Monday, January 31, 2005

Legal Code (1)

I have touched on the law's propensity to jargon. Much more important is code, in which practitioners know exactly what is meant, while the poor sods in the dock and the public gallery haven't a clue what's going on. Here's a taster: there will be more later.

"M'learned Friend" = The incompetent fool standing next to me.

"If Your Worship Pleases" = I am a proper barrister and I don't want you to confuse me with those oiks over there who should be back in their office writing wills or whatever it is they do.

"As you and your colleagues will of course be aware, Sir" = You silly old fools wouldn't know a legal argument if it crawled up your arse, so here's the law rendered fit for Daily Mail readers.

"My instructions are, Sir" = I hope you realise that I don't believe this crap either.

"It is my hope that the Crown might feel able to take a certain course of action" = Are you going to drop it, or do I have to go through the process of getting it thrown out? If I do, I'm going to rub your nose in it.

"I am of course, mindful of the pressures on Court time" = I am seeing that delicious little Cambridge graduate who has applied for a pupillage at 6.30 in a pub in Chancery Lane. I want out of here, and I want it in the next five minutes.

"We are anxious to conclude matters today, Sir. My client is privately funding this case" = it was all that my clerk could do to screw five hundred quid out of this tosser. Please don't make me come back for a second day, because I think he has run out of money.

"I am grateful Sir" = I am not grateful. I am furious.

"I am grateful for the guidance from the learned clerk" = Bitch

ASBO - Ex Westminster Semper Aliquid Novi

The Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) is one of the new weapons in the armoury of those trying to keep the unruly citizenry under control. In essence it is a way of aggregating a lot of low-level offences and then ordering the offender to stop doing them. The Orders had a slow start, but their numbers are now climbing rapidly. The court may only order something not to be done, so there is none of the nonsense that you see from grandstanding judges in some countries where they sometimes order all kinds of bizarre add-ons to a sentence in order to humiliate the offender, and to please the local press. The ASBO may be applied for by the prosecution, by the local authority, or by the court of its own motion following conviction.

At best, the ASBO is a useful tool, and a good example is a case I heard last year. A young man threatened a neighbour with a wooden club, and during the trial it became apparent that there was a history of some householders in that area being threatened and assaulted. There was a significant racist undercurrent (a high proportion of people in that neighbourhood are from ethnic minorities).

We convicted and sentenced the defendant, and awarded compensation to the victim who had suffered a serious fright, but no injuries. We then decided (much to the surprise of the defendant as well as his lawyer) to make an ASBO. We checked the law with our legal adviser, and, after legal argument, made an ASBO for two years forbidding the offender from harassing his victim and from going within half a mile of the place where it all happened. We felt that went some way to protecting and reassuring the victim.

So far so good. Unfortunately, some Police and CPS people are trying to scatter ASBOs like confetti and we have to be careful to examine their applications. If someone has been a vandal in my town, but has never previously been within thirty miles of it, why should we make an order banning him from the town? There is no established pattern of behaviour, and no evidence nor even suspicion that he will come back.

The real sting in the tail is when an ASBO is breached. If you have committed a lot of petty pain-in-the-arse type of offences (and I do not minimise the effect on victims) none of which is worth more than a low-level sentence in the range of a fine or a Conditional Discharge, an ASBO breach pushes you into the Either-Way band where you might be sent to the Crown Court, which can send you to prison for several years.

We have already had to put our foot down when the CPS asked us to send a serial nuisance to the Crown Court, when the worst feature of her breach was telling a policeman to fuck off (albeit loudly and often). If we had indeed sent her upstairs, she could have got a year or more for a string of offences that were individually petty, but collectively a nuisance at worst. So we refused.

