Friday, February 27, 2009

Piston Broke

A man was brought before us having been found staggering and occasionally falling over along a busy dual carriageway one night. He was arrested for his own safety and put in a cell to sober up.
I cast a weary glance over the court list and I saw that he had been charged under the Licensing Act 1872. I looked it up when I got home on the ever useful lawindexpro site and found this:-

12. Every person found drunk in any highway or other public place, whether a building or not, or on any licensed premises, shall be liable to a penalty not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale.

I could not help reflecting on the fact that our Government has spent more than a decade and a lot of money in a legislative frenzy trying to clamp down on the unruly populace, when perfectly serviceable Victorian statutes like this are are still available.

(later) Here's a similar point I made a 18 months ago:-
I have complained time and again over the Government's habit of passing new (and usually useless) laws every time that something alarms the tabloids. Now we have a serious, albeit bungled, attempt to blow up a lot of people and what do we read? The first man to be charged has been charged under the 1883 Explosive Substances Act. I rest my case.

Justice Strides Ahead

A slightly scruffy young man was brought up from the cells. His hands were firmly in his pockets, so I told him, as one does, to take them out.
"Sorry" he said. "They took away my belt downstairs and I'm holding up my trousers". So he was, and as the hilarity subsided in the courtroom, I said: "that's the best excuse I've ever heard. Please leave your hands where they are".

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Apocrypha (26)

Several of us were hanging around the coffee machine the other day, and two colleagues were talking about a TV programme about the Crown Prosecution Service. At that moment a senior clerk walked in. "Comedy, is it?" he asked.

Even The MA is Stirring

In the past the Magistrates' Association has been criticised for being a bit too cosy in its relationship with the powers-that be. The new Chairman, John Thornhill, shows signs of a more robust approach; here he is in The Times.

Enthusiastic Plug

The erosion of our ancient liberties is at last beginning to edge its way into public consciousness. Modern Liberty's site is here.

It matters.

Monday, February 23, 2009

And Here's One For Connoisseurs of Chutzpah

David Blunkett - yes, that's right, the one with the guide dog and the mistress - says that we are in danger of becoming a Big Brother society.
Well, dang mah britches!
Have a look at what happened on your watch, Dave. Listen to a few of your old speeches about ID cards and the rest. Recognise anything?

Powerful Stuff

Sir Ken McDonald QC, the just-retired Director of Public Prosecutions, has a powerful piece in The Times today, calling for prosecutions of some of the people whose management of our banking system went way beyond what was reasonable, and became reckless.
Apart from the main thread of the piece, he makes a number of points about this Government's approach to criminal justice:-
In Britain we had an additional burden: legislators who preferred criminal justice to be an auction of fake toughness, so long as the toughness was not too tough to design. So no one likes terrorists? Let's bring in lots of terror laws, the tougher the better. Let's lock up nasty people longer, and for longer before they are charged. Let's stop medieval clerics winding up the tabloids. Let's stop off-colour comedians outraging homophobic preachers. Let's pretend that outlawing offensiveness makes the world less offensive.
This frequently made useful headlines. But it didn't make our country or any other country a better or safer place to live. It didn't respect our way of life. It brought us the War on Terror and it didn't make it any easier for us to progress into the future with comfort and security.
Our legislators faltered because they seemed to ignore the fact that what makes good politics doesn't always make good policy. And they didn't want to tackle the more complex issues that really affect safety in people's lives. It was easier to throw increasingly illiberal sound bites at a shadowy and fearsome enemy.
In Britain, no one has any confidence that fraud in the banks will be prosecuted as crime. But it is absolutely critical to public confidence that it should be. If there was fraud in RBS or in any of the other failed banking institutions, if there was fraudulent misselling or corruption or any other criminal activity, it needs to be uncovered and dealt with. The alternative is the worst possible lesson for our national life.
Do people believe this will happen? No, they don't - and that is a damning and corrosive conclusion, encouraging deep cynicism towards our national institutions. For all the fashionable talk of rebalancing criminal justice in favour of victims, for all the talk of community engagement and targeting offenders, this is the acid test.
Forget the paranoiac paraphernalia of national databases, identity cards and all the other liberty-sapping addictions of the Home Office. Forget the rhetoric and do something useful. If the Government really wants to protect people beyond armoured-vest posturing, here is the opportunity.
Sir Ken is a distinguished lawyer who knows and understands the system. His remarks above are a devastating condemnation of the Blair/Straw/Blunkett/Clarke/Reed/Smith posturing and gesture politics that has done so much to damage the criminal justice system, and so little to protect the public.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Yellow Card

