Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

As this will be my final post for 2005, and will almost take me up to the blog's anniversary, I should have liked to look forward to the legal year ahead. The Serious Crime and Police Act 2005 comes into force tomorrow, and I had intended to talk about the changes that will follow down at the grubby end of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately I know nothing at all about it other that what I have gleaned from the Interweb, as I have had no training, nor even a memo, about these far-reaching changes. I suspect that my legal advisers, under pressure as they are, are no wiser than I.

As a layman I am cautious about venturing into serious law, but I did look up the Act here. It looks as if the power of arrest has been widened to cover pretty much any offence that a police officer thinks appropriate. How this will impact street-level manpower remains to be seen, bearing in mind that an arrest can take an officer out of circulation for many hours. The power granted to police by the issue of a Search Warrant has also changed radically, if I read aright. A warrant no longer needs to relate to a particular address, but can be broadened to anywhere that the suspect may have been connected with. The Laura Norder fan club who think that the unpleasantness of a police raid will never happen to them need to have a good think about this one. Let us imagine that a fraud is suspected at a business. The senior managers might all find their houses being turned upside down at 6 a.m., and their computers seized, in the search for information, even though there is no suspicion or evidence to implicate them.

It also looks (and I stress that I am just a layman so I stand to be corrected) as if powers of a constable are to be given to some administrators, and that even custody officers who authorize detention in police stations, need not necessarily be trained policemen.

It’s going to be yet another year in which the judges will have to intervene to protect the Englishman’s historical freedoms.

Happy New Year.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Dodgy Videos Detected

We have seen an increase in cases of people (often Chinese nationals) arrested for selling pirated DVDs in the street. One vendor can carry hundreds of DVDs in a few carrier bags, and the offences are related to copyright and to the fact that the recordings are unlicensed (i.e. have no classification certificates). These offences are taken seriously, and the theoretical loss to legitimate companies must be very large - and yet.....

I imagine that most punters buy a cheap DVD knowing that the quality might be suspect and would not be in the market for a full-priced copy, however good the recording. So the losses are indeed theoretical for the most part.

I have a friend who argues strongly that this is a victimless crime, but when you look at the trade in detail it involves many (often illegal) immigrants working for some hard, even ruthless people - they are certainly not Robin Hood characters.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


We have also been featured in the London 'Evening Standard' in what appears to be a rather hasty plundering of the 'Times' story.

From the Standard's take on the blog I find it hard to recognise myself.

Hard Times

There's a piece about us in The Times today. Worryingly, the website trails the piece as 'The Hunt is on' for the anonymous blogger.

I do hope not. It's only the Internet, after all.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Holiday Time

I shall be away for a few days, so greetings to everyone, and thanks for taking the time to have a look at this everyday story of offending folk, with extra thanks to those kind enough to contribute comments - even the rude ones.

I am due to sit in court next week, so there are people out there who as yet have no inkling that they will be standing in a dock facing me and my colleagues in a few days' time. All that it takes is a couple of extra drinks, a moment of madness, and the law swings into action in its flat-footed majesty.

Finally, just a thought for those seventy-odd thousand people who will be spending Christmas in prison. Many of them are mentally ill, many more are the product of casual cruelty and indifference that has brought them to their present position of being excluded from society. Many more are just plain wicked, some are unlucky. Christmas must be the hardest time for prisoners with families, so as I dig into my turkey with my family I hope that I shall remember those who are sharing a thirteen foot by seven foot cell, with an iron bedstead and painted walls.

Someone from my class at school is currently serving 20 years (at least two-thirds to be served before parole), and while I have no sympathy for his crime, that is an awesome sentence for a man in his fifties, and I shall try to remember that there but for the grace of God goes any of us.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 23, 2005


In the last few days we have dealt with, inter alia:-

A man in his seventies charged with Common Assault.

A Tamil with a name so long that everyone but the interpreter found ways not to have to pronounce it.

A respectable and mature man who got so drunk at his firm's Christmas do that he did something very silly indeed and now faces a community penalty at the very least.

A man who lost his licence and then lied to keep his job, leaving him facing a serious possibility of prison for the deception.

A man who was evidently a bit loopy but who did not fit the criteria for legal aid, leading us to apply a creative version of the rules so that he would have a lawyer for his trial. (This was a classic example of the Ways and Means Act in operation).

A CPS prosecutor who decided that a spat between parent and son in which no blow was struck, but a cheap clock was damaged was a Domestic Violence case that required the full rigours of the CPS' zero-tolerance policy.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Not a Very Merry Christmas

I was at the Crown Court hearing appeals the other week, and I was disappointed that we did not have enough time to hear an appeal against an ASBO. The higher courts have laid down that ASBOs should not normally prohibit acts that are already crimes. I rather fancied getting involved in a case that had new law in it, but sadly we had to adjourn it off for a full day'’s listing in the New Year.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Aw Shucks (2)

Today's 'Independent' has a piece about blogs written by the estimable Tim Worstall. He gives us a mention, and awards us nine out of ten. That's nice but I am prevented from getting a swollen head by the fact that the difference between nine and none is only one letter away on the keyboard.

Anyway, thanks Tim and all you chaps at the Indie. Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


The professional and lay staff at my court, along with those in most magistrates'courts in England and Wales, will go on strike next Tuesday. Plans are in place to provide the most basic service, which means dealing with those in custody, to whom statutory time limits apply, and other urgent cases, especially those involving children and vulnerable participants. Many if not most legal advisers will be striking, but the Clerks to the Justices, who are responsible for legal advice to a number of courts will be working because they hold their office under statute. The judiciary, lay and professional, are not involved, and there will be benches available to sit in courts that can accommodate them.

I have no view on the minutiae of the dispute, because I do not understand them, but as an outsider it looks to me as if the Big Bang combining all courts under HMCS last Spring was just a little too much too quickly. There are inevitable anomalies in terms and conditions across the system, and the offer of a sub-inflation payrise seems to have been the last straw for a workforce that includes few radicals.

As ever, the losers will be the public. Magistrates have a very important relationship with their clerks, based upon mutual trust and respect. Speaking for myself, I find the interaction with professional advisers highly satisfying, so I wish them well.

In an impartial way, of course.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Great Legal Jokes (no. 477)

(Copyrights acknowledged. Original Cartoon by Pat Byrnes in The New Yorker. To buy copies see The New Yorker website)


I met a Detective Constable of my acquaintance in the pub a while ago, and he was still shaking his head over an incident he was working on. The CID office windows overlook a public car park, and glancing out he saw a Lexus glide in, driven by a well-known local offender with three more lads in the passenger seats. He picked the phone up to ask for some uniformed officers to go out and grab them but they were too slow, and the Lexus had driven off by the time they arrived.

Enquiries revealed that the car was the proceeds of a dwellinghouse burglary in which the keys were stolen, and that the owner, being abroad, didn't even know it had gone. So why did the driver choose to park right next to the Police station?

He had driven over to sign on for his bail.


Cindy Barnett, the newly-elected Chairman of the Magistrates' Association, whom I know quite well, is interviewed in the Telegraph today Cindy

I entirely agree with her caution about giving quasi-judicial powers to an ever-increasing range of functionaries. Judges and magistrates are not just there to punish the guilty, but also to protect the citizen from oppression. Today's political climate favours efficiency and throughput as priorities for the justice system. I prefer justice, and so, I know, does Cindy Barnett.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

It's worth being careful!

During a break between cases the other day a detective was brought out into the Retiring Room to apply for two search warrants. One of my colleagues was a very new magistrate, so I took the opportunity to show him the procedures. First of all I had to remind the officer to produce his Warrant Card before we started. We then swore him, and looked at the first of his two applications. A warrant application consists of written authorisation from an Inspector to apply for the warrant, an Information giving the grounds for requiring a warrant, and three copies of the warrant itself. The information seemed fine, and after a few questions we said that we would grant the application. I signed and timed the Information then picked up the warrant. A quick glance showed that the wrong computer template had been used and while the Information specified a particular reason to search the premises the warrant itself referred to controlled drugs. "I can't sign this, officer. It refers to different offences from those on the Information." Silence. The Clerk helpfully offered to cross through the irrelevant bits, and the warrants were put into legal order. I signed them, initialling the amendments, and handed them over. "Sorry about that, sir. I'll have a word with the DC who typed it." Detectives appear to dislike being made to look silly in public.

On to the second warrant. The address had been clumsily altered, with the alterations not initialled. I pointed to the scrawls, without comment. "Er, sorry sir, that was me. May I put it right?" The clerk double checked it this time.

So he did and I duly granted and signed the warrant. The officer was shown out.

It was a first class lesson for my new colleague:- firstly, identify whom you are talking to, and secondly don't be hurried into signing anything until you have read it carefully. If you are at home there is a 24 hour duty clerk who can advise on any tricky points on the phone. It would have been easy to sign the incorrect warrants, leaving me with egg on my face rather than two unfortunate CID men.

Monday, December 12, 2005

This Kind of Stuff Can Be Hard For a Chap to Take

We were quoted in the Guardian today, on Page 2, no less! Of course it won't go to my head, but isn't it nice that the mainstream media are beginning to see blogging as a serious source of news and comment?

