Monday, September 29, 2008

Not A Dry Eye In The House

We were helping out another court by dealing with an hour's worth of TV licence cases while the lawyers sorted out our main business for the day. As is normal, most defendants didn't appear, and those who did were the usual bedraggled army of the poor and disorganised. I dislike the whole business, and I remain firmly of the opinion that any BBC executive with budget responsibility should be forced to spend a day a year in a TV licensing court, to see the people who cough up the money he spends.
The defendant attended, and pleaded guilty. She was probably about thirty, and looked older, as the poor tend to do. She keeps her council flat and two kids on weekly benefit of just a little more than the price of a year's TV licence, and although she has a licence now she missed a few months early in the year, and a summons followed. I asked her what she had to say, and she said, with a rueful shake of the head "I've had a terrible few days. My aunt died, then my car packed up, then I cut myself in the kitchen. I've got money troubles, then on Saturday my little boy's puppy was really ill and we took him in a taxi to the vet's. The vet had to put him down, and that cost me £150". My colleagues and I were doing fine until that puppy cropped up - it was almost incredible, but her tale was too sad to be made up. So we fined her as little as we decently could, and then, dammit, had to impose a £15 victim surcharge. Perhaps the fools who dreamt up the surcharge might care to spend a few hours at court too. A bit of reality might do them good.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Good Man Comes To Grief

This blog, along with almost all police blogs, inevitably focuses on the mad the bad and the sad in society. When faced, as police and magistrates are, with a virtually unending parade of people whose behaviour has been unpleasant, inexplicable, confused, selfish, wicked, and downright nasty, it is easy to form a jaded view of our fellow man.
Many of our clientele fit into the above categories: - many, but not all.
A while ago we saw a man in his fifties charged with a traffic offence - the details do not matter. This man had led a blameless life, without any kind of brush with the law, until he came to face me and my colleagues. His plea was one of not guilty, so there was a trial. In the course of the proceedings he more or less admitted the elements of the offence, so despite his lawyer's best efforts we convicted him - a result that did not surprise the lawyer, nor, I suspect, the defendant.
He is a dignified, hard working, honest family man. He is rightly proud of his respectability, and I am pretty sure that his hopeless plea of not guilty was based on his inner faith that as a decent citizen the justice system and he would never collide. But traffic law is different, and liability can be absolute. He had his day in court, and although we kept the fine right down at the bottom of the scale he still had to pay a few hundred pounds in costs to the CPS, not to mention the ludicrous victim surcharge.
He will never read this, but if he did, I would like to be able to tell him that despite losing his case he left the court with his dignity and his good name intact. I wish him well.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Predictable and Sloppy Headlines - no. 144

Devout Muslim spared jail over child flogging

A devout Muslim convicted of child cruelty for encouraging two boys to beat themselves in a religious ceremony walked free from court today.

Syed Mustafa Zaidi was given a 26-week prison sentence, suspended for 12 months.

It's a shame that the usually-decent Indie had to print this rubbish. It's all there - walked free from court, spared prison.

When responsible liberal newspapers adopt the tabloid mob agenda, we can see just how far our standards have been corrupted by the headline-at-any-costs brigade.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Just Sign Here, And Off You Go

The singer George Michael, a man of somewhat exotic habits with a taste for illicit drugs and cottaging has been arrested again in the unglamorous surroundings of a public toilet. Police decided to caution him, despite his previous convictions for drug-related offences.
Meanwhile in the North-East a footballer was arrested for assaulting a woman. Guess what? Police decided to caution him.
When I am in court next week, I shall probably see scruffs from the local estate charged with Class A possession. If they have previous, they will very probably get a community order involving a drug treatment element. I am also very likely to see someone charged with assault in one of its many variants. No caution for him. But then he isn't famous is he?
Justice belongs in a court open to the public in front of an impartial and independent bench that has sworn to do justice "without fear or favour, affection or ill-will", not behind closed doors in a police station.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Prison Crisis - Fudge and Muddle

The Times has an article today about the continuing prison problem. The plain fact is that prisons are already more than full, that this prevents them doing anything much about rehabilitation, and that the authorities are desperately using every possible wheeze to let prisoners out, while pretending that they are not. The Home Office projections for prisoner numbers are near enough meaningless (I have unofficially seen much higher ones) and the proposed new prisons (if they are ever built) will be full on the day after they open.
As I have blogged before, a magistrates' court can impose a six month prison sentence. Most defendants plead guilty, so that comes down to four months. Release is automatic at halfway, so make that two. Then add the early release that was brought in as a response to the sheer impossibility of cramming any more bodies in, and you end up with about six weeks. No wonder the public are cynical.
It's just as bad at the Crown Court. I was chatting to a solicitor the other day about someone we both know who received a fifteen month sentence, and was out in four. That just makes a mockery of the system. Until recently a prisoner released on licence would be returned to finish his sentence if he reoffended in breach of that licence. Now he goes back for no more than 28 days, for no other reason than the fact that there is nowhere to put him for longer.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Call Me Irresponsible