Jon has put on the following comment:-
Anyone else think the comments section here gets more like Private Eye's "From the Message Boards" item by the day?

On reflection, I think that he may well be right, as a number of recent topics have descended into personal wrangling, or have drifted way off-topic. Worse, they have become boring. Hitherto I have only deleted very few comments, nearly all of which broke my rule that you can be as rude as you like about me but not about each other.
I think that the comments are a great asset to the blog; we hear from magistrates, solicitors and barristers, court clerks, the occasional judge (who calls himself anon) and even an MP, as well as a cross-section of the greater Web population. I am a veteran of Usenet and a moderator of one group, and I don't want this place to descend into the kind of unruly squabbling shop that exists over there.
So I am going to tighten up the comments. Reasoned argument, jokes, and questions are all fine, but the care-in-the-community type rants will be deleted, and repeat offenders will find their IP address blocked. I shall try to do it with a light touch, and if you think I have been unfair, please send me an email and I will have another look at it.
That's it - retournons a nos moutons.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Walked Free" Yet Again

Regular readers will know that I am routinely infuriated by the ubiquitous journalistic cliché "walked free from court". This phrase embodies so much that is wrong with unprofessional journalism. You could use it about someone who was acquitted, or bailed, or given a community penalty, but it is always used to suggest a let-off. PCr has linked in a comment to this report, which clearly implies that the judge hasn't done his job. But have another look. The judge deferred sentence because the reports he had seen suggested that this defendant might be benefiting from drug treatment. It is a no-brainer that a multiple offender with an addiction will carry on offending until the addiction is addressed, so the judge used his discretion to give the treatment a chance to work. What a deferred sentence says is, to paraphrase: "these are the court's expectations:- you will do a, you will not do b or c. You will not reoffend" Meet those expectations and you can expect a non-custodial sentence. Fail and in you go.
That may be walking free from court, for the moment at least, but given the awful problems of addiction, isn't it sometimes worth a try? Some succeed, many fail, but weaning someone off heroin will do more to protect the public than any shortish prison sentence.
And don't tell me that the answer is a long sentence - dream on, it won't happen in the next two decades. Treasury says no.

So What Do We Actually Do, Then?

