Friday, August 29, 2008


I have just had the weekly email from the Judicial Communications Office, which includes a letter from the Senior Presiding Judge giving the astounding news that the Courts' Service has to save ninety million pounds in the next three years following a lower-than-necessary allocation by the Treasury. This vast sum cannot be saved without drastic cuts to the quality of justice, to the fabric of courthouses, and to the staff employed in them.
Still, it could be worse; at least the nine billion or so due to be spent on the Olympics, and the god knows how much allocated to ID cards should be all right.
I despair.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Read, Mark, and Inwardly Digest

When Theodore Dalrymple (aka Dr.Anthony Daniels) writes about prisons he does so from experience. He was a prison doctor for many years and he is qualified in psychiatry. On the whole his stance is a little further to the right than I feel comfortable with, but this article should be read by anyone interested in the prison system. He knows what he is talking about.

(later) And so does Marcel Berlins, who doesn't fancy Titans either:- Marcel.


This article reveals a state of ego-driven chaos at the top of the country's most important police force. I have nothing to say about the rights and wrongs of this, but in view of the important role of the Met, why don't both of the unlovely protagonists retire now (money won't be a problem) and let the force acquire some stability?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Motoring News

The list of a day's work that I posted yesterday was not meant to be representative of the courts' workload. I was in a remand court, dealing for the most part with first appearances, committals, and sentencing. Elsewhere in the courthouse trials, youth courts, and private (e.g. local authority) process were being dealt with. In London traffic work has been concentrated into 'Gateway' courts, which is convenient for the prosecuting authorities but inconvenient for drivers who have to travel some distance to their case. In addition the advantage of magistrates' local knowledge has been lost. Under the rules (MNTI2) covering magistrates' continuing training and appraisal we are all supposed to do a bit of every type of work, to retain competence. That has simply been sidelined now. I have not heard a Without Due Care trial for several years; they used to be a regular part of our judicial diet.

I have heard on the grapevine that in the couple of weeks since the new guidelines came into force fines have shot up for many offences, and the courts' enforcement staff are viewing this with alarm. To make fines work, you need a combination of realistic fine levels in the first place, and vigorous enforcement. If someone on a low income is faced with a huge imposition, he is quite likely to give up, and make no attempt to pay.
I will give you a for-instance:-
A straightforward case of no insurance carries a guideline of a band C fine - one and a half weeks' Residual Weekly Income (RWI). Many of these cases result in postal pleas of guilty, and quite a few are proved in absence; it is common for the court to have little or no evidence of income. In such a case the RWI is deemed to be £350, so the fine will be £525, plus £70 costs plus £15 for the pesky Victim Surcharge - total £610. If there are other offences such as no licence, no MoT and so on, the fine will climb still higher. If the offender is in fact on benefit, this will all have to be unscrambled when the fines go unpaid, substituting the deemed £100 RWI of a benefit claimant. The workload will be considerable. Further, there remains an overriding duty to ensure that fines are 'readily payable' in a reasonable time. Not simple, I'm afraid.


After we refused bail to a violent character with previous for beating up his girlfriend and a few ordinary civilians, and the custody officers had taken him down, his mum, filing out of the gallery, looked sadly across to the bench and called "He's a good boy, sir - he never hurt nobody. He's a good boy."

Well, good as convicted robbers go.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Not Again!

I have just watched an excellent programme on BBC4 about the Lady Chatterley trial.

But why, why, why did the judge, after the verdict, bang a gavel?

For the hundredth time - No Court in England and Wales Uses a Gavel. Ever.

For heaven's sake - can't someone put a note on the BBC computer? Please?

What Did You Do Today Dear?

Well, he replied, I just happen to have a list here, so this is an (edited) idea of what I did:-

Female, 20, breach of curfew order
Female, 19, fraud x 5
Male, 20, No Insurance, no proper licence, common assault.
Male, 35, possess 3 x wraps Class A
Male, 23, possess Class C with intent to supply
Male, 36, harassment
Female, 31, assault x 2 (in A & E department)
Female, 29, drink drive, 101ug/100, assault PC.
Male, 28, No Insurance, vehicle defect.
Male, 43, Fraud x 9 (a really interesting one, too identifiable to blog)
Male, 28, Fail to stop for police, no licence, no insurance, careless driving, fail to identify driver
Male, 18, ABH
Male, 42, assault police x 2
Male, 19, Fraud (phone cards)
Male, 20, Criminal damage to bus
Male, 21, Theft, Assault x 2, harassment
Male, 34, Racially aggravated threatening behaviour
Male, 54, drink drive 82ug/100
Male, 32, drink drive 54ug/100, no insurance
Male, 48, drink drive, no insurance, no proper licence.
Male, 31, drive disqualified, no insurance
Female, 20, shoplifting
Male, 29, drink drive 89ug/100
Male, 40, forged ID
plus about ten unlisted extra cases, many in custody.

