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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 29, 2011

Memory Lane

I was at the Crown Court the other day, and a Sergeant was in the box giving evidence for some time. He was in Number Ones; crisp shirt, tie, pressed uniform, gleaming shoes, in deference to appearing before Hizonner (I don't kid myself it was anything to do with me and my JP colleague).

Down at the rough end of the trade magistrates usually see officers in full street kit, with cuffs and gas and asp and anti-stab and radio. They are supposed to wear the gear because security is so light in courts these days that a few waiting coppers in the lobby can come in handy if somebody kicks off.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Non-Industrial Inaction

My scheduled sitting on Thursday may well be (and was - ed) cancelled because of the Civil Service strike over pension rights. Let's see how it goes. The priority custody cases will probably be sent to a DJ-heavy court while trials and suchlike will be put off. I can cope, but knowing as I do the stress that even low-level cases impose on defendants witnesses and their families I suspect that a lot of nice ordinary people will be hurt.

A First-Class Summary

Thanks to JK for pointing me to this well informed and well reasoned blog post. I hope Louise Casey reads it - not that it or anything else is likely to change her mind.

One More Thing....

Nobody can have been surprised to hear the outpouring of grief and rage from the Dowler family. They have suffered an unbearable loss, yet they must bear it.

One image sticks in my mind; Milly's mother, her face contorted with (understandable) hatred calling for Bellfield to be ill-treated in prison to make his life a 'living hell'.

If we still had leaders who believed in leading, this would have been the cue for a minister or some such to say that any prisoner, however dreadful his crime or vile his character, was entitled to be detained humanely and safely and that Bellfield should be and would be held with the same concern for his welfare as any other prisoner. Had anyone done so, the medieval-punishments lobby would have fallen on him, of course.

Hard Cases

As the media furore over the Bellfield trial erupted last week I happened to sit on a case that involved some of the issues that arose at the Old Bailey.

I can only give the skimpiest details of ‘my’ case, but suffice it to say that the offender involved was probably the most deeply obnoxious man I have ever seen in court. His previous offences, his manner, his attitude, were loathsome, and my colleagues and I had a brief discussion in which we agreed that in this, even more than in our usual cases, our heads and our hearts had to be kept firmly separated. In the event we reached a most unsatisfactory outcome, but the law gave us no choice. We agreed that we all wanted to see a particular thing happen, and that it would have been just to make it our order, but it would not have been legal and would have been eminently appealable. If there had been a tabloid reporter in court, you might recently have seen my name all over the papers.

The man was represented by an experienced barrister who, just like the QC in the Bellfield case, knew as well as anyone just what a disgusting man his client was, but carried out his professional duty to advance his client’s case – and he won. The other side’s case had not been well prepared, and had a large flaw in it.

The emotional luggage that has been attached to the Bellfield case, fuelled by the family’s televised distress, has caused a lot of people to lose their sense of proportion and to forget just what the presumption of innocence means, and how the Bar’s professional code is applied. Across the press, and (predictably) in the Gadget comments, the integrity of Bellfield’s counsel has been casually denigrated, phrases like ‘money-grubbing’ are bandied about and one tabloid even went so far as to doorstep both the judge and the silk involved (the price of the silk’s house was included, of course). What did they expect? To be invited in for a cup of Lapsang Souchong and a cosy chat about the trial with a few juicy quotes?

As my colleagues and I agreed last week, even horrible and depraved people are entitled to a fair hearing, however harrowing that might be for some people. The unspoken tabloid agenda is indeed to undermine respect for the courts so that editors alone can decide what is justice. Not for me thanks.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Silly Season Comes Early

The papers are getting excited about some very old news. Section 5 Public Order Act is the street copper's standby for which he can arrest and may issue a Penalty Notice. The offender has to cause 'harassment alarm and distress' and the courts recognised a long time ago that a PC should have a rather thicker skin than some passing grandmother. Most of us see that as common sense (as did a higher court) so the story is a lot of nothing really.

This is what the CPS guidance says:

There must be a person within the sight or hearing of the suspect who is likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress by the conduct in question. A police officer may be such a person, but remember that this is a question of fact to be decided in each case by the magistrates. In determining this, the magistrates may take into account the familiarity which police officers have with the words and conduct typically seen in incidents of disorderly conduct. (DPP v Orum [1988] Crim LR 848)


Seems fair enough to me.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Sic Transit Gloria Actona


Acton courthouse, off the main Uxbridge Road behind the Town Hall, is a smallish building with just three courtrooms. It was decently built in Edwardian brick, and the main courtroom had nice high windows that admitted lots of natural daylight. I sat there a few times, including a number of Crown Court appeal sittings that were moved while Isleworth underwent a major rebuild. On one occasion my JP chair sitting was enlivened by an almost-successful escape, in which an impressively agile young offender scaled a ten-foot sheet of armoured glass to drop into the empty public gallery. He tried the door, found it was locked, shouted "Fuck!" and climbed back whence he had come. The Serco guards looked dazed and confused, so our man ran off into the court's lobby area, where he was felled by a quick-witted PC who was waiting to give evidence in another case.

