Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Forthcoming Attractions

The word on the grapevine is that with the World Cup coming up this summer magistrates across the country will have to consider applications for Football Banning Orders. These are draconian Orders that severely restrict the freedom of the individual, and they must be considered with great care and after due legal advice. I have only ever done one of these before now (Chelsea supporters, since you ask) so I hope that one or two come my way. Interesting stuff, a bit out of the ordinary, and a few nice legal arguments.

Bring them on!

On A Personal Note

I was quietly pleased to see the counter on the sidebar pass a quarter of a million hits today. I don'’t kid myself that it can be spot-on accurate, but it is a guide to the number of times that someone has clicked on to the blog. Even on the assumption that a good proportion of those visitors found us by cyber-accident and promptly shoved off, that still leaves quite a lot of people who found something to interest them. Better still, we have had thousands of comments, and on some topics there has been a serious and enlightening debate. I have moderated the comments with a light hand, excising only the very abusive and the hopelessly irrelevant. We have attracted a bit of press comment (some of which raised a few eyebrows in the system, but no matter) and I had to decline an interview with BBC radio because policy forbade them from preserving my anonymity, without which it could be hard to speak my mind.
Some of the things I have written about have forced me to examine what I am doing as a magistrate, and perhaps the greatest revelation is the gulf between public expectation and the reality of what we can do in the courts' system. At the top end, where wigs and robes symbolize the law'’s majesty, dangerous, and sometimes not so dangerous, criminals are locked away for a long time, and thus incapacitated from further crime. In some hundreds of cases it will not be safe to release the offenders until old age has reduced them to a condition in which they present no threat to the populace. But that'’s only a couple of percent of criminals at most. In every other case sentences are served and offenders get back to their lives.
As I have said elsewhere deterrence requires a degree of rationality from him who is to be deterred, and that is sadly absent in so many cases. For most of the predominantly young cohorts of offenders who troop through my court the dominating influences on them are peer pressure and the surrounding social milieu, coupled with what may well have been an unstable and unstructured childhood and adolescence. Half an hour a week with an overworked probation officer is a lot less of an influence than the pressure to conform with the lads, or the dubious moral framework of the telly and of pop culture.
For the middle class motorist deterrence usually works. The Mr. Toad who has nine points is likely to be less cavalier with his right foot than previously. The druggy who has to steal ten pounds'’ worth of stuff to have a pound to give to his dealer is immune to that kind of logic.
Anyway, thanks for clicking on, and special thanks for the comments and the emails. It really does encourage me as I slave over a lonely keyboard. Mind you, if there was ever anything good on telly, this blog probably wouldn'’t exist!

Monday, March 27, 2006

Sad Case

This is the BBC report on a child who is clearly seriously troubled. The press will make a lot of this story and she is likely to receive scant sympathy, but a girl who has been offending since her age reached double figures must have a lot of issues to address. The court seems to have done things by the book (although my knowledge of the Youth Court is not great) but simple punishment will be of limited usefulness, and a sophisticated and expensive multi-agency approach is going to be needed to have even the slightest chance of sorting out the damage that she has already suffered. That kind of work is unglamorous and ill-appreciated by the public. The punishment freaks will be calling for her to be treated like an adult. But she is in law and in fact a child, and that is how we must deal with her.


A report in today's Times tells us that the BBC paid £23,000 for a Christmas party at an expensive restaurant, the guests being among the best-paid people in the land.

If Terry Wogan or Jeremy Vine or Clive Anderson or Sarah Kennedy can spare the time, I would like them to sit in a courtroom that is dealing with TV licence cases. I would be happy to make the arrangements. About 95% of those who appear are women, and about 95% of those are on State benefit. The BBC dinner reportedly cost £238 per head, which for the average defendant I see represents a couple of weeks' income. Many of them have overwhelming money worries, and through one of society's inbuilt unfairnesses those who are asked to be the best money managers are those with the fewest social and educational resources to do it. And some of their money is being used to buy £200-plus dinners for millionaires.

Buy your own dinners, lads. You know you can afford it. And it might save you from finding a nasty taste in your mouth afterwards.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Busy, Busy, Busy

