Tuesday, October 31, 2006

This Could Be Any of Us

There is a man called Nick whom I know quite well, not as a bosom friend, but as a trusted acquaintance. He has got himself into a serious fix. I met him few weeks ago and I could see from his expression that all was not well.
After his divorce about fifteen years ago he applied himself to work hard. He was promoted, and got to a very decent salary level that was accompanied by some nice benefits, such as a 3-series BMW, and a pension scheme.
Some of his friends, including me, were a bit surprised when he turned up with a new girlfriend who seemed – how shall we say – not quite his type. Nevertheless, three years later he was living with her in the house that he had first shared with his ex, and then, having bought out her share, improved extensively. Two children arrived within three years, and all looked well. It was not.
The lady had problems that resulted in heavy drinking. They coped as a couple until the time that he came home from a twelve hour day to find her the worse for drink, and planning to go out for more as soon as he came home. There was a row. There was a physical incident that I won’t comment on, because I have only heard one side of the story. Desperate to calm the situation, he telephoned a friend and asked if she could speak to the lady to calm things down. Fuelled by drink and emotion, Nick’s partner screamed down the phone:- ”He’s hitting me!” Friend called the police.
Nick was arrested and taken to the police station. The arresting officer was sympathetic, and suggested that time would be saved if Nick left his personal property at home to save the trouble of booking it all in at the station. It was now around midnight. At the police station the officers were friendly, and eased Nick through the booking-in procedures, apologising for having to put him in a cell. The PCs left the door ajar to reduce the stress. They said that as soon as the 'paperwork' was sorted out they would run him home. The officers seemed so reasonable, and he was so anxious to get out of the police station that he said he was happy to do without a solicitor.
He was interviewed, and agreed to accept a caution for Common Assault. The arresting officer then said he was sorry, but the Sergeant had forbidden him to run Nick home, but that he was free to leave. Without his wallet Nick could not get a taxi, so he walked four miles home.
So far, so simple, if unpleasant. Unfortunately, while Nick was telling me about the situation I realised that he had dropped himself into a whole heap of trouble. The lady’s problems are unresolved, rows continue to occur, and Nick now evades any possible new allegations by leaving the house, going to neighbours, or, in extreme cases, dialling 999 if the lady kicks off. Nick is street-wise enough to prevent future rows getting to the police stage, or so I trust. But if he doesn’t, with his record, he will be in the frame as a suspect with a previous record of domestic violence.
Leave that aside, and move forward to the separation that I fear is inevitable. She will of course get the house and the children. He will have problems getting access because he has admitted being violent. You can work out the rest for yourself. He stands to lose everything he has worked for, the children he loves, and his good name. The killer fact underlying the way the law views him is that caution, and he agreed to it without professional advice.

Nick exists. I have taken his word for what happened, albeit filtered through my magisterial scepticism. I ask you to draw just two lessons from this sorry tale:-

However solid your social position, consider how you would cope with being accused of a crime.

Never refuse legal representation, however tired drunk or fed-up you are. It can do no harm, and may prevent you throwing away much that is dear to you.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

More Stuff With Which I Agree

Notsossaure has this excellent piece on involving grieving relatives in trials, and this 'Observer' piece is a good 'un too.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Numbers Game

The London Criminal Justice Board (they of the free mousemats and pens) have a page on their website headed 'Achievements'. They include a graph along with some statistics about Offences Brought to Justice. The graph shows an encouraging upward curve, and we are told that OBtJs have increased by 15% over the last twelve months and that London 'easily' met its target.
These figures are, of course, entirely bogus. On the face of it they seem to show that London's sturdy police force is working more effectively then ever and is beavering away to detect and charge criminals. What they really show is that the target-driven policy of dishing out fixed penalty notices to all and sundry, each of them counted as a Sanction Detection, is driving the figures up. It really is a bit thick to claim that a £40 ticket slapped on a drunken teenager is a detection - it's hardly Hercule Poirot, is it? According to Hansard:-
The Home Office reviews the performance of police forces on the basis of their sanction detection rate. The sanction detection rate is the percentage of crimes for which someone is charged, summonsed, receives a caution or other formal sanction.
Thus, a policeman who has a quiet word with someone, and advises them to calm down and go home wins no brownie points at all, whereas a ticket, or an arrest followed by a caution will push that graph just a little higher. And the crime figures against which the percentage of SDs is calculated are notoriously unreliable anyway, almost to the point of being meaningless.
You can't blame coppers for following the policies of their political masters; that's what they are paid for, after all. Just don't kid yourself that these masses of statistics prove anything about what is really going on on the street.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Just In Case You Didn't Realise

Driving without Insurance is a Bad Thing. If you are caught doing it you will be fined and you may well be banned from driving. At the very least you will get six points on your licence. So far, so bad.

