Sunday, July 30, 2006

Robbery Guideline

This is the latest guideline on sentencing for robbery. (It's a pdf).

It is academic as far as I am concerned, because robbery is an offence that we cannot deal with - cases must be sent to the Crown Court.

These guidelines have already been misrepresented in the press, and that is really an insult to the highly experienced and qualified members of the Council.

If you have nothing better to do, have a look at the guidelines. They seem about right to me.

It's Not Just Policemen Who Seem To Be Getting Younger

I don't sit in the Youth Court, preferring as I do to deal with the more-or-less grown up malefactors who come before us. Because the Youth Court does not sit every day adult courts are sometimes faced with a young person who has been arrested. Normal practice is to decide on bail and then remand the offender to the next sitting of the Youth Court. There are different rules of bail for those under 18, and for young kids we may only remand to the care of the local authority - who often hand the child straight back to the parents (or, more likely, parent).

One day we were faced with a boy of 12, who looked like one of Fagin's gang from 'Oliver'. He had been arrested trying to break into a car in the small hours of the morning, despite the fact that he was already on bail for other offences, and was subject to a curfew. His mother, a lady of Hogarthian appearance, had gone out drinking with friends at 11 a.m. leaving the boy alone: on her return home at 10.30 p.m. she found that he had, unsurprisingly, gone out. The police returned him home towards dawn.
We had a look at his previous and he had a record going back to the age of 10 for theft, burglary, assault and suchlike. He was under intensive supervision from the Young Offender Team, but dedicated and professional as these are, they cannot overcome such appalling parenting as this boy has received.

Do I have the answer? Of course not, but I do take my hat off to the underpaid and under-appreciated workers who try to put kids like this onto the straight and narrow.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Royal Commission?

Charon QC has found this quote from an eminent academic lawyer:
“A criminal justice system that has already seen too much reform is about to be subjected to yet more change. Why? Almost everyone recognises - even if they won’t admit it -that the latest reforms announced by John Reid have more to do with a perceived need to appear tough than they do with rational, thoughtful policy-making. Behind the rhetoric there is growing chaos - the planned prison-probation merger into the NOMS is in a mess; long-standing plans for police reform have suddenly been shelved; despite year on year falls in crime, two thirds of the public think it is on the increase. At no point in the last half century has the need for a royal commission on crime and justice been more urgently required.”

Professor Tim Newburn
Director, Mannheim Centre for Criminology, LSE

I can't disagree with that.

Now That's What I Call Investing

I have seen a copy of a letter from Alex Allan, head honcho at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, to all its staff. On the bottom of the letterhead is the logo of "Investor in People".

The letter goes on to say that 1,700 of those people are going to be sacked.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Recreational Violence

We had to deal with a case of affray against a group of young men. This is an either-way offence and to reinforce his recommendation that we should decline jurisdiction and commit the matter to the Crown Court the prosecutor read us the case summary and handed up still photographs taken from the large amount of CCTV evidence he had available.

The men had gone out drinking in the town, and became rowdy, at which time they were asked to leave the pub they were in. They made their way to another, and after a while they were again asked to leave.

They swaggered, foul-mouthed and belligerent, into the street where, entirely unprovoked, they set about a couple of young men who were innocently making their way past. The melée spilled into the road, and a driver, who had been forced to brake, remonstrated with the group; he too was set on for his pains.

Our town centre is well covered by high quality CCTV and the stills clearly identified individuals who were kicking figures lying curled up on the pavement, and after seeing them we had no hesitation in sending the case to the Crown Court to be dealt with.

Standing in the dock they looked like an unexceptional group of young men. The public preconception is that they should either look like furtive hoodies or Neanderthal thugs but their main feature was their apparent normality.

The inescapable fact is that for many young men violence is welcomed as a part of their social life, providing an outlet for male aggression in a world in which women are taking on former male roles, and in which strength no longer carries the premium that it did. Alcohol was the trigger that set off this explosion of violence, but they probably expected that would be the case when they went out.

Once this sort of thing becomes socially embedded the only possible police response is to meet force with force (and I have spoken to a good few young officers who don't mind a bit of rough stuff on a Saturday night either). Sentencing will have to be at a deterrent level, but whether anyone will be deterred is another question altogether.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Kind, if Worrying

The Guardian Leader is kind enough to mention this blog today. Worryingly, it mentions people sacked for blogging.

I do hope that nobody is cross enough with me to want to see me fired. All that I try to do is to dispel some of the unnecessary mystery that surrounds the courts.

Oh yes, there is the being rude about politicians, the CPS, and who knows whom else. But they are big enough and ugly enough to take a bit of stick from the likes of me. They are, aren't they?