Yesterday's explosion in Hertfordshire saw Sky News walk all over the BBC for immediacy and video images, largely because they asked for, and got, material from their viewers.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Law and Expediency

I have been following the debate about so-called Rendition and Extraordinary Rendition that appears to refer to the practice of removing suspected undesirables from the USA proper to countries that take a less squeamish view of prisoners' rights than those stuffy old American judges so that they may be robustly interrogated.

George Orwell got it right, as so often, in the Thirties, with his essay on 'Politics and the English Language'. In essence he points out that when your behaviour is corrupted, so too will be your language. "Liquidation of Subversive Elements" as practised by the NKVD came down in the end to shooting people in the back of the head. The Nazis were experts at euphemisms - the Final Solution needs no explaining, but "Sonderbehandlung", or Special Treatment, came down to murder, with a different name.

Of course there are those who argue that a bit of rough treatment is justified if it saves another atrocity from taking place, but I am with Sir Thomas More in ‘A Man For All Seasons’:-

Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man's laws, not God's - and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Some People Can't Take a Hint

Earlier this year a repeat offender is dealt with by my colleagues. They give him one of the brand-new orders combining a prison sentence, suspended, plus unpaid work, probation supervision and drug treatment. He is given his first supervision appointment for the day after the court hearing. He doesn't turn up. He isn't AWOL for long though, because the very next day he is arrested for an offence that is near-identical to the previous ones.

Not a tricky sentencing exercise, really. We had the pre-sentence reports that had only been written a few days previously. His solicitor mitigated, but I don't think that his heart was really in it. Inevitably we implemented the four month suspended sentence, added another four for the latest offence and made them consecutive - eight months in all.

What on earth was in his mind? Surely even the dimmest little yob could see that he had reached the end of the line? His solicitor will have told him that he was on just about the highest level of penalty short of prison. So he spurns probation and goes thieving as soon as he can find something worth nicking.

Sometimes we just have to accept that a few of our clients are beyond any reach of what we would call reason.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Home Sweet Home

I have intended for some time to say something about domestic violence cases, but it is a big topic and I have put off tackling it. There are domestic violence cases on the court list more or less every day, and this year we have heard evidence of the most appalling and sustained battery of women by their violent partners and husbands. A typical kind of case is a woman who marries or welcomes in a man while knowing that he has a conviction for a vicious attack on his former partner. Once they have tied the knot he begins assaulting his new wife, usually after having had a drink – and by a drink I am talking about up to six litres of nine per cent cider. Head butting, fists, feet, biting, spitting, nothing gets left out of his attacks, even as she lies in bed, too terrified even to protest. Attacks are often witnessed by her children. After several admissions to hospital she finally agrees to accept help, and lover-boy is finally charged.

In another typical case a man has a similar history of battering his wife, putting her in hospital several times, and has repeatedly been arrested and charged. Every time the victim withdraws her evidence, and despite the CPS applying its robust Domestic Violence policy the case is going nowhere. While we deal with the case the victim sits, pale and wan, in the gallery to support the ‘lover’ who has treated her like a punchbag, night after night. It is quite usual for the victim to come and see how her man gets on with his application for bail.

I am hoping to receive training on Domestic Violence some time next year, and I am eager to improve my understanding of the issues. But the question that keeps going through my mind is :- “What’s the matter with these women? Why do they keep coming back for more? Is it sexual psychology? Is it fear of loneliness, or poverty? Is it low self-esteem?”

I don’t know the answers. At this stage I am just formulating the questions. But we will have to look for a better way of protecting these women that hitherto.

Monday, November 28, 2005

And Another Thing

Speaking of fines, I'm reminded of an occasion when we were doing yet another means enquiry on an unprepossessing young man who owed the court £900 from 12 months back, had not paid a single penny, and was running us ragged. He knew the system and was playing it for all it was worth. My colleagues had already imposed a suspended committal on him, and despite this his wallet had remained tightly closed, at least as far as the court was concerned.

We had had enough, so we called the clerk out to tell her that we were going to send our man inside. She checked the right number of days, and rang down to the cells for an escort to take him down.

We went back in. I fixed him with a hard stare and said: "Mr. Smith, you have been given every opportunity to pay all or part of this fine and for a year you have completely failed to do so. We commit you to prison for 28 days." He stood unmoved, waiting for me to announce that the sentence was suspended. I didn't. He was galvanised when the dock officers came through the door and advanced on him. "This is a fucking kangaroo court. You bastard. I'll have that money here today." The rest of his remarks were muffled as the door to the cells shut behind him.

As I was leaving for the day much later one of the cell officers approached me and said: "You know that man you sent down for a fine sir; well his brother turned up just after three o'clock to get him out, but he had brought a cheque. We don't take cheques, as you know, so we told him it had to be cash or bank draft. He came back about ten mimutes ago, but the van has already gone. I don't think he'll get to the Scrubs in 35 minutes, do you?".

So our man was released the following morning when his family trekked to the Scrubs to buy him out. He was given a bit of credit on the fine for his night in prison, but every time I think about him it brings a smile to my face. He breached Rule 3b - don't take the piss.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Fine and Dandy

The fine is one of the most commonly-used penalties in the courts, and it has a lot to recommend it. It is simple, and can be adjusted to suit the gravity of the offence and the means of the offender. It is a punishment, but the proceeds benefit society, rather than being a heavy financial drain, as with prisons. It is unlikely to cost anyone his job or break up his family. For most offences the maximum fine before magistrates varies up to £5,000, but for a few involving health and safety and pollution-type offences it can go as high as £20,000.

The problem is that the majority of people who appear before magistrates are poor. In London's booming economy the real money is earned in finance and IT, and the dirtier jobs, some of them very well paid, are usually done by foreigners. There are few jobs for the underclass, whose employability is often fatally damaged by functional illiteracy, social alienation, and the ubiquitous use of drugs to blot out the world's trials. Thus, when I sat in a fines enforcement court the other day, dealing with those who had fallen into arrears, of the twenty or so people who appeared, only one had a job. Courts are limited by law to fining people amounts that they can realistically pay, but for multiple petty offenders fines can soon ratchet up to an impossibly large sum. We have the power to remit fines that, perhaps through change of circumstances, have risen to an unpayable level, and it is usual to 'lodge' or cancel, fines owed by someone who serves a prison sentence, on the commendable principle that on leaving prison the offender should have a fresh start. Another frequent problem is the petty offender who does not turn up to court and is dealt with in his absence - a common feature of fare evasion and TV licensing cases. If the defendant is absent all that the court can do is to impose the standard fine, and this leads to anomalies.

Most cases were dealt with by making an order to deduct £5 per week from benefit which is simple and relatively effective. In a few cases with hopelessly poor and disorganised women who had been fined for TV licence offences we remitted the bulk of the fines. A woman living on benefits in a council house, with five children, no man, and a teenage son who is constantly in trouble, has so much on her plate that we think it right to reduce her fine to a token level.

The enforcement court requires different skills from the criminal court, since the aim is to collect the money, so those of us who have a bit of barrow-boy in our character can do quite well.

For determined evaders (who refuse to pay or are 'culpably negligent') at the end of a long road lies committal to prison. That's an admission of defeat because committal wipes out the fine, and prison is expensive, but if we have to do it, we do.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bad Character

The more observant among you will have noticed that a current high-profile murder trial at the Old Bailey has seen a defendant's previous convictions brought before the jury. This is one of the first appearances in a newsworthy trial of the new law allowing bad character to be adduced. The Judge will have had to give his permission, and he is hedged around by directions that he will have to give the jury before they retire, but the cat is out of the bag.

From what I read about the case in the paper this morning the bad character seems highly relevant, and the jury will find that it steers them in a certain direction. Two points though: firstly, in a case as strong as this one appears to be the bad character may not be necessary to obtain a conviction, and secondly, at magistrates' court level it is the magistrates who hear the bad character application and decide whether to allow it in. If they say no, the trial goes ahead anyway, so they have heard the bad character, but will 'put it out of their minds'.

It hasn't happened to me yet, but I am sure that my colleagues who do get to decide one will do their best.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Common Sense, or Overreaction?

I have every sympathy with the difficult job that the police do, but I have to say that their middle management does not always impress me.
The murder of a PC in Bradford is being investigated, and I hope that the law will take its course. Many of us have been aware for a long time just how sophisticated and far-reaching police surveillance technology has become, and its latest developments appear to have assisted in the arrest of a number of suspects.
But did you see the TV news footage of those suspects being taken up the M1? Something like a dozen vehicles, including many armed officers, proceeding at a stately speed up the motorway, with junctions closed as they passed, and other vehicles being kept away. At the scene of the murder, armed officers stood about in their baseball caps, looking at the cameras that were looking at them.
What exactly were the police so worried about? This wasn’t Al-Quaeda or the IRA, was it? The police are looking for a bunch of small-time losers, albeit armed ones, who tried to knock over a travel agency in a run-down part of a run-down town, not a paramilitary group. Was it really so necessary to deploy scores of officers (who could presumably be more use elsewhere) on escort duty, or on standing around in the cold cradling a Heckler and Koch automatic carbine? Did anyone seriously fear an attempt to release the suspects, or to burst into the crime scene and mess up the evidence?
I suspect that every time a middle-ranking officer sees this kind of grandstanding he becomes determined that when it’s his turn to be in charge, he too will throw everything he has at the problem for the benefit of the cameras. Where is the managerial assessment of the problem, and the proportionate use of resources?