This week’s sitting was a really busy day in the remand court. Business in other courtrooms had overrun, so we were left to get through the work without the assistance of other benches. We had a heavy list - simple remands and committals can be dealt with in a few minutes, and we heard no opposed bail applications (which was just as well, as these can be very time-consuming) but we were nevertheless under pressure. In-custody cases took priority, as they must do, but several matters required us to spend some time on them. There were simple sentences, mostly for drink driving, but two more complex ones, one of them right on a knife-edge between prison and a top-end community penalty. The defendant was a woman with just about every problem you can imagine: drugs, alcohol, housing, employment, and a violent and abusive relationship. The offence that she had committed is one that is commonly sent up to the Crown Court, so we had to balance case law against the Probation report and the mitigation from her first-class solicitor. So, list or no list, we took the time to consider the reports and legal submissions very carefully, before - just - deciding on a suspended prison sentence. Kleenex time again for the usher.
Case followed case, about fifty people in all, facing about eighty separate offences. We nearly got it finished, but even without the staff work-to-rule we could not have done them all, as there were a handful of pre-sentence reports that would have taken at least twenty minutes each and possibly more, so just after 4.30 we had to call it a day and authorize the clerk to bail off all those we hadn’t dealt with. Frustrating for us, frustrating for the defendants and their lawyers, but there was nothing else we could have done. Ironically, in the same courtroom seven days earlier we were on our way home at 2.55 p.m., the list done and dusted.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Sentencing Poll Part 2

Thanks very much to everyone who voted in the poll - at nearly 600 replies that's a decent sample, albeit a sample of blog readers. The percentages remained remarkably consistent from the start, with about two-thirds of people plumping for the sentence that we actually passed. About a quarter wanted supervision without the big stick of suspended prison, but the common theme was the need for treatment, coupled with a greater or lesser emphasis on punishment.

Points:- I was surprised at the lack of enthusiasm for unpaid work (although that may be my fault for the way I presented the original post) because benches often consider that to be the next step down the ladder of punishment from a prison sentence. The handful who went for a conditional discharge would very likely have been criticised for under-sentencing and the clerk would have had a duty to point out case law and sentencing practice when the bench checked its sentence for legality.

My main point is that I think this is one of the rare instances where the informed public pitches its sentence below that of some practising magistrates. I am working on pure hunch here, but I suspect that quite a few benches, possibly as many as a quarter, would, while appreciating the man's problems, feel obliged to sentence the offence and not the offender and send the man directly inside. There is a perfectly valid argument that the public expect to see anyone in this position imprisoned, and that it would be a proper deterrent. For myself, I fall on the rehabilitation side of the fence, but that doesn't mean that I am right, nor that my more punitive colleagues are wrong. Making a judgement is what we are there to do, after all.

All -Time Great Legal Jokes No. 77

WARNING: This joke contains profanity which some may find offensive. For that reason you are advised not to read it before the 9 p.m. watershed.

"Thompson", said the Judge, resplendent in wig gown and bands, as he looked over his half-moon spectacles at the man in the dock. "This is one of the most serious matters that I have dealt with in recent years, and the jury were in my view quite right to convict you. You have shown no sign of remorse. You will go to prison for nine years. Take him down, officers".

The judge was picking up his notes, when the newly sentenced Thompson wrestled himself free from the dock officers to face the bench. "You old c*nt" he shouted before turning to walk down the stairs.

"Officers" ordered the judge. "Let him be brought back up". Placing his notes back on the bench, he fixed his stare on the man in the dock. "Now listen to me, Thompson" he said. "In about fifteen minutes I shall leave the court. I shall drive in my Volvo motor car to my house in Richmond. When I arrive there I shall join my wife in the garden for tea. I shall potter in the greenhouse while she prepares dinner, and we shall each have a glass of decent sherry before we sit down to eat. After dinner we shall watch the television together, and at about ten o'clock I shall have a good glass of malt whisky, after which I shall retire to bed with my wife".

He paused, and took off his spectacles. He leant forward, "You, on the other hand, will be handcuffed and taken from here in a Ford Transit motor vehicle to Brixton prison. There you will be placed into a cell with one or two total strangers. You will be given a plastic receptacle into which you may, if you choose, urinate or defaecate. This will be your lifestyle for some years to come.

And you think that I am a c*nt? What does that make you?"

The Law West of Chancery Lane

We have had a bit of fun with Judge Roy Bean whom I discovered to be a real historical figure. His dealings with the unruly Texans of the late nineteenth century were, shall we say, robust as well as occasionally venal.

But there's a Judge Bean sitting today on the High Court bench - to be exact, although sadly, his first name is David.

He has a hard act to follow.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Another Master Criminal

Lee decided to burgle one of the big offices near the courthouse. He went in through the wall of what turned out to be a storeroom, in which there was nothing of interest to even the most desperate burglar.

He decided to head downwards by prising up the floorboards, and, he hoped, dropping into the floor below where he expected to find some nice computers or other saleable valuables. Unfortunately the floor proved tougher than he had expected, and in his struggle to make a nice hole he dropped his mobile phone and his driving licence into the void, beyond all hope of retrieval. Discouraged, he left by the way he had come in.