All Right, Then, I'm A Softy

We had an East European in the dock a couple of weeks ago, charged with Class C (i.e. Cannabis) possession. So far, so run-of-the-mill.

We heard the facts, and it turned out that our man had been the victim of an assault in which he was stabbed several times, mercifully without danger to his life. Police went to the hospital, and took away his clothes, since they might have been of evidential value.

The clothes were inspected before being put into store, and that's when the wraps of drugs were found.

So after recovering from his wounds (the assailant either having been pathetically inexpert or just a chap who doesn't take any job seriously) the man finished up in front of the bench.

Well, what would you have done?

We decided that after being knifed, spending two weeks in hospital, and losing his stash as well as some of his limited stock of clothing, enough was enough.

Some would call our Conditional Discharge a wimp-out. We thought it was pretty fair, in all the circumstances.

Any Ideas?

I learn from a member of Court staff that it has been deemed 'inappropriate' to use the word 'ladies' (but 'gentlemen' is okay, it seems). 'Girls' has been out for some time now.

So if I walk into a room full of persons of a different gender to my own, how do I start off?

"Good Morning, Women"?

"Hi, guys"? (I really hate that)

"Yo, bitches" while being street-smart could cause offence.

What do I do?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Nice Line From The Lord Chief

The Lord Chief Justice spoke last night at a top-level dinner. This bit of his speech caught my eye:-
The demands of my current position did mean that I had to catch up with developments in criminal law over the past eight years, and that proved quite a task.

I enrolled on the Judicial Studies Board Criminal Law Continuation Course - for me it was very much an induction course.......

I was astonished and concerned at the complexity of the sentencing exercise that a judge is required to perform. There has been a deluge of legislation over recent years affecting sentencing.

This, together with the guidance of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, restricts the scope of the discretion that a judge previously enjoyed when deciding on the appropriate sentence.

It takes a lot of study to master the intricacies of sentencing today, which can result in criticisms of sentences by those who have not conducted such study being wide of the mark.

I have asked Lord Justice Keene, who chairs the Judicial Studies Board, whether he can lay on a sentencing induction course for Home Secretaries. He is considering this, but has warned me that the frequency of such courses would have resource implications.

Nicely put, Your Lordship.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Leading Edge Law From The Land of The Lumberjack and The Beaver Hunter

Slaw is a Canadian legal website, with a technical and IT slant.

Much of it is of strictly Canadian, but I couldn't resist Changes to the Ontario rules of civil procedure forms which, in its way, is as immortal as Beachcomber's "List of Huntingdonshire Cabmen", albeit without the latter's quality of barely-suppressed excitement.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Exclusive! New Crackdown on Crime!

From "The Observer"
John Reid's efforts to turn around the embattled Home Office will be dealt a major blow this week by figures revealing a surge in muggings and other robberies over the last year, suggesting police forces are struggling to control street crime.
Violent crime has also risen significantly in many areas, according to an Observer survey of police forces across the country. Robberies are expected to have risen by almost 10 per cent according to official Home Office figures to be published this week.

The figures come just as the government attempts to take charge of the crime agenda, with Reid due to unveil long-awaited criminal justice reforms this week, making it harder for prisoners to get parole........

If I might be forgiven for raining on Mr Reid's parade, here's a few bullet points from a very junior player who has spent a couple of decades at the sharp end of the justice system:-

* Robberies range from a full-on armed raid to a fifteen year-old kid nicking a ten year-old's dinner money.
* In the age of the Ipod and the mobile millions of people regularly take to the streets carrying hundreds of pounds' worth of technology. Some of it gets stolen.
* One of the most common crimes of violence is domestic assault. For generations that was not seen as real crime - now, rightly, it is. Cases are vigorously prosecuted. This is one of the reasons why it is impossible to generalise about the amount of violent crime. I gave more examples here
* The figures quoted above are not 'significant' but are subject to statistical variations that make it impossible to draw any meaningful conclusion.
* Mr Reid is to announce 'long-awaited' reforms. Long awaited? Do me a favour: the PM ordered the Home Secretary to come up with something about three or four weeks ago. The Government was elected nine years ago. Wouldn't that have been a good time to 'take charge of the crime agenda'?
* Nobody will be surprised if it becomes harder for prisoners to get parole. The current system is full of anomalies. However that, coupled with the gross overloading in Probation services, means that new sentences such as Custody Plus are dead in the water, certainly now and possibly for ever.
* Part of the 2003 CJA doubles magistrates' sentencing powers with the aim of reducing Crown Court workloads at the lower end of the scale. If that doesn't happen the Crown Courts will start to creak.

I was recently at a training event and spent time chatting to judges and JPs. What we most want to see is a break from legislation to let us catch up and sort out the problems arising from the recent blizzard of new and sometimes ill-considered law.

