Thursday, May 31, 2007

Routine Tragedy

Not too far from where I live, and not too far from the courthouse in which I sit, there was a road accident today. Early reports speak of at least three people killed, and a dozen or so injured. Many families will either be in mourning or sitting at their loved ones' bedsides tonight, and my sympathy goes out to them.
Tomorrow's national papers are unlikely to mention this tragedy, or, if they do, it will be a few lines down-column on page 27.
I am routinely accused, on this blog and in my everyday life, of being indifferent to victims of one crime or another. How much more callous though is society's indifference to the 3,500 or so people who die on the roads each year? There has been more indignation on this blog's comments about shoplifters in the last week than about dead road users in the last year.
Sense of proportion anyone?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

One More Slice Off The Salami

This Times report is just another step towards the police taking over functions that properly belong to the courts. Wasn't it Stalin who said that by taking a slice at a time you end up with the whole salami?

The Police and CPS now use this natty new logo, which tells us exactly where they are headed.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Funny, That

"Walked free from court" is a phrase that infuriates me when I see it in the paper, implying as it does that any outcome that does not involve immediate incarceration is a let-off. Last week it was used about someone who was given six months but had already served more than that on remand. Every week there are people who are acquitted having served months and sometimes years on remand. I have never seen a headline "Innocent Man Held For Nine Months".

Early Days

I occasionally get an email from someone whose interest in becoming a magistrate has been either sparked or encouraged by this blog, sometimes to ask my advice about the interview, about which I am not much help since it was all different two decades ago, and, even better, sometimes to say that they have been appointed.
So what happens once you have had that letter? Well at first there may be a delay (often due to CRB checks) then you will get a letter inviting you to an orientation meeting at the courthouse to which you are to be allocated. There you will meet your fellow recruits. You will have a bond with these throughout your time on the bench, since you train together make mistakes together, and help each other out. My year-group, of which I am the only one still sitting, still meets for dinner at least once a year. You will hear from the Bench Chairman, who will welcome you, offer his services as a confidant if you have any problems, and explain the structure of the bench. He will warn you about the decorum that will be expected of you now that you are to have the letters JP after your name, and he will outline the pitfalls that may trap the unwary - an incautious word to the press, a cross word in the wrong place, or the flash of a GATSO camera in your mirror. The Clerk or a deputy will tell you of the broad outline of your training, and when the first session will be. You will be given a lot of reading to do, and you may be advised to sort out a filing system at home - you are going to need it. You will be allocated a mentor, and you will make a number of observation visits to court (one at an 'away' court) to get the feel of the place with the mentor to talk you through what is going on. Later there will be visits to prisons and probation facilities.
Then, a few weeks later, the swearing-in. The format varies across the country, but in London it takes place at a Crown Court in front of a Circuit Judge. Our resident judge puts on a good show, sitting on his bench, flanked by the Bench Chairmen of the new JPs and with five or six wigged and robed judges standing along the back of the bench. You step forward in turn and take the Oath of Alleigance and the Judicial Oath, shake hands with His Honour, and that's it. You are one of Her Majesty's Justices of the Peace. The Judge says a few words of welcome and of caution, and then those on the bench withdraw, allowing the new JPs and their guests to pose for photographs in the courtroom before going back for tea and biscuits with the Judge and the Bench Chairmen.
Your training will start straight away, and once you have done the basic bit plus your observations you can start to sit - and that's where the real learning begins.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Personal Finance Column

Here are two great money-saving ideas (writes our resident financial expert) that can save YOU money!

Thinking of having home improvements done? Found your tradesman? Thinking of giving him cash up front to buy materials? WRONG! Get a list of what he wants and order it yourself. That way it belongs to you, and you won't get into the situation that I heard about recently where a nice couple gave their plumber £2500 to buy the bits for their kitchen and never saw him again. He is now in custody awaiting trial for theft, but it has taken four years to track him down.

Owe fines and costs to a court? In arrears? Not answering letters or phone calls? Putting the whole thing off? WRONG! We recently had a very indignant chap in the Fines Court who had neglected to do anything about his fine and he came home one day to find that the bailiffs had pretty much cleared out his house, and sold the stuff at auction. What made him cross was the fact that goods that he claimed to have a replacement value of about £5000 had been sold for £350 or so after expenses, leaving him still owing the court £650 of his fines. He was rather excitable and was waving documents about and claiming that the court 'owed' him over £4000. I could understand why he was upset when I saw the auctioneers' report showing things like a flat screen TV sold for £22 and a kettle for 50p, but I had to tell him that he was the author of his own misfortune, that he could have avoided all this bother by paying the fine as ordered and that unless he wanted a return visit from the bailiffs he had better keep on paying £20 per week. We went out for a cup of tea and he was still ranting at the clerk.