Eager not to waste the whole evening he next broke into a local travel agency where a couple of flat-screen televisions caught his eye. He removed them, left one in a safe place in a dark alley and set off to take the other one home. On his bike. In full view of the Council's high-definition CCTV cameras. Unsurprisingly the police turned up and he was arrested, but only after dropping and smashing his prize in his shock at seeing blue lights approaching.

We didn't get to deal with him, as he was awaiting sentence at another court for another bungled burglary, so we remitted his case there.

As he trudged down the painted steel stairs to the cells, I wondered when he would realise that he was not cut out for a life of crime.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Bloody Cheek

A Google search for 'Dodgy Magistrates" lists me at no. 7 on the search. How dare they!

Probation in the Firing Line

The papers are all carrying stories this morning suggesting that the Home Secretary is going to 'do something' about failures in the Probation Service. There is concern about a number of horrible crimes that have been committed by people under Probation supervision, the latest being the abduction torture and murder in Reading

Before the political grandstanding starts, let's make sure that we are not asking the impossible of Probation Officers. Five of the six men convicted in Reading were on various community orders, all for relatively low-level offences. Is it reasonable to expect an overworked Probation Officer to forsee that someone under supervision for Class C possession is going to commit a brutal murder? At most the offender would have been seen about once a week for an interview, probably rather less. Scarce resources are allocated according to laid-down priorities, the highest being prisoners released on licence. Small-time drug users are right at the back of the queue for attention.

The Monckton murder is different, as the two killers' violent nature was known, and there were serious failures in the way that they were handled. Many in the Press are using this tragedy as a peg on which to hang a campaign against all early releases of prisoners - last weekend's News of the World was dominated by a gloating piece about the 'lotto rapist' who outraged the tabloids by winning millions of pounds with a ticket that he bought while on day release. Despite supposition and innuendo, what the coverage came down to was that the man had gone for a walk and bought and eaten a pie.

In common with much of the criminal justice system, Probation has been very badly messed about in recent years. In less than half the span of a normal career the underlying ethos has turned 180 degrees, from advising and befriending to supervising punishment and assessing risk. Throughout this time the service has been short of cash - a few years back my court had two probation staff instead of the six we were supposed to have, and a lot of Probation functions simply were not carried out.

So before putting panicky measures in place, I hope that the Home Secretary has a good think about what we expect probation to do. If they are going to be asked to do more, they will have to be funded to do it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Sentencing Poll

We have before us a 58 year-old white male with no previous convictions and a clean driving licence. The facts are these:-
He was stopped by police at 10 p.m. while driving his Ford Mondeo. He was nearing the end of a 40 mile round trip to see his grandchildren. Police noticed that he was exceeding the speed limit, and when they spoke to him they smelt alcohol on his breath. He failed the roadside test, was arrested, and at the police station provided an evidential sample that showed a breath reading of 144mcg/100ml (that's equivalent to a blood reading of about 320, just four times the limit). He was cooperative with police. Another bench has adjourned the case for a pre-sentence report with all sentencing options open, and a warning that custody must be an option.
We read the report. The defendant is working, and lives alone following his divorce. Despite the extremely high level of alcohol there is no evidence of bad driving nor was there any accident. In interview he admits that he is an alcoholic who drinks heavily every day, and who has driven while over the limit on many occasions. He says that he wants to tackle his drinking but needs help to do it.
Probation say that the court may see no alternative to prison, but suggest that if the sentence is suspended the court can attach further conditions including alcohol treatment.
The defence lawyer is realistic. He concedes that the Sentencing Bench Book (link here page 164 of pdf) has this offence firmly in the custody bracket but asks us to consider the report's recommendation and to suspend the sentence while imposing further conditions of supervision and alcohol treatment. He reminds us of his client's remorse, and that he is entitled to a reduction of one-third for his plea of guilty. He is a man who has never before been in a court and this experience has been a gruelling one for him.
We file out to the retiring room. In discussion your colleague Jeremy takes a compassionate line. He points out that there was no accident or bad driving and that the defendant is remorseful. Sending him inside will be purely punitive, and he will receive no help for his alcohol problem in the two months or so that he will actually serve. He wants a suspended sentence plus supervision and alcohol treatment. Pamela takes a different view. She says that apart from being four times the limit, our man drove a considerable distance during which time the public were at great risk of death and injury. She wants to send him straight inside. To do any less will send the wrong message to the public. So it's down to you.
There is a Poll Here for you to say how you would handle it.
What we agreed on in addition was to disqualify him for three years, order him to take an extended re-test, and to make him pay costs of £75. DVLA are likely to insist on medical reports before giving him a licence because he is a high-risk offender.

We will let the poll run until we have a few replies, then I'll tell you what we did (this case is in fact a composite of three from the last year).