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Good Result

A neighbour approached me for some advice about a motoring offence. To cut a long story short, he had been stopped in a radar trap early one morning, along with a few other drivers. The PC who stopped him asked: "Can you produce your licence within seven days?" "No I can't" he said. "I am on my way to Dover for two weeks' holiday in France." The car was full of family and luggage, so he was obviously telling the truth. "In that case, sir, I can't give you a fixed penalty, so I shall have to report you for summons."

So off he went on holiday. The summons arrived, and he pleaded guilty by post. When he got a letter from the court he was upset to find that he had been fined £110 plus four points on his licence, and on top of that he had to pay £35 costs.

With a bit of coaching he wrote to the court. He related the tale above, and he said, respectfully, that he had heard that where a fixed penalty could not be offered for reasons beyond the defendant's control the Bench Book guidelines (as on the sidebar) suggested fining the amount of the fixed penalty. Would the court therefore put the case before a bench, and invite them to re-open the matter and have another look at it?

So they did look at it, they reopened it, and substituted a fine of £60, three points, and no costs.

I think that this was entirely fair, as it ought to be, and I post the story just to make the point that few of us have anything to lose by telling a bench of magistrates what our case is, and letting them decide.

I got a decent bottle of wine out of it too.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Girly Stuff

Today's Sun front page is headlined:-


The 'girl' in question was a mother of three, and almost exactly the same age as the red-haired 'girl' who edits the super soaraway Sun. Anyone got a bucket handy?

Dead girl (and newspaper girl for comparison).

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Law Piled High Upon Law

While looking up the chapter and verse for the fake-fruit rules I stumbled across a wonderful list of Statutory Instruments, those lesser laws that regulate our lives in minute detail, often with the threat of criminal sanctions. Here is just a handful, from just one year, but there are thousands of them, and I do feel for the legions of civil servants who slave over their keyboards dreaming them all up.

That’s why I could never be a lawyer, I fear. Rather than getting on with the job I would dreamily thumb through lists such as this one, my imagination taking flight at the sheer number of things that we must and must not do:-

The Sludge (Use in Agriculture) Regulations 1989
The Undersized Bass Order 1989
The Cereals Marketing Act (Application to Oilseeds) Order 1989
Act of Sederunt (Fees of Messengers-at-Arms) 1989
The Outer Space Act 1986 (Commencement) Order 1989

Beyond satire, my friends, quite beyond satire.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Shameless Plug

"2005 Blogged: Dispatches from the Blogosphere" edited by Tim Worstall is now available from

I believe that this blog has a small part in the book, which is nice. Buy one, won't you?

(If it makes you feel better, there is no money in it for me).

Apocrypha 14

Did you know that it is an offence to sell anything that looks smells or feels like a piece of fruit but isn't? No, neither did I. Novelty items that look like strawberries or apples are a legal no-no, and shops that sell them can be heavily fined (up to £20,000) because of the danger of children eating them.

For the doubters out there, here's the law:-

No person shall supply, offer to supply, agree to supply, expose for supply or possess for supply any manufactured goods which are ordinarily intended for private use and are not food but which-

(a) have a form, odour, colour, appearance, packaging, labelling, volume or size which is likely to cause persons, in particular, children to confuse them with food and in consequence to place them in their mouths or suck them or swallow them; and

(b) where such action as is mentioned in (a) above is taken in relation to them, may cause death or personal injury
(The Food Imitations (Safety) Regulations 1989, since you ask)

Some real fruit for comparison purposes

Today's Daily Express front page is so perfect that I nearly bought a copy to frame and hang on my study wall:

It's all there, isn't it?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


The highest penalty available to a criminal court is that of imprisonment. For magistrates the maximum sentence is six months, or twelve months where there are two separate either-way offences being dealt with. The first time that I ever signed a warrant committing someone to prison my signature was shaky as I contemplated the awesome responsibility. Now if I have to tell someone that they are going inside I make sure that I look them straight in the eye and tell them as crisply as possible what is happening and why. If the defendant comes to court on bail and is in the open dock we call the clerk outside to check the legality of our decision and then a phone call is made to the cells. Officers wait outside the courtroom, and only come in after the sentence has been announced. Most defendants take it calmly, but the odd one might make a fuss: if his record suggests that he might cause trouble a couple of extra officers will come up, and he might even be handcuffed before being taken down.

Every newly appointed magistrate has to visit a prison and a young offenders' institution, and we make regular refresher visits to keep up to date with what is going on. For adult prisoners there are four categories, from A to D, reflecting the likelihood of their trying to escape and the danger to the public. Category A means the highest level of security, while category D is likely to be in an open prison.

We usually start off by visiting the local prison to which we send most of our remand prisoners and those beginning their sentences. Short sentences are normally served locally, as there isn't time to assess the prisoner and allocate him to an appropriate prison before his sentence comes to an end. The biggest prison in West London is Wormwood Scrubs, built in the 19th Century (by prison labour - even the bricks were baked on site from clay taken from what is now the cellars!)holding just over 1100 men. The main gate of the Scrubs is well known from television, and when you pass through security the first thing that you see is the enormous chapel (as big as a large parish church) also built by prisoners. Behind the altar are a number of paintings done by inmates about 100 years ago, painted on mailbag canvas. The prisoner in charge of the chapel is very proud of it, and is always anxious that visitors should see it at its best. When I last went he was a tall, bespectacled, softly spoken man. We later found out that he was doing life for murder.

Officers told me that the lifers' wing has a more relaxed regime than the rest of the prison and that a few more comforts are allowed in cells than for short term prisoners.

A standard cell holding two men is about thirteen feet by seven and, nowadays, has a toilet and washbasin, although until a few years ago sanitation consisted of a plastic pot, used in full view of your cellmate. At the risk of offending my more sensitive readers, in the old days it was normal for cons to defecate on newspaper, wrap it up and throw it out of the window. Most cells have a small TV set, which the officers find useful, because a threat to take away the telly is a powerful disciplinary weapon.

Open prisons have a much more relaxed regime - in fact the doors are locked at night to keep intruders out, not the inmates in! Prisoners nearing the end of long sentences are gradually moved into open conditions and as many as possible are put into 'proper' jobs in the community, earning real wages, to help their re-absorption into society.

I have said before that most people think that anything other than prison is a let-off, and that prisons are too soft. A very experienced officer once said to me:- "Some of them swagger in, of course, and give us a bit of lip. But 95% of them have a good cry once we lock the door on the first night."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Been There, Done That

Apart from blog comments I get quite a few emails, which are always welcome. I had one today, which deserves a wider audience:

Dear Bystander,

Another tedious parking query I'm afraid! I will keep it quick,

1) Do Magistrates Courts hear council parking offences?
2) If so do you think I should consider going for a hearing based on the following:
--- I parked in a residents only bay opposite a pay and display bay in Barnet. Signing was not clear but I accept I was at fault. I obtained a pay and display ticket at 1705 and a parking attendant gave me a fixed penalty ticket at 1707 (both times can be proven). I feel I should be able to appeal becase the warden should have warned me rather than give me a ticket seing as I must have still been in sight. In fact I can state that I walked past two wardens when going from my car to the machine to get the ticket and then walked past them again to go about my business having displayed my ticket.

I would much appreciate your input

Best regards


Dear M H

1) No.
2) No.

For what it's worth, parking has been decriminalised. There is all the detail you will ever need here

If it makes you feel better, I got a ticket in Westminster last month when I was driving a passenger who legitimately holds a Blue Badge. We parked in a marked bay, set the timer wheel and went about our business. We came back to a £100 ticket (cut by half if paid in 14 days). Apparently Westminster has its own rules, and blue badge holders must pay, but get an extra hour free. Nowhere in the area was there any notice to this effect - I am careful about these things and I checked the plates and the ticket machine. I appealed, and having had no reply before 14 days I paid up to avoid the £100 horror. When I finally got a reply, it more or less said 'bugger off'. The phrase 'hard cheese' was implicit.

If magistrates still had power in these cases I should have appeared before the bench and told my tale. I am sure that they would have given me a fair hearing. As it is I have no legal leg to stand on and it isn't worth starting a scrap for £50.

The Government plans to transfer more power to these kangaroo courts - this may be 'efficient' but there is no justice in it.



Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Due Care and What?

Middle-aged bloke, looks like a bank clerk. He has pleaded guilty by post to Due Care, but has turned up anyway.

"Well, Mr.Oliver, since you are here, why not tell us if you agree with the prosecutor's version of what happened?"

