Saturday, December 31, 2011

Panacea? - Er- No.

The press is getting a bit excited on a slow-news day about the prospect of lie detectors (aka polygraphs) being used in this country. If the reports are correct these gadgets may, under some circumstances, help police to know where to direct their enquiries, and what questions they might usefully ask suspects. As to their usefulness in evidence, forget it. The criminal standard of proof (Beyond Reasonable Doubt) is a very high one, and any half-competent defence brief could make mincemeat of any case that turned on this kind of evidence.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Ring Out The Old...........

I did my last sitting for the year today, and my last sitting ever for the Bench that I was appointed to. From January 1st we will be merged, like other London benches, with two of our neighbours, and we shall make a start on pushing our work through a severely depleted number of courts. We have lost six courtrooms in the merger, amounting to thirty court days per week, so we can't afford to waste any time.

Today we dealt only with remands, mostly in custody, as these cases can't wait. One man was brought in on a warrant, having been wanted for breaching his community order for about six months. He is also wanted by another court, so we refused bail, and he will be seeing in the New Year in Wormwood Scrubs. Another man had been picked up for a series of burglaries that were too serious for us, so off he went in custody to the Crown Court for sentence, having pleaded guilty. Today's pleas bring his total of convictions to almost 150, so he seems to be a slow learner. We saw a little team of eastern European pickpockets whom we had no hesitation in sending straight inside, having deemed reports to be superfluous.

There was a charming interlude in which I was asked to countersign copies of passports and an application for a marriage licence in a Caribbean country. I signed with due ceremony, the clerk applied the appropriate rubber stamps, then I wished the couple the best for their future together and hoped that they would enjoy their beach wedding.

We were done by early afternoon, so after a quick glass in Court 7 (the pub round the corner) we were off home.

Next week, things will be different. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas

I am one of the lucky people, off to spend Christmas with my family, especially my two wonderful granddaughters. One of my children won't be there, but with the help of Skype we should be able to bridge the 5000 mile gap between us.

It's a good time to spare a thought for the many people who aren't so fortunate. There are about 85,000 people in prison (a few of them there because of decisions in which I had a hand). Many of them have families, and there are few sadder sights than the waiting rooms of prison visitor suites, with bedraggled young women, their lifestyle having aged them prematurely, clutching babies and small children, waiting for a brief meeting with Daddy. Those kids are victims too, like the frightened people who barricade themselves in to avoid the unwelcome attentions of their criminal and antisocial neighbours.
For many, the Christmas 'celebrations' will take place in a drug-addled haze while others will drink themselves into a rage and attack each other, their families, or sometimes total strangers.

Police and emergency services will be on hand to intervene in the inevitable family bust-ups, since Christmas is notoriously a peak time for domestic strife. Child Protection Officers and Council staff will be on call over the holiday.

The assaults and the drink-drivers and the robbers and the burglars and the domestic thugs will all begin to appear in court from the beginning of next week. There are skeleton-staffed courts available even on Christmas Day, just as there is a duty High Court judge or two, just in case. Then on January 3rd the newly reorganised magistrates' courts will open for business as we all see how we are going to get on with severely reduced resources, fewer staff, fewer courtrooms, and the rest.

So I for one shall give quiet thanks for my own family's good fortune, and try to remember that there but for the grace of God goes any of us.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 23, 2011


Trials following the summer riots are continuing, and this latest case has attracted a very long sentence indeed. According to the report the young man concerned faced multiple charges, capped off by an attack on a scooter rider that resulted in serious injury. So although an appeal is likely, he will be lucky, on present form, to get very much knocked off his sentence.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Loophole Shut

The usual thanks to the invaluable Crime Line for this link to an important case about the notorious and much argued-over S172 that requires the keeper of a vehicle to tell the authorities who was driving, usually after a camera has been triggered. The magistrates' decision seemed eminently sensible, and I am glad that their Lordships thought so too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cui Bono?

Sometimes I read of a case that is about to come through the courts, and wonder just who stands to gain from this or even this. The law may or may not have been broken in either case, but does the public interest really require the majestic panoply of charge, plea, and trial, resulting, almost inevitably, in a sentence that prompts a 'why-oh-why' rant in you-know-which tabloid?

