Friday, December 29, 2006

Well Down to Standard

A courtroom. Three magistrates. A legal adviser. An usher. A volunteer from Witness Support. A prosecutor. A barrister for the defence.

Guess what's missing? That's right:- the defendant and the witnesses.

Where are they? Well, the CPS assured the court three weeks ago that they had all been warned to attend, and so the court assumed that would be the case. But the witnesses (police officers and the victim) had not been warned, and they were not in court. The victim then gave the unsavoury mess another stir by claiming to have forgotten all about the incident, and deciding not to turn up.

Cost? A thousand or two. That's just in money though. Cost to justice?


Go On Then, Call Me A Softy

The impending execution of Saddam Hussein, a vicious and inexcusible thug who inflicted untold misery on thousands, whose sadism would turn the stomach of any civilised person, leaves me feeling defiled. To hang him, in cold blood, as he lies at our mercy, diminishes us all. Prison without prospect of release, certainly. But we are about to allow him the dignity and respect in death that he never deserved in life. It's a mistake, and it's immoral.

That's my five penn'orth.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Scoop

The Sunday Times has obtained a copy of an in-depth analysis of crime and punishment prepared for Downing Street.

The pdfs are in two parts:

here and


I was so fascinated that I sat up till 1.30 last night reading them on the web. I particularly recommend them to the punishment freaks who think that only more and longer prison sentences offer any answer to crime. Give them a go, when you have the time. Those with open minds can learn a lot

Saturday, December 23, 2006


I am off to a family Christmas tomorrow, to enjoy being a father and a grandfather, and to over-indulge just a little.
I shall though, and I hope that you will join me in this, spare a minute's thought while surrounded by my family for those of life's victims who pass through my world from time to time: the unwanted or unlucky child that is handed like a parcel between well-meaning but ineffectual official 'carers' until, expecting nothing from life and failed by the rest of us he or she drops into the dreamworld of drugs or the easy-life fantasy of violent crime. One day the party is over and prison beckons. Crimes sometimes have two victims - the one robbed or terrified or injured, the other whose life is henceforth going nowhere.
Nearly 80,000 people will spend Christmas in prison. Some of them will have to be kept away from the rest of us until old age and infirmity render them harmless - some even longer than that, so awful were their crimes. Others are mentally ill, addicted, confused or inadequate. Still more are simply incapable of making their way in the modern world. Yet another group are foreign drug smugglers who expected to be sent straight home if caught, and who are serving prison sentences of five years and more - all for a fee of few hundred pounds. A few are there because of a decision for which I and my colleagues are responsible.
We must remain in awe of what it is that we have to impose on our fellow citizens, but remain prepared to do what we have to. If, like me, you are one of the lucky ones, think of those tens of thousands of harsh grey cells and count your blessings.

Merry Christmas.

A Speeding Case in the High Court

Crime Line points us to this case in which a speeding driver, heavily reliant on material downloaded from the Internet, appealed against a conviction for doing 117 mph. The High Court supported the magistrates' decisions, and rejected the appeal. The concluding remarks as to costs do, as Andrew Keogh points out, show that a sense of humour can sometimes be found on the High Court bench.

Friday, December 22, 2006

One Year Later

Just over a year ago I had this to say about the way the police handled the aftermath of the murder of a woman officer in Bradford, and the shooting of another. Two men have now received heavy sentences for the murder and another has been sentenced for manslaughter. None of them was in that convoy.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

They Do Things Differently in America (2)

Harry Hutton writes about an almost unbelievably savage sentence for something that would be very unlikely even to be charged in the UK: in Georgia, a seventeen year old boy has been sentenced to ten years imprisonment for the heinous crime of consensual oral sex with a 15 year old girl. There is to be no possibility of parole.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Well, What Would You Do?

From Sky News:-
A woman is facing jail after admitting killing her boyfriend's cat by putting it in a washing machine.
Diane Hannon, 42, put the deaf pussy, called Paws, on a full cycle after arguing with her partner.
The six-year-old cat suffered a massive heart attack, severe burns and loss of fur during the ordeal.
Hannon, from Old Colwyn, in north Wales, pleaded guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to an animal and cruelly ill-treating an animal at Llandudno Magistrates Court.
The court heard Hannon was cat-sitting at her boyfriend Duncan Carthy's flat while he visited his son on July 8 this year.
The pair had argued about Mr Carthy's ex-wife and children from his first marriage.
Glen Murphy, prosecuting for the RSPCA, said: "Duncan Carthy called Miss Hannon and asked if the cat was all right, and she replied, 'I hate you. No, I've killed it.'"
Peter Brown, defending, said his client suffered from depression and had described her relationship with Mr Carthy as abusive.
He said: "This is an upsetting case, and whatever happens, Miss Hannon has to live with what she did that day."
Magistrates warned Miss Hannon that she may face prison.
They adjourned the case for reports until January 10
If you were due to sit on that day, how would you sentence this? There are a number of issues and principles here. As ever, there is no right or wrong answer.