An ASBO that works is great. An ASBO that goes wrong risks pushing petty, disturbed offenders further up the scale of punishment than they deserve. It makes one think very hard indeed, and on my patch ASBOs will have to be argued for and fully justified before we will grant them.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Off -Topic, But It's My Blog After All

The acronym stuff reminds me that I have a few pub friends with whom I have been drinking for many years. One of them came up with a little code to warn of the approach of the sort of pub bore who could destroy the bonhomie of a whole session:-


Not Quite Our Type Dear

We still use it a lot

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Alphabet Soup

There is something about the law that attracts acronyms and jargon. As Latin slowly disappears from everyday use in the courts it is more than replaced by impenetrable sets of initials. There is supposed to be a drive on to improve the clarity and transparency of court proceedings, and I have made it something of a personal campaign to see that everyone who appears before me leaves the court knowing what has happened, why it has happened, and what will happen next. There is a craze for renaming things that are currently well understood so that they are not understood in the future. That is why when I sentence someone to a Community Rehabilitation Order, I add "that's what used to be called probation" - and everyone knows what that is.

Jargon causes misunderstandings, even offence. It is usual to refer to a driver who has accumulated twelve penalty points on his licence as a 'totter' because of the so-called 'totting up' procedure. Unfortunately a 'totter' is also London slang for an old fashioned rag-and-bone man (or junk collector). One day my clerk told a respectable driver who had broken the speed limit once too often that he was a totter. "Excuse me Miss" he said. "I have come all the way from Devon to be here today. I'll take my punishment and I'll pay my fine. But I didn't come here to be insulted".

The Lord Chancellor's Department is now the Department for Constitutional Affairs, or decaff to those in the trade. The lady of a certain age who used to be the secretary to the Clerk is now the Justices' Liaison Officer, or J-Lo. Probation and prison services have merged into NOMS - National Offender Management Service. We have, just in my court which has about 50 staff, a BLM, a BOM, a JLO, and a PLO as well as some CPS. The police now have the CPS in the CJU. The Chairman of my bench has to go to JIG and AJF and LCF and NBCF and CCL and CUG meetings, to name but a few. Some meetings are at the GLMCA and some are at Region which was going to be renamed Sector but is now going to be Area. The latter change was, believe it or not, to avoid confusion!

We see a defendant whose previous record used to be a 609 before it became an MG16 (and even the police didn't know what that was). It's been renamed again but we call it a 609 anyway. It is read before a PSR can be done, of course. Indictable-only stuff goes upstairs under Section 51 Narey, even though that's not the real name of the enactment. The usher comes in and says "Just a couple of 158s Sir, then there's a 152, then you might have time for a cup of tea".

Drivers with dodgy cars get a VDRS and drink drivers may be offered the DDRS, although they might have a CPO as well. And we have to tell DVLA about that.

When the Justices of the Peace Act was passed in 1361 (it's still in force) things were rather simpler.

Apocrypha (5)

We dealt with a couple of cases yesterday that involved pre-sentence reports, which are required if the court is considering a community penalty or a custodial sentence. Nowadays these reports are what I like to call 'PSR-Lite' as they are a tick-box exercise prepared on a template with some boxes for the Probation officer's comments.

At the end the report runs through the sentencing options, and the last box deals with custody. The officer had typed in "If he receives a custodial sentence Mr. X stands to lose his liberty".

Well, well, I hadn't thought of that.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Be a Judge for a Day - Part 2

Thank you to those who replied. The answer is that he got nine years (in the English system that means about six before parole).

My point makes itself. The quality of information reaching the public is either poor or deliberately distorted. In the case of the tabloids I think it is the latter. They have an agenda to push, namely that the out of touch old farts in the system are letting criminals get away with anything.

For the record in the above case (which is true in all important details) the factors the judge referred to were:

Woman alone at night.

Attempt at theft.

Creates fear in community.

Serious injuries.

Weapon used (irrelevant that it was by chance)

Good samaritan attacked and injured.

Attempt to get away.

Late plea of guilty meant that much public money had been spent on legal process. Plea discount therefore restricted to ten percent, rather than thirty for a plea on the first opportunity.

I shall put a few made-up but typical cases on the blog in the next little while, and ask anyone interested to sentence them. I will then tell you the guidelines for that kind of crime, and add my personal take on it.

From The Times 28 January 2005

A MAGISTRATE who gave his wife a Rolex watch that had been accidentally dropped in a supermarket by its real owner has been convicted of theft.