More About Addicts

The comments to the two previous posts are predominantly hostile, and in a couple of cases have misinterpreted what I said. To be quite clear, the three week adjournment (for a fresh report) was not something that we chose to do to help the man, it was a legal necessity. The point I was trying to make was that once we had revoked the community order and bailed him to the next hearing he was on his own, hence my efforts to point him towards the voluntary drug service. We had no power to order anything.
Nobody has the answer to drug addiction, including me, but there are certain inescapable facts, first among them the fact that for low-level thefts (most of those we see are £100 or less) no prison sentence of any length is going to be imposed. Secondly, imprisonment simply doesn't prevent reoffending. About eighty per cent of these petty thieves will reoffend within a year or two of release. There are a number of pilot specialist drug courts, one of the best-known of which is West London. District Judge Justin Phillips (whom I have met at a conference) has a policy of following through the people he deals with, having them in for a review, in an informal setting, every six weeks or so. He talks to them about their rehab progress, their families, and their lives in general, but he backs this up by being perfectly prepared, as he makes clear, to send them inside if they let him down. It isn't the answer, but it is a start, and early results suggest that it has a better chance of preventing reoffending than the disjointed system that my court operates, where the offender will see a different bench every time. There is much work to be done on this, and everyone involved is realistic enough to expect setbacks and disappointments, but I believe that it is worth a try. If my bench sets up a drug court I shall volunteer to work in it.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sad Thought

Following on from yesterday's post, it has occurred to me this evening that if magistrates impose a prison sentence, the defendant is taken down there and then and will be in custody from that moment. If we make a community order its key elements may take weeks or months to be implemented (and by the way, the excellent Domestic Abuse Programme is full for the forseeable future and we are asked not to use it until further notice). Worse, if a drug treatment programme or psychiatric treatment appears to be the only way of preventing reoffending - we have no power to order it. We are reduced to pleading with probation or the Council or whomever. Is it surprising that some benches decide that prison is the only disposal that they can be sure will actually happpen?

Sad Sight

I knew as soon as he came into the dock that he was a junkie - serious, long-term, set in his habit. He looked terrible, with the hollow eyes and sunken cheeks that follow heroin use, but at least he lacked that awful dead look that you sometimes see in a man who has given up completely. He had 40 previous convictions, nearly all for shoplifting and was given a community order at the end of last year, including supervision and drug treatment. His compliance had been patchy, but a few weeks ago he had relapsed. The local drug unit withdrew his methadone since he was using street heroin, and he stopped reporting to probation, which was a real shame since they had been close to getting him a place in residential rehab. We were asked to revoke the order, which we did, and re-sentence him. It was hard to see any outcome other than prison, but we were persuaded to order a fresh report on him and to put the case off for three weeks.
That left the problem of what to do with him in those weeks, with no probation support and no methadone. All that we could do was to tell him to get back to the voluntary drug agency, so that he would be able to show the next bench that his motivation was not entirely extinct. I told him that we could make no promises, and that all options would be open to the next court, but that three weeks of voluntary co-operation with the drug unit might just help him to avoid prison. I was really talking to his equally drug-raddled lady friend at the back of the court in the hope that she could encourage him through to the next court in the hope that the residential rehab might be a possibility again.
What are his chances? Fifty-fifty at best, I reckon. Prison is completely pointless, other than for an enforced detox; treatment may or many not work. A distinct possibility is a lonely drug sodden death in some festering rat hole of a flat. As I said, a sad sight.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Fairly Typical

