Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Forthcoming Attractions

The Road Safety Act has now received the Royal Assent, and will come into force a bit at a time over the next year or so. My thanks to the nice people at the Magistrates’ Association who have researched it. Unfortunately it is on a members-only passworded bit of the site, so here are the main changes:-

A new offence of Causing Death by Careless or Inconsiderate Driving. Maximum penalty 5 years’ prison. I have blogged about this, and the Magistrates’ Association and many lawyers are seriously concerned that it will lead to injustice and set nasty precedents. Will doctors be next, for example?
Roadside Evidential Breath Tests: Will obviate the need to take the driver to the police station. The new machines are very expensive so introduction will be slow.
Compulsory re-testing for repeat offenders: applies to second-time drink drivers.
Trial of Alcohol-ignition interlocks: will allow the court to order that for the second part of a ban (after at least a year) the offender may drive but only in a car fitted with a built-in breath tester that will lock out the engine if he is over a quarter of the present limit (i.e 9ug/100ml).
High-Risk Offenders: medical rules are being tightened and doctors’ evidence will be required before a licence is issued.
Speeding Points: will now be graduated from 2 to 6. Very high speeds will still result in a court appearance and likely ban.
Camera Detectors and Jammers: will be banned, other than GPS-based systems.
Section 172 offences of failing to nominate the driver will now carry 6 points, so there is no benefit to a driver whose speed was up in the 6 point range refusing to name the driver and thus get away with only 3 points.
Careless Driving: Maximum fine doubled to £5000.
Use of Mobile Phone: Now endorsable with 3 points
Dangerous Condition: A second offence within 3 years will carry a minimum 6-month ban.
Children’s Seat Belts: Now applies to rear seats as well as front.
Graduated Fixed Penalties for Goods Vehicles: What it says. Can be given by VOSA staff as well as police.
Retraining Courses: Will become available for careless driving and speeding, with a discount on points or ban for those who take them.
Foreign Drivers: Will have to pay a deposit of £300 against a fine or costs before being allowed to proceed.
Driving Licences: Paper licences will be withdrawn.

That’s just a quick outline of the main changes – there’s a lot more stuff that I have skipped over. It will mean training for magistrates, but we can cope with that

Would You Run That By Me Again Please, Charlie?

The Lord Chancellor, in his recent announcement of the establishment of ten new 'community courts' said (inter alia):-
Because these communities - these 10 areas, and beyond, building on the success of Liverpool and Salford - will, I believe, experience a radical change in the coming years.

The perception of the court will change from an, old fashioned, impenetrable institution, to an accessible and accepted part of the community. A court that will make a visible difference to the day to day lives of the many, many decent people who live there.

So these community courts, and the principles I have set out which lie behind them, offer a new way forward for justice.

We need to do justice differently. Communities hit hard by crime want to see justice done in ways which connect more closely to the community.

To echo Lincoln's prescription for good government, we need courts which are of the community, by the community, and for the community.

These 10 new community courts will deliver the justice communities want to see.

Justice which is connected. Justice in which communities have confidence. Justice which is tackling crime and anti-social behaviour. Justice which is making a difference to people's lives. Justice which is improving communities.

Community justice.

Courts and communities. Working together. Working in partnership.

Working for safety. Working for security.

Working for society. Working for us all.

The whole speech is here. I have read it carefully and I am not at all sure what it means. Any offers?

Can anyone tell me what it is that community courts will do that magistrates' courts will not do, and vice versa?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

All-Time Great Legal Jokes no. 26

There was a young lawyer named Rex
Had very small organs of sex.
When charged with exposure
He said with composure
"De minimis non curat lex"


Monday, November 27, 2006

More for the Nerds

I have updated the link on the sidebar to the Home Office crime statistics that have just been published to 2005. Make of them what you will, but there is a lot of data there.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Welcome Breath of Sanity