Geoffrey Rowlett pocketed the £3,200 lady’s watch instead of handing it to police or trying to trace the owner. He then gave it to his wife, Margaret, as a 60th birthday present.

The deceit was not exposed for almost another two years when he took the watch to be repaired and the jeweller checked the serial number against a list of Rolex watches reported lost or stolen.

Using records from his supermarket loyalty card, police were able to prove that he had visited the Tesco store in Poole, Dorset, within two hours of the watch’s real owner on January 16, 2002.

Rowlett, 67, from Poole, was convicted of theft at Southampton Magistrates’ Court and fined £600 and ordered to pay £400 costs. He had denied the charge.

District Judge Roger Ede told him: “The conviction is the real penalty for a man of your standing. It was an act of folly and an incredible story.”

Detective Sergeant Ben Hargreaves, of Poole CID, said: “As a magistrate he certainly couldn’t argue that he didn’t know the law.

“He was given every opportunity to tell the truth but chose to keep his lies going. It is not the sort of behaviour you expect from a magistrate.”

The Rolex has now been returned to its owner, a widow who had been given it by her late husband.

Rod Brummitt, justices’ chief executive at Dorset Magistrates’ Court, said that Rowlett had been suspended as a magistrate as soon as the allegation came to light. He said: “He retains his status as a magistrate and any further action will not be taken until we know whether there is to be an appeal.

“It would be our expectation that the magistrate would resign. He has been a long-serving and distinguished magistrate in many ways, but clearly we cannot and do not condone that sort of offence.”


None of that surprises me in the least - the system has worked as it is supposed to work.

What fascinates me is how his wife reacted to being given a beautiful Rolex only to find that the old man had actually found it on the floor in Tesco's.

I would rather face everything that the court had to throw at me than have to explain that to my wife.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Apocrypha (4)

At the end of a long day we had finished our list, and we were asked to clear up a few cases from another courtroom that had not been able to get on so quickly. These cases are usually straightforward, but I was jerked out of my late-afternoon torpor when the Clerk announced: "This case Sir, concerns the theft of a fishpond".

The defendants were three solid local citizens who had fallen victim to the demon drink. Reeling home from the pub they had passed the garden centre where a plastic fishpond was displayed against the fence. They took it.

The spokesman looked contrite, and they pleaded guilty in short order. "Well, what do you want to tell us about this then?" asked the chairman.

"Well, Sir, we are very sorry, and we feel well stupid. We've all missed a day's work and we are really sorry".

"So what happened then?" from the chairman.

"Well, we was drunk, and we see this fishpond, so we just took it wiv us"


"That's the stupid thing. I was wearing it on me 'ead, see".

(Spluttering noises from yours truly, covered by hasty blowing of nose)

I was about to recover my composure when his expression became even more hangdog, and he mournfully declared:- "The most stupid fing is that I ain't got a garden. I live in a flat".

Fifty pounds apiece was the way we saw things, and I was very relieved to get off that bench.

Be a Judge for a Day

I am going to set out the bare facts (suitably disguised) of a case that I saw sentenced at a Crown Court. I would really appreciate replies giving honest estimates of the sentence that was handed down. I will wait until we have a few responses from you and I will then tell you what happened.

A woman was out at night with a bag on her shoulder. A man approached her and tried to grab it. She screamed and fought him. He punched her to make her let go of the bag. A brave man who lived nearby intervened and was punched in the head. The assailant gave up and ran away.

He had in fact been holding broken glass so his punches caused the woman to have lacerations that needed many stitches. The good samaritan also needed stitches to a head wound.

In the melée the attacker cut himself, leaving blood that enabled the police to get a DNA match that resulted in his arrest.

He pleaded guilty to Assault with intent to rob, and GBH. He had only trivial previous convictions. So what did he get?

I have asked this question of magistrates, police officers, judges, blokes in the pub, and neighbours. I have done an unscientific survey on public expectations of sentence.

So come on then, what did he get? And,if you like, what should he have got?

Answers when I have enough replies.

Judicial Softies

Those of you who read the Daily Mail or any of the other papers that take its line will know that those on the Bench, at whatever level, are slaves to Political Correctness (whatever that may be) and to a subversive liberal agenda (whatever that may be). Funny then that the prison population has more or less doubled in twenty years.