While giving my study a much-overdue tidying I came across a court list from a month or so ago. I had used the back to make some notes, and had absent-mindedly brought the whole lot home. So here is a typical list from a remand court:-
1) Woman, 20, Shoplifting
2) Man, leaving car in dangerous position
3) Man, 19, possession of cannabis x 2
4) Man, 19, Shoplifting
5) Man, 19, Theft, Fail to Surrender to Bail
6) Man, 23, Drive Unfit Through Drugs
7) Man, 34, Making off without payment (aka bilking) x 3
8) Man, 20, Possession of cannabis (55 grams) and 5 grams
9) Man, 31, drink-drive (125ug/100) Limit is 35
10)Man, 30, Shoplifting
11)Man, 19, Criminal damage (£1000) to car (girlfriend's?)
12)Woman, 20, No insurance (supermarket car park)
13)Man, 51, Offensive indecent or obscene electronic communication x 3
14)Man, 31, Application to vary bail conditions.
15)Man, 51, Assault constable
16)Man, 43, Fail to provide sample of breath
17)Man, Leaving car in restricted street
18)Man, 33, Dog dangerously out of control in a public place
19)Man, 24, Offensive weapon (metal cosh), use car without insurance
20)Man, 31, Criminal damage (£1000) to furniture (girlfriend's?)
21)Man, 19, Affray
22)Man, 24, Drive Disqualified, No Insurance
23)Man, 18, Fail to comply with curfew (tagging) order
24)Woman, 20, Affray (linked with 21), criminal damage to car
25)Man, 41, Affray (linked with 21 and 24)
26)Man, 43, No Insurance, No MoT
In addition there were 10 extra cases not listed, half of them in custody. This gives you an idea of a typical remand court day - nothing drastic on the main list, but a few nasties in the extras. This was on a midweek day when two youth courts were sitting so all of the under-18s were dealt with there. I wasn't sitting that day, but I believe they managed to finish at 4.30. Not a bad day's work.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Once Bitten........

A year or two ago, in a case about which I can't say too much, we refused to adjourn a trial in which the principal witness had not turned up, as he had threatened to do some weeks before. Sometimes we think that a case needs to be put out of its misery, and this was one of them - it was going nowhere. The usual procedure is for the Crown to offer no evidence at this point. The Prosecutor, not at all pleased, shot to his feet and made an application to adduce hearsay evidence - the statement made by the missing witness. We saw that as an attempt to get round our decision and we refused to allow the application. The three of us were in agreement as was our clerk.
A few weeks later I heard that our decision was being appealed. We came second. We would have been quite entitled to refuse the hearsay application, but we should have given full consideration to to the criteria in the Act, and recorded our reasons.
That's fine, no hard feelings. Win some, lose some. You can imagine my reaction this week though, when we were faced with a near-identical situation, with a crucial witness being unavailable - a fact that had been known to the Crown for months, but one that they had failed to note in the file. So we refused to adjourn, and the prosecutor applied for permission to make a hearsay application. Determined to get it right this time we allowed the application and I made careful notes of the criteria that we had to consider. The defence then opposed the application, putting in his own interpretation of the law. We then had the clerk advise us in open court and went outside to consider. When we went back in (to refuse the application) I had half a sheet of carefully made notes of our reasons which I read out before passing them to the clerk to put on the file. Let's see how we get on this time.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Not Good News

In this report.

This email has just gone out to all members of the judiciary:-
May 23, 2007


I want to assure you that I and the senior judiciary will continue to maintain our position of: 1) seeking an immediate enquiry into the issues of constitutional principle; and 2) putting in place interim working arrangements, which are close to being settled with the Ministry of Justice, pending the result of that enquiry.

Phillips CJ

Monday, May 21, 2007


I have read thousands of words about the grand new plans to streamline magistrates' court procedures, and I have spent a good few hours being talked to about them. Making the lower courts' procedures as quick and simple as possible is what the management types call a no-brainer. We are all in favour. Totally.
Of course delays now occur while legal aid is processed - but there is worse. In the last couple of weeks I have heard of a CPS prosecutor who was sent to the wrong court, and took until 10.55 to battle through the traffic, then needed fifteen minutes to start reading the files. The court lost an hour, could not sit late because of the staff work-to-rule and was forced to send cases away untouched.

A few days later a colleague told me that at 10 o'clock the defendant, his lawyer and 3 witnesses were ready, but no prosecutor had appeared. The victim had a 5 month baby with her. It appeared that the prosecutor assigned to the case was ill and no substitute had been sent. The senior CPS prosecutor present was called into court about 10.15, apologised and said a substitute had left the office about 10 minutes earlier. He arrived about 11.00 and then needed time to read papers and speak to witnesses. The trial started just before noon, two hours late, and the 3 witnesses were called. At 1.15 the court broke for lunch returning at 2.15 to hear the defendant. On returning the court was told that the prosecutor was needed in court 2 to deal with a couple of matters, because that court had a Designated Caseworker (DCW) whose powers did not extend to dealing with them. He would go there while the bench read a short interview statement. He was away about 40 minutes, as there was also a bail application. The court was left with its morning trial hanging in abeyance with a second trial waiting, ready to go ahead.
At 3.50 they started the 2p.m. trial, with no chance of finishing it on the day.

Unless and until the CPS sorts itself out the drive to implement CJSSS hasn't got a prayer.