You can make it worse though. Just arrange for a forged insurance certificate, and present that to the court. Then, apart from all the trouble of a conviction for no insurance, you can be charged with Using a False Instrument. That carries a maximum of six months in prison at the magistrates' court and/or a fine of £5000, but is also Either Way, which means that it can be sent up to the Crown Court. Judges understandably take a dim view of this sort of thing, and you might be absent from your usual haunts for some time.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Here We Go Again (2)

The recent report from a House of Commons Select Committee that was rather hard on the CPS included this interesting recommendation:-
(the CPS should) work with Her Majesty’s Courts Service to establish 24 hour courts as “one stop shops” in city areas, where those arrested for minor offences could be dealt with immediately.
Oh dear. A few years ago, in response to one of those Downing Street sofa moments, an experimental night court was set up in London in the expectation that offenders would be dragged off the streets, hauled up before the beak straight away, and be dealt with before midnight. Unfortunately the idea (borrowed, like so many crap ideas, from New York where things are, believe it or not, different) was not properly thought through, and the experiment was quietly dropped, having wasted several million pounds.
The trouble is, you see, that some people inconveniently plead not guilty. People are entitled to legal advice before deciding how to plead. If they are to be fined, there will need to be staff available to take the cash. If a community penalty or prison is in prospect then a probation report is required. All of this takes time, and will inevitably require an adjournment.
I have no doubt that the idea will be given another try and that it will again collapse after wasting another few million quid.

On The Spot

"On-The-Spot" fines are in the news again, twice in one day. Firstly, and most absurdly, the dreaded hordes of Roumanian and Bulgarian workers who are expected to flood our shores next year will face an on the spot fine of £1000 if they work illegally - and most of them will not be allowed to work legally, unlike the Poles and others who are already here. Of course the fines won't really be on the spot, that is just a catchy phrase to please the tabloids. In reality the fines will be all but impossible to enforce - imposing them on a group who are by definition unregulated and amorphous will be like trying to catch water in a sieve.

Secondly, local councils will be given greater powers to make byelaws and to enforce them with - you guessed it - fixed penalties. Justice will require that there be a right of appeal, and we shall see what that throws up. I wonder what the trade unions will have to say about council employees being asked to dish out penalty notices, unsupported by any right to detain or by any training in the sort of work that should really be done by a constable?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Any Techies Out There?

I am getting a flood of spam from pump-and-dump share pluggers. The swine are evading filters by putting their rubbish in .gif form. I am quite happy to block all emails containing .gifs - how can I do this? I use IncrediMail.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Still More Sensible Advice

Do not spit in the street. It is bad manners and unhygienic. If you choose to ignore my advice, do not spit in the street when you are three yards away from a police officer. If you are still determined to ignore my advice and do in fact spit in the street while you are three yards away from a police officer do not immediately get into your uninsured and untaxed car that you do not have a licence to drive. Someone did just that the other day and it cost him, all in, over £400 and a driving ban.

Legal Aid - Update

Irwin Mitchell, a leading criminal defence firm, has pulled out of doing legal aid work Article here


We imposed a community penalty a little while ago, and included a curfew order, enforced by a tag. "Excuse me" said the defendant after I had announced the sentence. "When does the curfew start?" "8 o'clock tonight" I said. "Oh. Is there any chance you could make it start tomorrow night, sir?" "Why?" I enquired. "Well, sir it's my birthday today....." I looked at the listing sheet in front of me and there was his date of birth. I glanced at my colleagues, both of whom were smiling at the sheer cheek of it. I gave him a long look. "All right, tomorrow it is then".

Of course we should have stood firm for the punishment to begin straight away, but we all felt the same human response to his request. I don't think any harm was done.