There is a lawyers' cliché that a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested, and a conservative is a liberal who has been burgled.


Terry had been a boxer in his time - not one of the best but useful all the same. By the time I came to know him boxing was all behind him and he was a regular in court, invariably after an all-too-enthusiastic session on the Guinness. In those days the police would arrest drunks (I have no idea what they do with them nowadays, but we rarely if ever see a plain 'drunk' without the 'disorderly' add-on) and he would be brought up from the cells with what must have been the mother of all hangovers. He had a strange kind of dignity about him, and he was always polite and friendly to the court staff. His appeals to the bench were legendary:-

"Sir, it is a well known fact in this town that I do not take a drink during Lent. The reason for my lying down in the street was that I was very tired after a late night. The reason for my having a bottle of whisky in my pocket is that I was on the way to the park to meet my friends, and to offer them an Easter drink". (fined ten pounds)

"Madam, you and the two gentlemen will go outside now, and you will come back and you will either say 'guilty' or 'not guilty'. If you say 'guilty' then you will make me pay a fine or you will send me to the prison. Whatever you decide, all I want to say is God bless you for good Christian lady and gentlemen". (fined ten pounds or one day's detention - deemed served).

(After being found not guilty because a very young PC had messed up the caution and his notebook):-

"This is a tabernacle of mercy!"

Then one day somebody said that they hadn't seen him for some time and the usher said that he had been found dead in the park, apparently on his way home from a session with his pals. In an odd way he was a gentleman among drunks - he never gave any trouble or caused any violence, and always took his punishment without complaint. In a funny way, I miss him.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

To be Perfectly Honest.....

"To be perfectly honest" is an eerily common phrase to hear in court. I usually think to myself that if the user knew about the laws of perjury he would realise that it is safer to be honest.

Mr. Singh was in court on a charge of possessing an offensive weapon, namely a heavy dog chain. Nasty if used as a knuckleduster, or swung in anger. The defendant had turned up on the doorstep of his landlord, another Mr. Singh, at just before one in the morning. The latter Mr. Singh prudently declined to answer the door, and called the police, who duly turned up, searched the first Mr. Singh and arrested him.

Defending himself Mr. S. told us that he had a long-standing problem with his property and that while out walking his dog he had happened to pass his landlord's house and thought "My, what luck, this is a good chance to speak to Mr. Singh and to resolve our problems".

In cross-examination he was asked where the dog was, and why he had not mentioned the animal to the police at the scene or in interview later. "He is a good dog, and I let him off the lead to go home by himself, as Mr. Singh probably didn't want a dog in his house" he replied.

He was then asked why he had not mentioned the dog before coming to court. "Ah well, you see, I was frightened of getting into trouble." "Why is that Mr. Singh?"

(Hesitates) "You see, I haven't got a dog licence"

It was hard enough trying to keep a straight face even without the sight of the officer in the case who was sitting at the back of the court attempting to stifle a serious attack of the giggles.

Unsportingly we convicted Mr. Singh. Beyond Reasonable Doubt, you know.

Who Are These Magistrates Anyway?

We are, in truth, a pretty varied bunch. The cliché is that we are white, middle aged and middle class, but that is not quite true, and not at all fair. My bench is ethnically balanced pretty much in line with our area. We are balanced for gender, pretty much 50-50. I have to admit that we are predominantly middle class. Why? Because they are the ones who volunteer, of course. The Bench is supposed to be representative of the whole community, but we do not get enough applications from people working in everyday jobs. That doesn't mean that we get none, of course, but job pressures are so great these days that a lot of people are put off from applying by fear of what the boss will say.

There is a recruitment drive about to start because Parliament has increased our powers and is giving us a bigger share of the work for the future. There is a load of information on the Magistrates' Association website for anyone interested.

And no, you do not need a funny handshake or to know the Chairman's mother.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Apocrypha (3)

When fining someone we are obliged to look into their finances to ensure that the fine is fair. This can be a rough-and-ready process at times as we don't have the staff resources to check information.

I asked a young black lad what he had to live on: "Nothing".