I subscribe (under an assumed name) to a website that is devoted to helping motorists to break the law and get away with it. They peddle a device that they claim detects police enforcement machinery, among other things. The emails that they send have also included a spray that purports to make number plates unreadable by speed cameras. The latest message they have sent says this (edited, but only for brevity) :

Mobile Speed Trap Alert:

I would not normally send out an email newsletter to notify you of one specific new Mobile Speed Trap site. The reason is that we add several -- sometimes more than 20 -- mobile traps to the xxxx Locators database in a given day, and I am sure that it would start getting on most Members nerves if I sent out an email to announce each one of them! However on this occasion, because it is on such a high traffic road and stands to catch so many people out, I am going to alert you to it specifically.
It’s on the xxxx , which is the main road that runs along-side and feeds the massive xxxxxxxx shopping centre in xxxx, and the speed limit is 40mph.
The Police have found a really crafty place to sit. They can get traffic from BOTH directions – the high traffic Bxxx and the high-ish traffic Axxx.
There shouldn’t be as big a problem for drivers to spot the trap when driving on the Axxx as it is quite visible from a distance.
However, when driving on the xxxxx road, you really can’t see the trap until the very last moment, after they have nabbed you. The Police have driven all the way around a housing estate and over a big pavement to be able to position themselves in such a way that they see you before you would realistically see them.
The position has been added to the xxxx Speed Camera database.
If you have (one of the devices we sell) then you will be warned of this
mobile trap in Advance. Likewise, if you have (another device we sell) you will receive a warning if they aim their speed gun at your car (or possibly
from the “beam spread” when they aim at the car in front of you).
Happy motoring...

This man's business has the sole object of helping people to break the law and avoid detection and conviction. He obviously gets a decent living out of it.
So why stop there? Why not sell other stuff to help lawbreakers? Gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, hoods to prevent CCTV getting a look at you, wipes to remove DNA traces, and any gadget you can devise to help drink drivers escape detection?
Please don't tell me that speeding is somehow different. It's against the law. Period.
This idiot's website is probably legal. But I do hope that whe he is next a crime victim he doesn't have the bloody cheek to call the police. He has already shown which side he is on.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Miles Off-Topic

Sorry, but I couldn't resist this from Wikipedia, especially the last sentence:
The Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne (R21) was the lead ship of the Royal Navy's Majestic class of light aircraft carriers. Operating from 1955 until 1982, she was the third and final conventional aircraft carrier[I] to serve in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Melbourne also served as the RAN flagship, and was the only British Commonwealth naval vessel to sink two friendly warships in peacetime.

Thanks to the exotic bogol for the heads-up.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


The death of barrister Mark Saunders, shot by police officers after he had fired a shotgun from the window of his flat, is being investigated by the IPCC, and will then be the subject of an inquest, so it would not be right to speculate about exactly what happened.
Just one thing though: here's a photograph of armed officers during the incident:

Can any of our police readers explain why it was necessary for some of these officers to wear the sort of balaclavas that used to be favoured by the IRA? How does this help to establish the police as protective and supportive of the citizenry? Doesn't this kind of paramilitary posturing drive a wedge between the police and the public? And isn't that harmful in the long term?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Street Wisdom

This blog post is a useful reminder that whatever the legal political and managerial position, coppers on the street, at night, sometimes alone, can find themselves in a very scary fix.

So Far, So Good

The Daily Mail website carries a thought-provoking headline this morning:-

Scientists turn on the £5bn Big Bang machine... but we're still here

So indeed we are - but was the headline written before or after the switch was thrown?

Was there another, ready to go? Saying perhaps:-

Oh Bugger!

I think we should be told.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Apocrypha (25)

Usher:- "There's a Mandarin interpreter in the next case sir - Mr. Ng" (he pronounced the two letters separately). "Rather an unusual name, sir". "Not in China it isn't" said the chairman. Mr.Ng is normally a serious kind of chap, but on this occasion he broke into a smile.


They are having an open day at Kingston Crown Court next Saturday. This is lifted from the HMCS website:

Kingston Crown Court Open Day - Saturday 13 September 2008, 10.00 a.m. - 4.30 p.m.