We were done by 5 pm though, which isn't too bad, considering that the above included a few legal points and a bail application or two.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

More Unintended Consequences

I am something of a connoisseur of the Law of Unintended Consequences, that iron law of nature that stands alongside the laws of Sod, of Murphy, and of Parkinson. This Government has been wrongfooted time and again as hastily cobbled-together legislation has proved to cause entirely unexpected problems in a field unthought-of by the original drafters.
But here's one that might just be useful. I recently dealt with a young man who was said to have breached his Community Order, consisting of a period of supervision plus unpaid work. Probation had had enough of him and asked us to revoke the order, and re-sentence the original offences. One of these was carrying a knife. The latest Guidelines have greatly increased the penalties for this offence, and the presumption in most cases is a prison sentence - and these Guidelines apply to all offences sentenced, as opposed to committed, after August 4th of this year.
So we felt able to make the order more onerous, with extra hours of work, and to point out to the offender exactly where the law now stands. I have asked Probation to keep me posted on his progress from now on. I have reasonable hopes that he may now get on with the order. If he does, fine. If he does not, inside he will go. Win-win, I call that.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Rumpole's Revenge

Uxbridge Magistrates' Court will see a media scrum today as Gary Glitter is brought from Heathrow Airport to sign the Sex Offenders' Register (in the event he sent his lawyer, but the scrum happened anyway). The same happened a few weeks ago when a paedophile was deported from Australia to the UK, and again when Naomi Campbell was sentenced for misbehaving on an aircraft a month or so back. Uxbridge has seen a good few famous faces over the years, usually due to its handling cases from Heathrow. Vinnie Jones and Peter Buck of R.E.M were each dealt with for boorish behaviour on aircraft (the latter being acquitted by a star-struck jury at the Crown Court). The dock has seen a steady stream of stars, including the late Linda McCartney, who failed to take the basic precaution of getting a staffer to carry her drug stash through Customs.
A pal who sits at Uxbridge tells me that in years gone by John Mortimer QC appeared to represent one such, and ran head-on into the legendarily formidable Laurence Crossley, Clerk to the Justices. Crossley took exception to Mortimer's rather grand insistence on getting on early, and kept him sitting around for the best part of the day. As a result nearly every Rumpole of the Bailey tale includes at least one gibe at the Uxbridge Magistrates; "not, in my experience, a notably soft-hearted or easily swayed tribunal" said Rumpole.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thanks, Chaps

We get a mention this morning in The Times Law section, in a piece about law-related blogs - that's nice.
If you have clicked across from the Times site, you will find that this is a biggish blog with over a thousand posts, varying from the factual, to the whimsical and the occasionally grumpy. If a particular subject interests you, try the search box above, and you might strike lucky.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Yet Another Cautionary Tale

I hate to labour a point, but this BBC report serves to reinforce the importance of getting legal advice before agreeing to a police caution. What can seem like a simple and relatively painless procedure may have unforseen and far-reaching consequences in these days of CRB checking. A solicitor will be able to advise whether it is appropriate to admit the offence, or whether it should be tested before an independent and impartial court. Sometimes of course a caution will be the best way out, but a lay person, alone and unrepresented in the inevitably intimidating environment of a custody suite, is in no position to make that judgement without professional advice.
Just one other thing - am I the only person to be astounded that this child's response to a slap from her father was to call the police?

(Later) - here's more.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Not Too Tricky

Whoever gets to sentence this (assuming a conviction, of course) won't have to waste too much time assessing seriousness, or whether it crosses the custody threshold.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

An Oldie But A Goodie

It's the Brixton riots. Streets covered in broken glass, vehicles overturned and set ablaze. The police on the front line have only rudimentary riot gear to protect them from a hail of bricks and bottles, and even a few petrol bombs.
One young officer cracks. He breaks from the line and runs as fast as he can away from the screaming mob, throwing down his shield and baton. Exhausted, he slumps to his knees in a shop doorway, sobbing in fear and shame. "Stand up that officer" booms a voice full of authority. "This is the Commander"

"Bloody hell" says the young PC. "I didn't realise I'd run that far".

DJ's Handbook

I am grateful to Andrew Keogh for the link to this guide for District Judges who sit in the Magistrates' Courts. Some of the content is specific to the professional judiciary, but for the most part it contains lots of common-sense stuff that is very useful to the rest of us. It is better than a lot of the training material that I have seen over the years. It's a big pdf, but well worth dipping in to.
This passage applies just as much to a court chairman as it does to a DJ:-
Owing to the considerable pressure on a district judge to deal with work expeditiously, there can be a temptation to speak first and think afterwards.
Wherever possible, it is helpful to avoid painting oneself into a corner. Rather than making a dogmatic statement (‘This is the position’), invite assistance from the advocate (‘I would be grateful for your assistance in this matter; it seems to me on fi rst consideration that . . ., but I would welcome your thoughts’). Wherever possible use open questions, i.e. questions that do not suggest any particular answer, rather than making a direct statement, until you are absolutely sure.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

More Judge Stuff

A colleague has forwarded this example of judicial testiness. I feel sympathy with Hizonner. Far too few professionals can read or write plain English these days. Harrumph!