Yet More Stuff You Can't Do Without

I had to have another look at the Coopers of Stortford website, repository of a thousand gadgets you didn't know you needed. Here's another cracker:- yes, it's a Bridge!. It's a real bridge all right, and once it's in your garden you can walk across it as often as you like, sometimes one way, sometimes another. I imagine that's what they mean by versatile. You could lean pensively on the rail at sunset, and imagine that there was, for example, water running underneath, as your thoughts turn to the eternal and the ethereal. My only reservation is that it probably needs you to use recreational drugs to get the best out of it.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Beyond Reasonable Doubt

I have blogged before about the crucial part that identification plays in many criminal cases, and about the raft of case law that guides the courts. Caution is the watchword, and the few magistrates who have not heard a Turnbull argument will do so, sooner or later.
Put yourself into the shoes of a newly appointed magistrate sitting on the wing in Court 3. The charge is GBH and we are sitting as examining justices in a committal hearing to decide whether there is a case to answer at the Crown Court. In those days live witnesses were heard at committal - now it's different. The victim gives evidence that he was walking home from the pub at about midnight when a man jumped out of the bushes, grabbed him from behind, and 'pushed' a knife into his stomach, twisting it about as he did so. Medical evidence told of 25 stitches in the wound and the same again in the man's intestines. The victim named the assailant to the ambulance crew and to the police who attended. He had, he claimed, been to school with the man, and had known him for most of his life. I was convinced that the victim was telling the truth, and I had no reason to doubt his identification.
To cut a long story short, the case was hopeless. A man has been assaulted from behind, suffers serious wounds, and, in his pain and shock, has a back view of someone running off. He identifies the someone as an old acquaintance but has had no view of his face and has not heard his voice. In the dark. Wearing a coat of some sort. The new magistrate agreed with his colleagues' decision that there was no case to answer, and went home more aware than he had been previously of the meaning of 'Beyond Reasonable Doubt'. For the record, the test was whether a reasonable jury, properly directed, could (not would) convict on the evidence we had heard.

(10.45 a.m.- I have edited this post, as my recollection of a 20 year-old case has improved overnight).

What's Going On Here?

Like you, esteemed reader, I receive lots of emails. Firms from whom I have occasionally bought things are allowed into the inner sanctum that is my inbox. I went into mind-boggle overdrive this evening with a mailshot from Coopers of Stortford, a respectable outfit who sell often unlikely but occasionally useful gadgets by mail order (Say Goodbye to Earwax Misery and suchlike). In their time they have helped me to become greener by sending me a BOGOF offer on low-energy lightbulbs.
Today I received a mailshot, in which the offer that caught my eye was this, which comes in at number 5 on their list of best sellers, or so they say.
Did you know how many of your fellow citizens (and I exclude the quarter of my readers who have the misfortune to live overseas) are prepared to pony up the best part of twenty quid to buy a cover for their Bible?
Blame me, blame the drink that I have taken this evening if you must, but isn't this all a bit odd?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Too Late, I'm Afraid

Statement from the Judicial Communications Office: Mr Justice Openshaw
A media report on a judge reported as saying “I don’t really understand what a website is” has been taken out of context.
News reports have appeared implying that Mr Justice Openshaw, in the course of proceedings, did not understand the term ‘website’.
In fact the Judge is currently in the fifth week of presiding over a trial which is largely based on computer generated evidence. Evidence is being provided by expert witnesses that will inevitably be of a specialist nature.
Trial judges always seek to ensure that everyone in court is able to follow all of the proceedings. They will regularly ask questions – not for their own benefit – but on behalf of all those following a case, in the interests of justice.
In this specific case, immediately prior to the judge’s comment, the prosecution counsel had referred to various internet forums with postings of comments relevant to the case. Mr Justice Openshaw was simply clarifying the evidence presented, in an easily understandable form for all those in court.
Mr Justice Openshaw is entirely computer literate and indeed has taken notes on his own computer in court for many years.

Unfortunately for His Lordship the words that he spoke will have reinforced the impression among the less-cerebral classes that the judiciary as a whole are a lot of out-of-touch old duffers who have trouble remembering how to tie their shoelaces.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Harry Hutton gives his reaction to the news that more police officers will be given tasers.

Now That's What I Call Simple Speedy and Summary

CJSSS is coming soon to a court near you - "Criminal Justice, Simple Speedy and Summary" is what MinJust wants to bring us. I've had reams of paper about it and been lectured on the subject a couple of times.
Well this story seems to fit the bill, doesn't it? Granny.