"Well, sir, (nervously). "I park in the road outside my house since we haven't got a garage, and I went out to go to work and found that my car was frozen over. I scraped the windows, and got in. I had to back up for a couple of feet to get out, and I heard a noise. I stopped and got out and I found, just as the lady (prosecutor) said, Carol, my neighbour's daughter, who had pulled up behind me on her bike just as I was trying to get out. As the lady said, Carol had fallen off her bike and banged her knee. I am very sorry."

"What happened then?" asked the chairman." "I picked her up and took her to her Mum's. She had ripped the knee of her jeans so I offered to buy a new pair. We settled it there and then. We are good neigbours, you see, we get on well."

"What about the police?"

"Well, I went to work, but I was worried, so when I got home I rang the police station and asked whether I should have reported the accident. The man said that it was always best to do that, so I went down there and made a statement. They said everything was okay, but then five months later I got this summons. So I pleaded guilty."

"Did anyone complain? Your neighbour, or the girl, or anyone?"

"Oh no, we get on well. There was no trouble."

We went outside. We ran it past the clerk. We took a certain decision. We went back in.

"Mr. Oliver. We order that your plea of guilty should be struck out and replaced with one of not guilty. We have heard enough and the case is dismissed."

"Oh dear" said Mr. Oliver. "I am so sorry, have I messed everything up?"

"No, Mr. Oliver, we think that you made a mistake pleading guilty, so we have put things to rights. Good afternoon."

He left mumbling apologies.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Charlie Again

I have just been given my own copy of the DCA White Paper on 'Supporting Magistrates' Courts to Provide Justice'. Boy, do these government lawyers know how to write a snappy title!

The document was given to me, and is ten pounds a copy to the general populace, but absolutely nothing to anyone who has the nous to download it from the DCA website (link is on the sidebar). Thus does the British Government tax the unwary and the unwired.

It is among the less inane of the hundreds of expensively printed and easily forgotten tomes that have thudded onto my doormat in recent years. I shall read it with care, but just to tickle your collective fancy, here are a few nuggets, mined during a random flick through its glossy pages :-

The Right Honourable Lord Falconer of Thoroton QC, Lord High Chancellor, and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, successor to Saint Thomas More, albeit slightly less likely to be beheaded, signs himself Charlie.

The magistracy dates back to 1195. There are currently about 28,000 JPs. They deal with over 95% of criminal cases in England and Wales. For the purpose of this post please disregard Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In 2004 2,037,000 defendants were proceeded against in court. 1,534,000 or thereabouts were tried by magistrates. 61,000 people were sent to prison by magistrates. 2,293 ASBOs were made.

Court documents must now be written in Plain English. An ineffective trial costs £270. (I don't believe that for a moment, by the way).

There are 32,000,000 licensed vehicles and 38,000,000 licensed drivers in Great Britain. Summary motoring offences make up 50% of total court proceedings, and 573,000 of those are for no insurance.

The free telephone number for asking for an application pack to become a magistrate is 0800 003007. Information packs will in future be given to jurors when they finish their period of service. The average magistrate is aged 57. 93.3% are white, as against 90.9% of the population.

Well that's enough numbers for one day.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Charlie Wants To Be My Darling

The Lord Chancellor has launched his White Paper on improving the performance of magistrates'courts. Among the amusing trivia is that fact that civil servants will no longer refer to 'lay' magistrates, no doubt out of 'respect'. A cursory read has revealed fewer obnoxious features that we have come to expect from Charlie Falconer and his boss's ventures down into the grubby end of the law. He would 'encourage courts to have flexible hours and consider reducing the minimum number of sessions a JP has to sit from 26 to 24 half days a year'.

I know what he wants of course, because it is now accepted wisdom that courts will only be 'relevant' and 'accepted by the community' if they are 'inclusive' which means appointing teenage JPs. I am an old fogey, and I am wedded to the idea that respect for the court is more likely to come from its members being experienced, honest and impartial than from packing it with well-meaning but naive young people.

Just think though - if the new JP sits 12 days a year, what chance does he or she have of gaining any worthwhile experience? After five years and sixty days' sittings, by which time the boy magistrates might well have started shaving, they will be eligible to take the chair in court. They will face grizzled old counsel and case-hardened solicitors, and stroppy defendants. With the best will in the world, and with all the training we can give, what hope does the poor sod have of not making a fool of himself?

LATER! (cut and pasted from my own comment to this thread)

Then the young magistrates. I used to be young myself, and I was quick-witted, certain of my opinions and usually wrong. No problem there, benches sit in threes. But is it so unreasonable to think that JPs might be at least 30? I haven't seen any arguments for 20 year old airline captains or brain surgeons - surely judges (which is what we are) need to be experienced too?

If the argument is about public confidence, ask yourself whether you would rather be tried, or have the custody of your children decided by a 40 year old or a 20 year old, assuming that both had received the same training?

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Fat Lip in Battersea

Ms. Rebekah Wade, editrix of theThe Sun, has reportedly been arrested in connection with an alleged assault on her husband. She has been released without charge.

The CPS website says:-
As a general rule we will prosecute all cases involving domestic violence where there is sufficient evidence and there are no factors preventing us from doing so. Each case is unique and must be considered on its own merits.


Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Some of the many replies to the Fear thread below allude to public concern that victims who defend themselves against attacks or burglaries face a strong possibility of being prosecuted. I am grateful to the LexisNexis site for the following (edited by me) :-

The Bill (to change the law on resisting intruders) received early rebuffs Government, signalling it will face a struggle to become law. Under the plan, only those who use "grossly disproportionate force" against an intruder would leave themselves liable to prosecution. At present, the law allows homeowners to use only "reasonable force" in defence of themselves and their homes.

A Home Office minister said: "This law is, I'm afraid, just showing off. It is not necessary. A homeowner who is attacked by a criminal has the right to use reasonable force to protect themselves." The Bill's proposer said her Bill would restore the balance between the victim and the intruder. "Innocent people will know that defence of their property will not put them at risk of charges."

In an informal trawl of CPS records, only 11 cases of this type were found in the past 15 years. CPS also released examples of cases in which it decided not to prosecute because the force was considered to be "reasonable" self-defence.

These were cases in which prosecutions were brought:
A man who laid in wait for a burglar in Cheshire, caught him, tied him up, beat him, threw him into a pit and set fire to him.
A number of people trespassed on private land to go night-time fishing. They were approached by a man with a shotgun who threatened to shoot them. They ran away but one of the men was shot in the back with 40 shotgun pellets. A householder lay in wait for a burglar who tried to break into his shed and shot him in the back. A householder who disturbed men trying to steal his car peppered them with gunshot. A householder shot a burglar who tried to steal from his shed. The householder had lain in wait and shot him in the back. A householder hit a burglar with a shovel several times, leaving him with brain damage. Two men stabbed an intruder who broke into a house. The widely-reported case of Norfolk farmer Tony Martin, who killed a teenage boy by shooting him in the back as he fled after an attempted burglary at his remote farmhouse. Occupiers of commercial premises chased and stabbed a burglar after he fled. A householder attacked a man trying to steal his car. A householder stabbed an intruder.

As for cases in which no prosecution was brought, these included:

Robbery at a newsagent's in Greater Manchester. One of the two robbers died after being stabbed by the newsagent. The CPS did not prosecute the newsagent, but prosecuted the surviving robber who was jailed for six years. A householder returned home to find a burglar in his Derbyshire home. There was a struggle during which the burglar hit his head on the driveway and later died. No prosecution of the householder, who was clearly acting in self-defence. Armed robbers threatened a Hertfordshire pub landlord and barmaid with extreme violence. The barmaid escaped, fetched her employer's shotgun and shot at least one of the intruders. The barmaid was not prosecuted. Two burglars entered a house in Lincolnshire armed with a knife and threatened a woman. Her husband overcame one of the burglars and stabbed him. The burglar died. There was no prosecution of the householder but the remaining burglar was convicted. A middle-aged Lancashire woman took a baseball bat off a burglar and hit him over the head, fracturing his skull. The burglar made a complaint, but the CPS refused to prosecute.

Death On The Roads Again

The proposal to create an offence of causing death by careless driving has resurfaced. I said what I have to say on the subject back on the 3rd and 4th of February, where anyone interested can find it in the archives.

It's at times like this that the Daily Mail surprises me. If enacted this measure is more likely than any other to see the Mail's beloved Middle Englanders sent to prison. A mother who makes an error of judgement - that's right, a mistake - on the school run will face up to five years in prison if a death results. If the fates are kind and the victim survives then the worst she faces is a £2500 fine and points on her licence. So why isn't the Mail denouncing this plan? Are they afraid of being outbid by the Sun on populist measures?

Or is it because the plan is not likely to affect house prices?

Monday, October 31, 2005


I was in a grotty part of Manchester at the weekend and while stuck in traffic in an area which was teeming with people, I noticed a tall man wearing a black balaclava which had eyeholes only, and gave its wearer a very menacing appearance. The car in front of me was a small hatchback driven by a lone woman. Without warning, balaclava man strode to her car and tried the nearside door handle. Fortunately it was locked, and he returned to lounge in the bus shelter he had come from. I had locked my car as soon as I had realised what was going on,and the traffic cleared in a short while but the incident left my passengers shaken, and me thoughtful.