(later edit) And who would call the police for a scrap between two toddlers?

On the other hand, this is a properly exemplary use of the Judge's powers. The young man concerned was undertaking what should be the awesome task of adjudicating on the fate of a fellow citizen, but decided that a night out was more important. Let us hope that the experience of a few nights in, in insalubrious company, educates this undergraduate in the meaning and importance of civic duty.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Trouble Shooters - Guess Who's Here?

The government has apparently identified 120,000 troubled families on whom it would like to target support. It has set up a Troubled Families Team to be run - uh-oh - by Louise Casey, a lady for whom my admiration is severely limited.

Ms Casey comes to the job from her triumph sorting out unpaid work (that she relabelled Community Payback) so it's all better now, then she got herself named as Victims' Commissioner. Victims are presumably now sorted so that she can move on to troubled families. That problem will presumably go away in the nine months or so before she moves onto her next project.

The reports have spoken of squads of trouble shooters. My grumpy friend Duncan opined that he is in favour of them, so long as they identify people causing trouble and shoot them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Words Of Advice Needed

The police often, quite properly, deal with a low level incident by giving 'words of advice'.

This bullying, unprofessional and illegal incident would disgrace a sixth-month probationer or a bewildered PCSO. From an Inspector it is shameful.

So I hope that the Inspector receives 'words of advice' that he can receive standing to attention with his hat on, on the mat in front of a Very Senior Officer.

On The Hurry-Up

Thanks to CrimeLine for this link to the video training material for the Stop Delaying Justice training that has been done by almost every legal adviser, District Judge, and court chairman.

A lot depends on good teamwork between the Legal Adviser and the parties, but if it works (as it needs to) it will go a significant way towards helping courts to do more cases with fewer resources.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

No Surprise

In a Ministerial Statement Ken Clarke has said:
Abolition of Committals:
Commencement of Schedule 3 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Kenneth Clarke QC):

It is in the interests of victims and witnesses, and of the criminal justice system generally, that court procedures should be made as efficient as possible, for example by cutting out unnecessary court hearings. More than ten years ago, committal proceedings were abolished in indictable-only offences, and replaced by a new ‘sending’ procedure. The Government has decided that the time has come to complete that reform by extending it to offences triable either way. This will enable the Crown Court to manage such cases from an earlier stage, and facilitate efforts to encourage defendants who intend to plead guilty to do so sooner.

The change will be effected by bringing into force Schedule 3 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 on a phased basis from April 2012. Following the practice adopted when the existing sending procedure in Section 51 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was first introduced, commencement will initially be limited to certain geographical areas, which will be announced later. Subject to a satisfactory assessment of the first phase, the intention is to complete implementation over the next year.

The Government believes that this reform has the potential to contribute to its aim of reforming and improving the criminal justice system.

I can't see anyone being too bothered about the abolition of committals for either-way offences. When I started on the bench the 'old-style' (Section 6.1) committal involved hearing live evidence, and we were sitting as examining justices to decide whether there was a case to answer, thus acting as a filter on cases that were heading for the Crown Court. Then as now, most cases went up under Section 6.2, a 'paper committal' in which the defence accepts that there is a case to answer, and evidence bundles are served in court. Clerks only had time for a brief look through what could be a three-inch thick bundle, then off it would go to Hizonner. A 6.1 these days is just a 'read through' that can lead to a duplication of effort, so it's no real loss, especially given the huge pressure that there will be on court time in the New Year.

In my new merged bench we are to lose six courtrooms, which means the loss of something like 1500 court days a year. Something has to give.


A new supermarket has just opened in my home town, and I decided to give it a try yesterday. Of course I had no idea where anything was to be found, so there was a deal of doubling back and criss crossing in my progress round the store. When I reached the checkout I was served by a pleasant and helpful lady with a non-local accent. Her name badge said 'Ludmilla' so I enquired what was her home town. "Moscow' she replied. She gave me my receipt, wished me a nice day, and hoped that I would come back to the store soon.
It isn't an original thought, but when I hear time after time in court that a defendant is seeking work, but there's nothing out there, it is tempting to wonder why a Muscovite can get a job, but a locally born person cannot.