Bad News Day For Mr. Toad

Three news items in today's Times, here and
here as well as this:-
A company director was jailed for four months after trying to avoid detection by speed cameras by fitting his car with false number plates. Brian Beaton, 58, of Gillingham, admitted perverting the course of justice and speeding using false number plates at Maidstone Crown Court.

I don't imagine I will live long enough to see it, but perhaps someday the public conscience will treat irresponsible driving as the antisocial act that it is, rather than a bit of a lark.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Judges vs. Ministers - Update

I have just received the following:-
"The Judicial Executive Board and the Judges’ Council held a joint meeting yesterday to consider the present state of the working group discussions between members of the judiciary and senior Ministry of Justice officials regarding constitutional safeguards to protect the independence of the judiciary and the proper administration of justice.

"It was reported to the meeting that much progress has been made, but no agreement has been reached and difficult issues remain.

"The Judicial Executive Board and Judges’ Council endorsed the position taken by the Lord Chief Justice and other members of the judiciary to date, and expressed their support for the continuing efforts to reach agreement.

"The meeting noted that the Lord Chief Justice is due to appear before the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on 22nd May, on which date he will present a full report on the current position to Parliament."

It may be a while yet before the female person of size sings.

Suppressio Veri, Suggestio Falsi

The Daily Mail, in its mission to find something that the lower-middle classes can get angry about has discovered a shock-horror scandal that prisoners are working on the railway, no less. (As an aside, has anyone used the word 'convict' in this sense in the last fifty years?)
Various people huff and puff about this, but let's have a think for a moment. Prisoners who have a low security classification and who are nearing the end of long sentences are routinely found work outside the prison. The employers know their background. The idea is to help men who have been out of circulation for years to get back into the world of work with the self-respect and self-discipline that involves. In addition they can put some money by to help them on release. I am not ashamed to think that this is a good, practical, and sensible idea. The nudge-nudge implication, complete with pictures of derailed trains, is that these men are so wicked and/or feckless that they are bound either to do sloppy work or, in their incorrigible malice, somehow commit sabotage. Mock-horror from the union too, but hang on a minute:- if a worker does a bad job he can be fired. If a licenced prisoner does a bad job he can be fired and then returned to a closed prison, so he has even more to lose.
Some journalists will never be happy until all offences result in prison and all prisons go back to bread and water and breaking rocks.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mum's The Word

I have thirty-ish friends who went to Oxbridge. One of their pals was recruited by the Security Service while a student, and works there still. He has of course asked all of his friends never to refer to the fact that he works for you-know-who.
On a family occasion the spook was horrified when a friend's slightly flaky mother sounded as if she was about to out him. His panic subsided when he heard what she actually said:- "Say hello to Gavin. He works for - erm - MFI".

Right On The Limit

I had to call into the court late this afternoon to pick up some papers after the courts had finished. One or two of the staff looked surprised to see me casually dressed, and one of the custody officers offered me a cup of tea. I accepted and went downstairs, where I was surprised to see that there were still six prisoners in the cells, and even more surprised to be told that because all London prisons were now full these six were going to a prison in the Midlands. Nobody had yet told the prisoners because they were expected to be pretty upset when they found out their destination. They are probably still on the road as I write, confined to tiny cubicles in the 'sweatbox' prisoner transport vehicles.
It will cost a great deal of money to transport those six to the Midlands and back, most of it in the form of overtime to court custody staff and prison staff at the receiving end. That's the hidden cost of a jam-packed prison system.
The court custody staff do a decent job for not too much money, and apart from an occasional difficult prisoner they manage their charges with informal good humour, which is the best way by far to handle stressed and potentially violent people. The whole edifice of courts and prisons relies on the co-operation, or at least acquiescence, of those it deals with.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Is It Me?

I was listening intently to a case today when a movement in the well of the court caught my eye. A black-clad long-legged and blonde haired lawyer of the female persuasion was brushing her hair. I was about to stop proceedings and rebuke her, but she spotted my disapproving expression and hastily stuffed the brush into her Louis Vuitton bag. Unprofessional? Or am I getting old?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Down Memory Lane

