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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.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Vino Cheapo Collapso

This lavishly illustrated piece from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2042703/The-Show-Bar-Warringtons-2-Bob-Tuesday-revellers-pass-gutter.html reminded me than until not too long ago magistrates granted (and revoked) licences. This kind of utterly irresponsible marketing would have brought the old-time Chairman of Licensing down like a ton of bricks. The job was passed to a council committee, and look what happens.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dilemma

Following an arduous trial that turned out to be much simpler than it looked, we acquitted the defendant. As I was leaving the court I was mildly alarmed to meet him with his mother and brother (also witnesses) waiting for the lift. I was greeted with smiles and nods from the family, so it would have been rude to just turn my back. Then materfamilias, followed by the other relatives, expressed their thanks, and stuck out their hands. Of course I shook those hands, but I made no comments and contented myself with an awkward grin and a nod of the head.

What would you have done?

Mind you, nothing can equal a case from years ago that we acquitted, when I met the accused on the way to the car park, and he said, having made eye contact: "Thanks, Mate, You're a dead fair judge"

I still treasure that remark.

Confusion Guaranteed

What is it about the bureaucratic mind?
Years ago, when I were but a lad and the M1 was under construction, some genius in the then Ministry decided to name a service area Watford Gap, despite it being 67 miles north of the already well-known town of Watford, thus guaranteeing that thousands of travellers would be confused. A few years ago the building that housed Uxbridge County Court (and was adjacent to Uxbridge Magistrates' Court) was flogged off to be replaced with flats, and the court relocated a few miles to the East in Hayes - but it's still called Uxbridge County Court. As a result the desk staff at Uxbridge Mags' see scores of people who turn up asking if this is the County Court, and have to be directed eastwards to the unlovely town of Hayes.
The current reorganisation of London's courts will see the creation of the new West London Local Justice Area (snappy, eh?) that combines the Uxbridge Ealing and Hounslow benches. Unfortunately there is already a West London Magistrates' Court that nestles by the Hammersmith flyover, and has done so for about 15 years. That one is to be grouped with Westminster, and renamed lord knows what, but you can be sure that over the next few years numbers of court users who have business with the new West London bench will pitch up at Hammersmith and have to scurry off to Ealing Feltham or Uxbridge.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cell Phone

The recent case of a young man sent inside for two months for taking a photograph in a Crown Court has been widely reported - widely, but not all that accurately, as David Allen Green points out. I have sat on appeals with Judge Mensah on several occasions and she is as calm courteous and balanced as you would expect a Circuit Judge to be.

The sloppy journalistic habit of selective reporting of court proceedings, focusing on trying to find a 'why-oh-why' angle is one of the things that has eroded public confidence in the courts and fostered cynicism about justice. It has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Do You Really Mean That, Officer?


We know that the cuts to police budgets are unnecessary, we know that the proposed cuts to our wages and pensions are driven by a personal hatred of police officers, who they see as glorified Edwardian domestic staff who have grown ‘too big for their boots’.


So writes a well known police blogger with a large following. Just have another look at the quote.

"personal hatred" "Edwardian domestic staff"

Either the officer's hyperbole has got the better of him or his judgement is seriously skewed. That would be worrying in a traffic warden, let alone an Inspector.

New Broom Raises Dust

I can think of a few circles in which this proposal will be greeted in a less than ecstatic manner.

A Straw In The Wind

The Court of Appeal has begun to consider the sentences handed down to those so far convicted of taking part in the August riots in London and elsewhere. It is a heavyweight court by anyone's standards - Lord Judge the Lord Chief Justice, Leveson LJ and Thomas LJ. The latter two have each served as Senior Presiding Judge in recent years (and by coincidence I have met all three members of the court). The Guardian report hints that the Recorder of Manchester's approach may not meet with approval. For what it's worth I think that the Times report is more helpful but it lurks behind the paywall.
Let us see what the court comes up with; their decision will set the tone for the many cases that are still outstanding.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Public Face of Justice -Poll

Essex JP, a regular commenter, has posted this:

Utterly off the point and my apologies Bystander, but what a miserable and depressing piece of concrete architecture Redbridge Mags Court is. It beats the portacabins Cambridge Mags Court had in the park and ride carpark a few years ago.


So what do experienced court users, be they magistrates, clerks, lawyers, defendants, or whoever think of their local court? And its staff? And its magistrates? Praise and criticism will be equally welcome. Inevitably, I know London courts best, but what about everyone else?