Acton closed forever a few weeks ago. Within days of the closure persons unknown stripped the roof of its lead.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Shambles


I was quietly taken aside today by an experienced legal adviser with whom I have worked for many years, to hear her frustration at the fact that a bench (of only two members, neither of whom sits that often) had spent almost an hour and a half trying to sentence an assault case using the new multi-step guidelines, while other cases languished in the queue and lawyers and staff cooled their heels.

Our bench has received no formal training at all in these guidelines, other than being given access to a podcast. There's no money, you see.

These new guidelines are, I am told (I have had no training) a completely new approach to sentencing. I will give the podcast a go when I get time, but until then I shall have to busk it in court. Let's hope that nobody notices.

A Bit Of Fun

Thanks to my colleague Daniel for this link. Someone has taken the trouble to translate the London Underground map into German - please don't ask why.

See if you can find Ealing Broadway.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Post Hoc But Not Necessarily Propter Hoc

The Law Gazette quotes MoJ figures to justify the headline that magistrates are resigning because of the closure programme. Well, up to a point, Lord Chancellor.

The actual figures by no means amount to a rush for the exit, in a Bench of something like 30,000 people, but it is no surprise that some people who have served a good number of years look at the upheaval and the charmlessness of the MoJ's management, shrug their shoulders, and think: "I've had a good run, possibly the best of it, so why don't I just slip quietly out of the door?"

There have always been a significant number of colleagues who decide, perhaps in their mid-to-late sixties, retired from work and with the pension sorted and the grandchildren or the cruise beckoning, that they have done their bit and just can't be fagged to do another appraisal, or a bit more training that they will only use for a short while. It is common for these people to decline any kind or ceremony or acknowledgement on their departure, which speaks volumes for the quiet dedication that they brought to the job.

I am not tempted by this, but today's sitting saw many of the cracks starting to show in our new cheapo management. A couple of bits of routine paperwork simply were not available when the bench assembled, and when we finally got the court lists they were a shambles, ordered in no logical sequence, with cases going over to a fresh page that we had to look for, leading to an undignified and time-wasting paper-shuffling exercise on the bench every time a case was called. The bench in the courtroom next door wasted three quarters of their morning because their trial, in which all parties and witnesses were present, had been caught up in the scandalous log-jam in processing legal aid in London and could not go ahead. They finished up with nothing to do at lunchtime, so I gave them my court that at least had an afternoon list, and I cleared off.

As a contrast to our usual diet of small-time offenders we saw a seriously dangerous character, charged with a Section 18 GBH with intent committed a few days after his release from a long stretch for another violent offence. We sent him in custody to the Crown Court, and his solicitor didn't waste our time with a bail application. Whatever happens to the IPP following the Government's rethink, he looks like one of the men who needs to be kept away from the public for a very long time.

We had a bit of domestic violence that well justified a suspended sentence order and a fourth-time drink-driver who got the same, with a five-year ban and a requirement to take his (first-ever) driving test before getting a licence.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Edgy

I am down to sit tomorrow, and I expect to find that the usually cheery users of the court are a little subdued. The defence community (yes, I know!) are facing large cuts to legal aid that will hasten the mass slaughter of smaller firms, driving their people, or at least the lucky ones, into the arms of the big boys. Court staff, both lay and professional, are on edge as the decision as to who has a job and who has not comes closer. Some of my colleagues are apprehensive about the details of our merger with two neighbouring benches, and the practical effect it will have on them.

I am one who accepts the overriding importance of getting our national finances in order. I shall be inconvenienced - many others face unwelcome change to their lives. Once the dust settles and the rubble is cleared away many of us will be thinking that the result had better be worth all this grief.

Pontiff Outed As Catholic! Ursine Faeces Detected In Sylvan Area!

The public do not, apparently, trust lawyers all that much.

At the risk of going against the accepted dinner-party and saloon-bar wisdom, I think that this is unfair. I know quite a few lawyers, and even have a couple in my own family, and I have always found their integrity and professionalism to be of a very high standard. Of course some are better than others, as are some car mechanics and carpenters, but their profession is tightly regulated, and not to 'trust' them is a bit harsh. In court I have seen all kinds of solicitors and barristers, some excellent, some dull, and some of marginal competence, but I have never doubted the integrity of any of them.