Many years ago, before I joined the Bench, I ran a company and as was the culture of the time a lot of business was transacted in the local pub. I got to know quite a few of the regulars, and among them were the Detective Inspector who ran the local CID together with a dozen or so CID men. The Met was a very different outfit back in the 1970s, and the CID had a hard-drinking laddish culture. A lot of things happened that would cause today's senior policemen to faint clear away. For example, every Christmas the local publicans would get together and lay on an all-day open house to which the division's CID were invited, with an ample supply of free food and drink. A CID office was always well supplied with bottles of Scotch to be offered to visitors, and I heard of West End pubs (my pal was ex-Flying Squad) that would open up at 4 a.m. if required to provide a boozy breakfast to a squad of coppers who had just had a result. One businessman of my acquaintance carried out an illegal criminal record check on all of his staff courtesy of a couple of co-operative DCs. It was the norm to commission a tie for all of the officers who had worked on a particular job or squad. I still have a Drug Squad tie with a distinctive frond on a dark blue background, and I recall seeing a real one-off:- a man had murdered his wife, and went on to push her body in a wheelbarrow right past the front door of the police station before tipping her off a bridge into the canal. The tie featured a bridge over water, a wheelbarrow, and a blue lamp - very tasteful.
My home town used to be plagued by a nasty violent family known locally as the Crazy Gang. They moved on from petty crimes to serious violence, and one of their number ended up with a 17-year stretch for manslaughter, a conviction that would have been murder had the jury not fallen for the story that the killer's finger had accidentally tightened on the trigger when he stumbled. One of the family called Terry took it amiss when he was banned from the Royal Oak, returning to the pub at night with a can of petrol, which he threw over the fence and ignited. The Royal Oak was a regular police watering hole, so an immediate and thorough hunt was launched that resulted in Terry's rapid arrest. I heard this story in the pub a couple of days later, and one phrase sticks in my mind to this day. "He's gone hands-up, made a full statement. Do you know, he was wearing suede shoes, and they were soaked in petrol". He paused. "They were when we got him back to the station, anyway".
And what prompted me to recall all this lot? Terry's son, who is now 34, was on the court list last week for something or other. It must be in the DNA.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

From The Soi-Disant World's Greatest Newspaper

Campaigners claim a lack of action by Portu­guese judges has turned the country into a paedophiles’ paradise.
(Daily Express)

Those bloody judges again!


I see that the Sitemeter counter has slipped above the 600,000 mark this evening. Of course many of those visitors will have arrived by accident and pushed off pretty smartly, but I am nevertheless pleased to have had so many people from so many countries read about my experiences.
Thank you all, and I shall try to keep the posts coming, which is greatly helped by my fellow citizens' apparent willingness to put themselves in the way of the police and the courts.

Well Down To Standard

The Sun runs a story about Broadmoor today, referring to the 'scandal' of 'luxury' food provided to the inmates. As usual the story will have been sold by a member of staff, the very name Broadmoor guaranteeing its newsworthiness and thus marketability.
Regular Sun readers will know Broadmoor as the 'jail' where 'beasts' are 'caged'. In fact it is a hospital, run by an NHS trust, with patients whose mental illnesses make them too dangerous to leave in the community. By no means all of its patients are sent by the courts, as many are referred through the NHS.
It is an unlovely sight to see the Sun, whose journalists include some of our brightest and best graduates, and whose proprietor claims to be a born-again Christian, writing about a mental hospital in terms that would have turned stomachs a century and more ago. What do you want to see, lads? Bread and water for the 'monsters'? Shall we open the place up as a visitor attraction as they used to at Bedlam?
I have said before that the Sun has done more than anyone to corrode public understanding of the criminal justice system. Its rants had a malign influence on Tony Blair's policies, and I hope that Gordon Brown has more sense than to pander to the paper's disgusting agenda.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

ID - bah!

It has been reported today that the projected cost of the ID card scheme has slipped upwards by a trivial four hundred million quid, bringing the official cost over five billion queenie's greenies.

Five billion looks like this:-

What could that money do to help straighten out legal aid, courts and prisons?

Oh well, at least it's cheaper than the Olympics.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

This is Serious

I know that I keep banging on about the chaotic attempts to reorganise the criminal justice system, but when someone of the stature of the Lord Chief Justice sends this message (issued today) to the whole of the judiciary, you know that things have got to a critical stage:-
The Ministry of Justice has come into being today. The judiciary consider that the creation of a new Ministry of Justice raises important issues of principle; these have been communicated repeatedly to the Lord Chancellor since January 2007 and are summarised in the judicial position paper of 29 March 2007. A working group composed of senior judges and senior Government officials has been meeting since 21 March 2007 to discuss the issues with the aim of putting in place constitutional safeguards to protect the independence of the judiciary and the proper administration of justice.

The up to date position was set out in evidence of Lord Justice Thomas and the President of the Queen's Bench Division to the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords.

We have not yet reached agreement on a way forward. We will continue with our discussions with the Government in our attempt to resolve the important issues of principle that remain.