For myself - Brent is newish, shiny, and awful, with an echo in each of its courtrooms that I have sat in, plus drab and dispiriting retiring rooms. Harrow was shabby but friendly, and is now closed. Feltham is a former music hall (yes, really) and has an eccentric layout including a retiring room that was obviously the old box office at one time. Highbury Corner is chilly grey concrete. Bracknell is a grotty little suite of rooms in a scruffy shopping centre; the waiting room that I sat in struck me as an East German one might have been in about 1953.

Any offers?

Later:

Apropos Highbury Corner, I sat in a traffic court in a largeish cupboard right at the top of the building. It was an early 'gateway' court and we were faced with 320 cases. Many defendants attended, and were forced to sit on the floor in the corridor outside. We managed to do all of those attending by 5.45, when we block adjourned everything else. There was nowhere to retire to except another corridor, and the coffee and the loos were two floors down. Not good.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Appeal Date Set

The Court of Appeal is to consider the first tranche of sentences in connection with the August riots.
As anticipated, Lord Judge is to preside, and all being well we can expect to see clear guidelines being laid down for the future handling of these cases. I don't expect to see an across-the-board reduction in sentences, but it is important that Their Lordships lay down the underlying principles, as well as putting to rights any clearly anomalous sentences.

Please!

I know that this stuff is read by many journalists, so could I beg those in the inky or telly trade to do one thing for me?

Tell the subs that 'Hike' means walk. It doesn't mean 'increase' or 'raise'.

Is that too much to ask?

Bah!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Lies, Damn Lies, and..............

There has been a lot of huffing and puffing recently over the revelation that a good proportion of the rioters arrested in August had previous convictions, and that quite a few had accumulated a dozen or more without seeing the inside of a prison. I find that unsurprising, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you did a random trawl of passers-by in one of London's less salubrious areas in the middle of the evening you might well find that a goodly percentage of those you stopped had convictions. Secondly, the crude number of convictions doesn't tell you very much. Looking through the PNC form, it's quite normal to find a number of smallish convictions spread over a few years, dealt with by discharges, then fines for low level drug offences, small thefts, perhaps a bit of Section 5 Public Order, and suchlike. Disqualified driving and the like frequently appear. Quite a few of these offences are fine-only, so the question of prison doesn't arise. For Drunk and Disorderly and similar crimes-of-the-thick-and-gormless, it is usual to impose a fine and deem it served by the day that has been spent in custody, which clears things up, but leaves a conviction on the record.
When society gets into one of its regular panics about law and order reasoned consideration of the facts goes out of the window. I'm not saying that plenty of rioters were not criminals before the riots kicked off, but simply that these things are rarely as simple as they look.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

So Let That Be A Lesson To You

One of the dishonest parliamentarians has been released from prison, having served about nine weeks for defrauding the taxpayer out of £14,000, so that's about £1,500 per week. A student who stole water worth £3.50 was reportedly given six months, so on the assumption that he too serves a quarter of his time he made about 58p per week.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

End of the Line

It's the last case of a full day in the remand court. We have long completed the listed cases and are working our way through the late arrivals. A familiar face appears behind the armoured glass dock screen; he is a small man of just about 40, with wary eyes that flick around the room. This must be at least the sixth time I have seen him and he is on first name terms with some of the jailers. His solicitor has left for the day and has to be brought scurrying back from her office to see her client. This is yet another shoplifting case, involving £130 worth of knicknacks from a local chain store. He is well known in the area and CCTV easily showed him as he slipped the stuff into his pocket, so he was smoothly picked up as he left moments later.
He had no possible use for the stolen property, so the irresistible conclusion is that he planned to sell it to raise cash for his well-entrenched drink and drug habits.
The list of previous convictions says it all - over 80 separate convictions for 150 offences, resulting in every conceivable sentence from discharges and fines to a string of prison sentences, a couple of them up in the Crown Court band.
Miss East does her best. Her client is anxious to address his addictions, he plans to go to the local drop-in centre next week, so how about a Conditional Discharge? She sees my eyebrows being raised, and goes on to suggest a fine, deemed served by his time in custody - a blank look from me. So why not get reports, with a view to a community penalty? Probation have long since gone home, as she establishes with a glance across to their bench, so it won't be possible to get an old report out of the files. If we do impose custody, could we at least suspend it?

We retire.

We talk without even sitting down. We all think that the whole panoply of reports and community sentences is a complete waste of time in his case. We have sufficient information to make a decision without their help. Back in we go.