Saturday, March 18, 2006

How to Work With Children (In More Ways Than One)

Not too long ago we had to make a bail decision about a couple of street robbers who had been preying for the most part on teenagers, stripping them of mobile phones and any other valuables. They were quite large young men, and they reinforced their demands by threatening to stab anyone who resisted. Their lawyers applied for bail on their behalf, but it wasn't difficult to see that there were serious concerns that they would reoffend, fail to come back to court, or interfere with witnesses, so we remanded them in custody. One thing that did strike me was that both lawyers referred to the importance of their clients being freed, one to continue his charity work with children and the other to attend his college course on Youth and Community Care. They looked like an unlikely pair of social workers to me.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


We saw one of those people this week for whom training cannot prepare you. He is a gangling male of perhaps 35, and he appeared behind the glass of the secure dock. He had refused to see the duty solicitor, and we were told that he had been arrested on a warrant issued some months ago following his failure to answer his bail for trial on a public order offence.

He seemed all right at first, but as we tried to sort out the facts of the matter (warrant arrests come to court with minimal paperwork, for obvious reasons) his manner remained reasonably calm, but his protestations grew stronger. He had been illegally arrested. He had suffered police brutality. There was a conspiracy. The warrant was illegal (the clerk showed us the proper paperwork). We listened for a decent interval, and I then interrupted him as gently as possible, at which he said "I protest" and went on to accuse the prosecutor and one of my colleagues of being part of the conspiracy. By this time we were pretty certain that something was amiss, but we were scratching around for what to do. We clearly couldn't deal with him, since his not-guilty plea was still effective, but we were not happy just to bail him onto the street. For one thing he would almost certainly abscond, and for another he wasn't fit to be out alone in that state.

So we resorted to our rarely-used power to remand him in custody for his own protection, and put his case off for two days. We made sure that the clerk had noted our opinion that he needed proper legal representation, and the dock officers led him, still protesting but otherwise passive, down the stairs.

I have said before that we see many customers with mental health issues, and they often highlight the limitations of the criminal justice system. The concepts of crime and punishment, and of deterrence and reform may be entirely meaningless to someone who is suffering from a mental illness. The system presumes a level of rationality that is absent in many defendants. The police on the street and the magistrates on the bench are only the front-line troops. The police arrest, we remand. After that, we have to depend on health and social service professionals to pull society's irons out of the fire. If they cannot, then the offender will be locked up until he appears to be fit for release.

From the Postbag

I get a lot of emails from all sorts of people, some complimentary, some rude, and a few that are truly illuminating.

Not for the first time the Government has been taken with an American idea, in this case Community Courts (night courts were another, but it's best to draw a veil over that multi-million pound fiasco) which are run in New York. There is a pilot so-called Community Court in Liverpool at the moment, and ministers say that they are very impressed with the way that the people of Liverpool have warmed to 'their' local justice centre. Hmmm.

I shall suppress my natural scepticism and assume that there might be something in the idea, but it has to be said that since shedloads of cash have been thrown at the project at least some things ought to go right. A constant stream of officials and ministers visit the project and its charismatic judge who, we are told, dons jeans and trainers to get onto the streets at night and engage with the community, whatever that may mean. He lives 50 miles away in Cheshire, so he is obviously not all that engaged. Most JPs live a great deal closer to their court than that.

This is from an email that I had from a solicitor, DT, who practises in the area:-
One of our clients appeared a few months ago before the Community Justice Centre (a political experiment being piloted in Liverpool). He was sentenced to 36 days intermittent custody. Have you come across this yet? I confess I am unsure if the relevant part of CJA 2003 is in force everywhere or whether, as above, we are a pilot.

The sentence was to be served at Kirkham open prison - 12 weekends (3 days each) - with said client free to continue his (entirely imaginary) full time job which prompted the DJ to supply this option to him in the first place.

Our hero - a veteran of several previous custodial sentences - soon becomes part of the developing culture amongst those select inmates who are serving this type of sentence. The usual suspects get off the train in Kirkham each Friday about midday and meet in the local pub where they proceed to get entirely plastered before tipping up at the prison gates at 19.59 hrs as required by their sentence so to do. Our fellow is not a happy bunny when in drink - he is aggressive and argumentative with staff and other inmates. He has to be segregated and (on at least one occasion) physically restrained. He is warned as to his future conduct on several occasions.

Eventually Probation Service are instructed to refer him back to court. I pause to observe that there is no provision in the 2003 Act for breach proceedings - the relevant application is for a variation of the sentence so that any outstanding time (in our case 6 days) be implemented and served continuously. I am asked to represent our man who duly turns up to court with his plastic bag full of essential grooming items for a short holiday. He is content to go back in - the hearing is on Friday and he would have had to make his own way to Kirkham today anyway - now he will get a lift. He knows he will be out next Wednesday, which to him beats the drudge of repeating the dose next weekend as he is - by now - fed up with being a political experiment. My instructions are not to oppose the application.

