Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tempora Mutantur...

This article gives a professional's view on our courts today.


  1. A poacher turned gamekeeper, I was a court reporter in the 1960s, fascinated enough by the criminal judiciary to eventually become a magistrate in the Noughties. Like Michael Cross, I was astonished to find the press gallery empty when I made my observations before being appointed. As he says, thirty or forty or years ago every case at every court - magistrates' and crown - was covered by local press, also stringing for the nationals if there was something out of the ordinary, or occasionally attended by those nationals if it was a murder.

    The only time I have seen reporters in our courts in the past 10 years has been for murder commitals, which still still have a morbid fascination for the public. Our local newspaper gave up reporting most cases years ago, and naming and shaming - as the American local media does so well - has all but disappeared. Instead we get a warped view of courts through Judge Rinder, Broadchurch and similar dramas, which does nobody any favours.

  2. I too have sat through a day at the Mags' Court, motivated by curiosity and no small part this blog. It was as the article says, there was no press and mainly no members of the public except when the occasional defendant brought some supporters. I mainly sat there suited and booted in splendid isolation in the middle of the gallery and must have perplexed the JPs, of whom there three: a woman on the right who might as well have been a spectator, she said nothing all day, a youngish but grey-haired chairman who spoke well and was very clear with the defendants, and an elderly chap on the right to whom both the others deferred. The court staff: the usher, the people from social security, the legal advisor, the Polish translators (required 3 times) were all female. The duty solicitor was a chap. He represented all the defendants, no-one spoke for themselves or brought their own lawyer. All not-guilties were given a future court date.

    I sat through about 30 pleas. For the guilty the mags didn't retire, they just pushed back their chairs and conferred quietly before pronouncing sentence. In fact they only 'rose' once, when a young girl defendant started shouting about her drug treatment programme - I didn't totally follow what her concern was but security was called and the mags rushed out. 'Security' was busy metal detecting people on the front door and by the time he had made it up the stairs all the drama was over and the girl had left. I got the impression the court rose so rapidly to avoid the girl being in contempt rather than any fear for safety. I doubt she realised that though.

    At the end of the morning session the court whizzed through the no-shows and arranged to have them arrested with no police bail. I had lunch in the court cafe with some defs. The mags and staff went into a plusher dining room not accessible to the public although we could see them eating through a glass door. The afternoon session was much the same.

    The court layout was as you'd expect with a top bench for the JPs, a bench below that for the legal advisor and a facing bench for the CPS and defending solicitor. There was a witness box on the court's left, with screens as a permanent fixture, like a hospital bed (not used during my visit) and a dock on the right - glassed in, with a secure door leading out the back of it (again, not used during my visit.) Then at the back near the door four rows of seating for press, public, supporters and also used by the usher as a marshalling area for the next case.

    The glassed-in dock made it rather difficult for the def to talk to their solicitor. Some of them used a key or coin to bang on the glass to get his attention, which works well but must annoy the bench. I think if I were a defendant-in-person I would ask the court's permission to sit outside the dock at the solicitor's bench. Can any JP's comment on whether they would allow this? Presenting a case through glass would be irksome.

    It was all less formal than the Crown court. There was no m'lud and m'lady - I don't think I even heard a Your Worship. The ushers didn't escort the JPs in and out or pull out their chairs for them and I think I was the only one who bowed to the bench coming and going.

    My take-away from the visit is that if you are up before the beaks you should turn up. Nobody left the dock by the back door. And if you don't turn up you should write a letter. Letters were read out and seemed to be treated sympathetically - at least no warrants were issued to the letter-writers. One letter-writer's neighbour had died and he was too busy handling matters to attend. He got another date.

    Unfortunately I didn't see an actual trial. The Mags don't seem to publish their trial dates online like the Crown court does so it's difficult to tell what's coming up. But I will go back and sit through a trial at some point.

    1. Nationlist, a very fair assessment of magistrates courts I think. Thank you.

      Unless they are a known security risk, unrepresented defendants present their case from the bench not the enclosed dock - at least in my local court.

      You are almost certainly correct about the avoidance of contempt.

      The "youngish but grey-haired chairman" must have been me ;-)

    2. We also allow unrepresented defendants to speak, if they wish, from the well of the court rather than the dock.

      This is simply a pragmatic solution to an auditory problem, since it's hard to hear someone who is in the dock from where we sit .

      For a represented defendant, it would be unusual for them not to be in the dock, which after all has a symbolic, as well as a security, significance.

    3. Nationalist’s account much appreciated. As to whether defendants should be in or out of the dock, the Justices’ Clerks’ Society has given clear guidance that, subject to any constraints of court layout, “Defendants appearing on bail or in answer to a summons should be placed outside the dock unless there is an appreciable risk of them causing disruption or becoming violent”. It is not suggested that represented defendants be treated any differently from unrepresented defendants - nor should it be.

  3. Much ado about nothing ?

  4. I think Lord Leveson's report could provide just what the Mags Ct needs to put it back on track. If as he suggests there are around 35,000 cases that could be properly dealt with in the mags with a little bit of reorganisation, that would be a huge boost. Put that with a modest increase of jurisdiction and there is scope for saving HUGE amounts of money. Not only will it save money all round, but cases could be dealt with quicker; witnesses would be less hassled and justice would be more properly done.

    The only trouble is has anyone got the balls to do it??

  5. In some of the London courts -everybody appears in the dock!!

  6. I also took a day off work to spend in my local magistrate's court (mostly inspired by this blog).

    Sadly the bench was beset by a string of no-shows, so very little justice done. I did wander in to another session being held by a DJMC which was very interesting. I was very impressed with him actually, a very commanding and thoughtful presence, not afraid to pipe up with questions to make sure he understood the testimony.

    Witness support were very helpful about suggesting which courts to sit in on at various points and they even let me sit in on a witness briefing (with the witness' consent). The ushers were invisible to my untrained eye. The bench of magistrates were very friendly once they discovered why I was there, but noticeably less in command of the court than the DJMC. Their sessions seemed to be led much more by the prosecution and defence lawyers.

    Various people outside the courts were terrified I was from the press as I carried a small notebook to records points of interest.

    There were some interesting cases though which I can write up if there is any interest in a layman's perspective.


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