An historic fleet of police cars will greet members of the public taking the opportunity to see behind the scenes of one of London's busiest courthouses on 13 September.
The court will be hosting an exciting programme of activities that includes:
* Crown and magistrates' court mock trials from 10.00 a.m. where visitors can be jurors or guess the sentence.
* The Children's Court - youngsters can dress up in wigs and gowns, have their photograph taken, join in on specially prepared sentencing exercises and put their parents in the dock.
* Behind the scenes guided tours leaving every 15 minutes, exploring the courtrooms, facilities for witnesses and technology such as video link hearings for defendants in custody.
* Local magistrates who volunteer to play a pivotal role on behalf of the local community will explain what's involved and how they take crucially important decisions about people's futures.
* The Cells Experience - visitors can visit a cell, sit in a prison van, look at grisly exhibits from the Wandsworth Prison Museum, speak to cells staff or even sample the food that is served up to prisoners!
Entry and activities are free of charge. No advance booking is required and refreshments will be served all day.

Sounds fun as well as informative. Anyone contemplating applying to become a magistrate will be able to find out more about it.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Collective Responsibility

A while ago I posted about dealing with the idiots who think it's clever to point bright lasers at passing aircraft. The post here attracted a fair bit of comment. This is what the Court of Appeal said about a case sentenced at Snaresbrook by, as it happens, a judge who holds a helicopter pilot's licence:
1. THE RECORDER OF BIRMINGHAM: On 25th March 2008 at Thames Magistrates Court both applicants pleaded guilty to the one offence of recklessly acting in a manner likely to endanger an aircraft. They were committed to the Crown Court for sentence where, on 15th May at Snaresbrook, they were each sentenced to six months in custody. In Hussain's case that was a term of imprisonment. In Miah's case it was detention in a young offender institution. Their applications for leave to appeal those sentences have been referred to the full court.
2. The facts of the case are really quite simple. At about 9 o'clock on the evening of Saturday 12th January 2008 a police helicopter was engaged in a night operation in the Whitechapel area when it was suddenly struck by a bright green laser beam being shone from the ground. It was dark and the cockpit was dimly lit in accordance with the standard operating procedure for night flying so that the pilot could see out. The laser was so bright that it completely illuminated the cockpit, making it extremely difficult for the pilot to read his flight instruments or to see out of the aircraft. The pilot, Captain Paul Watts was forced to take urgent emergency action to avoid the hazard. He closed one eye to minimise the loss of all of his night vision and turned the helicopter away from the laser beam to make it more difficult for the beam to illuminate the cockpit. The applicants, however, continued to shine the laser at the helicopter for several more minutes as the pilot manoeuvred to maintain flight safety. Both accepted through their counsel at the sentence hearing that they acted jointly and at different times each of them had used the laser passing it between the two of them.
3. While the pilot positioned the helicopter to prevent the beam entering the cockpit again, police officers on board radioed for assistance to apprehend the offenders and using the helicopter's video camera and thermal imaging equipment they filmed what was going on and assisted officers on the ground to catch the applicants. Throughout that time (several minutes) the applicants continued to target the helicopter. The police on the ground arrested both of the applicants but by then they had discarded the laser pen. Fortunately this action was observed from the helicopter and the laser pen was recovered.
4. The learned judge, who plainly took a great deal of care over this case, had before him a report and also evidence in person from Captain Brian Baldwin, a former test pilot with over 35 years of experience as a professional helicopter pilot. He spoke of the great danger to a pilot when night vision is lost and the risks that this creates, especially to pilots of police helicopters who more often have to work at lower altitudes. It requires little imagination to comprehend how a catastrophe could easily occur. From Captain Baldwin the learned judge learnt that incidents of this sort have increased rapidly in the last three years and that in particular the use of the green laser pen causes the most trouble and distraction for pilots. In passing sentence the learned judge said this:
"The message should go out that people tempted to target helicopters in this idiotic and dangerous way should expect to receive custodial sentences."
5. Few cases of this sort come before the court, in part because it is often difficult to apprehend those on the ground. One such case was referred to in the court below, the case of Voice. That case also concerned a helicopter in East London. At first instance Voice was sentenced to four months' imprisonment, but on appeal that sentence was set aside. There are however two very important distinctions to be made between that case and the present one. First, it was accepted in Voice that the appellant had the torch which happened to have a very bright beam for a legitimate if not laudable reason. He was a member of a residents association trying to deal with disturbances which arose at the block of flats where he lived. By contrast, these two applicants had no legitimate reason for having the laser pen. As the learned judge found, the fact that they discarded it before they ran away is the clearest possible evidence that they knew that what they were doing was wrong. Secondly, in Voice the helicopter flew through and out of the beam of light and the beam did not follow the aircraft. The evidence in this case shows that the laser beam followed the helicopter even when the pilot was trying to manoeuvre away from the beam. This activity was not a transitory moment but lasted for several minutes. In Voice the beam of light fell on the helicopter through negligence, whereas here the beam of light was deliberately aimed at the helicopter.
In our judgment the learned judge was right to distinguish the present case from that of Voice and right to make it clear that custodial sentences will usually follow when offenders committing this offence are caught.
6. Both applicants have previous convictions. Hussain is 21. He has convictions for taking a vehicle without consent, burglary, resisting arrest, attempting to obtain by deception and two offences of criminal damage. Miah, who is 19, has offences for assault with intent to resist arrest, burglary, theft and again an offence of criminal damage. Those past convictions have little bearing on the decision we make but it cannot be said that these two applicants are normally law abiding, hard working citizens. Likewise, personal circumstances and personal mitigation will carry less weight in this case than it may in some others.
7. In our view this offence does pass the custody threshold and cannot be properly dealt with by any lesser penalty. Having regard to their pleas of guilty and the limited previous offending, we conclude that the sentence of six months was the least that could properly have been imposed. Therefore these two applications are rejected.

