Thursday, July 31, 2008

Nicely Summarised

This Times Piece says something that we all know. It's still depressing though.

True Story

Associate Prosecutor (DCW as was - aka Prosecutor-Lite):- (opposing bail for defendant) "and further, sir, he has two convictions for Failing To Surrender; both of them committed on bail".

Chairman:- (putting down pen and taking off glasses) "How else could he have committed them, Mr. Prosecutor?"
Legal Adviser to defendant:- "Please sit down momentarily". Fortunately the defendant sat down and stayed down until told to stand up again.
A disproportionate number of defendants give their date of birth as 1/1 in whatever year. I am told that in countries with no working system of recording births and deaths (and there are many) people can be fairly sure of their year of birth, so the authorities settle for January 1st as the day.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bangle Law Torpedoed

I am afraid that my only real motive for linking to this story was to allow me to use the above headline.

Well, it is the silly season, innit?

Monday, July 28, 2008


I was shocked to hear on the radio an hour ago that Weston-Super-Mare's historic pier was no more. My first thought, as my heart fluttered, was that Lord Archer was a goner, but no, it was the pier with piles, rather than....well, you know.
If the pier is anything like the peer it will bounce back from disaster, as usual.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

More Silly Season

Woman E wants to ‘get on her knees’ to Max Mosley

is a headline that an experienced old sub-editor might have thought about twice before going to print.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Classic Silly Season Non-Story

Here's a cracker from the Daily Mail :-Judge Story.
It's got the lot - synthetic indignation, the crime of the month (knives) the how-dare-he judge. Best of all is Lyn Costello, the 'co-founder of the Mother's (sic) Against Murder and Aggression campaign group' (is there a Mothers For murder and aggression group? If not, why not?) who said that the judge should lose his job.
"Whatever the case, clearly the public don't want him carrying it."

No, dear. Not the public. Just you.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Recommended Reading

The nonpareil ambulance crew blogger Tom Reynolds has posted this. Every magistrate ought to read it, just to add one more piece to the complex jigsaw that we attempt to solve when dealing with domestic violence.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

For Heaven's Sake!

The BBC and some papers are carrying reports today that manage to be confused and misinformed at the same time. It's just another facet of the knife-crime panic, so let's get one or two facts straight:-

Banning the sale of knives has had, and will continue to have, a negligible impact on knife crime. There are 25 million households in the UK and practically every one has a number of potentially lethal knives in the kitchen - I myself have about fifteen.

71 shopkeepers have been fined, mostly £500 or less against a maximum of £5000. Maximum sentences are for the worst possible case and for a conviction after trial, as a guilty plea earns a one-third discount. The maximum for drink-driving is also £5000, and the usual fine is also £500 or less. There's nothing new in that. Nobody has been sent to prison for selling knives, which is hardly surprising when police continue to caution for their possession.

Knife crime is a serious problem, albeit one that is largely confined to certain urban areas and certain social groups (notice any common factor in the faces of the victims above?) The courts have a part to play, and the Court of Appeal acknowledged this in May with its guidance that we should all sentence towards the top of the range, but there is no quick-fix solution.

I suppose this is what we should expect during the Silly Season with a dearth of hard news, and heavyweight politicians all away on their travels. Still, the Olympics will soon be upon us and we can expect wall-to-wall coverage to drive every other kind of news off the front pages.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A New Line in Mitigation

Every magistrate has heard the usual string of excuses for driving while disqualified and/or without insurance. Most of them include the claim that the driver was caught on the one and only time that he had driven since his ban, which is a huge tribute to the efficiency of the police, since they seem able to capture offenders as soon as they venture onto the road. Another favourite is the 'my-girlfriend-is-pregnant-and-I-thought-she-was-losing-the-baby' routine. One regular punter has eleven convictions for disqualified driving, and to my knowledge he has used this on at least three of them.
We had a new one last week though. Darren was stopped driving his mate's car, that turned out to be uninsured. Darren's ban had run its course, but since he hadn't yet taken the test ordered by the disqualifying court he remained banned from driving. He hadn't meant to drive, but he had been at the mate's house with a few others when they realised that they had run out of cocaine, so Darren was nominated to go and score a fresh supply. He put this forward in a matter-of-fact manner as if it was the most normal thing in the world. In his world, it probably is.