(Later) I imagine that she was convicted under this law:-
The first Protection of Animals Act was passed in 1911. The Act makes it an offence to cause any unnecessary suffering to any domestic or captive animal. It is an offence to:
cruelly beat, kick, ill-treat, over-drive, over-load, torture, infuriate, or terrify any animal;
cause unnecessary suffering through transportation;
take part in the fighting or baiting of an animal;
administer poisonous or injurious substances without good reason;
permit operations to be carried out without due care and humanity;
cause unnecessary suffering to an animal that is being destroyed to provide food for mankind; and
the coursing and hunting of a captive animal that is liberated in an injured, mutilated or exhausted condition, or the coursing and hunting of a captive animal in an enclosed space from which it has no reasonable chance of escape.
Unnecessary suffering can be caused by acts of commission and acts of omission.
If the owner of the animals is convicted, the court may, should it think fit, deprive the owner of the ownership of the animal. Where the court is satisfied that it would be cruel to keep the animal alive, it may direct that the animal be destroyed.
Those convicted of the most serious offences under the 1911 Act can be sentenced to a term of imprisonment not exceeding 6 months or a fine of £5,000, or both.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Young Charmer

Jimmy Thompson comes from a large family with origins among travelling folk. He lives on a big estate that has a tough reputation, where gardens are seldom tended, graffiti abounds, and the few sad local shops all sport roll-down steel shutters. The police are a familiar sight, as there is usually someone they are interested in, or a search warrant to execute. He is 20, and the delights of reading and writing have quite passed him by.
He was hanging out with his mates when a police car drew up, so Jimmy, to whom any uniform is a provocation, strode over, put his face close to the window and invited the officers to fuck off, informing them that they were cunts. He was wearily requested to go away, but continued his tirade when the officer got out of the car. After the customary warnings, he was arrested, struggling wildly and turning the air blue. He yelled for his friends to help him, and he and they were only dissuaded when he received a faceful of CS spray from close range. At that moment two more carloads of police arrived, and the score or so of locals who were enjoying the fun started to drift away.
He was charged with a Section 4 Threatening Behaviour, went Not Guilty, and was convicted by my colleagues. They put the case off for reports, and that is what we had to consider. A medium community penalty was indicated. He had a couple of pages of previous - the usual stuff, a bit of small scale theft, an assault here and a public order offence there (including two unpaid £80 PND tickets). We were thinking of a medium-ish unpaid work order but that was not on because on previous similar orders things had mysteriously disappeared from the work sites and the supervisors did not want him back. So we gave a different community order, and ordered him to pay costs of the trial and a bit of compensation to the officer. This was added to the existing debt, and I mused to myself that it will probably sit there being deducted bit by bit from his benefit until he finally goes inside and it is written off.
Not a very satisfactory outcome then. The whole incident was completely unnecessary, and resulted from the fact that a total loser thinks of himself as dead hard and dead streetwise and wants to show off to his mates. It's hard to feel optimistic about where he goes from here.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Everything Has Its Price

This is a decision that I fully understand, but which nevertheless leaves me feeling grubby. I am off to wash my hands - but that's been done before hasn't it?

I am reminded of the old story of the man who asked his girlfriend if she would sleep with him for a million pounds. After a few moments, she replied that she would. "How about twenty pounds?" he enquired. "What do you take me for?" she expostulated. "We have established that" he replied. "We are now haggling over the fee".

"No weight has been given to commercial interests or to the national economic interest," he (Lord Goldsmith) added.

Yeah- right. Never forget the golden rule. The man with the gold makes the rules.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Babble About Babel

As Britain becomes increasingly polyglot the translation and interpreting business is growing fast. Some boroughs in London have to deal with more than 50 languages and public bodies are obliged to make arrangements to translate notices and documents as well as offering live interpretation (sometimes done by telephone). The Human Rights Act obliges courts to provide interpreters when needed, and there is a large pool of available people who speak the new languages of London. People who can get by in English from day to day may still need an interpreter to cope with the specialised language of a court of law. Business is good for specialists in Eastern European languages, as many Polish or Latvian workers discover that UK drink-drive and traffic laws are more stringently applied than they are at home. A few months ago one of my colleagues conducted a remand hearing in Russian, in which he is fluent, because no interpreter was available. Strictly speaking he should not have done so, but the Ways and Means Act came to the rescue.
Some of the interpreters we see are regulars, such as the Tamil, Mandarin, Portugese, French, Spanish, Punjabi, Farsi, Arabic and suchlike. Less usual are Twi, Tigrinya, Amharic and Jamaican Patois, the latter sounding like an odd version of English with occasional bits of other languages tossed in, rather like Pidgin (yes, we have a man for that too). I believe that interpreters get something like £75 per half-day, and for that they may have to work for ten minutes, or in the case of a trial, three hours without a break. Even the good ones slow things right down though, and a complex trial with interpretation often runs on to day two or three.