Monday, December 05, 2011

More On The Riots

Four months after the riots of last August various bodies have had a go at analysing the causes. Here is a thoughtful piece from the acerbic pen of Theodore Dalrymple who writes as ever from a right-wing perspective, but who can back up his views with a wide range of experience, including years as a prison doctor.
Thus far, I remain convinced that the primary driver of the destruction and looting was both acquisitive and recreational; free stuff and the fun of rampaging in streets where the police had lost control.
The Guardian has put a lot of work into looking for causes and unsurprisingly its analysis differs fundamentally from Dalrymple's.
It is becoming clear that in the two or three days before the police gained control their response was badly mismanaged.
Relations at street level between police and public are obviously very poor in areas such as Tottenham, as I found out when I attended the Five Live debate three weeks ago. Some of the young activists there seemed to have a visceral hatred of the police, with a folk-memory of affronts that continue to smoulder as resentments a long time later. It's a two-way street of course; a PC faced with snarling aggression and hatred is unlikely to go into avuncular George Dixon mode.
Now that we can stand back and reflect on August's events, a couple of things are certainly clear:- A grievance that is misconceived can still be sincerely held, and unemployment and a shortage of youth clubs does not excuse systematic looting and violence.
The police, under their new leader, will no doubt doggedly carry on 'engaging' with the community, but history tells us that when public order is threatened with breakdown the authorities will see a duty to suppress it as a first priority Hence we are likely to see an escalation of crowd-control techniques, with water-cannon, baton rounds, Tasers and more. Britain is not ripe for revolution, however much the far-left fringe would wish it to be so. If cool heads do not prevail, any new outbreaks can be expected to provoke a very firm response indeed.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Christmas Bonus

I have just received a patronising and unneeded payment of ten pounds as a 'Christmas Bonus' - a ludicrous nonsense that no government has had the courage to dump.

I am going to give mine to a charity. I do a bit of voluntary work for Age UK Buckinghamshire, and I can assure you that the volunteers and staff fill a real need; further, the imminent cuts in the Council's budget may mean that essential work will no longer be funded beyond 2012.

If you want to send them your tenner, even if you are below pension age, the website is: here.

Go on - you may need a bit of support in your old age too.

Age UK Buckinghamshire's bank is 30-90-38, account 32240260.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


A lot of lawyers will be interested to read this.
Despite the commonly held view that lawyers are self serving shysters who manipulate the system to keep themselves in German cars and Tuscan retreats, they are an essential part of the system not just to ensure that justice is done but to help the courts to run smoothly and fairly.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Frustration II

It gets worse. The mobile phone people delved further and found that an account with them had been opened in my name last Spring. No payments were made, so they wrote it off, but added my name to the don't-touch-with-a-bargepole list. I knew nothing about this at any stage. So far so bad, but I now have to get my credit file from Experian, that will require £2 and one week or so to obtain. If I get the sodding phone by Christmas I will be doing well.
I have had broadly sympathetic comments on the other post apart from a fool who suggests that the fraudster must be some one I have under-sentenced in the past, thus encouraging him to continue a life of crime - all in all a breathtakingly implausible scenario. Then another old name (from whom I usually spare you with the Fickle Finger of Fate moderator toy) took the chance to have a good old sneer about what a soft sentencer I am - a subject on which he knows absolutely nothing, but on which he likes to fantasise.
Just to put the cherry on the cake, the phone company concerned happens to employ my daughter in a senior position. I rang her about it, and got a swift 'sorry dad, not my department'.
Sharper than a serpent's tooth, or what?

Monday, November 28, 2011


A few months ago, a neighbour who shares my postcode phoned to say that he had a letter for me, addressed to his house. I picked it up and it turned out to be a letter from a major bank confirming the opening of my new account. It soon became clear that this was an attempted fraud. I contacted the bank and put them in the picture, and I thought that was the end of it.
Unfortunately the bank placed a marker on my credit record that has had the effect of making it nigh-on impossible to be accepted by the financial industry. Today I attempted to set up a new mobile phone account online, and subsequently wasted an hour and a half attempting to prove by emailing documents that I live in the house that I own. I was given three different accounts to email, each of which rejected my efforts.
It must have been like this in Honecker's East Germany, in the grip of a system that won't listen. I won't even mention Kafka.