More Sensible Advice

Drinking and Driving is a Bad Thing. This blog's advice is not to do it. Ever. It's dangerous and the penalties are heavy.
An even worse idea is to swig from a bottle of beer as you drive along, in view of the crew of a passing police car. A gentleman of Baltic origin did just that the other week, and when stopped proved to have a breath alcohol level of 73ug, as against the legal limit of 35.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

More About the Kiddy Court

I do not sit in the Youth Court, so I am by no means an expert on young offenders, but what I do know is that courts are seeing more and more young defendants. The number of sitting days allocated to youth cases has had to be doubled in some courthouses to cope with the work. There are a number of reasons for this increase - one obvious one is the fact that many young people routinely carry several hundred pounds' worth of electronics in the shape of mobile phones and IPods, which largely explains the surge in street robberies. I am also told that there is an increasing trend for youths to plead not guilty. The discount for an early guilty plea doesn't amount to much if the court is going to impose a referral order, so quite a few decide to give it a run. A contested robbery charge involving several defendants, all of them claiming to have taken no part, with separate lawyers for each can easily run to several days.

The New Statesman has a thoughtful piece on youth crime here. The writer suggests that the criteria for charge versus warning or caution are tighter for youths than for adults, which could be another factor in the increased workload.

I am grateful to H27 for this link to a story about David Simpson, a District Judge who specialises in youth work, and whom I know.

Cost of Cockups

A House of Commons committee has had a look at money wasted in courts (see Telegraph article) and has said things about the performance of the police and the CPS that most magistrates would echo. I have been saying for years that what the CPS needed was not so much more lawyers as a few decent clerical staff who could check that files were complete and in the right place, and do such simple things as telephoning or emailing witnesses a few days before the trial to remind them that they are required. Time and again we have suffered missing police and civilian witnesses, because nobody had warned them properly. The court's only power is to refuse to adjourn, forcing the Crown to offer no evidence. That isn't justice either, but it's an adversarial system that we are operating, and the rule is put up or shut up.

Don't Quote Me On This

I was chatting to one of our office staff the other day when the subject of fixed penalty tickets came up. As I expected he told me that the payment rate was poor, which is not surprising in a city like London where something like a quarter of the population move house each year. What did amuse me was the news that more than fifty tickets issued in one sector of London were given to people who gave their address as Walford.

(Note for non-UK readers: Walford is a fictional borough created for a popular TV soap).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

More Sentencing

When someone is convicted after trial it is often necessary to order pre-sentence reports, usually because the court is considering a community penalty or prison. That will commonly take three weeks to prepare. It has always been the practice for at least one of the trial bench to sit on the eventual sentencing hearing, because they will have heard all the nuances of the evidence and will have a full understanding of the offence. In recent times some Justices' Clerks have expressed the opinion that this is not necessary, but few magistrates agree, and there has been some debate on the Mags' Association web forum (sorry, it's private and passworded) which suggests that most JPs support the status quo. Under the 2003 Act we have to fill in a pro-forma for probation to give them an idea of how we feel about the offence and of the sentence we have in mind. The form is a simple tick-box exercise and asks us to indicate low/medium/high for community penalties, or "so serious" for prison. The trouble with this is that if we indicate a community penalty the subsequent bench has its hands tied as a legitimate expectation has been created that the defendant will not be sent inside. As a result, unless the offence has a community sentence written all over it, we tick the custody box as you can always come down-tariff but you can't go up. These forms are fairly new (interestingly our District Judges won't use them) and we are often boxed in by a convicting bench having excluded custody when the offence may well merit it.

A few months ago I sat on a trial in which we convicted a man of threatening behaviour against two public servants who were on duty at the time. It was a nasty incident, and caused real fear to the two victims, and we indicated a high community penalty (the man was middle aged and had no previous convictions, so custody would not be appropriate). I made sure that the case was adjourned to a day when I was sitting. I outlined the case to my two colleagues before we read the reports. The probation officer's analysis of the offence bore next to no relation to what had really happened and she seemed to have accepted the defendant's story uncritically. Part of the aggravation was that he had walked away from his victims and then returned a few minutes later to have another go. This fact he omitted to mention in the interview. The upshot was that the report recommended a fine - way too low for the offence, especially in view of the fact that there was no credit for a guilty plea. Had I not been there a bench coming fresh to it would probably have fined him as per the report.

So we gave him 250 hours unpaid work, and ordered compensation to the victims and costs to the prosecution totalling about £600. I shall carry on coming back to deal with sentences whenever I can, because we are more likely to see justice done that way.