Where did he live? "With me Mum"

So she feeds you then? "Yeah"

I suppose she gives you some money to go out on Fridays? "Yeah"

Do you smoke? "No - only cigarettes"

I am not sure that he understood why everyone in the courtroom doubled up laughing.

Unexpected Nasties (2)

For a while now courts have had the power to disqualify from driving for any offence, rather than just endorsable traffic offences as previously. The higher courts are ruling from time to time on how far this can go, but disqualification is eminently suitable if driving is essential to the offence, such as fly-tipping rubbish, kerb-crawling to pick up prostitutes, or illegal taxi-touting.

We dealt with a couple of fly tippers the other day after they were caught on video dumping ten tons of rubbish in a quiet street. Apart from hefty fines and costs we disqualified them for three months apiece, which took them and their lawyer completely by surprise.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Unexpected Nasties

Not every consequence of driving offences is ordered by the courts. These days the licensing authority (DVLA) has a couple of nasty surprises up its sleeve.

For example, if a driver gets to six penalty points (which you can get for a serious speeding offence, or two lesser ones, or for having no insurance) within two years of passing his driving test, his licence is revoked and he has to take a fresh driving test. This has happened to tens of thousands of new drivers, and in many cases it has come as a shock to the defendant. The process is purely administrative, with no judicial involvement.

Another little-known sanction applies to more serious drink-drive cases. If the alcohol reading was very high, or if the driver has been convicted previously of a similar offence, or if he refuses a breath test, then he is classified as a High Risk Offender, and he is not automatically given a new licence at the end of his ban. If medical tests show continuing abuse of alcohol he may never again be allowed to drive.

They Do Things Differently in the USA

This is the story of a judge who was - ahem- pleasuring himself while presiding over his court.

The guy clearly needs help, and I think that his judicial career may be over, but is it really worth up to ten years in prison?

The American approach to locking people up is extraordinary, and the prison population is vastly higher pro rata than it is in any other westernised country.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Apocrypha (2)

If you are facing a short prison sentence, try to get sent down for seven days on Maundy Thursday. You see, remission is one half, and three-and-a-half days is rounded down to three. Good Friday is a Bank Holiday when prisons do not release people, just as they do not at the weekend. So you will be out on the street when the court finishes for the day, having 'served' your seven days in a few hours.

Technology in Court - or Not

The IT used in the criminal justice system is years late, over budget, and works badly. Police, court and CPS computers are not always compatible, and although some courtrooms have a terminal on the Clerk's desk there is nothing for the magistrates. Everything is done via thick paper files that can be mislaid, and frequently are.

Unbelievably, if you turn up to my court charged with a traffic offence, and you can't find your driving licence, we have to put the case off for three weeks (too bad if you live in Manchester) while we obtain a paper printout of your record from DVLA. Even then, if there is the slightest discrepancy in the name on the licence, the search comes back 'no trace' and we start again.

The police have access to the DVLA's data via the Police National Computer, but the courts do not. I found this hard to believe when I first became a magistrate twenty years ago, and it is still the case today.

When we hear a trial the clerk has to make a longhand record of the proceedings, as tape recording equipment is not available. The result is to slow matters down while the poor sod scribbles away.

We have video players and cassette machines, but we can't play a DVD, which are increasingly used to store CCTV data. Tescos have a DVD player for less than thirty quid, but we are obliged to adjourn to let the parties view the evidence - all at public expense.

As the politicians vie for the law'n'order vote the police have been given lots of expensive new toys to catch criminals, but once those criminals go to court it's back to a 10p Bic pen and an A4 pad.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


A busy remand court today, and, as ever, drugs were high up on the agenda. Dealers and users (often the same people) vied with bottom-of-the -heap shoplifters who have trouble squaring a £60 per day habit with the munificent £43 they receive each week in benefit. So often the sad face of the girlfriend (about a third of whom were pregnant today) peers through the armoured glass of the public gallery, hoping for a last glimpse of the boyfriend before he is driven off to jail. We even had one try to force her way into the cells today, as her tattooed paramour was being taken downstairs.