I acted defensively, just as most people would have done, but I went on to wonder what I would have done if balaclava man had got the car door open. My problem, in common with most men of my generation, is that I don't know how to fight. I could not have sat in my car and watched a lone woman being attacked, but how much use could I have been if I had intervened, as I would have done? My father's generation had a tough upbringing, as well as military training. They could all, more or less, look after themselves. I last had a fight at the age of fifteen and I would be easy meat for practically any hooligan.

That led me to contemplate the current media and political panic over hooligan-type behaviour, and it dawned on me that the basis of most people's concern is a feeling of impotence in the face of violence, or the threat of it. If an adult can approach a drunken hooligan with the confidence that he can if necessary restrain him then he is likely to do so. If not, he is likely to hang back.

Perhaps offering the populace training in basic self defence, of the kind that will keep you in one piece for the minute or two that it will take for help to arrive, would do more to deter the yobs than anything else.

I am not seriously suggesting a new Dad's Army, but it does seem to me that a defenceless population will always be preyed on by fit and predatory young men.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Going to Pot

I really am reconsidering my view on cannabis these days. As a student in the Sixties, although I wasn't a smoker (didn't smoke cigarettes either) I wasn't too bothered about the weed, and all that I knew about it was that it made people who were already boring even more boring, with the addition of a silly grin.

Since becoming a magistrate I have become accustomed to the typically British half-hearted compromise, that dope is, well, illegal, but so long as you don't, you know, like sell it to other people, and hey, it's no worse than alcohol, is it, and it's been reclassified in a half-cocked sort of way, and a £50 fine is about right for a local kid with a bit of blow, but dealers, well, it's off to the Crown Court for them. Nobody, by the way, has ever been able to decide where dealing starts and passing on a bit to mates to help pay for your own supply stops.

Well now it's turning nasty. I know that millions of young people use dope and that much of it is locally grown and that the new strains that are grown hydroponically have a much higher THC (the active ingredient) content than the stuff that was formerly available. I do not suggest that regular use of smallish amounts will immediately scramble your brains. What I do know is that for people who already have a tendency towards some commonly occurring mental problems cannabis use can push them over into full-blown psychosis. I recently read a 26 page report on a defendant, prepared by a consultant psychiatrist. The defendant had a history of depression and had been admitted to hospital on a couple of occasions for short courses of drug treatment. He took to cannabis use two years ago, was re-stabilised by the hospital after the effects became apparent, and now he is, having relapsed, such a prolific offender offering significant danger to the public, that we have kept him in custody for several months while the doctors try to sort out what to do with him. He may well end up being compulsorily detained. Now that's only one case, but it's about the sixth such that I have seen, and I only sit part time in one of many courts.

With emerging evidence that long-term use of high-THC cannabis damages unborn children and causes other as yet unresearched problems, my attitude towards dope is no longer relaxed. I am against it. Having said that, I do not believe that the law has the slightest hope of doing anything more than keep the price high (although heaven knows, street drugs are cheap enough today, often cheaper to use than alcohol).

It's a bit of a mess, I am afraid.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Hello Again (updated)

The BBC reported over the weekend on yet another harebrained Government Laura Norder initiative, this time 'community courts'. What's wrong with calling them People's Tribunals? That worked all right for Stalin and Gadaffi.

I look forward to reading Hazel Blears' thoughts (thoughts?) on the subject, and I expect that I shall have to go and lie down in a darkened room until my rage subsides.

(later) Here is the excellent Marcel Berlins in The Guardian:-

Here we go again. The Home Office is about to announce yet another scheme to deal with criminals and antisocial behaviourists. Mind you, there hasn't been a new idea for some days, so we're in urgent need of one. There are, after all, departmental thought-targets to be met.

There are two types of governmental thinking on the subject. The first involves leaking an idea to the press, waiting a few days for it to be rubbished and then letting it be known they never had the idea in the first place. This is what happened to the scheme for extending Asbos to children under 10 and naming them Basbos.

The other type of government thinking is announced by a minister, sometimes even the man himself (remember the great Blair brainwave for dragging paralytic pukers to holes in the wall, expecting them to remember their pin numbers). Several ideas ago (four weeks) emerged the scheme for increasing police powers to enable them to scatter Asbos to all and sundry without any need to disturb a magistrate.

This week's big idea, lifted by the government from a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), is to create a network of "street courts" (real title - community offender panels, COPS, ho ho) with the power to sentence petty offenders and antisocials. The panels would consist of volunteers, no qualifications necessary, who would be given just 20 hours' training. I haven't seen the final plans, but a couple of leaks suggest that these street judges would have the power to make drug-treatment orders and impose community sentences. If that's true, street courts would rank among the worst of many bad big ideas. Those are sensitive issues, not to be dealt with by amateurs.

But my main plea is for the government to stop this avalanche of tinkering. The criminal justice system, incorporating antisocial behaviour, needs reform. It should be done as a considered, structured whole, not as a series of instant, often zany, brainwaves.

Me too, Marcel!

Yet More ASBO Idiocy

From The Times:-

Asda, the supermarket chain, has been threatened with an antisocial behaviour order (ASBO) unless it withdraws “Hallowe’en” egg boxes from sale.

Councillors in Liverpool claim that the packaging will encourage people to throw the eggs. Richard Marbrow, of Liverpool City Council, said that he would seek an ASBO against the company if it kept the eggs on sale

Merseyside Police said that people could face criminal damage charges if caught throwing eggs at property. Asda said it did not intend to withdraw the boxes.

I do hope that the magistrates of Liverpool will send the City Council away with a flea in its municipal ear if this stupid application is ever put before them.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Apocrypha (13)

One of the occasional perils of the job is seeing someone you know in the dock. It has happened to me a few times over the years, and depending on the circumstances I have either left the bench or transferred the case to another courtroom. What matters is not whether you might be biased, but whether a casual observer might think that you could be, so safety-first is the usual approach.

A long time ago we had two men in the dock who had been arrested for gross indecency in a public toilet, the pastime known as 'cottaging'. To my horror, I saw that one of them was Peter, the son of a good friend of mine. I was aware of the young man's proclivities, because he made no secret of them and his manner was camp and exhibitionistic, but nevertheless after a quick word to the chairman I was off.

Later we had coffee out the back and the clerk joined us. "Interesting friends you have, sir" he said with a straight face.

As a postscript, I saw Peter holding court in the pub one day, and when he saw me walk in he ostentatiously turned his back on me with a toss of the head. "Suit yourself" thought I, and I put the matter out of my mind. Some months afterwards he came up to me and said "You know what upset me about that, don't you?" "No" I replied.

"Well", he said, "I mean, gross indecency! Of course it was indecent, that's what we went there for. But there was nothing gross about it."

Monday, October 17, 2005

Thought Provoking

Thanks to everyone who has recently chipped in comments. I am rather chuffed that most of this blog is no longer written by me.

There has been a lot of really good discussion on the last topic, setting out the battle lines between society's differing approaches to crime and punishment.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A Professional Job Well Done

One sunny afternoon we had to sentence Robert D - pre-sentence reports had been prepared and all options remained open to us.

The defendant was mid-twenties, and had driven while drunk and while disqualified. The latter meant that he was not insured. He had multiple previous convictions for the same sort of offences. As I glanced across the header sheet of the report the Custody bell was starting to ring in my mind. "Sentence the offence, not the offender" is what my old clerk used to say, and that is what I prepared to do.

The report was unusually voluminous, running to a dozen pages or so. It rapidly became clear that the writer knew Robert really well, having supervised him for some years on various court orders. What shone through the social-worker prose was the fact that the writer not only knew Robert well but really cared what happened to him. An appalling childhood had led, as they do, to a teenage history of drink drugs and petty crime, then on to serious addiction as he entered his twenties. Just about every sentence available had been thrown at him, all to no avail, until one day, of his own volition, he decided to seek detox therapy. Robert has never worked, so going into residential treatment was no problem. All went well until a weekend when he went home, went over to see an old girlfriend, had a mad drunken row, and drove off in her car. He got less than a mile before being stopped by the police.

I read on, and the writer dwelt on the huge strides that Robert had made, and the fact that he bitterly regretted having left detox when he did, and wanted to go back to finish the job. We believed him.

The report included recommendations to the court. Realistically, it proposed community punishment in the form of unpaid work and a curfew, and allowing Robert to go back to residential detox as soon as a place was available. All three of us on the bench had started off with the assumption that prison was inevitable, and we were all persuaded that society, as well as Robert, had most to gain from trying one final heave to get him back into the mainstream of life.

So that's the way we went. I read him the Riot Act about his future conduct and I told him, truthfully, that only his probation officer's input had prevented him being sent to prison there and then. After he had gone we asked the duty probation officer to pass our thanks to their colleague for a first class report.