That would have been that were it not for the somewhat earnest probation officer whose presentation of facts to the DJ concluded with the immortal words: "Sir - the prison will not have him back."


As so often in the criminal justice system the reality falls a long way short of the picture painted by the bright-eyed proponents of the scheme.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

GCSE Logic Paper 2006

Question 14:

The Legal Aid budget is grossly overspent. Most of the overspend has gone on the few Very High Cost Cases that soak up about half of the total expenditure on Legal Aid.

As a result, the Department of Constitutional Affairs has to save 8% right across its budget. Because of the overspend on a few complex cases in the highest courts, other courts across the land face a freeze on recruitment, an end to all but critical maintenance of plant and buildings, and a deterioration in service to the public.

Describe the logic of this decision on no more than one side of A4.

Use of the words "outrageous" "Stupid" "unjust" and "Bastards" will be penalised.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Motoring News

I did a bit of traffic the other day. Most of the work was for the usual trinity of No Insurance No Licence and No MoT, and there were some speeding cases where the speed was too high for a fixed penalty, as well as a sprinkling of Without Due Care and Attention cases.
All of the speeders were over 100 mph, and we disqualified in every case, from 14 to 56 days depending on the circumstances. All but one were in a 70 limit, but the odd one out was doing 74 in a 30! Inevitably he was on a motorbike, but he won’t be riding it for the next six months.
Where people were driving uninsured and the offence was aggravated by their having no driving licence, we disqualified for about two or three months, except in the several cases where it was a second offence, which pushed them over the 12 points that earn you a six-month ban.
London being the city that it is, a good proportion of the uninsured were recent immigrants. Some just did not know (or claimed not to know) that a foreign licence can only be used in the UK for a finite time before taking a test, so an Afghan licence that has been relied upon for six years won’t do. There is a particular problem with asylum seekers, because they do not have the ID documents that DVLA requires before issuing a licence. Those who work often do dirty jobs at unsocial hours and inevitably want to drive in order to get to work. Human nature being what it is, and with old bangers available for a small fistful of readies, many of them take a chance and drive. Since it has to be in the public interest to see that drivers are properly licensed and insured there really ought to be some kind of interim licence available to those whose immigration status is still being considered. The Daily Mail wouldn’t like it though.

Friday, March 10, 2006

It's Not Just In The Courts Then

The John Lewis Partnership is a much-loved part of English middle-class life. They employ a better class of assistant, and seem to epitomise the modern but still-genteel side of retailing. I am a fan.

I bought a halogen floor lamp from them yesterday, and spent a slightly ill-tempered half hour with Mrs.B assembling the thing. One of the instruction sheets includes this gem:-
When changing a bulb, ensure the product is unplugged and always allow the old bulb to cool down before handling
If the bulb needs to be changed, it has presumably failed. If it has failed, it won't be hot, will it, chaps? Unless, that is, you expect people to pounce on the lamp the second it fails, replacement bulb to hand, and burn their fingers. After they have found a screwdriver to remove the bulb shield, that is.

There May Be Trouble Ahead........

Magistrates in London have just been told officially that the budget for the Courts’ Service is to be cut by 8% next year. Under the present budgetary regime we are already struggling to cope with the massive upheavals and reorganization taking place in an agency that has not yet reached its first anniversary. By far the greatest part of the budget is for salaries, and staff at all levels are already under pressure. There is currently a pay dispute that has led to a work-to-rule among court staff, although most people seem to be working over and above their contracts when not to do so would affect justice.

For 2006-7 one pound in twelve of current funding won’t be there. Cuts in staffing will be inevitable, and courthouses will become increasingly shabby as maintenance that is already overdue is deferred further.

November will see the implementation of further parts of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, especially those relating to Custody Plus, an entirely new way of imposing prison sentences. Magistrates’ maximum power will increase to 12 months, and complex new sentencing processes will be brought in. This will require every magistrate and judge to undergo training, along with their legal advisers. Nobody has any real idea how this will affect the number and length of prison sentences, but it is likely that quite a lot of work will move from the Crown Court to the Magistrates’ Court in response to the new powers. Nobody knows how prison and probation services will cope with their new duties. The recent history of the two services is not encouraging.

The Metropolitan Police has ambitious targets for Offenders Brought to Justice, and if they are achieved (and unless they are all given fixed penalties) there will be more offenders going through the court system.