Except for one, who did us up like a kipper one fine day. The case was borderline Crown Court, but Mr. T persuaded us that since his client faced two either-way charges our powers would extend to 12 months' prison, so on that basis we took it. We announced our decision, confirmed the pleas, and the prosecutor heaved to his feet and dropped one of the charges - something that the defence must have expected.That left us faced with a woeful under-sentencing, and left me feeling that I had been had. Well that's how the game works, but in the ensuing dozen years everything that Mr. T has put to me has had to be double checked and verified in open court. He knows who he is.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dead Duck

It looks as if Ken Clarke's plan to bring in 50% sentence discounts for early guilty pleas has bitten the dust. I can fully accept the benefits of reducing stress on victims and witnesses, because an appearance in court can be a gruelling experience, even for the witness who is not on trial, and the reduction in prisoner numbers would have provided welcome cash savings, but this is one reform that the public isn't having, if my wholly unscientific opinion sampling in the pub is anything to go by. As I have written before relatively few prisoners were sent inside by magistrates, our effective maximum sentence being just a matter of a few weeks. I sit fairly often, but it is quite uncommon to have to pronounce an immediate prison sentence.
The real scandal in our crammed prisons is twofold; the substantial proportion of inadequate, mentally disturbed and/or addicted prisoners who are really a healthcare rather than a justice problem, and above all the disgracefully misconceived IPP sentences that have swollen prisoner numbers in a callous and unplanned way.

Clever Little Devils

As we all know, those clever chaps at Google target advertisements these days, putting offers on your screen related to your recent Internet usage.

Today I was reading a newspaper website, when Google put up ads for motoring lawyers (Have you been caught speeding?) Laser Pointers (no surprise there) and - oddly - advice on how to declare yourself bankrupt. What have they heard?

21st Century Vandalism


I sat at an 'away' court in North West London a few weeks ago, and on our remand list I was surprised to see among the drugs and the assaults and the drink drives two cases of endangering an aircraft. As far as I know this court's area does not cover any kind of airport, so I wondered what it was all about. I asked the clerk about it before we went in, and the penny dropped. Two young men had been pursuing the popular sport of shining a high-powered laser at passing helicopters, in this case a machine operated by the Metropolitan Police. These lasers can be bought online for a modest amount, and can cause serious danger by dazzling the pilot, and making it impossible for him to read his instruments. I understand that this sometimes happens to airliners in the last stage of their approach to land. It is of course a serious matter, and we had no hesitation in sending the matter up to the Crown Court. I think that it will go to Wood Green - if by chance matters finish up at Snaresbrook and they come before this particular judge they can expect to spend some time where their view of the night sky is severely restricted.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Just Like Old Times

In the remand court, that handles the early stages of cases and proceeds to sentence guilty pleas we usually have an Associate Prosecutor, who lacks the discretion that is granted to a full-blown Crown Prosecutor. The other day, because an AP was indisposed, we had an experienced CP step into the breach. It was a refreshing change, because he was able to review cases and make decisions on the hoof, just like the old days, unencumbered by box-ticking and targets. We often see multiple charges where one or two have been tossed in as makeweights, and will add nothing to the overall sentence. A sensible prosecutor will weed these out as a waste of everyone's time, but the juniors are stuck with them, because a dropped charge will mess up the essential statistics. If a defendant digs in his heels on a minor charge while pleading guilty to the serious stuff, a lot of court time and money is going to be wasted.
A classic example would be, say, a drive disqualified, with a no insurance and a no MoT. The disqual. matter is going to be up in the community/custody level, so the MoT charge is a waste of paper as we are likely to impose no separate penalty anyway - and it isn't even endorsable.

There was a sad old drunk sleeping it off on a bench just outside the railway station; the bench was on railway property so a couple of BTP officers nicked him for something or other. It was apparent to all of us that his twelve hours' incarceration was more than enough to cover the low-level offence, so the CP quietly dropped it, saving everyone a lot of bother.