Here's an interesting piece about drugs from The Observer.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Bit More About That Crash

As you may see from the comments on the previous post, a minority of police officers are quick to perceive criticism, and equally quick to respond with hostility and contempt to magistrates and the rest of the criminal justice system, tossing in casual insults as they type. No problem here; I have broad shoulders and I am no stranger to abuse in all kinds of contexts from my job, to my voluntary JP job, to the local pub. I make just one comment:- you are rather more likely to find a fair cross-section of opinion in a JPs' retiring room than you are in a police canteen.

Here's a cross-section of responses from Haloscan. I have taken the liberty of adding comments, simply to make it easier to read.

"Just how much do you actually dislike 'the police' Bystander?"
Not at all.

"How many idiots did you let free this week with this woolly thinking?"

"on a case like this you're able to immediately tell that the police were at fault?"
Where do I say that?

"So an uninsured thief in a stolen car, probably no driving licence, shouldn't be stopped as he is no danger to the public. Just what planet are you living on Bystander?"
Where do I say that?

"interesting to see how many times our car thief had been let off with a lenient sentence by the bystanders of the world"
Who of course make up sentences as they go along……..

"just think had he been in prison he could not have stolen the car....."
Which applies to almost every offender.

"I might however become enraged if I discover that the courts subsequently take away his licence (assuming he had one in the first place) for 12 months and give him a token prison sentence suspended for not very long at all"
Where do you think JPs get their sentencing guidelines from?

"It’s not even worth discussing this on here. The author is completely ignorant of police operating practices and has made a wild assumption without knowing any facts, much like the tabloids that are derided on here. This site is quickly turning into a very cheap police bashing forum"
Comment is superfluous.

"Unfortunately, the same level of scrutiny will never befall the judiciary of this land, whose naval (sic) gazing and prevarication in deciding what to do with class 'A' drug abusing repeat criminals (as undoubtedly this lunatic will turn out to be) is never subject, it seems to the same level of examination"
To whom should I be answerable? The Court of Appeal, the Police Federation, or the Daily Mail?

One final point:- I have no idea what the driver of the stolen car will be charged with, but I can see a problem if he is charged with Death by Dangerous Driving if it transpires that it was a police driver whose actions triggered, however inadvertently, the fatal crash. It could indeed end up as a simple TWOC, whereupon someone is bound to blame the courts.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Was This Tragedy Unavoidable?

In a remarkably swift investigation, it has been decided that the police officers in this dreadful tragedy acted quite properly, or so the BBC tells us. This is the Telegraph's report.
That does not stop some of us from questioning whether the public good might better be served on occasion by allowing a car thief to get away, rather than taking positive 'action' to stop him when the potential price to innocent passers-by is so high. This car was under helicopter surveillance, so the decision to stop it was a calculated risk that went horribly wrong.
Police officers are human, and it would be a miracle if none of them was ever affected by the tyre-squealing glamour of the myriad reality TV programmes showing chase after chase. With hindsight, it would have been preferable if someone with a bit of rank had ordered the car to be followed rather than forced to a halt.
Policing is about priorities. The officers at the sharp end do their best, but it is, or should be, for those of higher rank to monitor these situations and to decide priorities and assess risks.
I don't think we have heard the last of this one.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Get A Grip