When my son nudged me into starting this blog four years ago, I didn't need a lot of persuasion, because I had been aware for a long time that there is widespread ignorance of what we do in the criminal courts, and why and how we do it. I wanted to shed a little light, which shocked a few people at first.
Every magistrate's workload is unique, because it is dependent on the court and on the individual. A court might be city-centre urban with the attendant problems (such as Haringey or Camberwell Green) suburban (such as Sutton) or predominantly rural (e.g. Hereford). Dover has the port (smuggling and immigration scams) Crawley has Gatwick (ditto). Courts in Suffolk know all about moving pigs without a licence, and those in Devon and Cornwall are pretty familiar with what tourists can get up to after an all day session on the beer. Swindon and Newport Pagnell (now Milton Keynes) justices know all anyone could need to know about motorway offences. Their Worships in Grimsby know about permissible fishing practices, and are used to dishing out eye-watering fines to those who abuse the rules. The individual magistrate is expected to take a fair share of all the work, but factors such as experience and membership of Youth or Family panels will affect the precise mix.
The work breaks down into remands (high-volume work, perhaps 40 or 50 cases a day, not a lot of decision making other than the vital issue of bail or whether to send the case up to a higher court) trials (can take anything from half an hour to several days, and often collapse for one reason or another) sentencing with the help of Pre Sentence Reports from Probation, non-CPS work such as local authority, bus or train operators, environmental and health and safety offences. Family and Youth magistrates have to be specially trained, and some magistrates spend a good proportion of their time on these sorts of cases. There are also a lot of miscellaneous but important jobs such as considering applications for warrants, or for confiscation of ill-gotten cash (POCA).
Someone in the comments asked what my acquittal rate was. Of course, I have no idea, because I only spend a minority of my time on trials, and verdicts are dependent not on my whim, or that of my colleagues, but on the efficiency of the prosecutors and the efficacy of the defence brief, if there is one, on throwing doubt on the evidence. I hope that my acquittal rate is zero when the case is proved beyond reasonable doubt, and 100% when it isn't.
When we are not on the bench (and there is inevitably a bit of hanging around) we drink coffee and grumble or gossip as the mood takes us. And that's about it, really, if you don't count the committees, the training, the community involvement, and the rest of it.
I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Borrowed Without Shame

I have lifted this from a judicial website; I hope that I may be forgiven.

JPs did a splendid job – except, apparently, in
Middlesex. It got so bad that in 1780 the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke announced in the House of Commons that the Middlesex Justices were “the scum of the earth... unworthy of any employment and ignorant they could scarcely write their own names”. To put it into context, Middlesex was the crime capital of Britain at that time, rather like Johannesburg is to South Africa today. Law and order was losing the fight against crime, when along came Henry Fielding. Here was an honest man who employed a group of men to catch criminals and he then tried them at Bow Street. Those found guilty were sent to prison or the gallows. There are no statistics about his acquittal rate.

What's an acquittal? Am I allowed to do one?

I must ask my clerk.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Base Metal

The formerly excellent Policeman's Blog has, since its founder decamped to Canada, unfortunately started to slip into the chippy and negative mindset of too many other police blogs. Here's a recent quote:-
A few posts back, we highlighted the sickening caustic soda gang rape case - in which the attackers smirked their way through court and ended up getting pathetic sentences.
Gadget's always banging on about the softness of sentencing, and Bystander (he's a magistrate) usually posts some (I'm sure well-meaning) comment on there about how it's not down to the courts, it's unprofessional of a senior(ish) copper to moan etc etc.
But it is down to the courts, isn't it?

So here's a couple of points:-
I too have reservations about the sentences in the case that is referred to (although the 'smirking' is a reference to tabloid reports: some defendants show bravado, and some grin through the rictus effect of fear. Either way, it's irrelevant). That case is way above my place in the judiciary, so my opinion is not particularly important. What does matter is that the case is to be referred to the Court of Appeal who will, if necessary, amend the sentences. That's the system working as it is meant to work.
I occasionally (not usually - perhaps four or five posts in two years) comment on Gadget's blog because I am disturbed that an officer of Inspector rank seems to have so little understanding of the proper interaction between the police and the judiciary. Gadget has in the past allowed some intemperate comments (in particular on the Coffill case) that appeared to condone summary mob justice administered by police officers. Fortunately those posts were removed as feelings evidently cooled.
And no, it isn't down to the courts, is it? Sentencers do their job within a web of guidelines, precedents and case law. We don't just rummage in the box for a sentence with the defendant's name on it; we follow a carefully devised structure to set the case in its proper context. I am not insulted by the apparent contempt in which I am evidently held by many police officers, because I am comfortable that I understand and apply the rules. I am unhappy though, that some front-line officers allow their frustrations to boil over into a thirst for vengeance and a contempt for the public they are there to serve and the judicial system that is there to see justice done. That's unhealthy.

Later:- By the way - what happened here then?