There is an angry and heartfelt piece in today's 'Times' by Alice Miles. She makes the points, neither of which is widely (if at all) disputed, that many prostitutes take up their trade because of an overriding need to feed their drug addiction, and that the patchily-applied legal constraints on prostitution make its practitioners even more vulnerable than the nature of the business dictates.
What will happen? Nothing, of course. Why? because this morning's tabloids will be strewn with words such as vice, and wicked, and monster, and beast, and terror. It's a good story, with death sex and morality intertwined. So no serious politician will dare to raise his voice (because radicalism only goes as far as the Press will tolerate) and once today's lip-smacking headlines have faded into memory more addicted young women will stand on street corners to await the next punter - any one of whom might be their last.

Monday, December 11, 2006

More Cocaine - This Time On The BBC

I posted this two or three months ago, about a clip on YouTube showing production of cocaine at jungle level. The clip has now had more than half a million views, and is now shortlisted in the BBC's Newsnight end-of-year poll. I am going to vote for it, and I hope that you will too

Apocrypha 19

Every police officer knows, or ought to know, the mantra for establishing that someone was drunk.

"His breath smelt of alcoholic liquor, his speech was slurred, his eyes were glazed, and he was unsteady on his feet. He was drunk, your worships".

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Kids Today Eh?

A few weeks ago I spent the morning going round a Young Offender Institution to bring myself up to date with current practice in managing what are now called trainees. Like most middle-aged people I occasionally allow myself a gentle shake of the head at the fads and attitudes of teenageus horribilis but I learned a new one at the YOI. As in most penal establishments discipline is based on a stick-and-carrot system of earning and losing privileges. If a boy is demoted to the lowest (bronze) level, he will lose his television and his right to association, so he will be left in his cell while his mates are playing table football or whatever. But that isn't the worst of it. Gold and silver boys may wear their own trainers. Bronze boys have to wear official issue. That is often the point at which they break down and cry, because your whole social status is heavily influenced by your footwear. Amazing.

A Straw in the Wind

At the recent Magistrates' Association conference the Lord Chief Justice made a speech that gave some interesting pointers to the way in which government, and the Treasury in particular, are trying to influence the approach taken by sentencers. This passage seems particularly significant:-
While I am on the topic of sentencing there are one or two other matters that I would like to raise. The first relates to the use of the Suspended Sentence Order. The power to make these was conferred by the 2003 Act in respect of offences committed after 4 April 2005. Their attraction is that they can be combined with a variety of community requirements aimed at rehabilitation over a supervision period of up to 2 years.
They are now being made at the rate of about 3000 a month.

Three quarters of these sentences have been imposed by Magistrates and half of these in respect of summary offences. Now it is only proper to impose a suspended sentence if the offence justifies a sentence of immediate imprisonment. So, if the suspended sentence is being properly used, one would expect to see a commensurate drop in the sentences of immediate imprisonment. There has not been such a drop. This leads me to the suspicion that some sentencers are imposing a suspended sentence where the appropriate sentence would be a simple community sentence, in order to give the offender a powerful incentive to comply with the community requirements. This is improper sentencing and can bring the consequence of activation of the suspended sentence resulting in a period of imprisonment that is disproportionate to the original offence. Over 800 breaches have been received into custody this year, increasing the pressure on the prison population. So please resist the temptation to slap on a suspended sentence where there is a viable alternative to a custodial sentence.