One For Practitioners

The following is self-explanatory. I and many colleagues have attended the Stop Delaying Justice course, and this is the CPS response. All we have to do now is hold them to it, and to avoid blaming police every time someone screws up.
The Chief Crown Prosecutor for London, Alison Saunders, has written to London firms in the following terms:

"As you know 'Stop Delaying Justice' is an initiative led by the judiciary in the magistrates' courts which will take effect in the New Year. The aim is that all contested trials in the magistrates' courts are fully case managed at the first hearing and disposed of at the second hearing. It has the support, amongst many others, of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

I am writing to draw your attention to the approach I will be instructing prosecutors to take across magistrates' courts in the London CPS Area from 1 January 2012. With the challenges faced by all CJS agencies increasing, it has never been more important that principles of good case management and proportionality are followed if the overriding objective of the CPRs, to deal with cases justly, is to be fulfilled. To that end, by 1 January, we intend to ensure that the following actions are either in place, or at least well underway:

All prosecutors will be briefed in the principles and objectives of Stop Delaying Justice and will be working to support those objectives.
All prosecutors will be trained in the principles of effective case management, the CPRs, recent case law developments and the Senior Presiding Judge's 2009 directions in "Essential Case Management; Applying The Criminal Procedure Rules".

Prosecutors will in particular seek to engage with defence colleagues to identify the real issues and deal with as many aspects of summary trial case preparation as possible at the first hearing of the matter including the oral agreement of Section 9 and Section 10 evidence and early special measures directions.

We will seek to limit bureaucracy and interlocutory hearings where appropriate, by asking the court to permit oral notice of hearsay and bad character and to waive requirements for written counter notice. This would give the court the option of deciding whether applications either to admit or exclude such evidence should be dealt with immediately, at an interlocutory hearing, or by the trial court without the need for an unnecessary interim hearing.
We will also seek to ensure that that only those witnesses who are really needed in relation to genuinely disputed relevant issues will be warned to attend court and that cases are presented in a proportionate way. We believe that in the past some unnecessary warnings of for example police witnesses, have occurred when in fact their attendance was unnecessary, and we will be alert not to warn such witnesses for court. In particular we will not provisionally warn witnesses pending agreement of their statement and will not routinely warn officers in the case to attend court.

We will ensure that where appropriate and proportionate, if we rely on a summary of a defendant's interview at summary trial, we will adduce that summary in the form of the relevant section of the police report (MG5) rather than routinely rely on what is presently often called a 'record of taped interview' , or 'ROTI', on a form MG15. We are working with the Metropolitan Police to ensure that in all cases, towards the end of a suspect's interview, the explanation provided by the interviewee is fairly and accurately summarised on tape by the interviewer. As a check and balance, the interviewee of course has an existing right under PACE 1984 to add or clarify anything towards the end of their interview which may include any comment on the interviewer's summary.

Defendants have a right to a copy of a recording of their own interview under PACE 1984 and where defendants or their representatives specify, draft and propose reasonable amendments to the summary in the MG5, or reasonable admissions as to anything additional and admissible said or done in interview, we will be happy to agree such matters.

A case-managed trial should also be a more focused and shorter trial and our prosecutors will be instructed to propose proportionate time estimates and timetables to govern the duration of summary trials in accordance with CPR 3.10 and the principles set out in R v Jisl and Tekin [2004] EWCA Crim 696.

We believe that this approach will assist the court to fulfil the overriding objective of the CPRs and maximise the delivery of fairness, proportionality, expedition and efficiency within summary proceedings.

Fairness must be at the heart of the approach and I would welcome discussions with defence practitioners about any aspect of the approach we will be taking or any ways in which we can deliver efficient and timely summary justice.

Alison Saunders."