How Original

Today's 'Sun' has an editorial comment on the sentence imposed on a teenager, 14 at the time, who murdered a boy in horrible circumstances:-
Today, murderers are seen as victims who need help, not condemnation. Hamer will spend his sentence being counselled and comforted and then set free.
The real life sentence will be served by Joe’s mum and dad.
So presumably twelve years is not enough, and Hamer should not receive any rehabilitative treatment while he is inside. What do you suggest then, Rebekah? 20 years? 40? And what shall we do with him? Breaking rocks? Do let us know your thoughts on penal policy - after all if you punch your husband again you might be back in a cell for a bit longer than last time.

Here's an Odd One

October is the AGM season for benches. We elect our bench officers and committee members, hear from the Clerk and the Bench Chairman, and sort out procedural matters for the year ahead.
This took me by surprise, in today's 'Times':-
JPs’ vote inquiry
Police have been called in to investigate allegations of cheating in a vote involving 241 JPs after 15 extra votes were cast in the annual election for two deputy chairmen of the East Dorset magistrates’ bench. An official said the possibility of error would be investigated, but irregularity was “more likely”.

I find it hard to believe that anyone should be so anxious to become a deputy bench chairman that they would resort to skulduggery. It's not as if the position is paid, and it doesn't carry the sort of prestige that will get you a good table in a restaurant. We shall see what happens - I usually prefer the theory of the cock-up to that of the conspiracy.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Reading Gaol

A good few years ago I paid a routine visit to Reading Prison. It's been converted to a remand centre now, and has lost the anti-climbing cylinder that used to top its walls, but in those days it was a local prison. We were taken round by a very experienced officer who was close to retirement, and who came out with a phrase that sometimes gives me pause for thought:- "If I may say so, sir, you ladies and gentlemen send people here too late and for too long. They all have a good cry on their first night and for two or three weeks they are scared and confused. After that they get used to it and get on with doing their time".

We thanked him as we were leaving, and I said as a parting shot:- "There can't be many other prisons that have had a famous poem written about them".

"Eh?" he replied.

I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

The full text is here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

News in Brief

Tucked away on Page 28 of today's "Times" is this:-
Blind driver case
A man who guided a blind man as he drove a car around Oldbury, West Midlands, was jailed for nine months. Dlear Ahmed, a 21-year-old Iraqi, admitted aiding and abetting dangerous driving. The driver, Omed Aziz, 31, of Darlaston, West Midlands, was given a 12-week suspended prison sentence and three-year ban.
The sentence on the driver was widely derided and received massive news coverage. The man who caused the whole business to happen has been given nine months. Not much of a splash down-page on Page 28 is it?

And As For This..........

This scheme shows every sign of having been devised by someone who has absolutely no idea of how courts work.

Who is, or are "the community"? Who decides who they are? Who elects them? Who selects them?

When being helped by the "community" to "devise appropriate sentences" will the existing structure of the law be used, or can we make it up as we go along?

What a lot of tosh.

What will kill it is that it is bound to cost more than the present system, and there is no money.

And another thing.....This particular magistrate is insulted by the insinuation that some self-selected "community" representative knows the turf better than I do. I was born in my court's area. I grew up in it, went to school there. The local council paid for me to go to university, and I have worked in the area as a businessman and latterly as a magistrate for the whole of my life. Is that "community" enough for you, Ms Harman?

Press Gang

This article in The Times is an example of much that is wrong with the way in which the Press treats crime and punishment issues.
Journalists feed on each other, and attitudes fashions and usages are shared between different papers. For example, in the Times article David Brown speaks of the young men convicted of the manslaughter of Damilola Taylor serving 'just' half their sentence. That is of course the norm, but the impact of that 'just' is to imply that they have been let off in some way. Damilola's parents have suffered the loss of their son, and they have had to come to terms with an investigation that was badly handled in many ways. Mr. Taylor
had urged the judge to impose life sentences, saying: “Anything under ten years would be unacceptable. That is not even a year for every one Damilola lived.”
With all due sympathy and respect to the Taylors that is exactly why impartial judges pass sentence rather than grieving victims. The idea of linking the sentence to the age of the deceased is a new one, but of course Mr. Taylor wasn't really suggesting pro-rata sentences. The article is headlined that the killers "could walk free in three years". As I have said, the 50% remission is what everyone gets, and it is hardly a novelty. Time on remand is automatically taken off any sentence, but the "Times", which ought to know better, leaves the impression that the killers have been done some sort of favour.
The tabloids are the worst offenders, but the infection of sloppy journalism spreads fast, and even serious newspapers are spreading untruths under the guise of news. Still, at least the Taylors did not claim that they were the ones serving a life sentence, the standard response of victims' relatives these days.

