Thursday, December 27, 2012

Forrest Gump Had it Right

When we turn up for court in the morning in one of the courthouses in my amalgamated bench, we look at the printed court sheets to see which courtroom we are allocated to, whether we are in the middle seat or on the wing, and what the court business looks like.
Nowadays, as our group does not do much traffic work, the staple diet is trials (many of them involving domestic violence, such cases producing a goodly proportion of Not Guilty pleas) with remand work (early appearances) in one or perhaps two courtrooms. Every week there will be one or more 'non-CPS' courts; these dealing with unpaid bus and train tickets, unlicensed fishermen, health and safety prosecutions, and suchlike. Then there is the Borough's business, for unpaid council tax, truanting, littering, and the rest.
A list of 250 train-fare prosecutions is mind-numbingly dull most of the time, as it is unusual for more than a handful of people to attend in answer to a summons, so the bench will carefully consult the guidelines for the first couple of cases, then stay on the same track (geddit? Sorry, it is Christmas) for all of the others. Some of us wince at the levels of costs that are requested, and the guideline fines for people who do not give any detail of their means are very high, so an unpaid fare of say £5 can end up with a fine plus costs totalling two or three hundred quid. In the rough and ready days before prescriptive guidelines we used to assume that every defendant was on benefit, because experience of sitting in the fines court when the big fines went unpaid usually showed that to be the case. 
But sometimes, non-CPS stuff throws up a good'un, such as an environmental prosecution where our sentencing powers are hefty (up to £20,000 per charge) or a trading standards breach for selling fake cosmetics - that one finished up costing the defendant company north of fifty thousand.

So as Forrest Gump said - it's like a box of choclits - you never know what you're gonna git.

18 comments:

  1. Hope that you do not mean to imply that your enjoyment of your work is in direct proportion to the size of the penalty that you determine.

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    1. GPs are often said to miss so many obvious cases of meningitis, for example, because they have their attention fixed on other scenarios (and, some would say - a criticism that could not be levelled at magistrates, because they're not paid - that includes their bonuses and other incentives).

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    2. Just to be pedantic, it was Forrest Gump's mother who said life is like a box of chocolates, not he.

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    3. The book version is more interesting: her words are, "you never know what you're going to get, until you open it".

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  2. Of course not. But a judge will get a bit more interest out of a murder than a small time burglary, and a mechanic will get a bit of a lift out of working on a Ferrari than a Focus. Human nature, innit?

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  3. Then of course there is animal cruelty work. The RSPCA prosecuted a hunt recently and asked for £300,000 costs - they got, if memory serves, £15,000, so there's £285,000 given by the lovers of Our Dumb Friends to the legal fraternity, or perhaps these days that should be siblinghood. The RSPCA always run cases in the magistrates' courts as if they were civil actions in the High Courts over squillions of pounds; sense of propotion, anybody?

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    1. I have no hesitation in asking for a breakdown of costs when the application could be considered excessive. I would also have no hesitation in reducing them if the bench felt they were excessive.

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    2. Of course as always we lack detail but I find the DJ's observations on the RSPCA prosecution costs raise more questions than perhaps the DJ meant to. We don't have a breakdown so we can't know how the costs were arrived at. But we also don't know how much the defence costs were. I suspect that this rich hunt employed very expensive lawyers and would certainly have claimed their costs, probably well into 6 figures, from the RSPCA had they been found not guilty. Would the DJ have queried their costs in the same way and not allowed them? One law for the rich?

      From the reports availble the hunt was clearly guilty of breaking the law, yet the CPS chose not to bring charges, perhaps they were frightened by the cost. Indeed the CPS seems reluctant to bring any charges against fox hunts where evidence of law breaking has been obtained. Did the DJ enquire why the CPS made the decision it did? Were costs a factor?

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    3. From the reports availble the hunt was clearly guilty of breaking the law

      In bold, there's your mistake. (Not the spelling error)

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    4. @2nd Anonymous. The DJ found them guilty on the evidence as reported No mistake. (Spelling and typing not my strong point)

      1st Anonymous (who decided on this occasion to remain Anonymous so as not to offend the judicial powers that be while commenting on a real case.

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    5. @MotVG Hoist, to some extent at least, by my own petard. Find out the facts.

      The best summary of the costs I can find are given here - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/david-camerons-local-heythrop-hunt-fined-for-fox-hunting-8422813.html. It is not clear exactly at what stage of the proceedings the guilty pleas were entered and how much preparation for a (30 day!!!) trial had taken place. The defence costs given to the court of £35,000 suggests that the defendants were anticipating at some stage of going to trial and thus the prosecution would have been put to unnecessary preparatory cost.

      I still don't understand why the CPS did not prosecute a clear breach of criminal law.


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  4. The highest fine for a summary offence that can be imposed in a magistrates' court (so far as I know) is that provided for in paragraph 2 of regulation 36 of the (eminently suitably named) POOP regulations (aka as the Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Oil Pollution) Regulations 1996 - as amended in 1997), which sets an impressive maximum of £250,000.
    From ME 2 EU

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    1. Or even "aka [\] the MSR etc."
      From ME 2 EU

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  5. Ah, but surely the most riveting of non-CPS prosecution lists must be those for fishing without a licence?
    I am always perched on the edge of my seat when herring these cases.

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    1. Carping on about it?
      It's to early in the day for this.

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  6. "A bench near me" regularly hears cases brought by the local authority for non payment of a fixed penalty for littering. Recently had a costs request of several hundred, for which I (oops, I mean the chairman)asked for a breakdown. Seems the offender had given a valid name and address which was about 150 miles from here. Costs included a supervisor travelling to the home address, but not making a call there; staying overnight; eating quite well and travelling back the following day. Claim included two days fees and travel expenses, a additional day for a manager to oversee the matter and a few other bits, including a barrister's advice and presence in court. All refused as not proportionate to the offence o the circumstances and costs limited to £50. Complaint from the authority followed but got nowhere.

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