Thursday, November 24, 2011


This depressing letter was apparently written to order by a young offender as part of his ISSP - a last-ditch order that attempts to impose some structure and order on a young chaotic life.

I have been sceptical about this 'say sorry' business since I first raised an eyebrow at the idea of police giving a conditional caution that includes a letter of apology. For one thing, not too many offenders are literate or articulate, and anyone can pretend to be sorry, just as I would do when my mother told me to apologise to someone for something. A mumbled sorry, given with eyes downcast or averted doesn't mean a lot.

I had the idea of producing a pro-forma letter to save time, along the lines of


I am writing to say how sorry I am for stealing/damaging/breaking into/assaulting/swearing at you/your house/your car/your cat. I was angry/drunk/out of my skull at the time and I will try to be better in future.

I hope that you soon get the insurance money/have the stitches out/get a new cat.

All the best


Wednesday, November 23, 2011


I see that the blog's hit counter is nudging towards two million unique visitors, and the page views are nearing three million.

Thanks to you all for clicking on to my writings, and even more thanks to the many commenters whose wisdom, humour and abuse make for a good read, and help to keep me on my toes.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Point Missed

A number of papers have now had a go at Bean J over the Section 5 issue, and Robert Crampton joins in in Times 2 today.

Now this wasn't a judgment about swearing at a policeman - it was a decision on what the law says; that's what Appeal judges are for.

The law says:-

Harassment, alarm or distress.
(1)A person is guilty of an offence if he—(a)uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or(b)displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

I have emphasised the key bit. In deciding whether the offence is made out the court has to decide whether a person is likely to be caused harassment and the rest. Effing and blinding in front of a party of toddlers is likely to do so. The same language in front of experienced police officers is not.

Nobody is trying to make the job of the police any harder, but the only law that matters is the law as it stands. There are plenty of potential offences involved in behaving badly to police, but S5 POA isn't one of them. The Judge's job isn't to be popular, but to clarify the law. If legislators want to come up with something to deal with the foul-mouthed yob tendency, then I imagine they will do so.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Section 5 Again - Sticks And Stones

The eminently sensible Mr. Justice Bean has ruled on the vexed question of whether a police officer is likely to be caused 'harassment alarm and distress' by hearing the word 'fuck'. I have been on drinking terms with police officers for a very long time, and I have never yet had to call for smelling salts to revive one who suffered a fit of the vapours upon hearing the now ubiquitous f-word.
I am not disputing that it is rude and horrid to use that word; I myself only use it in extreme circumstances, such as stubbing my toe or hearing the price of a double gin and tonic in a Thames Valley pub, and even then I try to keep it sotto voce. But really - if a copper is such a delicate flower that he comes over all unnecessary at a bit of Gordon Ramsay profanity, isn't he in the wrong job?
His Lordship properly looked at the wording of Section 5 of the Public Order Act and applied common sense. For what it's worth, I think that M'Lud got it spot on.

This Is Making Us Look Silly

Once again the press is making a meal of the story that Charlie Gilmour, the spoilt brat student fun-revolutionary has been freed from a nominal 16 month prison sentence after about a quarter of the time pronounced by the judge.

There are plenty of papers and saloon-bar experts who love the chance to have a pop at the justice system ("You couldn't make it up" and so on). So why is nobody moving to address the absurdity of a judge or magistrate solemnly announcing a sentence that everybody knows will in effect be a fraction of what it purports to be?

A JP's maximum prison sentence in most circumstances is six months (26 weeks). If the offender pleads guilty, that will be reduced by a third to just over 17 weeks. Automatic release comes after halfway, leaving about eight and a half weeks to serve. Then, for the shorter sentences, comes release on Home Detention Curfew (a tag) halfway into that, at little over four weeks.

In the same way, the awesomely named 'Life' sentence means nothing of the sort except in a small number of cases. Now I have no problem with keeping sentences as short as practicable (subject to the need to incapacitate violent and dangerous offenders) but can't we come up with a nomenclature that doesn't patronise the public, and doesn't give rise to corrosive cynicism?

All of us who work in criminal justice have a duty to try to build and retain public confidence in what we do. Misleading sentences don't help.