And The Winner Is...............

This was a lot harder than I expected, as there was so much good stuff. Any decision will inevitably be unfair, but Decisions 'R' Us, as we say down at the Palais de Justice.

Honourable mentions go to:-

2 Robins (nice undertone of menace there)
JL Jones (Great judge reference)
traineelawyer (nice bit of chemistry - a bit too accurate for my liking)
Squigs (Loved the idea of a tick-the-box proforma)

but: Mailhater got in first with the idea, and Feltham was just the place to sell them, so let's hear it for MAILHATER!

Send me an email with your address, and I'll put the prizes in the post.

Thanks everyone.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Competition Countdown

The jury has now assembled to decide the winner of our competition. We are esconced in the library at Bystander Towers. My manservant, Wojtech Gadulski, late of Warsaw, has laid out the trays of canapés and has decanted the fine wines and ports. Fine Champagne VSOP cognacs and rare malt whiskies sit upon the sideboard, and crystal sparkles in the candlelight.

We anticipate that this may take some time, and the results will be posted on the blog some time after noon tomorrow, which will give us time to finish our champagne breakfast and have the breakfast things cleared away. Cold kedgeree is so unattractive at noon, is it not?

At first sight, the entries look to be of a high standard. We shall buckle to our task with enthusiasm and impartiality. Good luck to you all.

Friday, October 06, 2006

No Comment

I have just finished reading an update on the progress of a serial offender who has been committing mostly low-level offences for more than a decade. As usual it contains good news and bad news, glimmers of hope and clouds of disappointment. Those supervising him are doing all they can to guide him into giving up his offending habits.

One thing did strike me though. He was sentenced to one year in prison last May and was released on Home Detention Curfew two months and one day later.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Vicious Circle

Breach of ASBO. Defendant in custody. He went up to a policeman claiming he had been assaulted, and was promptly arrested for being drunk (which he is, all of the time). His previous record shows five prison sentences, from 14 days to six months, for breach of this selfsame Order. I asked to have a look at the Order, and it forbids him from being drunk anywhere in the Borough including in his own home.

So an alcoholic (who has an allocated Council carer because of his low intelligence and borderline mental stability) keeps on drinking and the courts keep locking him up. What a cruel way to treat anyone, and what a waste of £600 per week to keep him in prison.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Legal Aid

Today was the first day of the new Legal Aid régime that reintroduces means-testing for defendants. As expected we were forced to adjourn five cases for a week to allow lawyers and court staff to sort out eligibility. Across the country there must have been hundreds. The new means form is fiendishly complex and runs to more than two dozen pages.

Court staff and judiciary have worked hard for eighteen months and more to reduce delay in hearing cases. We have hammered defence and prosecution, cut requests for adjournments down from weeks to days and from days to hours. It has worked. Now, with yet another ill-thought-out reform, we are reintroducing systemic delay.

Brilliant. Bloody brilliant.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

What's in a Name?

The press has had a lot of fun with the sexual triangle involving two immigration judges and their rather fit-looking cleaner. One of the judges has been outed, and both of them may find that the Lord Chancellor will take a dim view of the whole brouhaha.

Until fairly recently, these two judges would have been called Immigration Adjudicators. Many have been appointed to take on the backlog of asylum cases; I know several who are former court clerks. The pay is fairly good and the hours are flexible. Immigration Adjudicator is hardly the stuff of a tabloid headline though, is it? Calling them judges must do wonders for their social cachet, but it does put them in the firing line if anything goes wrong.

I was at a lawyers' dinner just after it had been announced that the Stipendiary Magistrates, a feature of the courts since Fielding's day, were to be renamed as District Judge (Magistrates' Courts) which hardly rolls off the tongue, but does bring in the J-word with all the risks and rewards that entails. The then Chief Magistrate (he's still called that, by the way) said in his speech that the change had come about because Stipes were fed up with being asked "What do you do?" and on giving the reply "I'm a Stipendiary Magistrate" being told:- "Oh lovely. My Auntie Doris is a magistrate in Chipping Sodbury. Do you know her?"

Well lads, you've got a posher name, but as Judge I and Judge J have just discovered, it does have a downside to it.

By the way, the renaming of the stipes means that there is no longer any such thing as a Lay Magistrate, the first word now being superfluous.
We are all JOHs now - Judicial Office Holders. I don't feel any different.