Friday, November 28, 2008

What the Hell is Happening?

This stupid and oppressive action by the police has at least been balanced by this decision by a Circuit Judge (to whom I will raise a glass next time that I have one such in my hand).
I am ashamed that my country's legal system has been so so shabbily misused, and I look forward to taking electoral revenge on the perpetrators.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Peter Hargreaves

Peter has contributed a lot of informed and thoughtful comment to this blog, and I and many others are grateful to him for that. He now says that he wants to take a break - fair enough Peter, and thanks.

Just one thing though - may I offer you the hospitality of the blog for a post on anything you like? No need to rush, but I am sure that I am not the only one who would like to see you set your own agenda for a change.



Later - I have it on good authority that Peter is likely to take up my invitation - ed.

Dramatis Personae (3)

Go down the discreet stairs next to Reception, and you enter the world of custody, where subjects of Her Majesty are detained while waiting to have the judiciary decide their fate, or, for the unlucky, waiting for transport to prison.. You will pass the Police Liaison office, usually staffed by a couple of experienced officers on a not-too-bad posting before they retire. They have powers of arrest, and access to the Police National Computer, essential to the Court's daily business. Then you come to a heavy steel grille, which will be electrically unlocked if the custodial officer thinks you might be all right to admit. The next grille will not unlock until the lock of the first has clicked into place, and the officer is sure of your bona fides.
The custody staff are a remarkably cheery bunch, considering the job they do, and they manage their charges with a mixture of firmness and sympathy. If you don't give them a hard time, they will treat you kindly, call you by your first name, and do their best to make the experience of being locked up bearable (and every prisoner starts off in Magistrates' Court cells, even the murderers). If you give them a lot of attitude, then firmness comes to the fore, as you would expect. Nevertheless, the system depends on compliance from those in custody, and mostly, that's what we get.
The cells are basic, without toilets, and with fittings that are carefully designed not to offer ligature points. There is a varnished wooden bench, and that's about it, apart from the plentiful graffiti, much of which is depressingly lacking in imagination. Prisoners' names are chalked on a board outside each cell, and there is a stark interview room for lawyers to see their clients. The toilet facilities offer limited privacy, for obvious reasons. Those in custody have a choice of ready-meals that are microwaved when required, and in deference to Human Rights various religious and dietary options are available. Most prisoner movements are in handcuffs and the guards wear wide wristbands, round which they fasten their half of the cuffs. That way if the prisoner chooses to pull on the cuff it hurts him a lot more than it does the officer. The vans sit outside waiting to be driven into the loading dock to collect or deliver their charges. They are very cramped and basic, each prisoner having less space that he would have in a normal toilet cubicle. When the London prisons 'lock out' as they often do, prisoners have to be driven long distances to alternative accommodation, and while a rough-and-ready approach is sometimes taken to a man who needs a pee, anything more serious requires a visit to a police station or prison that has a secure yard.
On the wall of reception is a plastic folder holding a dozen sheets of rough translation of common words. These sheets have been written by our regular interpreters, so the officer only has to ask his charge to point to a word, then he can look across to see the translation, be it 'toilet' 'food' 'lawyer' or whatever. Although I looked, none of them seemed to say 'I didn't do it'.
Almost every criminal court has this sub-world beneath. The job done there is essential, and I am glad that we have people who manage to do it with, on the whole, sympathy and good humour.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Worth Repeating

Thanks to Tony Tindale for quoting this letter (from the Telegraph)in the comments. It deserves greater prominence:-
Sir - I am a young barrister based in Nottingham. This week, I received my brand new 2009 edition of Archbold, the leading criminal law text, used by nearly all advocates and judges in English and Welsh court rooms.
Having taken my new barrister's bible out of its box, I cast an eye over the preface to this year's edition: "It has been a recurring theme of the preface to this work that there is far too much criminal legislation. The willingness of the Labour Government to continue its practice of legislating by trial and error has shown no signs of abating even in its eleventh year in office… The state of the criminal statute book is a disgrace. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 is the usual hotchpotch of measures, with no theme, with much of the detail tucked away from close scrutiny in the schedules, and consisting in large part of textual amendment to earlier legislation. Much of the amendment is by way of undoing this Government's earlier legislation."

These words should be viewed seriously by those who care about our system of criminal justice. The current fashion of legislating to grab headlines is having a devastating effect on justice.