I have said before that I probably read too much of the Press. I am routinely infuriated by wilful misrepresentation of criminal justice issues in the less scrupulous papers. This misrepresentation has helped to feed public prejudice to such an extent that a great majority of the population holds beliefs about the operation of the courts that are simply untrue.
Sir Igor Judge is a very senior member of the judiciary and he is in the habit of making thoughtful speeches which, being carefully reasoned and calmly argued, are of no appeal to the popular prints. This speech delivered last week is well worth the time taken to read it. This lecture delivered about a year ago goes into considerable detail about crime figures and public perception.
Give them a try if you have the time. Both are serious and densely argued speeches by someone who knows what he is talking about. It is a shame that there is no way that the wisdom in them can be distilled to allow their message to be heard by the man in the street or in the saloon bar.
Some of the regulars on this blog's comments, including a handful of serving police officers, have acquired a distorted view both of the judiciary's function, and of how it is carried out. I hope that a few of you have the time and the inclination to read the Judge's thoughts.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Cheap at Twice the Price!

My Bench Chairman tells me that he was recently shown some figures about magistrates' expenses. We can claim travel and subsistence costs, and of course these vary between individuals. A rough calculation shows that over the more than 700 JPs in our area the average claim was £6.85 a week.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cautionary Tale (2)

This letter to The Times tells the story of a respectable citizen being subjected to what appears to have been a gross overreaction by police officers. The writer says:-
After nearly four hours of processing and questioning I cheerfully admitted the “offence” in order to terminate this tedious ordeal, get back to Waterloo and resume my journey to Paris. Having signed the necessary forms, I was released on caution.
This points up the inherent danger of so-called pre-court diversion, a policy which the Government is enthusiastically expanding. In order to get on with his journey the man concerned has accepted his guilt, and now has a record on the Police computer to that effect. His DNA fingerprints and photographs are now on file. Since the offence was connected with taking so-called offensive weapons on to a train he may face some tough questioning next time that he wants to enter the USA.
If a respectable and articulate retired Brigadier can be bounced into an admission of non-existent guilt by a desire to get out of the police station, how much more likely is it that a not-too-bright 18 year-old will do the same? Any bench that I can imagine would have given this case short shrift - indeed I rather doubt whether the CPS would have let it get near the court.
Courts are not just there to punish - they are also there to protect the citizen from oppression. In this case they were not given the opportunity to do so.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I have put a poll on the sidebar (it's quite a long way down, I am afraid, but html is not really my sort of thing). It's about sex, since the subject seems to have aroused so much interest.

Later As the poll has passed 500, I shall now knock it on the head. About half of respondents went for my frivolous options, abut there was a significant minority for 14 as the right age. As I said before, it's the age gap that matters.

Dishonest and Hysterical

The Sun is working itself into a lather this morning; the opinion column says it all:-
PAEDOPHILES are the lowest of the low.
Any police chief who disagrees should be stripped of their badge and sent packing.
We are astonished at the naivety of Chief Constable Terry Grange.
He says that sex with children between the ages of 13 and 16 is a grey area.
There is nothing grey about this area. Sex with anyone under the age of 16 is illegal.
Grange says his remarks were aimed at 16-year-old boys having sex with their 15-year-old girlfriends.
But anyone in such a position of authority should know better.
His comments are not only ridiculous; they are downright dangerous.
Paedophiles are sick people.
They crave justification for the evil they do.
Many teenagers are at their most vulnerable precisely from perverts who exploit that grey area described by the Chief Constable.
The law should be there to protect the young from those who would prey on them.
There is no excusing Grange's outrageous and irresponsible remarks.
They play right into the hands of the manipulative scum who abuse our children for their sick pleasure.
He doesn't just carry out the law of the land - he IS the law of the land.
He should be sacked this morning.

Any judge or magistrate knows that the age gap is crucial in cases of under-age sex. The police and CPS have protocols for these cases, mostly reasoning that the law does well to keep its big flat feet out of this area. A 17 year-old boy with a 14 year-old girlfriend is not a paedophile. Most teenage girls would not be seen dead with a boy who was not a couple of years older than themselves, and there is street kudos to be gained from a 'cool' 18 year-old, especially if he has a car. 14 year-old boys are awkward, insecure, shambling, sniggering creatures (trust me, I used to be one) and it is hardly surprising that girls, who grow up faster, look to older boys.
Of course there comes a point at which the age gap is too wide to be proper. That point is not rigidly defined, but anyone looking at a particular case will know it when he sees it. The Chief Constable's point is a sensible one, and is no more than a restatement of current practice. He is right to say that the word Paedophile should be reserved for those mature adults with an interest in pre-pubescent children. Over-use has now so devalued the word that it is used as an all-purpose playground insult, following in the ignoble footsteps of 'spastic' 'retard' and the rest.