I have convened a special meeting of the Judges' Council to discuss these issues on 15 May 2007 with representatives of all levels of the judiciary. I will also be giving evidence on this subject to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons on 22 May 2007 when I shall explain the judiciary's position, and the stage we have reached in our discussions with the Government.

Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers,
Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Heavy Matters

In the remand court, as opposed to a trial court, the bench see a steady stream of defendants charged with anything from the trivial to the downright nasty, and after a while they tend to blur into each other a bit. Just occasionally though we can sense a change of atmosphere. The court staff look just a little more grave, perhaps some of the seats fill up with unfamiliar faces, a reporter or two may appear, and we find ourselves dealing with something out of the ordinary. On one occasion we found ourselves faced by half a dozen burly men in the side seating, all wearing jackets but with obvious anti-stab vests underneath. They had that look that spoke CID, but it was after the case had been dealt with that we found out that there had also been armed officers in the court foyer. Up came three black men, jointly charged with trafficking in cocaine, following the seizure of a million poundsworth. What had prompted the security was the fact that in searching the home of one of the men a gun had been recovered, and that gun had been forensically linked to two murders. All three had a wodge of pre-cons, and previous involvement with Yardie gangs - there were no applications for bail. Once they had gone, sent off to the Old Bailey, the atmosphere in the courtroom relaxed noticeably, and we went back to our list of drunk drivers and shoplifters.

Just a Few More Steps to Meltdown

This report in The Times sums up much of what I have been blogging about for a while. The bottom line is that the policies that have filled up the prisons were all introduced by this Government, but that the same government has not just failed to provide the required resources, but refuses to take any action at all, for fear of the tabloids.
The suspended sentence that has proved so useful that magistrates have imposed thousands of them looks doomed, as I wrote last year, so one of the few really useful bits of the 2003 Act will be dropped. I suppose we should be grateful that we even got to try it - Custody Plus was dropped before implementation (but after thousands of people had been trained on it).
I can only quote Sir Richard Mottram, the senior civil servant who said:-
"We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department's fucked. It's been the biggest cock-up ever and we're all completely fucked."

Spot on, Sir Richard, spot on.

Here is the Times leader.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Law In Action - 21st Century Style

According to the BBC two girls were given Fixed Penalty tickets for chalking on the pavement. There's two Offences Brought To Justice for the Home Office stats, and two Sanction Detections for the police to claim.
But what's this? The Mayor, no less, has intervened, and the police have graciously agreed to drop the tickets. How nice of them.
That's the face of Law and Order in 2007:- a ridiculously heavy-handed intervention by the police, driven by the target culture, and an extra-judicial resolution once the papers got interested.
If your kids are into hopscotch, you'd better tell them to pack it in and take up video games if they want to avoid an ASBO.

From The Rumour Mill

The word on the street is that the CPS is currently being deluged with applications from defence solicitors who have looked at the future for their firm and decided that there isn't one. At one time the CPS was very much a second-line choice of career. Now some people are looking at Government antagonism to small law firms, and deciding that the CPS, with its bomb-proof Government pension and Civil Service conditions, is the place to be.

Friday, May 04, 2007

My Sentiment Precisely

Questions remain about whether the government is placing too much emphasis on finding criminal justice solutions to complex social and economic problems. Should the government continue to place such heavy expectations on the criminal justice system or should it be clearer about its limitations? The time is right for the government to take stock and reflect on what the criminal justice agencies can realistically achieve in reducing crime and increasing public safety and on what the appropriate level of resourcing should be.

The above is an extract from this academic report.

More Good Sense From The Lord Chief

Lord Phillips has recently made a speech to a Probation conference and it is well worth a look. The Guardian reports on it here.
Reading between the lines of his measured remarks it is not hard to sense the frustration felt by the senior judiciary (as well as a few of us down at the judicial coalface) at the near-reckless way in which the Government has forced through changes that should properly have taken much more time and involved much more thought that they have been given. There are real and present dangers and conflicts in the rushed implementation of the Ministry of Justice, and the damned thing opens for business next week. Last Christmas none of us knew anything about it. You wouldn't reorganise a corner shop in such a hurried way.
The prison crisis is real and is not going to go away. The 8000 new places that are planned will not even remotely keep pace with the increase in numbers, because on top of a marked increase in sentence lengths we have the still-to-be-guessed at impact of indeterminate IPP sentences. Not only will these sentences lead to thousands of offenders being kept behind bars for far longer than would have been the case in the past, but it is a near-certainty that there will be insufficient resources to perform the risk assessments that must precede the decision to release. As a result many offenders will rot in prison for years while the bureaucratic wheels creak round. The LCJ's speech also refers to returns to prison following breach of licence - another policy brought in with seemingly no thought as to resources.
Lord Phillips is doing a good job but it is not too hard to see the pressures that he is under.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Bunny Boiler