"Mr. McDonald. I will start by saying that you will receive full credit for your plea of guilty". (Not that he had any real choice, but no matter). "We have listened carefully to what has been said on your behalf but while this is not the most serious shoplifting case that we have ever seen, your large number of previous convictions and your repeated failure to respond to non custodial sentences make this case so serious that only a prison sentence can be right. We have sufficient information to proceed without reports. You will go to prison for 70 days. Go with the officers please".
He trudged off, unsurprised, to go through the reception at the Scrubs just as he has done so many times before.

I don't kid myself that what we did will do anyone any good apart from the shopkeepers of West London. At least our man will have a few weeks off the sauce; I am less optimistic about the drugs.

There are, as we all know, severe limits as to what the criminal justice system can achieve.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Worrying

As the post mortem on the August riots continues (and it will be a long process) this report fuels the suspicion, felt by many, that the judiciary was not left to make its own decisions about the flood of alleged rioters coming through the courts, but was subject to pressure from ministers.
I have heard from an unimpeachable source that MoJ civil servants have attempted to manage some aspects of what is properly judicial decision making.

This article highlights the fact that piling large numbers of people into prisons, whether sentenced or on remand, can cause collateral damage within the system.

For a cool and considered view, you need to have a look at Ian Duncan Smith's piece in today's Times (sorry, it's behind the paywall) so here's a piece about IDS' piece.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Whiplash Backlash

There has been satisfaction expressed at the Government's intention to abolish referral fees paid by solicitors' firms to obtain details of people who have suffered loss or injury in an accident - usually on the roads. Phrases such as 'ambulance-chasing' and 'so-called whiplash' have been bandied about.
There is no doubt that there have been abuses: I recall several men being imprisoned for deliberately setting up rear-end collisions then claiming damages for whiplash, the symptoms of which they had taken the trouble to learn. One unfortunate side effect of that is a general public cynicism about whiplash injuries.
I know a bit about this because I have been helping a relative who was the blameless victim of a collision with a vehicle that emerged from a side road, and she has indeed suffered genuine whiplash that has been confirmed by five different doctors, two of them orthopaedic consultants. For two years she was in pain, unable to do simple tasks like vacuuming her home, and has had to rely on help from her sister and daughters. The other side accepted liability quite early on, so the only issue now is the level of damages. This is likely to settle for a sum well under £10,000 which doesn't seem in any way excessive for what now amounts to three years' pain and restriction on her activities. So the next time that someone in the pub taps his nose knowingly when the word whiplash is mentioned he may get a quick rundown from me to the effect that genuine cases do indeed happen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

There May Be Trouble Ahead (part of a series)

I am sorry -

I'm sorry that it's been a bit quiet here lately, but I have been quite a busy boy. My court is one of those due to merge with two neighbours on January 1st, and that takes a lot of sorting out, especially as HMCTS hasn't finalised its staffing yet, due to the precipitate speed of the mergers and the cuts.

All benches will be holding their elections of officers for 2012 about now, and I am sorry that resource implications have prevented the use of anything more sophisticated that a simple first past the post voting system, because two-thirds of the electorate will not know the candidates well, or at all.

I am hopeful (as in fingers crossed) that the planned CPS move to paperless files early next year will speed things up and reduce cock-ups (you would be shocked to see just how often papers are physically mislaid) but I am sorry to say that worries remain - firstly of course this is a Government IT system, with all that implies. Secondly, there is a real worry that when evidence has to be released to defendants, as it must, that sensational documents or video will end up on the Internet. Victims aren't going to be very happy to see their interviews on You Tube. This needs fixing, and I hope that somebody has a handle on it.

I'm sorry too to say that you won't be seeing my judicial frown, plus occasional raised eyebrow or two, on TV any time soon.

The plans to relax restrictions in filming courts don't worry me at all. In fact I welcome anything that serves to open up the administration of justice to the public view. That is, after all, why I started this blog, ,and why I have taken every opportunity to publish judges' sentencing remarks whenever I thought that it would help understanding. But the lower courts are rarely newsworthy enough, as all we can do is pass on the serious stuff to the wigs upstairs. There will (I hope) be heavy restrictions on what can be shown, and sadly that will include lots of the most dramatic bits such as witnesses' evidence, the verdict, and the defendants' reactions.

Television tends to corrupt whatever it touches, and it is asking too much to expect even our most eminent and senior judges to resist the temptation to lay it on a little bit for the cameras, especially when you know that some millions of people will see your efforts.