Fame and Misfortune

The Sun runs a front-page splash today about a 13 year old child who impregnated a 15 year old child and has now become a father. There are photographs of parents and child, and lip-smacking copy about this event.
Now if any of the people in this story, father, mother, or child, appeared in my court as defendants witnesses or victims I would be expected to announce an order, punishable with the weight of the law, that nothing might be published that would serve to identify any of the young people involved.
This is not just a 'story', but a tragedy for a number of people, above all this helpless baby. I don't know a lot about family law, but I do hope that the courts are able to wrap a legal cocoon about this unfortunate infant, to prevent it from becoming a star turn in the grotesque freakshow that our mass media now embody.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

See You Later, Mr. Chips

This is a News story about truancy. I have nothing to add to what I said here and here. I think that social mores have far more to do with this than anything the courts have to offer.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Off The Rails

Network Rail has claimed that there has been a considerable increase in the number of incidents where drivers and pedestrians dodge barriers or ignore red lights at level crossings. They have released some scary CCTV footage of near-suicidal behaviour. The people who do this are either terminally lacking in imagination, or grossly over-optimistic about their judgment; apart, that is, from the drunk, drugged, or plain bewildered. To most of us, whether or not to push your luck with an oncoming train is a no-brainer. A minority just don't get it.
But here is the man from Network Rail:-
Network Rail wants longer driving bans for those jailed for motoring offences.
Chief executive Iain Coucher said: "Every week we see people who ignore warning signs and lights or drive round barriers at level crossings just to save a few minutes.
"This behaviour has the potential for massive damage, disruption and death. We think that the judiciary penalties received need to reflect the seriousness of these crimes and are calling on the judiciary to consider all these factors when handing down sentences."

Now that's what I call a kneejerk reaction. The idea that heavier penalties deter offending is embedded in our culture, and very often wrong. If the idea of being hit by a hundred tons of train doing 60 mph doesn't deter you, I don't think that an extra year's driving ban is likely to do the trick any more than the reclassification of cannabis is likely to make stoners give up the weed. Breaking the rules at a rail crossing already carries a non-judicial penalty of death. We JPs can't top that.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Downfall of a Master Criminal (no. 4 of a series)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when a couple from the less exalted strata of society have a difference of opinion, usually during the evening, and often after consuming drink or drugs, and when that difference goes from the verbal to a screaming match, to shoves, slaps and worse, someone will call the police. The police will always attend, following their strict Domestic Violence protocols, and usually arrive to cries of "I want him (or her) done" and the like.
Such was the case last week, when Yasmin sent for the Met. She answered the doorbell and invited the officers inside. Unfortunately she and her paramour Duncan had overlooked the rocks of crack cocaine and the drug-smoking paraphernalia on the living room table. The PCs decided that this merited their attention even more than the alleged assault, and a subsequent search of the house revealed some thousands of pounds in cash in an upstairs room, as well as scales and plastic self seal bags.
So Yasmin got her wish: Duncan was done, as was she, but for Possession With Intent to Supply, and the cash was seized with a view to its being forfeited. The assault seems to have dropped off the radar.
So if you are in the drug business, and if you are surrounded with gear, and if you have a row - I wouldn't call the Old Bill if I were you.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

More From The Times

This is a piece about the battle to resist further encroachment of administrative 'justice', and this is a lawyer's view of the real injustice that can result from pressuring people to accept cautions.

(Plenty of time to look at the paper this morning, as snow has caused my planned meeting to be postponed)

Oh My America!

