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.