The way I read that is that the powers that be have become alarmed by the enthusiasm with which sentencers have taken up the new Suspended Sentence Orders brought in as part of the monster 2003 Act. Most of us find it really useful to be able to impose a suspended sentence that incorporates requirements such as unpaid work or drug treatment, with the threat that any breach will result in the sentence being implemented - and there's the rub. Years ago we were more or less precluded from imposing suspended sentences because so many were being breached and the prison population was, at the time, heading up towards 50,000. Breach occurred when the subject of the order reoffended. Nowadays there are two ways to breach the order:- reoffend, or fail to carry out the requirements, giving double the opportunity to get yourself locked up. Worse, from the Treasury's point of view, the requirements use Probation resources, and that costs money.
Finally, with the ongoing panic about supervision of paroled prisoners front-line probation staff are going to be diverted into parole work, leaving the courts short of resources to use community sentences. So what's the answer? It's elsewhere in His Lordship's speech: Fines. Fines yield rather than cost money - the Treasury is very much in favour, as you might expect.
I can see the attraction to the Treasury, and I can see that with Probation in some areas near to collapse fines look attractive. Unfortunately most offenders do not work, and many do not receive benefit because they are too chaotic and useless even to claim the dole properly - so what are we supposed to do?
This magistrate, and many with whom I have discussed the situation will carry on sentencing within the guidelines and according to our assessment of seriousness. If the Government has managed to screw up the Prison and Probation Services, then they will have to sort them out, or to change the law to restrict sentencing - watch out for the tabloids then.
My personal prediction is that we will lose access to Suspended Sentence Orders before the end of 2007. You read it here first.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Reader, we imprisoned him.
We carried out a structured sentencing exercise and the three of us agreed that while the entry point for drive disqualified (there was no charge in respect of drugs because there was no evidence) is a community penalty, the fact that this was his fourth offence and that there had been a serious accident pushed it up the tariff and over the custody threshold. He had also breached a previous community penalty, suggesting an unwillingness or inability to comply with non-custodial disposals.
So we were entitled to give him a supervision order with a Drug Rehab Requirement (in fact that would have needed a further report, but let's not be diverted) or a prison sentence. This could be immediate or suspended, and if suspended we could impose requirements, as with a supervision order. None of these was necessarily the right or the wrong answer - it was an exercise in judgement. As a bench we were balanced for experience, one colleague being on his fifth sitting, but having the benefit of recent and up to date training.
What clinched our decision was when we asked ourselves to summarise what had happened, and to ask what would amount to justice. A man who was on his fourth driving ban, off his face on unknown drugs, driving away and having a crash that mercifully injured or killed no one. Each time that he had been banned he had been warned that defying the court's order could result in custody, he had failed to be deterred and had commited an offence that would outrage the public.
Six months then, reduced by a bit to reflect a late plea of guilty. Punishment pure and simple, but at the end of a careful process we decided that we had to do it. A different bench might have taken a different course, but they would not necessarily be right nor would we necessarily be wrong. Each of the available sentences had something to recommend it. It's the sort of judgement that we are put there to make.

Cautionary Note I am grateful for all of the thoughtful and informed comments, but please don't attach too much importance to the details as this case, like all of the cases on this blog, is a composite, chosen to illustrate an aspect of the JP's job.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Off-Topic or What?

Here's a cracker from Dr. Germaine Greer, intellectual, Aussie, and National Treasure:-
Most reasonably educated Guardian readers would, I faintly hope, have recognised the phrase "unsynthesised manifold" as an English version of a basic concept in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment, first published in English in 1790 and familiarised in Britain by the work of Coleridge and just about anybody else who writes about aesthetic theory. The expression endures because in more than 200 years no one has found a better way of rendering the idea, although its content continues to evolve with changes in our understanding of brain function and the mechanics of perception

After that lot, how could anyone be intimidated by a law report?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Knife-Edge Decision

We were faced with a pre-sentence report on Kevin P, who had pleaded guilty a few days earlier. He had driven a car while disqualified, an offence that had come to the notice of the police when he drove the car off the road and into a brick wall. Bits of the brick wall were scattered across the road, blocking it. There was a traffic jam, and when Kevin looked like wandering off he was detained by other drivers. He seemed a little distracted, which transpired to be the result of his having taken drugs. When his record was printed off from the police computer it turned out that this was his fourth offence of driving while disqualified. There were other offences, but this was the most serious.
The report told us that Kevin had run out of money to top up his methadone prescription with street heroin, as had the friend in whose grubby flat he was spending the afternoon. Friend, showing the touching loyalty that one sometimes finds among druggies and alcoholics, gave Kevin a handful of tablets of who-knows-what to see if they would cheer him up. In fact they blanked him out, and it was in that state that he drove off in a car that happened to be outside. The crash happened within a mile or so.
In ordering the report our colleagues indicated that the offence was serious enough for a community penalty but might also be so serious that prison would be appropriate.
The report writer recommended a community order including a Drug Rehabilitation Requirement (drug use being, as so often, at the root of the problem)together with supervision for 18 months.
Our choice was clear. Without sorting out the drug problem, Kevin would just keep on offending. On the other hand if you don't lock someone up for a fourth drive-disqualified there is no chance of enforcing court orders.
What would you have done?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Old Head on Young Shoulders

A colleague recently dealt with a young-looking 14 year-old who has a history of convictions that lengthens by the week. Like so many of his contemporaries he steals mobile phones, which find a ready market locally. He now knows enough law to make sure that he only snatches phones from users' hands, helped by the way in which youngsters brandish them to establish street cred. Because he is not using or threatening violence, he cannot be charged with robbery, but only with theft. He is nevertheless expected to eat his turkey on Christmas Day in a secure unit.
His combination of wit speed and decisiveness would be a great asset in many jobs, but we sadly lack any machinery to steer him into a useful life.