Same Crap, Different Sewer

My kids sent me a Kindle for my recent birthday, and I took the opportunity to download, for a tiny fee, "In Stitches" by a doctor who writes as Nick Edwards. He started off as a blogger and moved on to write a proper book (memo to self - what's wrong with that idea?).
The main thing that we have in common is the overarching feeling that the Establishment (aka Civil Service) is out to get you under control while enhancing its own power and being unaware of the effect on the poor sods, professionals or punters, down at the sharp end.
In more than two decades on the bench I have seen many reorganisations and bright new ideas come and go, along with their authors. We are currently working on complex bench mergers, alongside staff who still don't know if they will have a job in six months' time. Just to produce a rota for one of the 400+ strong London benches has already taken a couple of hundred hours' work, and it isn't finished yet. I take my hat off to the staff for ploughing on when their reward might turn out to be a P45.

Why Be Messed Around By Amateurs When You Can Be Messed Around By Professionals??

This email from a colleague in another part of London deserves wider circulation:-

I was in court yesterday and two trials cracked due to witnesses, counsel and defendants going to the wrong court. In the retiring room we shook our heads and remarked that this came as no surprise to those of us at the sharp end who could see this coming when the new LJA’s were announced meaning that cases in our area could appear in one of three possible courts and indeed, with each hearing being in a different one. On top of that, JP’s were crossing paths as ‘Bromley Magistrates’ were allocated to sit at Bexley (say) and vice versa. Hardly a sensible use of time or resources as expense/travel claims increase as a result. While we understand the rationale (or rather we don’t!!) is that as certain courts are allocated particular types of case so as to concentrate expertise, those JP’s will require to go to other courts to maintain competency generally, we are seeing the inevitable consequence of an ill thought through system.

I know that our clerks are keeping a record of such happenings but in our area, the movement of JP’s has been declared ‘not negotiable’ which has led to the inevitable resignation of some and a lot of muttering from others about the ridiculous position we now find ourselves in.
I spoke to one colleague who lives 4 minutes from Bexley Mags and who had taken well over an hour and a half to come to Bromley. It would take me a similar time to go the other way and at least an hour to get to Greenwich. My current rota gives me nearly half my sittings at a ‘foreign’ court. Crazy!! Of course we would all be willing to ‘fill in’ if need be, but this compulsory rota-ing is a nonsense.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Front Line

This report highlights the everyday risks faced by frontline police officers. A man is in custody so we shall have to wait to find out just what happened, and why it happened, but it seems to have been one of those run-of-the-mill incidents that suddenly escalates into mayhem. Here's wishing a speedy recovery to the officers concerned.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Could Be Worse?

The MoJ has just published this report about the operation of the judiciary in the lower court. It's a pretty big document that appears to conclude that the difference in performance between lay and professional benches is not all that great, in cost or outcome. The one conclusion that can surprise no one is that DJs will always work faster, as they do not have to consult on their decisions, nor do they have to refer to the Legal Adviser as often as a bench of JPs.
See what you make of it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Roll Up! Roll Up!

Here is a part time job that pays the best part of five hundred quid a day.

Let me know how you get on.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Unanswered Question

I spent this morning in a church in Tottenham that had been taken over by BBC Radio 5 Live for a Victoria Derbyshire Show discussion of the summer riots. The debate did not get near my particular expertise, so I decided to hang back from contributing. The audience of 150 people included victims who had lost their homes or livelihoods, senior police fire and ambulance officers, and local representatives, as well as Tottenham's MP and a government minister.
Unsurprisingly some people's contributions generated more heat than light, and a common thread among some locals was the claim that the riots were a product of anger felt by 'the youth' at police oppression, especially stop-and-search. A number of speakers spoke passionately and angrily to denounce the 'murder' by police of the man whose shooting sparked the riots, as well as reeling off a list of people who had allegedly died while in the hands of the police. I won't attempt to summarise a two-hour programme, but I came away feeling that the question that Ms Derbyshire posed several times went unanswered:-
If you are aggrieved by the way that the police behave in your neighbourhood, how does it help to burn people out of their homes and steal luxury consumer goods?
One disturbing fact that did come out was the unacceptable delay in paying compensation to victims who have literally lost everything - nobody appears to have received a penny so far.
Thus far, and pending a definitive report, I remain convinced that the riots were at bottom recreational, offering young (mostly) men the thrill of broken glass and huge fires, the chance to have a go at the police (who were caught badly off balance in the first couple of days before they finally put enough officers on the street to bring the riots to an end) and the lure of free stuff that looked at the time to be risk-free. That last assumption turned out to be wrong.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