There were no optimists present.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Quid's In

Her Majesty's Courts' Service has recently increased most of the fees charged for such things as bookies' licences, and various documents. The other day an officer of Her Majesty's Immigration Service came to court on some business or other, and found that he needed to photocopy a document - one side of A4 paper. The court duly obliged - and charged him a pound for the service. So one of Her Majesty's servants did a small service for another of Her Majesty's servants. A pound changed hands and a receipt was issued. The transaction was entered into the court's accounts. The recipient of the service will now claim that pound on his expenses, his claim will be authorised by yet another of Her Majesty's servants and still another will pay it to him in due course.

All perfectly proper, but what a waste of everyone's time and money. That photocopy has probably finished up costing the taxpayer about a tenner.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

They Do things Differently In America (3)

The Natwest/Enron Three are in the air as I write, on their way to the USA to face an uncertain future.

The first difference from the British system that they are likely to encounter on arrival in the USA will be the American habit of chaining prisoners hand and foot. This is largely a symbolic humiliation in their case, as it is in many cases, because having reported to Gatwick and got on the plane they are hardly likely to attack their guards and escape.

Bail will be their first hurdle, and here there is a fundamental difference between the two systems. I understand that hard cash or a bail bond will be required if the judge decides to grant them bail.

I have just run through their case in my mind, as if they were in front of me applying for bail having been charged in the UK. The Bail Act provides for a presumption in favour of bail, unless there are 'substantial' grounds to fear that they will fail to appear at court, commit further offences, or interefere with witnesses.

In the circumstances, of an alleged seven-figure fraud likely to result in a prison sentence, I think that the first objection is the only one likely to have any strength in it. That fear could be addressed by imposing bail conditions. To reside at a specified address, certainly. To surrender their passports. And possibly a surety, that is a promise from a third party to pay a set sum if they breach their bail. In this case, perhaps between £100,000 and £250,000 each.

Let's see how they get on.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Info For PCs


They Do things Differently In America (2)

The people at this firm have linked to us - that's nice, as always.

I haven't had time for a proper sashay through their site, but at a cursory glance it suggests that while the Atlantic is a very wide piece of water, our legal principles are forged of the same metal.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Policeman Not Happy With My Lot

This is an edited version of PCMidlands' recent comment:-
At that age, I believe criminals can be reformed. This can only be done with prison..........

The main problem is that magistrates believe that their job is to rehabilitate rather than to punish and protect the public. That is why there is a great deal of anger towards them.

PCM's view is held by a lot of people these days, but without doubting his sincerity, I think that he has got it wrong.
Prison is not the 'only' way to reform criminals (especially immature ones of 17 or younger) and it is not even the best way. We have, albeit inadvertently, allowed the rise of a disaffected underclass of uneducated and unemployable young men, among whom you may find loathing of the police, a casual use of drink and drugs, and a propensity to violence, often inflicted as a recreational activity. For some, their day to day life is so squalid and useless that release is only found in the needle and the pipe. If their violence presents a threat to the public, few would argue with incarcerating them simply to keep them off the streets. During that incarceration they would, ideally, be confronted with their behaviour and helped to become of use to society and to themselves. Simply to brutalise them further may satisfy the desire to punish them but runs the probable risk that they will wreak revenge on society when they are eventually released. Attempting rehabilitation is hard work, expensive, and unglamorous. It often results in failure. But surely it's worth a try?
PCM's second point, about magistrates, entirely misunderstands our function. We are there to operate the law as enacted by Parliament. The Bench Book gives all of the many criteria that must be met if we are to impose custody. We must give reasons in open court. We follow a structured sentencing process, considering whether there is any alternative to prison. We do not have the luxury of deciding between rehabilitation and punishment, but we must follow the law. The sentencing process is one in which we are directed by Parliament and guided by the higher courts and the Sentencing Guidelines Council. Not all of us like being so boxed in, but it's the law, so it's the way we have to do it

Friday, July 07, 2006

Kiddy Court

Kiddy Court is the ironic name that some lawyers (and magistrates) use for the Youth Court. In law a youth is somebody aged less than 18, and special rules apply to their treatment.

I have chosen to steer clear of the Youth Court, but many of my colleagues find it rewarding work, and are happy to accept the extensive extra training and appraisal that allows them to sit on Youth cases.

Youth courts do not sit every day, so if a young offender is arrested and held in custody an adult court must deal with bail, and remand him or (much less often) her to the next Youth Court sitting. In these cases the defendant must be accompanied by a parent or, in the absence of one, an Appropriate Adult. They are seated in the well of the court, and we must address them by their first name. If they are jointly charged with an adult (who might only be a matter of months older) we make an order that nothing may be published that might serve to identify a young person.