A Sun graduate traineeship is among the most coveted in journalism. The paper recruits the brightest and the best. The journalists know as well as I that the opinion piece above is, bluntly, bollocks. How very cynical, to employ educated people to construct deliberately misleading articles calculated to pander to the mob. Yuk.

PS - is a Chief constable really the law of the land? Are you quite sure about that, over there in Wapping?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Drinking Chocolate

Darren, a heroin addict and serial thief, appeared in custody having been arrested as he was leaving a convenience store. Through his solicitor he denied any intention to steal, pointing out that he had dumped all of the goods concerned just by the door of the store. He had, we were told, put the goods down because his intention was to pay for them, but he realised that he had forgotten his wallet. Two facts rang a discordant note:- the prosecutor had a witness, backed up by CCTV, who said that the goods were dumped after Darren had been challenged by security staff, and we were sceptical about the motives of an unemployed man, dependent on benefit, whose shopping consisted of eleven jars of drinking chocolate, and nothing else.

No bail then.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Memory Lane

I was reminded by a thread over on Usenet (that home of the unruly and the obsessive) of a bit of ground-breaking that we once did. We were allocated a trial under a then brand-new Companies Act (1986 I think) that brought in the concept of a Shadow Director, that is to say someone who exercises control over a company even though there are different directors named at Companies' House. Before we started the clerk told us that this was the very first prosecution under the new Act, so there was no case law or precedent to help us. In a nutshell, the defendants were accused of being Shadow Directors of Bystander Timber Merchants Ltd, whose official directors were in the Punjab, from whence they had not budged these nine years. The day to day managers were, oddly enough, the children of the absentees. The company ran into financial trouble, and was liquidated. The business was seamlessly transferred to Bystander Timber Supplies Ltd., operated by the very same people. This fell foul, or so the Crown alleged, of the so-called Phoenix provisions in the Act. In evidence we heard that the business seemed to have operated under both names for a period and that the owners had been imprudent enough to invoice goods in either name from one day to the next.
We convicted them, and imposed substantial fines as well as disqualifying both defendants from acting as company directors for (I think) five years. The conviction had, we were advised, the effect of removing the limited liability of the shadow directors, leaving the duped trade suppliers of the first company free to sue them personally for their losses. It was a very interesting case, and I don't suppose that I shall ever see another like it. I was quietly proud of having sat on the first-ever case of its type though.

Court Reforms - Latest

I have managed to obtain a copy of John Reid's still-secret plans to modernise courts and 'engage with the community' (whatever that means). Here are a couple of photographs of the pilot project in Wigan.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

An Encouraging Judgment

The excellent Andrew Keogh has a link to this case.

Many private clampers are little more than extortionists, and it is high time that the law was amended to regulate their activities. I have dealt with a clamper who was a disqualified and thus uninsured driver, and another who pounced on an 82 year old man demanding £380 to release his car, and then assaulted a police officer who intervened. It is a shame that our otherwise energetic law makers have been too busy to deal with these abuses.

Apocrypha 18

When I had just been sworn in somebody told me that a Justice of the Peace was empowered to visit any prison within the Commission area for which he sat, at any hour of the day or night, and inspect the condition of the prisoners.

"I shouldn't bother though" said my informant. "They'll only tell you to get lost, probably speaking through the letterbox".

That was my first realisation that I had greater power in theory than in practice.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Nine Years is a Long Time

The late, highly respected Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, made a speech in 1997 that to many of us was a model of informed and civilised opinion about crime and punishment. It is here.

When he made the speech the Labour government had been in office for a few months. Then, the speech seemed magisterial. Today, it would be denounced as soft and woolly. In particular, he makes a point that is in flat contradiction to the Government's intention to bring in prison for drivers who kill by pure accident. Times do, indeed, change, do they not?