Judges now have the power to hand down indeterminate sentences to dangerous offenders, who will not be released until they have been assessed as safe. It is a power that they have already used in some hundreds of cases. There are two ways to fill up the prisons:- send more people inside, or keep the ones you have for longer. I think that we are likely to do both. Parole boards are understandably likely to be increasingly cautious following some horrible recent cases in which early-released prisoners have gone on to commit murders soon after release. This may lead to fewer prisoners being paroled than has recently been the case. There will be a need for more prisons, but there is about a five-year lead time to get new capacity on line, even if the Chancellor comes up with the money, which is unlikely.

So we may expect more work coming into court, problems with staffing levels to cope with it, pressure on prisons, and no more money. It should be interesting.

Fixed Penalty News

Andrew Tierney has been given a £50 fixed penalty for putting two pieces of junk mail, that the postman had just handed him, into a litter bin attached to a lamp post outside his house. The junk mail was classified as domestic refuse.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


The lady in the photograph is my current heroine. Aged 82, she was banned from a local pub for refusing to take off her hat. The ban on hats was brought in so that CCTV could get a good look at the usual clientele of baseball-capped hoodie-wearing yobs.

Nobody in authority (Hah!) in the pub could understand that 82-year-old ladies hardly ever smash up pubs or assault staff and other drinkers, so the hat and the lady were declared to be unwelcome.

If you ever pass my way, madam, I shall invite you into the pub near to the courthouse where you may drink what you choose and cover your head as you will.

I am sure that you already know, but I shall also tell you that stupid is as stupid does.

Suppressio Veri, Suggestio Falsi?

I am cross again. Sorry. It's my age. Well, partly anyway.
Bloody effing Sky News says tonight, apropos Government plans to deal with football hooligans at the World Cup:

It is hoped the measures will avoid an embarrassing repeat of Euro 2004,when British courts refused to impose football banning orders on some deported fans. It was claimed their convictions in Portugal might have been unsafe.

It was claimed?
It might have been?

I happen to know a lawyer involved in this case and the application for a banning order was refused because the people arrested in Lisbon were denied a proper trial and even an interpreter (unless you include a girl drafted in from the local hairdressers' to assist a dozen defendants) and proper legal representation, before being summarily turfed out of Portugal. Portugal is an EU member, subject to the same Human Rights rules as the UK.
Of course the verdict was 'embarrassing'; it was more than that, it was shameful, and on the basis of this travesty the British Government tried to restrict the liberty of a group of its subjects. The fact that they were football fans is neither here nor there.

Fortunately the District Judge concerned (Mr.Stephen Day) knew his business and knew what British justice was all about, and threw out the applications.

If that's embarrassing, let's have a lot more of it. I loathe hooliganism, but I loathe injustice more. On your antipodean bike, Sky News. This was a fine verdict and I am proud that it was delivered in the Queen's name.


The Marmite case has been dropped, as was the Gay Horse comedian's. In both cases the CPS thought better of putting the tickets in front of a bench.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A Different Perspective

Harry Hutton is an Englishman who leads a more-or-less nomadic life and who is currently living in South America. His blog is clever as well as funny and it makes one of the best reads on the Net. He tackles the crime statistics here. I stand by my opinion that all crime statistics are more or less flawed, but it is interesting to see how the rest of the world is doing.

From Bad to Erse

There are two large Irish families on my patch, let's call them the McCarthys and the O'Connors, who provide the court with a regular stream of business. Several times a week we will find one or other family represented on the list. They have some very strong genes, and there are notable similarities in the appearance of both families. They live scattered across the county, some in rented housing, some in caravans, and specialise in drinking and fighting along with driving untaxed/uninsured/unlicensed/disqualified/drunk in their battered fleet of cars and vans along with a bit of petty thieving or shoplifting for variety. There is bad blood between them which has been going on for so long that the origins of the feud are lost in the mists of time. This leads to the occasional mass brawl, often enlivened by the use of pickaxe handles, iron bars, and suchlike. Serious injuries are surprisingly rare for some reason that I cannot fathom.

Rows are not just confined to the traditional inter-family clashes though. A few months ago we had John Patrick O'Connor (almost every man of them is named after a saint or a pope) up for affray after a bit of a do at a local club that included bar stools being hurled about the room, and what must have been a gratifyingly large amount of broken glass. Police had been summoned but the first two officers on scene, aware of whom they were up against, prudently sat round the corner in their car until two or three vanloads of reinforcements had arrived.

In court John Patrick was heard to say "Sure it was nothing, ,it was just a traveller wedding, that's all" - presumably the punch-up is an old nuptial tradition in the family.