David Outterside, Nottingham

Thursday, November 20, 2008


By coincidence, several of our courts were slow to get started yesterday, so like proper JPs we got ourselves coffees, sat round the big table, and gossipped. Well, grumbled, actually.
"Have you seen the papers?" asked Nigel. "It seems that two serious speeding offences will get you banned in future". Snorts of derision, and a comment of: "Just like now, then" came from across the table. Others chipped in with the fact that (as Any Fule Kno) the Guidelines (remember them?) issued a few months ago suggest (as did their predecessors) that serious speeding should attract six points, and that 2 x 6 = 12, and twelve points equals a totting-up ban. So why are the papers full of it this morning? Of course it's spin, and like most spin it covers up the real agenda. Currently the police only ticket the relatively low-end speeders and send the serious Toads to court. The new plan is to allow FPNs to go up to 6 points, and, if I read aright, for police/CPS 'Prosecution Teams' to issue driving bans without the expense and inconvenience of a court hearing. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Then Pam chipped in with: "What about the idea of prosecuting men who 'knowingly' use prostitutes who are under the 'control' of a pimp?" "What's the chance of the CPS proving Beyond Reasonable Doubt that Joe Punter knew, or asked, whether Olga or Ludmilla was working on her own account or for nasty Sergei?" We rapidly formed a consensus that very few, if any, convictions would result.
At this point a couple of clerks appeared to say that their cases were at last about to start, and we drifted off to our courtrooms.
What is it coming to when socially-aware, trained and responsible JPs have been driven to such cynicism? There is only so much spin and bullshit that can be directed our way before some of us begin to question what the hell we are doing with our time. In more than two decades I have never seen Bench morale so low - because if we don't feel trusted or respected by the Government we shall not trust or respect it in return.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Simple, Speedy, Summary

Reading about the latest incidence of piracy off the coast of Africa, I could not help thinking that the Royal Navy, in days of yore, knew all about simple, speedy, summary justice when pirates were taken.
Does a Type 42 destroyer have a yardarm?


Call it the zeitgeist, call it popular culture, call it peer pressure if you will: at all levels of society and in all cultures most people acquire their opinions and their attitudes from the people around them and from what they see in the media. Thoughtful and caring parents are often shocked to realise that when their carefully nurtured offspring reach about twelve years of age, the child's peers will begin to have an influence at least equal to, and often outweighing that of the parents.
These thoughts were prompted by the proliferation of 'Police Action' TV shows that I have mentioned before, and by last week's tragic case in which three young people died in a car that crashed during a police chase. The police are well aware of the risks involved in chases and have strict procedures to follow - it is a very fine decision to have to take, one that balances the real risk to the public from a chase (and there are a significant number of innocent-bystander deaths each year) against the injustice of letting an offender get away.
What concerns me a bit is that the more footage TV shows us of tearaways driving off with tyres smoking when the police try to stop them, the more some young lads will feel that the same is almost expected of them when they are flagged down.
Something similar applies to the popular soaps too - human interaction is usually verbally and emotionally intemperate. If we aren't careful we shall establish a new and unpleasant set of norms. Does society reflect the telly, or does telly reflect society? There's the rub, as the old West Midlands scribbler said.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Another Fine Mess

John, a fellow magistrate, has emailed me as follows:-

"I don't know if you have sat in a DVLA court since the new sentencing guidelines came into force but I did yesterday & I was pretty upset by how the fines have rocketed.
It was my first such session for quite a while so I'm going from memory but, as I remember them, the starting points for fines when we had no information regarding the means of the offender (which with these cases seems to be the rule rather than the exception) was:- 1 month's arrears £40
2 - 3 months' arrears £60
4 - 6 months' arrears £75
7 - 12 months' arrears £100
the equivalent figures using the new method for calculating fines based on the statutory disposable income of £350 are:-
1 - 3 months' arrears £175
4 - 6 months' arrears £435
6 - 12 months' arrears £875.
I'm pretty tough on motoring offences as I'm not a driver & have very little sympathy for offenders who fall into the "Mr. Toad" pigeon hole but to me these figures seem completely disproportionate. After all, the £175 figure could be charged even if as little as £10 tax was owing. Somebody is being screwed."