Mind Your Language

The Department for Constitutional Affairs has produced a guide for its staff with the catchy title:- "Eliminating Inappropriate Language in the Workplace". It gives a fascinating insight into the bureaucratic mind. Now I am not obsessed with using or not using "appropriate" language, and I am quite happy to avoid giving offence, but some of the lists in the booklet are eye-opening. Expressions deemed "not acceptable" include:
Old, middle-aged, young, girl, young lady, boy, lad, young man, part-timer, the disabled, the blind, the deaf, black mark, black sheep, black list, black look, Black Monday, coloured, half-caste, West Indian, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese (used as a catch-all (sic) phrase), British (referring to whites), immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, gypsies (used negatively) Gyppos, Ethnics, Jesus Christ (used as a curse) Jesus freak, bible basher, Jewish (acceptable to some) gay (as a noun) manning the phones, manpower, policeman, chairman, spokesman, fireman, foreman, workmen, lady doctor, woman judge, male nurse, male secretary, love, pet, dear (used in a derogatory way)
This is produced for DCA staff, and is not directed at the judiciary (just as well, in my view). It's going to be difficult to hold a conversation with the girls in the office - whoops!

Friday, November 10, 2006

Oh Dear, Gordon.

Two unpleasant BNP (a far-right party that majors on race) members were today acquitted of stirring up race hatred. That is the jury's verdict, and it's good enough for me.
Gordon Brown is quoted in the BBC article thus:-
Chancellor Gordon Brown said race laws may have to be tightened. He said: "I think any preaching of religious or racial hatred will offend mainstream opinion in this country and I think we've got to do whatever we can to root it out from whatever quarter it comes".
Two points, Mr.Prime-Minister-Designate:- Firstly, there is something deeply improper about a senior Minister reacting to a verdict that he (and I, for that matter) find obnoxious by musing on how to change the law so as to have better luck next time; and secondly, why should it require the power of Parliament to forbid something that will
"offend mainstream opinion"?
In a democracy someone is always going to be offended. They, and Mr. Brown, need to learn to live with it. Argue, dispute, debate if you will, but as for using the Parliamentary sledgehammer - forget it, Gordon. You want to be a statesman. You can do better than this.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


I have just watched the BBC Panorama programme that raised some frightening issues about serious criminals who are sent to bail hostels at the end of their sentences. On the face of it the programme seems to show dangerous offenders who were reverting to their bad old ways while nominally being supervised in the community. The bottom line is simple in my view, and turns on a few self-evident truths.

1) A minority of offenders are beyond any hope of reform (especially with the limited resources of our prisons) and should probably be kept under some form of physical restriction until age and infirmity have rendered them harmless. There is no reason why that restraint should not be humane and civilised.
2) Identifying those people is not an exact science.
3) Most people would err on the side of caution while that remains the case. That raises issues of justice and human rights.
4) Prison is an expensive and limited resource. Its punitive effect is obvious, but only lasts for a while. Its deterrent effect is debatable, certainly for second and subsequent offenders. Its one undisputed strength is that it incapacitates inmates from further offences against the public.

From this I draw a couple of conclusions. The first is that prison is too precious a resource to waste on drunks drug addicts and petty offenders, many of whom are mentally ill. The second is that if we can clear the mad and the sad out of prison we can ask the professionals to sharpen up their handling of the truly bad, and to work towards a less flawed system of assessing who might be suitable for release, and who should be kept under control, if necessary for ever.

At the moment the prison service has been reduced to warehousing inmates, its Victorian ideals overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. There may be a better way, but I fear that there is no prospect of a politician with the courage to put it forward.

Oh, by the way: I have seen many thousands of offenders in my time on the bench, and I have seen fewer than a couple of dozen whom I thought were truly dangerous in the longer term.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Wise Words (That Will Be Ignored Again)

I have blogged more than once about the 'Sun' inspired legislation providing for prison sentences for causing death by careless driving, an offence that requires no intent, merely a human error. Here is a letter to The Times from a former Attorney-General.
This legislation encapsulates everything that is wrong with the Government's tabloid-led populism. It is being rushed in, it will be unfair and unjust, it will establish a dangerous principle, and it won't save a single life.

This, thanks to a commenter, is the text:-
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2006 The Times

Sir, Rushed legislation leads to injustice. This week will see a bad example.