The case referred to in my post involves a passenger carrying jet, which looks to me to be a notch or two higher up the scale.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

From The Sublime to the Gor'blimey

I was in the pub earlier, soothing away the tensions occasioned by a needlessly obstructive barrister who added to the stress of a disorganised day.
Peace came dropping slow, sip by sip. Gentle banter with good friends started to ease away stress.

Then disaster. An attractive lady, dressed in virginal summer white: - chic, soignée, and very decorative, came to the bar.

"Can I get a large white Rioja?" enquired la belle dame sans articulacy.

Crash! My mood evaporated in a moment.

Can I get? Can I sodding well get?

Bah! and twice bah!

A plague upon you, pretty lady. You should know better. And now I am fed up.

And it's your fault.

Respect? Do Me a Favour!

The judge said that Mr al-Zayat had visited Aspinall’s on an irregular but frequent basis since October 1994. Up to 2006, he had gambled £91.5 million and lost £23.2 million.
His gambling had grown until, in 1999 and 2000, he was gambling in excess of £1 million in a single night.
“His appetite for gambling was such that he was known to some as a ’whale’," the judge said. "Not surprisingly he was regarded by the club as an important client who demanded and was shown respect.”
(from The Times)

That's not respect. It's greed mixed with fear.

Billionaires and street crack dealers all kid themselves that they can attract respect. They don't. The 'respect' disappears when the money runs out or when the gun runs out of bullets.

An overworked and modestly paid district nurse deserves and gets more real respect in a week than some useless parasites earn in their whole sad lives.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Trials and Tribulations

My court is not, fortunately, one of those suffering a major drop in business due to the proliferation of cautions and other out-of-court 'justice'. Our Family and Youth panels (neither of which I am involved with) are loaded with business, and many of the cases they deal with take two or more days; some family cases are listed for four or five. In the usual run of things this would be a natural for a District Judge, because it can be difficult to assemble a lay bench of three for that many days, but at the moment there are more multi-day cases listed than there are DJs to hear them.
Those of us who sit in the adult court are currently seeing a lot of Domestic Violence trials, which are usually charged as Common Assault. This prevents the defendants from electing jury trial, saving a lot of money, and keeping things relatively simple. The judges prefer it that way too.
Once the prosecution and the defence have had their go, we might be addressed by the clerk to remind us of the elements of the offence, and the standard of proof, then we troop outside to consider our verdict. We use a simple structure. Firstly, identify and agree the legal issue - what has to be proved. Then we consider the agreed facts, and put those to one side. Then to the disputed facts; we look at the evidence and discuss any points that are clearly made out, and any anomalies. In DV cases there is usually little more to go on than two conflicting stories, because the only two people who know what really happened are (alleged) victim and defendant. Evidence of injury may be helpful, especially if it is in the form of a doctor's report. Police photographs taken at the scene can also help, but are frequently of lousy quality. It is not possible to age a bruise from its colour, even though we all know how they tend to go blue, brown, yellow and fade. Unfortunately this occurs at different rates in different people, so it is evidentially useless. DV victims sometimes appear to be minimising or confusing their evidence, which might be because they had second thoughts once tempers had cooled and drink had worn off, to find the CPS refusing to drop the case despite a withdrawal statement. I recall one such where the victim appeared on a witness summons, and told us that she heard lover boy battering at the front door, finally went to answer it, and woke up in the kitchen with her back to the fridge, and the beginnings of a black eye. She didn't remember any more than that. Not Guilty then - no evidence of an assault.
So after looking at the evidence the Chairman will take his colleagues' views, then ask if the Crown has proved its case beyond reasonable doubt. Whatever the answer, we agree and write down our reasons (about a third of a side of A4 is plenty). Then we go back in and tell them what we have decided. If it's guilty, there will probably be a three week adjournment to prepare reports with a view to IDAP or some other community penalty. After a trial I am a strong believer in the principle that at least one of the convicting bench should sit on the sentence. In some areas clerks try to discourage this, but there is a real danger that the report writer will come up with something that doesn't reflect the reality of the evidence that we heard.