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.