We don't do DVLA cases at my court but John's point about the new guideline fine levels is a good one. I have not seen any figures, but I imagine that the average fine has gone up a great deal since August. The consequences will not be fully apparent until the unpaid fines summonses start to be sent out in the New Year. Many offenders, especially those who commit low-level offences such as TV licence or car tax ones are not just poor but disorganised. The summons arrives, and is left on one side. The court then deals with the case in their absence, and deems their weekly income to be £350, as per the book. The fines notice is also lost or disregarded, and then it's for a fines court to sort out. The Chief Magistrate has often said that the guidelines are just that, rather than tramlines. I shall continue to use my judgment, in conjunction with my colleagues, and to impose fines that are reasonable and realistic in all the circumstances. And if we have to give our reasons for departing from the book, then I shall say that it is in the interests of justice - that's why I became a magistrate, after all.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Literally Shocking

I personally enjoyed the recently published list of the ten most irritating expressions at this moment in time. With all due respect, the number of people who use phrases that they shouldn’t of is a nightmare – the TV and papers are full of them 24/7. At the end of the day, it’s not rocket science to speak decent English. I try my best but does that make me fairly unique? Absolutely.

Friday, November 07, 2008


An Iranian politician has come to grief over a little matter of his false claim to an Oxford degree. Apparently the 'certificate' carried a spelling mistake, and that reminded me of a case from years ago when a man we convicted of an airline ticket fraud then turned out to have pleaded guilty to obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception among a handful of other charges. He claimed to have a degree in engineering, but his fake certificate spelt it 'engingneering'. Apparently he had been doing a perfectly good job for some years, but his employers had to sack him nevertheless.
I don't suppose computer tickets let you do it any more, but our man had altered the 'Y' signifying economy class, to 'F' for first, and had put a number 1 in front of the fare.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Just a Thought

Multi-channel television is stuffed solid with police-action programmes, of variable quality. Has anyone found out how much money the TV companies have paid across to the police? Or where it has gone?

Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged............

According to The Times, we are to be blessed with 2700 new judges, as the chairmen of Employment Tribunals and the like get a posh new job title. Something similar happened when the Stipendiary Magistrates were renamed as 'District Judge (Magistrates' Courts)' - snappy, eh?
I have to warn my judicial fellows that while being called a Judge may carry a bit of respec' at dinner-party level, it also makes you fair game for a monstering in the tabloids. EMPLOYMENT TRIBUNAL CHAIRMAN IN ROW is not a headline that I ever recall seeing, but CALL TO SACK JUDGE IN (INSERT PROBLEM HERE) ROW is much more likely.
Good luck lads. The boys and girls at The Sun are sharpening their pencils as you read this.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Fair Comment

Matthew Parris has written a piece for The Times about a magistrates' court. It's a pretty fair article, but I don't think that the two described as 'assistant magistrates' will be very pleased.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Real Character

I was sorry to read last week that Kevin Finnegan, the former boxer, had died at only 60. I never usually talk about a real case, but I think it is safe to describe my one and only encounter with him, since it took place about 20 years ago, and Kevin has since died.
In his retirement, Kevin carried on exercising his talent at primitive painting, and he regularly sold works around London. One day he was in a pub that had just bought one of his paintings, and a scuffle broke out, causing the landlord to call the police. A young PC approached Kevin, and said "Come on Kevin, out you go" and Kevin replied "Fuck off you cunt, I'm an artist." He was duly arrested for being drunk and disorderly, and appeared in front of me and two colleagues having pleaded not guilty. He defended himself, and claimed that it was common for local heroes to have a go at him, relying on the fact that age and drink had blunted his skills, and that like most boxers he avoided trouble outside the ring for fear of losing his licence. The officer gave his evidence, Kevin told his story, then it was time for the attractive lady prosecutor to cross-examine. The PC had recited the Hendon mantra for drunkenness, and that was the Crown's line of questioning:- "Mr. Finnegan, the officer has said that you were unsteady on your feet". "Look, love, I'd just got up off the floor." "Mr. Finnegan, the officer said your breath smelt of alcoholic liquor." "Yes, I'd had a drink, but I wasn't drunk." "The officer said your speech was slurred." Pause.
"My speech is slurred now, love. I fought Marvin Hagler twice, you know."
By this time everyone including the prosecutor was grinning from ear to ear. Since he had answered the allegation we found him not guilty, and off he went, declining the chance to claim his bus fare to court.
I never saw him again.