Probation is not a glamorous or macho job. The knee-jerk tabloids see anything short of prison as a let-off. Nevertheless this decent and hard working probation officer did more to guide an offender back into society that all the overpaid and over-indulged tabloid editors put together.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Judgement Call

As I have said more than once, bail decisions are the red meat of a magistrate's work. We have a few minutes at most to decide whether a defendant is freed on bail, with or without conditions, or sent to prison to await the next stage of his case. The Bail Act lays down a presumption in favour of bail, and for most cases the decision is straightforward - if there is fear of further offences or absconding, no bail.

Among the toughest decisions are those relating to domestic violence cases. As readers of the several very good police blogs on the sidebar will know physical fights between couples, fuelled as often as not by drink, are daily fare for officers. Public policy is for police to attend all such calls, and the CPS to pursue them, even in the large number of cases where the (female) victim withdraws her evidence. Conviction rates are pathetically low, and my guess is that they hover at ten per cent or less. Research suggests that the first time that a woman calls the police may well be on the twentieth time she has been assaulted. People sober up, and the woman often decides that she would rather risk the Saturday-night black eye than face the world alone.

When considering bail it is usual to impose a condition that the defendant does not contact the victim, and lives some way away. We may order that one visit may be made to collect his property, accompanied by a police officer. Only too often though, once tempers cool and the booze wears off, it is the victim who contacts lover boy, because she misses him. If he has pleaded not guilty the case might take three months to come to trial We can't allow victim and attacker to live under the same roof, can we? But what if there are children? What intermediary can collect them and take them to Dad?

That's not the worst of it. Sometimes the woman wants her man back although she knows that his drunken rages will resume as soon as she has been sent to the off-licence for supplies and the Special Brew has done its work. So if we bail him to live elsewhere, and she phones him to tell him she loves him, and he goes to see her, and it all goes pear-shaped, we have a dead woman on our hands.

Not easy, no right answer. Somewhere near you magistrates will be taking these decisions tomorrow morning. Wish them luck.

Thank You

Last Saturday's Morning Star named us as 'blog of the week' and said a few kind words about us.

That's nice, and in accordance with my usual custom, I nominate the Morning Star as my Very-Left-Leaning-Newspaper-Of-The-Week, and I welcome its readers - just so long as they do not attempt to demonstrate on this blog's hallowed turf.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

English As She Is Spoke

I was trawling the Interweb the other day looking for Chambres d'Hotes in France. I came across this cracker on one site:-

The breakfast begins in the dining room in our company if you wish it. It is traditional (continental): growing, bread, butter, jams and cakes house, accompanied by fruit juice fresh and coffee, tea, chocolate and milk.
Growing? Qu'est-ce que c'est?

Then the penny dropped. The proprietors have looked up 'croissant' in the dictionary, and picked up the archaic English meaning of 'crescent' (I dimly recall that 'cresco' is Latin for 'I grow').

I shall have to book it now, just so that I can ask them to pass the growings at breakfast.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Mother and Law

As many of you correctly suggested, we took an early decision to rule out prison for our benefit-abusing lady. We assessed the offence as serious, given the large sum involved and the long-term nature of the fraud, offset by its being a crime of omission rather than of commission, but her previous good character and guilty plea pushed it just far enough down-tariff for a community penalty. The offence predated April 2005, so we were sentencing under the old rules which precluded use of the new suspended sentence with added requirements. We decided that society's disapproval had to be shown, and that the correct sentence was 240 hours unpaid work, which we reduced by one third to reflect her early plea. The report and her solicitor's mitigation both stressed that childcare could be arranged while she worked. The council asked for costs of £1000 but we reduced that , in line with the sort of figure that the CPS asks for.

The council asked us not to award compensation as they were confident that they would be able to recover the overpaid money. The defendant had voluntarily paid several hundred pounds in recent weeks and said that she would carry on doing so.

To answer the obvious question - was she spared prison because she was a woman? Well, yes and no. We assessed the offence by its seriousness, mitigated by plea and character. I have to admit though, that even if the offence had been a clear custody case the fact that she is the mother of (by now) four children from two years old upwards would probably keep her out of prison. The damage that the children would suffer by having their mother taken from the home, even for a few months, was, in our view, too much to contemplate, for a non-violent, non-sexual offence.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Pros and Cons

A quick skim through the online versions of tomorrow's papers suggests that the usual rags will be getting into a lather about a Euro-judgement ordering the UK to restore the vote to serving prisoners. I can't get too excited either way, quite frankly. The prison population is rarely over about 75,000 which is not a very big slice of the electorate.

On reflection, I find myself keen on the idea, but only if we can make one or two changes. Until a few years ago there were members for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, whose members also enjoyed the privilege of a vote in their home constituency. All gone now, but how exciting it would be to have a constituency dedicated to serving prisoners - Cellblock Central.

Just think of it - old lags could stand and offer to put the con into constituency. Unsuccessful candidates, rather than losing their deposit, could lose remission. The voice of the criminal classes would be heard throughout the land, albeit in a more articulate manner that the simian grunts that some of us are used to hearing.

Best of all, think of the potential candidates. The Lords is taken care of, since Lord Brocket and Lord Archer have each seen the inside of a cell in recent years, but who could represent the great mass of old lags? Sadly, Ronnie Barker has ruled himself out in the last couple of days, but how about some of the telly hard men - Vinny Jones even? I understand that there are plenty of knuckle-draggers available at the rougher end of the soap spectrum too.

I would be very grateful for suggestions as to potential Dishonourable Members, and the policies that they might put forward to their rather select electorate.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Another One For You

A single (in this case abandoned) lady with three children was living in a rented property, and in receipt of housing benefit (to pay the rent) and council tax benefit (for obvious reasons). She met a man and one thing led to another and he moved in. She had made quite a good catch as he was working and earning decent money.

Single Lady didn't tell the authorities that she was, in the unlovely official word, cohabiting. Worse, for two more years she signed her annual declaration that she was entitled to her benefits - and she wasn't.

When her case came to court she pleaded guilty, and my colleagues adjourned the case for pre-sentence reports, noting that the fact that the offence took place over time, and that the sum involved had grown to something over £12,000. Because of these factors they indicated that custody could not be ruled out, and neither could committal to the Crown Court for a sentence in excess of magistrates' powers.

The bench that I was chairing was presented with the reports.

I will tell you in a day or two what we did, but what would you do? If you want to see the guidelines they are in the Bench Book link on the sidebar (page 152 of the pdf).

As ever, there is neither a right nor a wrong answer, just differing interpretations of the guidelines.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


The person I was to meet for lunch yesterday called to say that they couldn't make it, so to while away the time I borrowed the barmaid's copy of The Sun.

The paper was ecstatic at having tracked down a convicted rapist who has been released and is in a protection programme for fear of vigilante attacks. The paper waxed indignant about the cost of this programme, especially in the light of the rapist having won the Lottery recently.

But - why is the costly protection programme necessary? Because tabloids (especially The Sun) tacitly encourage vigilante action against 'sex beasts'. By printing the man's address and photograph the paper makes attacks more likely, causing the authorities to spend yet more money on protecting him.

I think that the newspaper should pay a proportion of the cost of protection.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Phish and Chips

I dealt with my first ever Phishing case recently. The defendant fraudulently transferred a large sum of money into his own account by Internet fraud, and then attempted, using methods that I won't detail, to turn it into cash. He was thwarted by a vigilant counter clerk.

We heard only limited details because he pleaded guilty, but we had no hesitation in sending him to the Crown Court for sentence. A sophisticated fraud, prevalent at the moment, cries out for a deterrent sentence, despite the def's previous clean record. My guess is that the judge will see the offence as being worth about three years, but allow one-third discount for the very early guilty plea.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


When I sit in court, politics has no place either in the proceedings or in our deliberations. Nevertheless, politicians in Parliament make laws, and so we must all take notice when the Prime Minister speaks.

He said, at Brighton:-

I believe three things work.

First, a radical extension of summary powers to police and local authorities to take on the wrong doers.

We will publish plans to do this by the end of the year. They will tackle specifically binge-drinking, drug-dealing and organised crime; and develop existing laws on ASB.

Second, we need a uniformed presence on the street in every community. Officers on the beat is what the public have wanted for years and they're right. I have seen teams of police and CSOs in action. It works. We want them across the whole of Britain over the next few years.

Third, give our young people places to go so that they're off the street.

Numbers two and three are obviously desirable. Let's have another look at number one:

First, a radical extension of summary powers to police and local authorities to take on the wrong doers.

Now I don't know what that means to you, but to me it seems that "radical extension" and "summary powers" mean giving quasi-judicial power to policemen and to council functionaries to impose criminal sanctions on citizens.

Of course voices such as mine will be dismissed as being a last attempt of the bien-pensant middle classes to defend their right to impose themselves on the lower orders without 'accountability'.

I never criticise politicians for who they are, only for what they do.

Where, in the 2005 manifesto, did it say that the enforcement of justice would be taken away from courts and given to public servants?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Egg On Martyr

The press and various bits of the Interweb have been getting terribly excited about the old lady who has just achieved a highly-publicised martyrdom by refusing to pay part of her Council Tax, and being sent to prison as a result.
It is a depressing insight into the standard of our press and of public debate that nobody so far has set out the choices faced by the magistrates, which were:
  • Send her to prison by implementing the suspended sentence that she had already been given
  • Tell her that she doesn't need to pay the tax because she is an old lady
  • Er - that's it
Every tax needs to be enforced by sanctions if necessary, because otherwise some people won't pay, and if those people get away with it, then nobody at all will pay.