And here's another judge who has taken a deterrent viewpoint.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Another Soft Judge

This sentence may just attract less than the usual level of criticism for soft sentencing. Then again it may not.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Magistrate on Fiddle - BBC

One of the violin players in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, performing at the proms, is a magistrate.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Oh My America!

As I type this I am watching Peter Ackroyd's programme about the Thames, and I have just been stirred by a shot of the memorial at Runnymede, celebrating 'Freedom Under The Law'.
I have been a lifelong admirer of the American dream, one that has delivered freedom and prosperity to unprecedented numbers of people, and has in the last century unselfishly spent blood and treasure to liberate the Europe from which its ideals and principles spring in large part.
That's why Magna Carta struck such a chord. The barbarians who currently hold power in America have junked more than 200 years' worth of freedom under the law in an obsession to avenge the unbearable hurt of 9/11. If the Founding Fathers could see what is being done in their name at Guantanamo, with its travesty of legal process, they would surely weep.
The memorial that moved me to write this was paid for by American lawyers. They owe it to their nation to redress the wrongs now being perpetrated.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


The latest Magistrates' Court Sentencing Guidelines (available here) came into force yesterday and later this week I shall use them in court for the first time. Nearly every magistrate has had a day's training and we all have our own copies, in a rather clumsy binder.
The basic principle is the same as before; it is right that courts across the country should take the same approach to sentencing, although courts have wide discretion to fit the circumstances of each case. One major difference is that we have to give reasons if we depart from the guideline range. The ranges can be pretty wide; from a medium community sentence to 26 weeks' custody in ABH cases, for example. There are some new ideas in the calculation of fines, and I suspect that fine levels will on the whole increase. It has always been a problem to assess the income of someone on benefit, who may for example be on £47 JSA per week (and nevertheless able to buy drink and or drugs!) so the new system presumes an income of £100 per week, to allow for the likely help he will have with rent, council tax and whatever. It's rough-and-ready, but may be a bit fairer than the old by-guess-and-by-god method. If we don't know the income we assume £350 per week. It's a pity the SGC didn't settle on £360, since that divides neatly by three, to give the plea discount.
The Sentencing Form that we prepare to give Probation our view when writing a report has been changed, and I foresee considerable scope for confusion over section 7, the assessment of seriousness.
Let's see how we get on.

You Can't Please Everyone........

I think the Mags will believe the police officer is evidence enough. Unless you have Mags who don't believe that all police officers are perfect and would never mislead or exaggerate ;)

This quote from the Criminal Solicitor dot Net site amused me, in the light of the constantly repeated complaints from police commentators who see magistrates and courts as relentlessly anti-police.
If defence briefs and the Old Bill all think the beaks are biased against them, then perhaps we might be getting things about right.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Prison Crisis (Part 42 of an Endless Series)

Today's Observer carries this piece about the intractable problem with prison capacity, which is entirely the fault of Government over the last decade or so, for creating more and more crimes, lengthening sentences, limiting parole, and doing sod-all to provide sufficient room for the resulting hordes of prisoners.
The article mentions predicted future numbers. A couple of years ago I was at a meeting and as part of the day we broke up into discussion groups. A couple of Civil Servants were in my group and I had an off-the-record glance at some spreadsheets graphing projected prison populations. I shan't quote details, but I wouldn't be surprised if the outturn in the next five years or so isn't nearer 110,000 than 100,000. You read it here first.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Bit Thin?

When a Bail Application is being made the Prosecutor may put the Crown's objections to bail, such as fear of failure to surrender, commit further offences, or interfere with witnesses. Very rarely, and usually in the case of mentally disordered people, there may be an application to remand them in custody for their own protection.
The other day, opposing bail for a man accused of carrying a bladed article, the CPS suggested a remand in custody 'for his own protection' because if he went out again with a blade it might be used against him. We thought that was just a bit too thin.

Friday, August 01, 2008


Commander Simon Foy, head of Scotland Yard's homicide and serious crime command, said: "We are disappointed by today's verdict but especially disappointed for Jill's family and friends. However, we respect the decision of the court."

Disappointed, Commander?
That's the sort of thing a football manager says when his team lose a big game.
This isn't a game. In the final analysis George stands convicted of nothing more than being an oddball and a loner.
I can understand front-line police officers taking a personal interest in a 'result' or its converse, having been involved in the emotional charge of a major investigation. Someone with the rank of Commander needs to have a broader view, a view that includes the possibility of a Not Guilty verdict being the right one.
In the interests of justice.

Plate Sin With Gold.....*

The Chief Magistrate, no less, told these druggies that charges against them have been dropped in favour of a really tough Conditional Caution, cooked up by the Police and CPS and administered in private, behind closed doors.

Meanwhile, I dealt with someone today for Class A possession of an amount estimated at five to ten pounds' worth. We fined him £100 (he is on £47 per week benefit) and £50 costs. Oh yes, and a £15 victim surcharge. He now has a criminal record (to be fair, he had one already) and will have £5 per week deducted from his munificent benefit.

* Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.