I never criticise colleagues' decisions because they get to hear the full facts in their cases and I do not. Nevertheless, I have been a bit disturbed in recent weeks to find myself dealing with cases where suspended prison sentences had been breached more than once, and had not been activated. You can breach an SSO by failing to comply with its requirements or by reoffending. Sometimes it's both. A breach doesn't mean automatic incarceration, as there is power to make requirements more onerous, and to re-suspend; sometimes that makes sense. But I recently saw a case where our man had breached six times, and still not gone inside. That just makes a mockery of the system. If the repeated re-suspension was justified on judicial criteria then perhaps the SSO was the wrong sentence in the first place. If not, there is no excuse for not facing up to the fact that enough is enough.
Use of the Suspended Sentence was severely restricted a decade or so ago because it was being used as a stepping-stone between community service and prison, rather than a prison sentence in its own right that, once decided upon, was able to be suspended. That seems to be happening again now, and is why the Government came close to ending SSOs for summary offences recently. If you follow the reasoning properly, and decide that the offence is so serious that custody is right, going on to decide that it can be suspended with requirements, then there should be no problem implementing the sentence in the event of breach - if not the first one, certainly the second.

A Genuine Answer

A few posts ago I asked what I called a genuine question about Islam's view on heroin, given the fact that the poppy is a staple crop in Afghanistan. I am grateful to Devin for this informative reply, that he sent me by email. I use it with his permission.

He writes:-
I don't believe heroin is explicitly forbidden in the Quran or early
Islamic law, but my understanding is that intoxicants are forbidden to
Muslims under the supposition that the Prophet spoke the way he did
because he figured you'd be clever enough to figure out what he meant.
As I recall, the Taliban was pretty gung-ho about poppy eradication
and had eliminated a majority of the country's heroin production
before it fell. In fact, it's been argued that the impact of that
program was one of the reasons your government and mine were so
enthusiastic about getting rid of them.

However, Sharia (Islamic law) is not meant to stand in the way of
Muslims, but to lead them towards a righteous life. For instance, if
a Muslim owns a pizzeria, his customers will want pepperoni. It is
permissible for him to deal in pork, under those circumstances,
provided that he donates all the money he makes from the sale of
unclean foods to charity (not all of his income, just what he makes
specifically from those products). Similarly, if you're a farmer in
Afghanistan and your options are to grow poppies like the warlord
wants, to be shot or driven off by the warlord for not growing
poppies, or to run off into the hills and starve or become a bandit or
a thug, the correct thing to do in Sharia is to grow poppies.

Further, Afghanistan is an Islamic country in much the way the US is
a Christian one (I think Britain is more ambivalent about religion in a
lot of ways). Most of the population will definitely tell you, for
sure, that's their religion. But that doesn't mean they live their
lives the same way you reconstruct the life of a follower of that
religion from reading about the religion. Islam and opium are two
parts of the culture of Afghanistan, just as Christianity and debt are
in the US, for all that the Bible nominally forbids usury. I don't
think we can even consider it hypocritical; there are certainly enough
contradictory elements of our respective cultures.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Here We Go Again (3)

There is a crisis in knife crime. So the Prime Minister is going to tackle it.
Righty-ho Mr. PM, sir;
What plan will you work out this weekend that has evaded the rest of us over the years?
What will you do that could make a shred of difference to London's underclass, starting Monday?
Why didn't you do it last week? Or last year?
Won't this just serve to distract senior police from getting on with their job?
Just how stupid do you think we are?