During the Poll Tax years (that, by the way, was a tax that I opposed for its sheer stupidity rather than any ideological reasons) I remember dealing with a refusenik would-be martyr who turned up with a claque to support her from the gallery. She was fully expecting to go to prison in a blaze of glory (or as much glory as the Ealing & District Weekly Advertiser can offer). I announced that she had made prison inevitable, and she visibly puffed up and thrust out her chins. "However" I said, "In a final attempt to see whether sanity might yet prevail even at this late stage we are suspending the committal to prison for a final seven days". She subsided like a badly-made soufflé and I have never seen anyone look so disappointed.

I was on the rota to sit seven days later, and I looked for her on the list. She was not on it, so I had discreet enquiries made, and discovered that some unsporting soul had shot her fox by paying the tax anonymously on her behalf - a procedure that she had no legal right to resist.

I have suspected since that day that some local slush-fund was dipped into to provide the required cash to render her protest futile. I am surprised that nobody in authority in the latest case has thought to have a whip-round and pay off the fifty quid that is all the money needed to keep the silly old bat out of chokey.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Well, That's a New One

We had an Immigration Officer in to apply for a warrant a while back. I checked his ID, had him swear that his information was true, and read the typed Information in support of the application. He wanted to go and search a house where he had reason to believe some illegal immigrants who had overstayed their permission to be in the UK were concealed.
I then asked him, as a matter of routine, why he was asking for a warrant, rather than simply going round to ring the doorbell. "Health and Safety, Sir" he said. "Pardon?" I said. "How is that?" He went on to tell me that during a previous raid on the same house two illegals had leapt from a first-floor window in an attempt to escape, and each of them ended up with broken ankles. So he wanted to bash the front door in and storm in to grab the prey before they had a chance to jump. Health and safety, you see. I gave him a mental ten out of ten for ingenuity and granted the application.

By the way, we always write the time next to our signature on the Information. This is a hangover from the Brixton riots, when there was considerable suspicion that a crucial raid took place before the magistrate had granted the warrant.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Speaking of Policemen...

Those of us who frequent the streets of London have noticed that the cars driven by Met officers have taken a leap up market. Now that Ford and Vauxhall have given up on big cars, and now that all tenders for public sector purchasing must go out EU-wide, the Met's finest can be seen in 5-series BMWs,Mercedes and Volvos.

I hope that this has an effect on recruiting - there's a lot more street-cred in a Merc or a Beemer than in some lesser wheels.

Even at the lowest level (the Astras) at least the Met get petrol versions. The Thames Valley coppers have the same cars, but they are diesels. My dear! How outré!

It's An Unfair Cop

(Edited extract from The Daily Telegraph)

Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police has proposed that officers should be allowed to by-pass the courts and confiscate driving licences, seize vehicles and issue anti-social behaviour orders on the spot.

Sir Ian said "modernisation" of the force should be carried forward by introducing "an escalator of powers" for the dispensing of instant justice.

"One idea is to have some police officers - paid more and with more powers - to impose an interim anti-social behaviour order, for instance, or suspend a driving licence," he said. This would have an immediate effect rather than waiting for intervention by the courts, Sir Ian suggested.

He acknowledged that giving police powers currently exercised only by the courts would be controversial.....
Damn right it would, Sir Ian. You are not the first policeman to show frustration at the need to put cases before those irritatingly nitpicking courts, with all their questions and stuffy old procedures, and to back them up with properly gathered evidence that will stand up to scrutiny.

"He's a villain, Sarge". "That's good enough for me. Right, sonny, here's an ASBO - five years inside if you breach it. On your way now."
I've got a better idea for you, Sir Ian. Make sure that your officers gather and record their evidence professionally, and ensure that it gets to the CPS promptly and in proper order. The police officer's training and mindset is focused on deterring and detecting crime and arresting criminals. The judicial mindset is entirely different - that is why courts are independent.

In my home town the old Victorian Police Station still sits next to the Police Court. The two functions were separated a long time ago - let's keep it that way shall we, Commissioner?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Face of Crime

People who work in the criminal justice system often remark on the sheer ordinariness of some of those who come before us charged with serious crime. I saw a young man once who had been brought back to court while on remand for aggravated burglary because the 86 year-old woman he had attacked had died a few days afterwards, and he faced a new charge of murder. He was a podgy, rather bovine-looking man of about 22, blinking as he looked through the armoured glass of the secure dock, flanked by two custody officers. If you saw him in the street you wouldn't give him a second glance - just another slightly gormless looking young man. He had broken into an old lady's house, and when she called out to ask what he was doing there, he attacked her in a sustained assault that culminated in his stamping on the side of her head so hard that the imprint of his size ten boot remained there for the few days until she died. Press photographs, usually released by the police, can make anyone look rather sinister, but, as Shakespeare put it :- "There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face".

Some of the characters that we do see are indeed dodgy-looking. One of our local nuisances, who specialises in low-level disturbances when he is even drunker than usual, is a dead ringer for Abel Magwitch in David Lean's film of Great Expectations, and it must be very nasty to meet him on the proverbial dark night as he makes his way home from a heavy session.

More usual though, is the quiet dull-looking type who looks unlikely to say boo to a goose, but who faces charges of appalling seriousness. I have another chap in mind who was alleged to have raped his 12 year-old daughter and to have indecently assaulted her and her 8 year-old sister. Some years ago in committal proceedings it was common to call witnesses, and both little girls had to give evidence from a screened area to allow us to decide whether there was a case to answer before sending the matter to the Crown Court. Hearing the girls' childish descriptions of how they felt and of what happened when Daddy came into their room when Mummy was out at work was very trying, but glancing at the quiet, serious, smartly-dressed man in the dock it was hard to make the connection between offfence and offender.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Top Tip

If you are being chased by a police dog, don't try to get away by crawling through a tunnel, going onto a little see-saw, and jumping through a hoop of fire.

They are trained for that, you see.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Not For Me, Thanks

We heard a case a week or two ago in which the facts were depressingly familiar. One-thirty in the morning, milling crowds of young men; much drink taken. The young men concerned repaired to the local minicab office, all buses and trains having finished service for the day, and there was then a violent incident or two. No serious injury was inflicted, but tension and fear reigned. The facts and result of the trial don't really matter, but what I find depressing is the fact that the bad-tempered and drunken squabble happened in a place that I used to haunt as a teenager when I was a pupil at the local school.

Now that I am in comfortable middle age, living in a quiet and pleasant area, I have, like so many people, arranged my life to avoid places like this one unless I am passing through at 30 mph in a car with the doors securely locked. The local residents bar their doors and windows, and the richer of them arrange for electric gates to seal them off from the disaffected and the inebriated.

The scene of the crime was in the middle of an area where the entry price of a three-bed house is about £300,000. The protagonists in the case that I tried were employed, and of previous good character.

No social class has a monopoly on drunken and yobbish behaviour. One of today's witnesses admitted to drinking seven to nine pints of strong lager, but said that he was not drunk. Questioned, he defined not drunk as being able to remain on his feet for long enough to speak to a police officer. Whom he then called a cunt.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Effing CPS

I'm sorry to get back to the CPS again, but today we were buggered about time and again, once or twice due to stubborn and inflexible policy, but mostly due to simple incompetence and sloppiness.

I can't be too detailed, but to give you a flavour:-

Defendant in court in custody. Bail application. CPS has no papers so can't make any representations. Two hours to sort it out - fortunately we have other work to get on with.

CPS prosecutor turns up two hours late, leaving bench, clerk and staff twiddling their thumbs.

CPS ordered last month to review 18-month old case that is as full of holes as a Swiss cheese. Court direction ignored, no review, case put off yet again (Thirteenth listing!!). We wanted to kick it into touch but for legal reasons we could not.

Prosecutor entirely misses vital (and well-known) piece of case law that says that we have to send a certain case up to Crown Court, and looks shocked when we do so.

Defence asked for Police Incident Record Books (IRBs) in respect of old matters as they have a bearing on the defence case. Request made last May. No books, no idea where they are. Case stalled.

The CPS talk a good story at the top level, but day to day admin, such as getting files to court, warning witnesses, and filtering out hopeless cases are a shambles.

There, I feel better now. Where's the gin bottle, darling?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Since the rules on jury service were tightened a while ago it has become almost impossible to get out of it, and the most that one can hope for these days is a deferment. At the same time the rule preventing judges lawyers and magistrates sitting on the jury was abolished. and quite a few from these groups have now served on juries. Of course the proceedings in the jury room are sacrosanct, but there is some anecdotal evidence that those with experience of the courts are often, but not invariably, elected as foreman. The head of the criminal department in our largest local firm of solicitors was called and spent exactly one half-day in the jury box in a fortnight.