This story from the BBC brings two thoughts to mind:- firstly, that it will take many years to erase the stain of Guantanamo, rendition and torture from America's reputation, and secondly that if there is a difference of opinion between the two judges in the case and the Government, then I am strongly disposed to believe the judges. I have met Lord Justice Thomas, and I have heard him speak on a number of occasions. He has a formidable intellect and cast-iron integrity.
This is the Foreign Secretary's response.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Odds and Ends

I keep a jotter on my desk to make a note of ideas for blog posts, but so many smallish things have occurred lately that I haven't kept up. Here's a few samples:-
Wandsworth Prison advises prisoners always to lock their cell doors because there are thieves around. In-cell TV costs 50p per week to rent. If you misbehave you can't have one. Basic allowance is 50p per day but you can earn more or have money sent in by family. Those whose religion calls for the use of incense sticks and the like can buy them from the canteen. Naughty people use them to cover up the smell of cannabis. Basic visiting allowance is two half-hour visits every 28 days. If you want to buy a stereo you can, but you have to order it through Argos, who are unlikely to stuff them with drugs, unlike friends and relations. A mobile phone is worth about £500 inside. Up to three of them can be concealed in someone's back passage. The charger goes in too, but the plug is removed (phew!) as the wires can be attached to the cell lighting or TV power supply. A cell for two is about 13 feet by 7 feet. There is an (often unscreened) toilet at one end, and the windows don't open.
On the street there is an epidemic of forged driving licences and TfL taxi driver permits. Often a ringer takes the test using fake papers.
A local alcoholic has just breached his ASBO for the thirteenth time, and he has received yet another prison sentence. On release he will take his discharge grant straight to the off licence.
A young man in his early twenties agreed to help a friend by carrying some cocaine, in return for a bit of money. He now faces ten years or so, and his family, who were at the back of the court, were distraught - his mother in particular, was inconsolable.
There is a department store in the shopping precinct near my court. Cosmetics are the main target, as are Duracell batteries, and fancy Gillette razors.
Domestic Violence trials take up a lot of court time, but a high proportion of them collapse, usually because the victim refuses to give evidence.

Turning on the Heat

The recent heavy snowfall has been bad news for one group of people. If every house in the street bar one has a thick covering of snow on the roof, then the odd one out either has very poor insulation or covers a cannabis farm. We should see the results in court in the next few days.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Bit More on the CRB

Reading the comments on my CRB thread, I am reminded of the inexorable mission creep that always follows in these cases. The whole CRB business was, if I recall correctly, impelled by a number of horrible child-abuse crimes in which (pace Ian Huntley) dangerous people slipped through the system and gained employment close to children, with awful consequences. The mechanism to avoid, or at least minimise this risk existed, but was badly applied, with inconsistencies between police forces across the country.
Previously, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act had ensured that all crimes, apart from the most serious, were wiped from your record after a period of good behaviour. It was difficult to get hold of anyone's record (although I know of one employer who routinely paid local police officers to check out all of his staff on the PNC). When my son went to work abroad he was required to provide a police certificate before he could get a visa. Such a document is unknown in this country, so in the event, after much delay, we managed to get a Data Protection Act Certificate for him, that I collected the day before he was due to go to the airport.
Nowadays, many jobs require CRB checks, but these are by no means confined to the protection of vulnerable groups, since ingenious employers simply have to declare the possibility, however tenuous, that the employee might come across children, or the elderly, or whoever, to get the check done.
This means in practice that it is harder then ever before for someone who has committed crime in the past, but has reformed and settled down (as do most offenders eventually) to get a job. I think that the Law of Unintended Consequences might apply here, as it so often does, since Parliament has never formally decided to label offenders for life, although that is what is now happening.

Jobs for The Boys and Girls

Here is a list of the almost-incredible numbers of managers in a Primary Care Trust, compiled by a doctor who has to read their emails.
It started me thinking about the massive spending review currently under way in the Courts' Service. The financial shortfall is so huge that we have been warned that nothing has been ruled out, so expect court closures and mergers and an even greater fall-off in service quality than we have already seen. Here's a helpful hint to the HMCS managers who are looking at what they call 'the business':-
To run my court properly, we need:
Lawyers (one per courtroom, and a couple spare)
Ushers (one per courtroom)
Probation Officers
Jailers (already provided by contractors)
A couple of chaps on the front door
Four or five people in the office to get the files out, put them away, and answer the phone.
That's it.
I do hope that assists.