Deliberate Misinformation

The Daily Express, which laughably describes itself as The World's Greatest Newspaper, has this to say:
The recommendation of the Sentencing Advisory Panel that many burglars should be spared jail terms and instead directed towards disorganised, feeble community sentences will boost the morale of housebreakers everywhere.
For burglary in a dwelling only unforced entry and unaggravated low value theft has a guideline starting point less than custody - that's something like a walk-in through an open door and a theft of items worth a few pounds. Anything else means custody, and the threshold for sending to the Crown Court is low. Three domestic burglaries make the offender subject to a minimum sentence. Here is the CPS summary of the sentencing regime.
What the Express wants people to think is that the sterotypical burglar (they use the archaic term 'housebreaker') who forces entry to a home and steals valuables will get a community penalty. He won't. Magistrates would probably refuse to touch the case and send it off to the Crown Court, where the burglar could expect a substantial sentence. Burglary is one of those offences that covers a very wide spectrum, from reaching in an open window to steal a bottle of milk, to a full-on night-time break-in with a substantial haul of valuables, and the range of sentences reflects this, as it should. I resent the drip-drip of deliberate Press distortion designed to feed the isn't-this-country-rubbish and the aren't-the-judiciary-a-useless-lot-of-old-duffers canards. But you don't buy the Express to find out the truth, do you?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Grief Exploited

This BBC report is an example of a really difficult decision, for prosecutors and for the bench concerned. For one thing it is a highly unusual case, of the kind that turns up once every few years at most, so there is no reservoir of experience or case law on which to draw. All I know of this case has been gleaned from the press, but I think it is fair to assume that this cyclist was riding fast, on the pavement, and in a manner that regarded pedestrians as an intrusion upon his desired course. The unfortunate victim died in a way that is fluky, albeit fairly common, by falling and hitting her head on the hard ground. Her family, naturally, are devastated, but as is today's custom they were not allowed to gather together with their friends and supporters to mourn and to come to terms with their loss, but rather challenged by the press to say 'how they felt'.
Well how the hell would you or I feel? Numb from grief, some of us might seek vengeance, some might look to the law for redress, some might draw upon their faith to forgive.
The CPS prosecutor who decided upon the charge will have considered the law (not much help, since most of these cases involve Mrs. Miggins being knocked away from her shopping trolley or some such) and will have considered the awful consequences of this incident; I am sure that the CPS charging guidelines were carefully consulted too.
Put yourself in the prosecutor's shoes, and in those of the bench. Emotions are running high, the press are milling outside in the lobby, and the leader writers are honing their pencils ready for a denunciation.
The offence carries a limited maximum fine - nothing else is available. The amount is a massive one by magistrates' standards. So the offender 'walks free from court' and the tabloids explode in their wrath. If my experience is anything to go by, the court's mailbox will receive two or three dozen abusive letters in the next few days.
One final point: some idiot has just demanded a new offence making dangerous cycling on a par with dangerous driving. The awful tragedy we have just been looking at doesn't change the old axiom that hard cases make bad law.

Monday, July 07, 2008

News From Whitehall

The Government has announced a revision to the new Sentencing Guidelines, a month before they are introduced, and before some of us have even received a copy. The new Guidelines régime provides for a balanced Sentencing Advisory Panel to make proposals to the full Sentencing Guidelines Council. Once the Guideline is approved courts must have regard to it, and give reasons for any divergence.
The Court of Appeal's judgment a few weeks ago tweaked the existing guidelines, so I presume that we are supposed to give as our reason for ratcheting up penalties "because Sir Igor Judge said so".
As usual it all smacks of a hasty quick-fix to grab a headline, just like the anonymous witness business that is highly likely to fall foul of the ECHR in the near future.
I do wish the Government would try a bit of quiet reflection before going in with its great flat feet.
Later:- I think that I heard a BBC report that Mr. Straw has conceded that he has no power to change the Guidelines since the SCG is independent. Typical shoot-from-the-hip rubbish.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Can We Do Better?

Martin Kelly has a piece on his blog suggesting some pub names for today's society. He suggests:-

Pub Names For A Violent 21st Century

The Dogger and Duck

The Royal Soak

The Happy Slapper

The Sights and Crosshairs

The Bomb and Burqa

Do any of our regulars fancy having a go?

The best I could do (while wincing at my wife's noisy support for Federer in the next room) was:-

The King's Armaments

The Roach and Rizla

The Robin Hoody

The Puke of Cambridge

The Yob and Bouncer

The Red Bull and Vodka

I am sure you can do as well as Martin. Any offers?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Genuine Question

We all know that Islam forbids the drinking of alcohol. Can anyone tell me what the Islamic teaching is on the use of heroin?
The question occurred to me because Afghanistan, which has many devout Muslims, presumably bans alcohol while being the centre of the heroin trade.