I was strongly in favour of the rule change because under the old system the busy middle classes usually got themselves excused, leaving juries stuffed with the retired and the unemployed. One ironic definition of a juror was 'someone who is too stupid to get out of jury service'.

There are a few problems though. For one thing, an employer who allows one of his staff 15 or 20 days off a year to sit as a JP is going to be pretty fed up if they then take another 14 days to sit as a juror. If the judge in a case is junior to the one who is on the jury, the latter will presumably have to keep quiet about it to his jury colleagues. In a tight-knit profession like the Bar there is a strong likelihood that the juror will know one or more of judge, prosecution or defence counsel. And what should I do when the defendant is giving evidence and his counsel fails to ask him if he has any convictions? That is a sure-fire pointer to the fact that he has: should I tell my fellow jurors about it?

Nevertheless, juries should be as balanced as is reasonably practicable. The common folk of the jury are a safeguard that any of us might need one day.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Just Another Day In Paradise

A few bits and pieces from today, suitably sanitised:-

Forged Insurance Certificate
Drink Drive
Criminal Damage (domestic dispute that got out of hand)
Theft (handbag nicked from counter of chip shop)
Theft by employee (elected for Crown Court)
Possess offensive weapon (knife)
Fraud with bus pass
Credit-card skimmer (use of)
Handling of stolen goods (£1500)
Drive without licence and insurance
Drive Disqualified
Threats to Kill
Drink drive
Exposing genitals (male def)
Possess offensive weapon plus bladed article.
Drink drive
Burglary dwelling
Drink drive
Drink drive again
Drink drive (refuse test)
Drunk in Charge (not-guilty plea)
Deception (on CV in job application)
Seize proceeds of crime x 3
Drink drive
Drink drive

Then the extra cases, about as many as above.

Then an application for legal aid.
Then a ditto.

A couple of late arrests, bail applications to decide.

The above is a mixture of remands, pleas, sentences, and all sorts.

Finished 4.40 p.m. In pub by 5 p.m.


Lawyers Again is the numero uno website among young solicitors, and the word on the street is that the site owners are doing a deal better than they did (or do) in the law. They have just offered free beer if and when England win the Ashes. Just look at these for exclusion clauses:-

"Just print out this email and take it along to RollOnFriday Towers, 9 Carmelite Street, London, EC4Y 0DR to claim your can. We're about 50 yards down the road from Freshfields. We'll get a couple of crates in, and when it's gone it's gone. Only one bevvie per person, so don't send your trainee down for a dozen. This invitation only applies whilst stocks last and may be withdrawn without notice. Officers and employees of RollOnFriday Limited and their families and pets are not eligible. Subject to terms and conditions. Terms subject to conditions and conditions subject to terms. Additional terms may be applied to conditions, in which event conditional terms may apply. Applicable conditions may terminate. Terminable terms may apply. For the avoidance of doubt, terminable conditions and applicable terms may apply or terminate without notice. Your house is probably not at risk."

Careful lads! Speaking with your tongue so firmly in your cheek can lead to inadvertent lingual trauma.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Naughty But Nice

Sometimes I am overwhelmingly tempted to tease a lawyer who is appearing in front of me. I tend to stick to those I know, although I have occasionally picked on complete strangers.

The other day I was dealing with a couple of hopeless rheumy-eyed shambling drunks. They had made a nuisance of themselves yet again, and had been charged with a handful of public order offences between them. They were obviously pissed in the dock, as they are for most of most days, and occasional burblings and giggles emanated from their direction. We dealt swiftly with the offences on the sheet, imposing fines that we deemed served by their detention in the police station. It is hopeless to expect fines on these people to be paid, and community penalties are out of the question.

Then the big one - we made an ASBO, after pruning the requested conditions down to a reasonable and lawful level. I didn't suppose for a moment that they understood what I was on about, so on concluding my required pronouncement I said :- "Mr. Cxxxxxxx, your lawyer, will be delighted to explain what this order means. In fact if you have any queries at all you should ask him, as he has plenty of time to answer your questions".

Mr. Cxxxxxxx gave me a look that combined the rueful and the venomous, and went outside to await the arrival of his clients.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Straight From The Horse's Mouth

Anyone who wants to know more about the court process can have a look at the Judicial Studies Board's website where they will find the current Bench Book. Every magistrate has a copy, and there is always one on the bench in every courtroom. It is a hefty document (a 381 page pdf file) and from about page 95 you will find the current sentencing guidelines. These will enable you to score 100% in any future quizzes that I put in the blog.

I have put a link to it in the sidebar here. I would be very interested to hear your views, but in view of the size of the document, I appreciate that they may take some time to appear.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Family Business

Not everyone is aware that magistrates play a key part in family law, dealing with matters of child care and custody, finance, and other things. I have never been involved in this, but I do know that to sit in the family court one has to do lots of extra training and submit to a selection and appraisal process.

The family courts are being rearranged under Her Majesty's Courts' Service and the idea is to have centres for each area where magistrates, District Judges and, very rarely, Circuit Judges sit. Cases will be allocated to the appropriate level depending on their complexity.

I finished my court early the other day, and I found a colleague sitting in the corner of our pleasant retiring room just staring out of the window. He looked drained, so after I had fetched him a coffee I asked him about his morning's work. He told me that he had just finished chairing a four day child care case, at the end of which the court ordered that the two small children of a heroin and alcohol addicted couple should be taken from then and placed for adoption with no further parental contact. This couple had been through similar proceedings five years ago, and had two earlier offspring taken away.

The law provides that the child's interests are paramount, and to that end a posse of lawyers attended, each representing one of the parties involved, including local authority, parents, child, and so on.

My colleague was so emotionally drained after his case that he just needed a quiet sit down and a bit of space.

These cases are hugely important to parents family and above all the children involved, and I have the greatest respect for my colleagues who take this work on.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A Personal Note

One of my dearest friends picked up his new car today, resplendent in its new '55' number plate. It cost him the best part of £40,000 and is an exquisite piece of machinery.

Unfortunately, it is so laden with technology that it will take him sometime between a long time and never to get to grips with it. He has grown old earning the kind of money that he needed to buy this toy. The SatNav alone should confuse him for a month or two, and I sternly advised him not to touch it while driving.

Youth is wasted on the young, is it not?

Si la jeunesse savait, si la vieillesse pouvait!

Emotional Claptrap

Harriet Harman, the Department forConstitutional Affairs minister, is launching a consultation paper today on plans to allow relatives of homicide victims to address the court, either in person or through a representative, post-conviction but before sentence.

Well, if she cares to consult me, I shall tell her that this is nauseating tabloid-driven claptrap. What a field day the Sun will have as tear-stained relatives (especially if they are from Liverpool) sob out their grief, and call for the heaviest punishment for the defendant. The interviews on the court steps are bad enough as it is - "How do you feel about the sentence?" "Oh great, it was about spot on and the judge took account of the Sentencing Guidelines Council's latest circular". Why does no one ever answer "What a stupid question?"

What is the judge supposed to do, faced with this appalling freakshow? Is he meant to ratchet up the sentence in response to emotional pressure? Do we want a legal system where the killer of a wide-eyed moppet goes down for longer than if he had offed Billy No-Mates? Perhaps after the relatives' contribution the trial could adjourn for a few days while a TV phone-in poll decides the sentence - at premium rates of course.

Harriet Harman is a lawyer and she used to be a liberal (NCCL and all that). Surely she knows in her heart of hearts that this proposal is wrong, disgusting, and counter to all of the principles of impartial justice.

And next time I hear someone say:- "He'll come out of prison one day - it's us that are serving a life sentence", I shall throw up.
Later: I found this from the editorial on the Sun's website:-

A New law will be unveiled today that could result in killers getting the sentences they deserve.
Relatives of victims are to be allowed to address courts once a guilty verdict is returned.
For the first time the full emotional damage of the crime of murder will be laid bare.
Too often in the past, courts have heard only a sob-story cooked up on behalf of the defendant.
Justice will be better for this law.


I rest my case.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


Here is a list of the sources of our visitors. I have no idea how accurate it is, but as a child of the late 1940s I am deeply impressed that the thoughts of a humble legal functionary in London can have been spread so far.

United Kingdom 73.32%
United States 10.10%
Australia 2587 3.90%
France 1310 1.97%
Canada 1274 1.92%
New Zealand 773 1.17%
Germany 563 0.85%
Hong Kong 444 0.67%
Japan 287 0.43%
Spain 254 0.38%
Thailand 242 0.36%
Ireland 211 0.32%
Sweden 201 0.30%
Norway 192 0.29%
Europe 177 0.27%
South Africa 173 0.26%
Netherlands 162 0.24%
Switzerland 146 0.22%
Belgium 141 0.21%
Singapore 115 0.17%
Austria 113 0.17%
Luxembourg 103 0.16%
Cyprus 98 0.15%
Italy 97 0.15%
Venezuela 96 0.14%
Romania 93 0.14%
Denmark 93 0.14%
Finland 92 0.14%
Taiwan 82 0.12%
Unknown 64 0.10%
UAE 55 0.08%
Sri Lanka 54 0.08%

(list chopped from here - it was too long)