Quantities ranged from a kilo of coke (only 40% strength though, the wholesalers had been busy with the adulterants) to a wrap of resin that was too small for the police to bother analysing.

By the way, the kilo turned out to be 993 grams - you can't trust anyone these days, can you?

How about a drink-driver, disqualified for two years last autumn, who has since driven while disqualified three times, two of them while seriously pissed? He went to prison of course, but will he be deterred?

Don't ask me, I only work here.

Monday, January 17, 2005

What do you think?

Elsewhere on the Interweb I was asked the following question and gave the following answers:-

Which do you think is the true one?


Dear Bystander/Magistrate, the question is: What is your motivation for

working as a magistrate?

1) A monster ego

2) A desire, nay lust, to humble and persecute my fellow citizens

3) A grovelling deference to higher authority

4) The Master of my Masonic Lodge told me to

5) A masochistic pleasure in spending one or more days each week being buggered about without any pay whatsoever

6) An equally masochistic pleasure in seeing the Government (of whichever colour) change the rules every time that I have begun to understand the old ones

7) The right to be the butt of all legal jokes in my local pub, and to be bored shitless every time some overpaid idiot gets a speeding ticket

8) I want to try my best to do a necessary job, and to apply all that I have learned from life with a combination of firmness and compassion.

PS: Not all of the above are true. You may decide for yourself which is


Friday, January 14, 2005


I was in Court yesterday doing a busy remand list.

We rattled through the business, but I was brought up sharply when a defendant, having been told that he was free to leave, said "Thank you, Your Majesty".

I am used to being called "Sir", "Your Worship", "Your Honour", and, less often, "My Lord" and (by Africans) "Your Excellency" but this was a cracker.

Before it went to my head, I reminded myself that only last week someone standing in the same spot had called me a "Fucking bald-headed cunt" and a "Fucking wanker".

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Traffic Offenders Part 1

Almost the only time that a magistrate will see a middle-class person of good character before him is in a traffic court. Of course there are a few white-collar frauds, and even the occasional murder, but usually it's traffic.

The Drink-drive laws have been in force for so long that all of the old loopholes, real or imagined, have been plugged, and not even the most hardened drink drivers would try to justify their activities. They might think (and they might have a point) that they have reached the stage where their experience keeps them out of trouble after a few pints, but you won't hear them admitting this in public.

But speeding is different. Speed limits have been regarded as flexible for so many years that otherwise law-abiding people are truly indignant that they have been given a ticket for doing 38 in a 30, or even 102 in a 70. Every sophistry is deployed, every loophole sought out, and the press enlisted in aid. It's all about raising cash of course (it isn't) and the police should be out there catching real criminals.

Speed control really is about keeping people alive ( we still kill ten people every day on the road) and successive governments have agreed to a target of reducing traffic speeds over time. It will come, but there are still some slow learners out there.

Apocrypha (1)

Our court rarely sees offences related to prostitution. Either there isn't a lot of it on our patch, or the local Police aren't too bothered. So a colleague, faced with sentencing a Living on Immoral Earnings charge, whispered to the Clerk "How much do you give a ponce?".

"Never more than a tenner, sir" came the deadpan reply.

Sunday, January 09, 2005


Jason is a serial offender. Nothing violent really, just a boring string of public order and driving offences, followed as the night follows the day by offences of Driving While Disqualified.

He came in front of us for his fifth Drive Disqual. The technical term for this is Taking the Piss. According to the defence brief he was studiously obeying his ban when his girlfriend suffered an emergency bit of illness and Jason, a caring type, drove her to hospital. A Police patrol spotted him, and a chase ensued. He abandoned the car and after a chase on foot the officers dragged him down from the wall he was in the process of climbing. He said "Oh no, if you do me for this I'll just go down again". The prosecutor then said that the reason for Jason being stopped was that members of the public had called the police because somebody was driving like a prat around the local council estate, with handbrake turns, doughnutting, and all.... guess who?

We bowed to the inevitable, and I had the job of telling Jason that he was going inside for five months. He wasn't at all surprised, but as security went to take him down they fumbled with the keys - he shouldered them aside and was off like a gazelle, his mother screaming "No, Jason!" from the gallery.