Thursday, July 03, 2008


A few days ago I had to tell a young man that he was going inside for his first custodial sentence. We sentenced him by the book, and we had a recent Court of Appeal ruling to guide us. The three of us on the bench were completely satisfied that custody was the only proper sentence, but we nevertheless ran through the structure one last time to be sure. We then wrote out our reasons, and called out the clerk to check the legals, and to alert the jailers to come up to the court door and await a signal to come in.
I told him crisply and factually that he was going into custody, and why. He looked impassive. His mother burst into tears and his father looked grim. The officers ushered him towards the steel staircase, and they will have handcuffed him as soon as the door shut behind them. As he went through the door he turned to me and spat out "Tosser!" in what he no doubt thought was a venomous fashion, his unaccustomed composure discarded. That night he would be in a reception cell, wondering fearfully how he would cope with his fellow inmates the next day. He wouldn't be calling any of them Tossers.
We did what we had to do, and I am completely comfortable that the sentence was right.

I didn't like it though.

It is an awesome thing to send a young man inside, especially for the first time. I accept the necessity of doing it when I have to, and I never shrink from the task when it is the right thing to do.
I can already hear the more punitive of our readers muttering "what about the victims?" and I want them to understand that to try to understand a criminal does not exclude sympathy for the victims - in fact, this particular sentence was driven mainly by the crime's impact on the victims.
So I felt a bit flat as I drove home. Intellectually, I was perfectly happy that we had done our duty. Personally, I felt a sense of waste, along with a not-too-sure hope that the boy might at last take a hint. Experience does not make me optimistic.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Not As Clever As He Thought?

This tale speaks for itself.

Judgement Call 2

A young man has just been refused admission to a medical school because he has a conviction for burglary, acquired when he was younger. The college has said that it is protecting the integrity of the profession, and I can understand that. Only a few weeks ago I had to sign a certificate of good character for a young man seeking admission to one of the Inns of Court - despite the cheap cynicism that has become the fashion these days the great professions of this country still deserve the public's trust.
On the other hand, having heard the young man being interviewed, I can see why he was turned down, since he seems to think that he has been harshly treated - I suspect that he talked himself out of his college place by trying to present himself as a victim.
And yet - the practice of demanding CRB checks from all and sundry, soon to extend to nearly half the population, means that many will pay a high price for the kind of youthful foolishness that most of us have got away with in the past.

Thanks to Jeremy for this link.

Here's a piece from the Telegraph.

Judgement Call 1

I have been listening to the radio, and two stories have emerged today, each illustrating a finely balanced dilemma. First is the plan to ban alcohol sales in a part of Devon in anticipation of an Internet-organised mass party. On the one hand, we all know about the real and increasing problem of drunken misbehaviour, one that blights the late-night streets of many towns. On the other hand this is a free country, and we are free to go wherever we choose, and to drink alcohol, provided we are of legal age to do so. If, having gone somewhere and drunk alcohol, we misbehave, then we do so at our peril and can and should be punished for it.
Torquay magistrates will be asked to rule on the ban, for which I can see the pros and cons.
Taking off my judicial hat for a moment, I recall an incident during the miners' strike when I was on my way to Nottingham on business, and I was stopped at a police roadblock, where an officer asked me where I was going, presumably for fear of my being a flying picket or some such. I had a Magna Carta moment, and I said (rather pompously, in hindsight) "I am going about my lawful occasions, officer. I am not prepared to tell you where I am going or why. If you have no further questions I would like to get on with my business now". So he waved me past with ill grace and that was that. On an emotional level as well as a practical one, I cherish my heritage of many hundreds of years of an Englishman's freedom, so unlike those foreign chappies.