Most cases seen by magistrates are the same old stuff, but sometimes a run-of-the-mill offence on the sheet turns out a bit differently, just like this one that I saw a while ago.
Criminal Damage is an everyday sort of allegation, although this one was a bit unusual in that there were two separate charges amounting to just under £5000 each. This is where the old magistrate's whiskers start to twitch - up to £5000 is summary only (i.e must be tried by magistrates) whereas £5001 and upwards is either-way and may be sent to the Crown Court.
Swift guilty pleas followed identification of the defendant, a tidy but red-eyed lady of a certain age. Her demeanour and her address in a salubrious part of Berkshire led to a lack of surprise when she was revealed to have no previous convictions in her forty-ahem years.
As the facts unfolded to the bench we heard that this was a lady who had engaged in an affair with a younger man who was married. Passions evidenced themselves in the usual manner, but eventually our lady's young lover decided to call it a day. I will draw a curtain over the steamy and passionate interlude that we went on to hear about, but the upshot was that, scorned and cast aside, she made her way to lover-boy's semi-detached and otherwise calm menage where she attempted to speak to him. He laid low, as many of us might have done, and may well have been relieved when he heard her car start up and drive off. Two minutes later, however, car and driver returned, and rammed lover-boy's car so hard that it finished up part way in to his kitchen. The mobile battering ram was, surprisingly, still driveable, and the lady in the case drove away after taking time to hurl various bits of Volvo through her by now decidedly ex-lover's window.
The damage to the victim's car and house was charged separately, and that's why we suspected that the CPS had deliberately left us an easy way out. There could not be any sense in troubling the Crown Court with this lot. We accepted jurisdiction, ordered her to pay for the damage and the Crown's costs and gave her a Conditional Discharge for twelve months. I then went on to ask her lawyer about the payment of compensation and heard that it had all been paid six weeks ago. Receipts were in court.
She had never been in court before and I am as sure as I can be that she will never trouble us again. Damage caused, damage paid for, seems fair enough to me.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Only Connect

Not many countries do irony like we English, and France (my favourite place to visit)could do with a bit sometimes. In the hypermarket yesterday we had to purchase bags because they have stopped giving them away. Green: fine by me. Saves a bit of energy and all that. Earlier we drove by a delightful quayside strip where we had dined the previous evening. Every single restaurant had a Terrasse Chauffée, usually by means of gas-fired heaters that delivered most of their heat to the atmosphere. On Friday we passed the oil complexes at the mouth of the Seine and saw a gas flare that was a good fifteen feet high. 10/10 for the bags, guys - now how about having a look at those restaurants and that refinery?

Cet Animal Est Tres Méchant............

This is something I had not seen before, quoted by the blogging doctor. The main lesson here is that an impartial and above all independent Judge is the long-stop to bureaucratic mismanagement and bullying. And it isn't hard to see how irritated some politicians are by the independent judiciary, and why they want to tie its hands

The Insolence of Office

I have just come back from a short break across the Channel. At Dover yesterday we queued for UK immigration checks and our passports were scanned into a computer. One of our party had a temporary non-UK passport valid for a month, that expired on the 30th April. Handing our passports back the Immigration Officer said: "You shouldn't really be travelling on this on its day of expiry. Will you remember that in future?" My friend politely took back his passport and we drove off to the ferry.
Now just a minute:- the passport was valid when presented, having about eight hours' validity remaining. The journey was scheduled to take less than two hours. So by what right does a public servant tell a traveller not to use a perfectly valid document? All right, it was a small incident and nobody was hurt. The officer was polite enough, but exceeded her powers, something that she had probably been told to do by her superiors.
This, dear reader, is the world into which we are blindly stumbling as the rule of law is encroached upon by the rule of administrative fiat. This isn't about security, it's about a casual abuse of power. A few years after I was born there took place what was described as a "bonfire of controls". I fear that by the time that I die England will be considerably less free than it was on the day I was born. Nobody ever threatened my granny with a fine for putting her dustbin out early.

Maitre Éolas has blogged about arrogant and unfair practices in the USA and in France. His piece is here. I'm afraid it's in French, but the message is that terrorism has become the all-purpose excuse for casual abuse of the citizen's rights