Youth Courts are closed to the public (but not the Press) and deal with offences that are further up-tariff than adult courts can handle. They may make an order up to 2 years in length, and often do so. I sometimes have a look at the Youth list in the morning and on a bad day it can look like its Old Bailey equivalent - robbery, GBH, and assorted mayhem.

There is sometimes a fuss in the papers (there was one last week) about 'soft' sentences given to young offenders, but the law severely restricts penalties that may be applied to those under 16. That is right in my view, but it does not appeal to the retribution junkies who are so influential these days.

All but the most serious offences committed by youngsters are now dealt with by magistrates, because it is believed, sometimes more in hope than expectation, that up to a certain age there is more to be gained by treatment than the big stick.

This is one of the core questions in the current debate about the principles of criminal justice. I wish I knew the answer.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


One of the papers quotes:-
a leading development official told The Times that it would take “decades” to eradicate opium production


About 500 of them if we are lucky.

I Agree

With this letter in The Times.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

God Bless America - A Personal View

We can't let the Fourth of July pass without a comment. Just an aside though - I live in a prosperous community to the west of London, and we are accustomed to a storm of fireworks on what they call 7/4. Not a single bang has split the night. Odd, that.

I admire and respect the United States. As a student in the Sixties I took a lot of flak from my contemporaries for pointing out that the Vietnam war may have been the wrong war but it was fought for the right reasons, and for reminding my Marxist friends that the Soviet constitution wasn't too strong on 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'. Especially happiness.

Can I just ask my American friends, whose legal system is evolved from the one that I play a small part in, to take a few moments in the still small hours of the night to wonder if there is anything that would benefit from a re-think? I have been abused and insulted in pub conversations, dinner parties, and other discussions for supporting the American ideal of justice according to law. America (just like my country) has every right to be proud of the way in which its legal system took on segregation and similar injustice. So can you understand how I feel about Camp Delta, and about the imminent quasi-legal abduction of three Brits in a clear abuse of natural justice?

I have always felt that my values are as one with those of the United States. Until now.

To misquote a great American:- "Say it ain't so, friends, say it ain't so!"

Phew! What A Scorcher!

As I sit gently sweltering at my keyboard the dial on my desk-top thermometer stands at 30 degrees C. A small fan keeps things just about bearable but I am moved to wonder how my colleagues who are sitting in court today are getting on. The courtrooms themselves are air-conditioned, although the system is erratic, but the public areas and the retiring rooms have no cooling. It occurs to me that I have never sat on the bench in shirtsleeves, although in exceptional weather one could do so, with the Chairman's permission. In the same way lawyers can be allowed to take off their jackets, but it happens rarely on my patch. There is a judge at the local Crown Court who sits wigless from June until early September, keeping his wig parked on the bench next to him, presumably in case the Lord Chief Justice comes to call unexpectedly. This can cause alarm among counsel who do not know his ways - I remember seeing a young barrister's hand shoot halfway towards his own wig, and then hover there as he enquired:- "Your Honour - if you will forgive me - are you in chambers?" "No" boomed His Honour. "I choose not to wear it in the summer months".

It must be pretty stifling down in the cells, and the prison transport vans are not known as sweat-boxes for nothing.

I suffer from mild paranoia every time that I park at court, fearing that I have forgotten the jacket of my suit. I never have forgotten it, but I would have to borrow one if I did because the uniform is expected by court users. Until a few years before I was appointed lady magistrates had to wear hats in court, and my first Bench Chairman always wore a black jacket, striped trousers and a flower in his lapel.

In the Youth Court several of my colleagues have been known to wear discreet Bart Simpson or Mickey Mouse ties, and nobody has ever seemed to mind.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Harrassed? Alarmed? Distressed?

So a man selling t-shirts from a market stall has been given an £80 PND (Penalty Notice Disorder) for displaying t-shirts bearing the legend "Bollocks to Blair". Several of our newspapers pursed their lips when reporting this story and asterisked out the middle letters of "Bollocks", which is a bit thick when you see the kind of stuff they do print when not on their moral high horses.

I was musing on this yesterday, wondering just who was harrassed alarmed and distressed by the shirts, which are a common enough sight on the streets of London. When the airwaves are awash with previously-taboo expletives, from radio DJs to 'Gordon Ramsay's F-Word' in which the toilet-mouthed chef's whole schtick is based on his profanity, and when the ubiquitous FCUK fashion brand is found on every High Street, there can be few adults or children who are truly shocked by swearing any more.

If the t-shirt man has any sense he will decline to pay the PND and take his case before a bench of magistrates who might well regard it as a load of - oh well, you can guess the rest.