He was pursued by one of the guards, whom he punched, then burst through the courthouse door and was away. As I left half an hour later the helicopter and the dog vans were busy, but it was about ten weeks later that he was captured a hundred miles to the West. Ironically, he was caught on the very day on which he would have been released had he not escaped.

So he is still inside now, what with Being Unlawfully at Large, Criminal Damage, and Assault to add to his sheet.

We decided later that the quick thinking and action that he displayed would have won him a medal on the field of battle or on a sports field - what a waste.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Pissups and Breweries

Once upon a time, every town of any size had a magistrates' court. They had a Clerk to the Justices who has been described as a cross between a butler and a family solicitor. Local people dealt with local malefactors.

Then efficiency beckoned. Courts were amalgamated, so that in rural areas users might have to drive 40 miles each way to court. So did Police and lawyers and Council Social Workers, and all the rest of them, so the costs saved by amalgamating courts were passed to other agencies and to the public.

London was expensively reorganised under the Greater London Magistrates' Courts Authority (snappy, eh?). The GLMCA planned to close and flog off some courthouses, and use the cash to build whizzy new ones. Every single closure was vetoed by one means or another leaving the grand plan wrecked. It didn't matter though, because a couple of years into the GLMCA's life it was decided to set up HerMajesty's Court Service (well, at least they didn't call it Consignia) and the GLMCA will die unlamented on the 31st March 2005.

Nearly all of the people in the system expect the new setup to be at least as useless as the GLMCA. But by the time this becomes apparent, the perpetrators will have collected their gongs and their pensions and retired.

The boss of HMCS is a former male nurse.

We Don't Always Get it Right (No. 1 in a series)

Crap happens.

A motorist was charged with being Drunk in Charge of a Motor Vehicle. He pleaded Guilty and engaged the services of a pretty young barrister to mitigate for him.

She addressed us at some length saying that she and the client were aware that he had to lose his licence, but would we please keep the ban as short as possible. She laid it on thick, stressing that of course we had no discretion, but consider her client's good character, etc. etc.

The magistrates became restless, whispering among themselves, and the Chairman stopped the barrister in full flow while he had a muttered consultation with the clerk. The Bench withdrew whereupon the Clerk explained to the mortified young lawyer that there was discretion as to whether to disqualify for this offence, and that having no intention to drive could even be a defence to the charge.

We trooped back in, while the scarlet-faced barrister did her best to backtrack on what she had told us five minutes earlier. What the bemused defendant, who was probably paying hundreds of pounds for professional representation thought about it, we have no way of knowing.

It makes me mad!

There are quite a few popularly held misconceptions about courts and those who work in them, and that goes with the job.

There are some in particular that drive me mad :-

  • No, magistrates do not wear wigs.
  • No, they do not bang gavels. No court of law in this country uses a gavel, but the media persist in portraying them. I blame a stupid Bruce Forsyth advert for Courts Furniture Stores that ran some years ago. Courts have now gone bust. Good.
  • No, the Bench are not bigoted blue-rinsed old farts - well at least 95% are not.
  • No, you do not address the Bench as 'Your Honour' . That's for the Americans and the Crown Court. Technically it's 'Your Worship' but everyone says 'Sir' these days, and that's fine.
  • No we don't give someone Community Service for mugging an old lady. That's just what the Daily Mail wants you to think.

Winston Churchill on prisons

“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state and even of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry of all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it in the heart of every person – these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.”

Friday, January 07, 2005

Shakespeare on Law and Order

Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!

Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back;

Thou hotly lust'st to use her in that kind

For which thou whipp'st her. The usurer hangs the cozener.

Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;

Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,

And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:

Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Welcome to Summary Justice

Bystander is a lay magistrate in South-East England.

Unlike almost anywhere else in the world England and Wales have a court system where ordinary citizens who are not lawyers deal with most criminal cases, passing only about five percent, the most serious cases, up to the Crown Court to be dealt with. Even the worst crimes including rape and murder pass before magistrates on their way up to the higher courts, and it is magistrates who decide whether the accused is to be given bail or held in prison to await trial.