I was dealing with a younger member of the McCarthy clan on one occasion while his old Grandma sat at the back of the court, fingers busy with her rosary. When we settled for a community penalty rather than custody, she loudly blessed us all as she left the court. There are plenty of up-and -coming youngsters too, who promise to provide work for my colleagues long after I have retired.

These two families are regular nuisances, in contrast to another lot who include some truly nasty characters, and who used to be known to the Met as the Crazy Gang. Some of them specialised in serious mayhem, up to and including a manslaughter using a sawn-off 12-bore. The jury acquitted of murder but convicted of manslaughter in a verdict that raised a few eyebrows at the time. The killer's son is now in his teens, and is already no stranger to the Youth Court. He is the third generation to be a regular customer of the court, and he has continued the family tradition of eschewing the education system and remaining illiterate. He can add up though, as one of his uncles once said to me with a grin when apologising for his inability to read the oath from the card.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Uncle Sam's Need To Know

Americans really are different, aren'’t they? I countersigned someone'’s passport application the other day, and we got to talking about the US border control and visa regimes. I had a look at visa application form and it contains, among a great deal more:-
Have you ever been arrested or convicted for any offense or crime, even though subject of a pardon, amnesty or other similar legal action? Have you ever unlawfully distributed or sold a controlled substance(drug), or been a prostitute or procurer for prostitutes?
It is of course up to the Americans whom they choose to admit to their country, but a couple of questions crossed my mind. Firstly, why the focus on arrests? That encompasses millions of people including such people as suspected drink-drivers and the endless parade of public-order offenders who are picked up every Saturday night. Most are released swiftly, in many cases without charge. And (at least until we get the ID database!) how will anyone know? If somebody is arrested and de-arrested within say half an hour, and the only record is in a PC's notebook, how will Uncle Sam ever know about it if the applicant tells a wee fib? As for the second half of the question, it doesn't ask about convictions, but only a straight question as to whether you have done the things they ask about. So presumably there should be a rider saying:- "and for which you were not caught". Then there is:-
Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose? Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State? Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?
There is a story about a famous person (and it is attributed to a number of people, so probably apocryphal) who wrote "Sole purpose of visit" in answer to that question. We all know that mainstream America doesn't do irony (the response to a Brit daft enough to try it is usually incomprehension followed by a contemptuous "Wise Guy, huh?" when the penny drops, but seriously guys, what sort of answers do you expect to those questions?

We truly are two peoples separated by a common language.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Pro-Police? Anti-Police?

I have trodden on a few corns recently with some of the things that I have written about Penalty Notices, ASBOs and such. I have been taken to task for being out of touch with the reality on the street and described as a typical middle-class liberal, or words to that effect.

First and foremost, I am not a typical anything. I am one of almost 30,000 JPs and I set out my stall at the top of the blog - my opinions are mine and mine alone. The other 29,999 all have their own take on things. Because the blog is anonymous I don't have to parrot the official line. If I did, it would be a boring read and we would not have had over 200,000 visitors, I suspect.

I respect and support police in what they are asked to do, particularly on the front line. I couldn't do their job, and to be frank I am glad that my kids aren't doing it either. I am critical of what politicians ask police to do - so many social problems are not, at bottom, solveable by police action. Street-level officers have always had a healthy suspicion of deskbound senior officers, magistrates, lawyers, and officials in general, with some justification. But we won't solve the problem by throwing more law at it. We have tens of thousands of pages of law, but none of them is any use to a frightened sixth-month probationer facing half a dozen drunken yobs with no more than an Asp baton and a radio that doesn't want to work.

ASBOs and PNDs have their place, but they are not cure-all solutions. Days of preparation and hundreds if not thousands of pounds go into an ASBO application, but if (as on my patch) about half are swiftly breached, where is the public interest in that? Unpaid PNDs are likewise bringing the law into disrespect.

The point of a court is that the bench were not there at the scene of the crime, so we need prosecutors to show us what happened, beyond reasonable doubt. We have the luxury of time to consider and examine the evidence, and we can do so without immediate fear of assault. That is why our job is easier than a PC's and it is why a copper under pressure on the street is not the best person to take a quasi-judicial decision.

From 'The Times'

POLICE released three suspects yesterday....This might have been a big story, except that they were golliwoggs.

The dolls were seized from the window of a shop on suspicion of causing “alarm, harassment or distress” under Section 5 of the Public Order Act when West Mercia police received a complaint from a passer-by. They were returned to the custody of shopkeeper Donald Reynolds, owner of Pettifer’s hardware and general store in Bromyard, Herefordshire, after an investigation.

A police spokesman said that no further action was being taken but that Mr Reynolds had been advised not to display them “insensitively” in future.

The spokesman added: “Officers consulted appropriate partner agencies and the Crown Prosecution Service. No offences have been identified and the items will be returned. Suitable advice about the sensitivities of placing such items on display is being provided to the store owner. West Mercia Constabulary considers the matter to be closed.”

