as a 'tom'.
What would she look like? Would she be a matronly Cynthia Payne type, or an Eastern European glamourpuss? What services were on offer?
At eleven o'clock my bubble burst. For technical reasons we had to swap a couple of benches around, so I went off to another courtroom, while a colleague took over my chair.
So I still haven't dealt with a sex worker, working girl, or whatever you want to call her.
Oh well, another day perhaps.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Sits.Vac.

An impeccable source reports:-

A selection exercise to identify a new Senior District Judge (Magistrates’ Court) will be launched on Thursday 10 June 2010. Serving District Judge (Magistrates’ Court) are eligible to apply for appointment. The closing date for applications will be 1 July 2010. It is anticipated that selection interviews will take place on 27 August 2010.


Time to polish up those CVs. The Chief Magistrate has, apart from the task of leading the District Bench, special responsibility for terrorism and extradition matters. The pay is a good bit more than the run-of-the-mill DJ(MC) gets. but so is the responsibility.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Refreshing

The horrible events in Cumbria need no comment from me, other than to say that I have countersigned many applications for shotguns and for firearms , none of which has gone wrong - but it's a bit to do with judgement and a bit to do with luck.

One thing stands out - the Government says that it wants to have a look at the facts, and doesn't want to legislate in haste. A decade or so ago, the then Government would already be planning its latest tabloid pleasing, illiberal and useless measure. For which relief, much thanks.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Next Generation

I sat with one of my youngest colleages today - due to someone going sick we had to sit as a bench of two in a court that was handling rather humdrum business.
We both learned something.
My colleague found, in the vagaries of the list, some important decision-making that required a return to first principles, in the absence of a settled guideline.
I was reminded, not for the first time, that routine downscale cases can really test a bench and force it to confront some irreconcilable difficulties that must, all the same, be reconciled.
Over the lunch break we chatted about his experience of his first year on the bench, and I was chastened to realise that on the day of my first sitting he was in nappies, aged one year. The good news was his thirst for knowledge and experience, and his eagerness to learn the many technical aspects of the job. Best of all was his telling me that on joining as the new kid, decades younger than some of us, he had been deeply impressed by the way in which magistrates can spend time 'out the back' in good natured banter, but focus in a totally professional way on the job in hand once the court resumes sitting; and also by he way in which people from totally different backgrounds can work together as a team, focused simply on justice.
Once we old sweats have moved on to the great appeal court in the sky, I think that we shall leave the court in good hands.

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