The Road Safety Bill provides for sentences of up to five years' imprisonment for careless driving if a death is caused. Never before have we legislated to send people to prison for ordinary negligence. Its ramifications if carried to other areas -education, medicine, commerce and industry -would be very serious.

The House of Lords has twice rejected the principle after full debate, firstly in January 10, 2006, at third reading, and again last week. But because of a technical slip in January, noticed by no one at the time, this potentially deeply unjust measure will become law.

Normally the mistake would have been corrected, or other options considered, but this part of the Bill was only introduced on report. It had no second reading in the House of Lords and no committee stage.

Dangerous driving is more than 20 times more likely to lead to death than is careless driving. At present the distinction between dangerous and careless driving is clear. The prosecution must focus on what it has to prove in each case, and the defendant knows the case against him, one of the fundamentals of natural justice. In future all this will be blurred.

When the Government consulted, all too briefly, last year it was warned strongly of the risks to justice by the Lord Chief Justice, by the Council of Circuit Judges and by the Justices Clerks Association. The courts have emphasised repeatedly that, while the consequences must be considered, the level of culpability must be the key factor in sentence.

There are 34 million licensed drivers in Britain.

If a driver is proved to have driven dangerously, prison should certainly be available, perhaps with a long sentence in bad cases. But if ordinary negligence which sadly happens to lead to a death is to send yet more people to prison, the tragedy of the death will not be undone. It will simply be compounded by injustice. And injustice resulting from bad law starts to undermine the whole system.

LORD LYELL OF MARKYATE, Attorney-General, 1992-97

Copyright (C) The Times, 2006

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Sun Says (Again)

A WELCOME new era in sentencing will be launched this week.
Paedophiles, rapists and thugs will lose the automatic right to parole after half their sentence. And crooks will no longer get a guaranteed third off their jail time just for pleading guilty.
Home Secretary John Reid’s announcement was sparked by our campaign against liberal judges.

I am sorry to say that the last sentence is entirely true.

Parole - An Insight

Tonight on BBC2 from 9 to 10 p.m. is the first of three programmes about the work of the Parole Board, There is a piece about it here. I for one won't miss it.

Racial Aggravation

If you have a look at the Bench Book you will see that offences such as harassment and common assault move a step up-tariff if they are racially aggravated. I have no problem with that, but occasionally those responsible for charging take things just a little far. The latest was a contretemps involving a railway ticket collector whose ancestors came from the far side of Offa's Dyke, and who was called a 'Taff wanker'. The defendant was quite rightly charged with a Section 5 Public Order offence, but with the Racially Aggravated version. Strictly speaking that was correct, but compared with some of the nasty racist stuff that we have heard the words were pretty mild.
Sensitive souls would be well advised to stay clear of the forthcoming Rugby internationals, where the Taffs and the Micks and the Jocks will do battle with England, and the crowd may occasionally lapse into the sort of comments that would give some prosecutors a fit of the vapours.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Osama Bin Fawkes

As I sit here, a glass of Australian Cabernet Sauvignon to hand, (oops - now it's gone, I see it was Merlot - very good though) my neighbours are putting on what sounds like a re-enactment of the Battle of the Somme.

It would make first-class cover for any of the nasties among us to try out weaponry and explosives without drawing attention to themselves.

How long before some fool tries to ban the whole Guy Fawkes thing?

Friday, November 03, 2006


More than once we have seen comments on here and elsewhere implying that there is something dishonourable about defence solicitors being paid for their work - why they should be different from anyone else is is a mystery. In fact Legal Aid solicitors' pay is among the lowest in the profession, and many young barristers too are living from hand to mouth. The newly qualified lawyer in a police station at 2 a.m. is probably earning a lot less than the Custody Sergeant.
By contrast the City firms pay very fancy money - I am grateful to for this table of what the Magic Circle of top law firms are paying for someone with three years' Post Qualification Experience

Allen & Overy £88,600
Slaughter and May £81,500
Linklaters £76,800
Clifford Chance £77,000
Freshfields £77,000
Herbert Smith £74,000
Mind you they really work their people hard, and long hours are the norm. Nevertheless, it's good money, isn't it?