Parliament imposes severe restrictions on images of MPs at work, and I hope that the courts are allowed the same, because if they are not justice will degenerate into entertainment in a very short while.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Bit Of Housekeeping

The comments are one of the best bits about writing this blog, but we have a small problem, which is the many people posting as Guest. I can see the IP addresses of commenters, but you can't, so I am asking you to comment in your own name or in any other name you prefer, so that we don't have to scratch our heads over which 'guest' this is. There is space on the comments box for you to put in a name - the choice is yours, subject only to common decency.

Non-Story

Here is a story in - guess? - The Mail about a perfectly routine and unexceptional bit of prison management. Only those on very short sentences are left in the big city prisons for long, because they have limited space that is needed for the rapid turnover of inmates - last time I was at Pentonville they told me that they turn over well over a hundred men every day, a hefty administrative and logistical workload. Remand prisoners need to see their lawyers and families often, hence the need to keep them within sensible travelling distance.
Those such as Gilmour who present a negligible security risk are assessed and then, if suitable, shipped out to a Cat C or Cat D establishment in a few weeks.
I get very tired of newspapers that cannot give the length of a sentence without the prefix of 'just' so many years or months, or who imply that the standard 50% remission of sentence is some kind of special treatment, and that televisions in cells are the ultimate in cosseting those who the Sun delights in calling 'lags'.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Newsflash! DPP Agrees With Blogging JP!

The DPP's remarks are in line with my emerging view of what has been going on.

Welcome aboard, Sir.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Sour Cherie Pie

A recent sentence passed by Ms Cherie Booth, has been well and truly increased by the Court of Appeal, reports The Daily Mail, falling gleefully on the chance to savage one of its main bêtes noires.

I have no comment on the sentence itself, nor on Ms Booth, whom I have never sat with (although colleagues have).

My conclusion from this is that the Court of Appeal has shown yet again that the criminal justice system incorporates a number of self-correcting mechanisms, which in this case have served to rectify an unduly lenient sentence. If that Court, and those same mechanisms, serve to reduce a few of the recent riot sentences as being unduly harsh, I hope that those who start to wail about the cases will remember that appeals work both ways.

I hope that, but I am not sure that I expect it.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The (Metaphorical) Jury's Still Out On This One

John Thornhill, the MA chairman, is quoted in today's 'Times' (paywalled, I'm afraid) as defending magistrates against allegations of 'conveyor-belt justice' and over-harsh sentencing in riot cases. Once again, he did not go out of his way to stress that magistrates had little to do with it, as almost all of these cases have been handled by District Judges, a decision taken, we are told, by the Senior Presiding Judge (Goldring LJ). The seriously heavy sentences, measured in years, were all passed in the Crown Court.

One thought occurs to me - why should I pay the MA £34.50 per year to defend the actions of the professional judiciary? Can't they look out for themselves?

The raw facts are that 64% of riot cases were heard in London, almost all of them by DJs. Night courts were exclusively DJ led. 46% of offenders were given a custodial sentence as against 12.3% for similar offences last year.

Now I can live with the decision to use DJs as they are easier to deploy than JPs and I can also live with the concept that it can be proper to sentence in the context of widespread disorder damage and theft, although it is a bit of a coincidence that so many judges had the same idea at the same time by some mysterious osmosis.

What continues to puzzle me are the bail figures - 70% of those arrested were remanded in custody against a norm of around 10%. What led to this near-unanimous decision by DJs to put the Bail Act on ice? The Act criteria are well known (especially to regular readers of this blog) there must be 'substantial grounds' to fear a failure to surrender, further offences, or interference with justice. While the riots were raging in the streets there was certainly good cause to fear further offences, but as soon as the Met put enough officers on the street the trouble ceased. Defendants with previous convictions for failing to surrender or ignoring court orders might give cause for concern but what about people who handed themselves in? Are they an absconding risk? Did the number of people giving 'serious grounds' really jump from 10% to 70%?

A few people are rubbing their hands at the possible return of swift, if rough, justice. This idea appeals to politicians at regular intervals. Margaret Thatcher wanted striking miners dealt with by hastily convened tribunals - cooler judicial heads squashed that one. Tony Blair was seduced by the idea of night courts, an experiment that threw away several million pounds and achieved nothing before it was dropped. The 'Times' says that one Chief Constable wants to see why this 'rapid, robust' approach cannot be used all the time.

I'll tell you why officer: it's because justice is too important to do in haste. If, heaven forbid, you should find yourself facing allegations, as the occasional senior copper seems to do nowadays, I bet you would want enough time to give full instructions to your lawyer, to prepare your defence, and to gather evidence or examine the other side's evidence. If that's good enough for you, it's good enough for for a hoodie-clad youth from the streets of Tottenham.

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