We saw a couple of attitudinally-challenged 18 year-old female shoplifters who clearly found the whole proceedings rather beneath them. In an odd twist of fate, the store detective was attacked by the pair when he tried to apprehend them, but an off-duty police officer and an off-duty legal adviser from my court stepped in to help. Small world.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Just aThought

'Scott and Bailey' is one of the ever-present police and legal programmes on the telly. The courtroom scenes are recorded with a strong echo, that just doesn't always happen in real life.
Because it is so important that everyone in court hears and understands what is going on, the acoustics are usually well managed.
The worst court I have sat in is Brent, which is quite new as courts go, but has a horrible tinny echo that the sound systems cannot overcome.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

In The Dark

Next Monday the new 'must-follow' guidelines for assault offences come into force. I am due to sit early next week and I have had no training or guidance of any description in the totally new approach that is required. I understand that some JPs have had the training, others have not. It's just a reflection of the pressure that our staff are under. I have downloaded the guidelines from the Web, but that's all I've got. So if you are in front of me and my colleagues, I am afraid that we shall have to retire for a while, to plough our way through the rules. It's not good and it's not professional, but it's all we can do, I'm afraid.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Oddments From The Front Line

According to the latest issue of 'The Magistrate' half-day sittings are on the way out. My court has never operated them, but many others do. Our sittings are all calculated in half-days, with even a quarter-hour after lunch counting as a half-day. The idea was supposed to be to make it easier for those with a job to fit in a bit of court time, but in today's pressured climate it isn't really practical. If the morning's list runs over, as it often does, the afternoon session will start late. The rotas vary hugely across the country, but as HMCTS throws all local differences into the blender to produce a homogenous mixture it will soon be one-size-fits-all.

Recruitment of JPs is effectively at a standstill until further notice, as nobody has a clue what will happen to the workload, nor how many colleagues will take a look at the new cheap-and-not-too-cheerful system and decide that it isn't for them. Some of those displaced by closures may find themselves out in the cold for a while, and just walk away.

This is a comment from South London JP that deserves a wider audience:

Having attended the closure of 'my' court on Friday, (I have already transferred to another court nearer to where I live now) I can only applaud the way in which colleagues and court staff are managing to keep the creaking system going with good humour despite the challenges ahead.

What saddened me most however was turning up at 10am on the last day with the removal vans already decimating the place, despite the court still sitting. The electricity and phones were cut off at 11am. The court sitting lasted until 1.30. By 3pm the windows were being boarded up while the magistrates and court staff and users were still having their farewell 'party'. The sensitivity of HMCTS was truly demonstrated that afternoon.

Up until now as a self employed magistrate, I have never claimed Financial Loss Allowance for my court sittings as I considered it as a volunteer part of my 'giving something to the Big Society'. I can assure HMCTS that I will now be claiming my £116 odd per day just to spite them. Cost savings? Not if I can help it.


London Courts were organised by borough for about the last 40-odd years. Now that most are being merged on a 3-into-1 basis that raises the question of what to do about Youth Offending Teams, Probation and the like. And of course the Met is organised on a borough basis, like the CPS.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Hard Pounding, Gentlemen

Along with many other benches we are currently engaged on thrashing out the fine print of how to merge three benches with many years' history and differing cultures into a single organisation. We have settled a lot of things, all of our discussions having been overshadowed by the overriding financial stringency, but quite a few issues remain. It is apparent that the steady erosion of magistrates' self-government and local control has accelerated recently. Since our staff and advisers are civil servants now, they are subject to the direction of ministers, and in a climate where many of them don't know if they will have a job by the Autumn, caution reigns.
This kind of radical change brings out the best and the worst. The best is visible in the positive and collaborative spirit of colleagues who may regret the need for change, but who are determined to make things work. A few people are still yearning to turn the clock back, refusing to contemplate some new arrangements simply because they are new. We will get there, but after one gruelling recent meeting a couple of colleagues and I gravitated instinctively to the pub round the corner for a little détente.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Plate Sin With Gold........

A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears: see how yond justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark, in thine ear: change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?


Case One: A poor man goes into a large supermarket and steals £15 worth of goods. He is seen by staff, and police are called. He comes to court like so many others and is dealt with according to law.

Case Two: An elderly gent (and I have a particular one in mind here) who is no longer as organised or clear-headed as he used to be, lives on a state pension and spends his days cooped up in a tiny flat, venturing out to the pub for a couple of hours' company most afternoons. Like most of us he banks with one of the Big Four - in this case Lloyds. The bank sell him a premier account, the 'benefits' of which are listed here. Virtually none of them is of the slightest benefit to an old man eking out a state pension and in poor health, and he is charged £300 per year for it - more than two weeks' income. Just read what Lloyds gave him for his £300 - mobile phone insurance for example; one of the biggest ongoing rip-offs perpetrated on the public. Fair enough, if I buy this cover, that's my lookout, but what's the ethics of flogging it to this gentle but slightly confused old boy? Worse still, the shysters who sold him his mobile phone had already flogged him insurance anyway, at a premium of £14 for a £19 pay as you go phone - and the policy doesn't even cover theft!

Case One and Case Two are both examples of greed and dishonesty. I happen to think Case Two is the worse. But it's above board, and the directors who supervise this shabby little racket get paid millions, and it's all perfectly legal.

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