Mr Reynolds .....was asked to bring a key to the shop, where he found an officer. “He said, ‘I’ve come about the gollies. We’ve had a complaint they are causing offence’. I couldn’t believe it, ” Mr Reynolds said.

The officer then clambered into the window display, among the fire grates and bird feeders, and seized the dolls. Although it is legal to sell the dolls, Mr Reynolds was warned that putting them on display could be judged offensive.
I am only surprised that the dolls weren't given an ASBO.

Friday, March 03, 2006


We had a few TICs put in the other day - matters Taken Into Consideration. A couple of prolific thieves were picked up for two low-level offences each, but decided to wipe the slate clean and (to borrow police terminology) 'cough' a lot more. The combined list of what they owned up to covered about eight A4 sheets and the value of stolen goods ran into the tens of thousands.

In return for their co-operation the defendants (who went off to the Crown Court for sentence of course) will get far lower sentences than would have been the case otherwise. So long as they have been frank with the police they will no longer have to worry about old cases coming out of the files to haunt them (and in the DNA age that happens a lot). The police (and therefore the public) have been saved vast expense. Scores of victims will now know that the people who stole from them have been dealt with and will do time in prison. All in all, that seems to be a satisfactory situation.

I am pretty sure that the pub round the corner from the police station will have had a good night after a result like that. Two petty thieves, and dozens of lovely clear-ups. I hope that the officers enjoyed their beer.

This Won't Interest Everyone

The National Audit Office has had a look at the CPS and its work in the magistrates' courts. It's all a bit dull and technical for people outside the system, but it's a useful insight into the cross-agency issues that have to be sorted out to make the system work smoothly.

It's Here

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Truck Stop

We hardly ever see cases involving defective vehicles these days, although they used to be regular fare. Sensibly, most private cars with faults are given a Vehicle Defect Rectification Scheme (VDRS) which gives the owner a set time to get the car fixed or to scrap it. Defective HGVs are given a GV9 notice to take them straight off the road. It wasn't always like that. I think that my personal record was to deal with about twenty separate faults on a car, including odd-sized wheels on diagonally opposite corners, an insecure battery (an easy pull, and worth three points) and, as cherry on the cake, having no water in the screen washers.

We saw one Irish 8-wheeler tipper driver whose battered Volvo had been stopped and who had collected a snowstorm of tickets. I can still see the man holding his folded copy of the Sun like a baton and tapping his temple with it as he tried to remember things. It took a long time to detail the separate offences, but one or two of his replies were classics. "Mr. Murphy, the nearside headlamp was defective in that it only worked on main beam". "Sure, isn't half better than none then?" "Mr. Murphy, the nearside rear position lamp, that's the back light, was defective". "No, sir, the light was fine as soon as I put a bulb in it". And so on and so on.

The trouble with this approach was that the fines all had to be scaled back to stop matters getting entirely out of hand, so to get to a total that might conceivably be payable we were fining a fiver here and a tenner there.

Now traffic is increasingly being centralised into a few courts because of pressure to get on with trials as soon as possible. Traffic courts were never popular among JPs, but proceedings were sometimes enlivened.

One owner-driver had been stopped in a roadside check, and tests showed that one pair of wheels had no working brake. The owner seemed like a genuine chap, and produced full service records for the vehicle in the two years he had owned it, including a service ten days before the stop. A cam in the brake mechanism had broken and stopped it working. Of course in such a heavy vehicle there is unlikely to be any difference in the feel of the brakes, so we decided that the fairest course was to impose an absolute discharge with no points (there was case law to hand about latent defects). We though he would be pleased, but he still looked worried. "Can I ask a question sir?" "Of course". "I have still been convicted haven't I?" "Yes, but there is no fine and no points". "The trouble is sir, that the Traffic Commissioners will call me in to explain and I could lose my 'O' licence". "I see", said the chairman. "Madam clerk, would you be able to write a letter for this gentleman explaining the bench's decision?" "Yes sir, certainly".

So he was promised a letter in the post and went away happy. That's the thing about a court: it can take commonsense decisions like that, which is more than you will get from a fixed penalty system run by bureaucrats.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Way Off -Topic, But Really Nice

I have never recovered from having been a plane-spotter in my youth, and I often log into PPRuNE, which is a massively successful aviation bulletin board that has grown into a major Internet business. It is read all around the world, and somebody here decided to give his little daughter a mention on the www. The replies are not just charming, but they also give you yet another insight into the power of the Web to bring people together. Now how do we get it into less happy countries?

Have a look when you get a moment. I bet her dad is proud - I would be.