The Court of Appeal judgment that endorsed heavy sentences passed on some of those involved in the August riots said, in brief, that the overall situation of mayhem in the streets justified sentencers in going beyond established sentencing guidelines.

I suspect that the same will apply to those convicted of theft or handling of valuable metals, especially copper cable. The consequential losses caused to third parties far exceed the value of the stolen metal, and I am sure that thieves and dodgy scrap dealers can expect to be sent to the Crown Court even if the amount of metal stolen is quite small.

Hizonner will know what to do.

Whatever punishments are imposed, they won't be as severe as seems to have happened to this fellow.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Blame Game

The terrible accident on the M5 at the weekend has turned out, mercifully, to have killed fewer people than at first feared. The emergency services faced a gruesome task with their usual professionalism, and the police, as they must, are investigating exactly what happened.
The crash is likely to have been caused by a combination of factors, including restricted visibility, rain, and the lethal mix of cars and heavy lorries moving at speed.
In our democracy we accept a trade-off between safety and convenience, and most people are relaxed about a road death toll that equates to a medium sized airliner crashing every couple of months. If the motorway limit is lifted to 80 mph there will inevitably be a rise of some sort in casualties, but many people think that its a risk worth taking. Of course 80mph is already the actual speed of the right-hand lane on most motorways, but human nature says that drivers who now do 80, a speed at which you are most unlikely to get a ticket, will nudge up to 90. I drove to Bristol and back at the weekend, and there were quite a few cars moving at well over the hundred, often tailgating until people moved out of their way. So we can expect to see another look at the 80mph proposal, politics being what it is.
Bonfires and fireworks are another problem. On my journey on Saturday night I saw several large bonfires within a short distance of the M4, but no sign of smoke. But fires and local climate vary, and you cannot guarantee that any one fire will not put smoke across a major road. I do hope though that we can learn from this without the need to prosecute anyone, unless the most gross recklessness can be proved. Bad things happen, and it is not always necessary to drag people through the courts to ensure that lessons are properly learned.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011


One of the fiddle players in this inspiring clip is a colleague of mine.

I'm off to play it again, with a silly grin on my face.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Suppressio Veri, Suggestio Falsi -Part 97

The Sun has splashed a headline about the Legal Aid funds paid to a firm that has been involved in the Dale Farm brouhaha.

The article is carefully constructed to imply that the large sums involved went to defend the nasty p*keys in Essex.

Read it again though, and that appears to be the firm's total take for legal aid for a variety of cases in a particular period.

There is a firm on my patch that received a vast amount in one recent year, but those payments were booked when received, and were for work spread over several years.

Sadly, the Sun will have achieved its objective of convincing its knuckle-dragging readership that the government is shelling out millions especially for travellers.

It's okay if you work for News International, because the firm seems happy to stump up for the fees of serious London briefs on the increasingly numerous occasions that one of their staff comes to grief with the police.

Monday, October 31, 2011

How's It Going Down Your Way?

There are just two months to go before the newly amalgamated benches across the country open for business. London will drop from thirty-odd benches to nine, Buckinghamshire county will be a single bench, and so on. Some of the new benches will be as big as any in the country, with well over 400 magistrates.
The Senior Presiding Judge has decreed that all JPs are expected to sit at any courthouse in their Local Justice Area, but things appear to be working out differently in different parts of the country. Some courts are in very large areas indeed, and return journeys of 100 miles are not unknown. London doesn't have those kind of distances, but 10 miles at 5 pm on a Friday can take a very long time indeed.
Just to put a cherry on the cake some clown in the MoJ has proposed a cap of 1000 claimable miles in a year - for me that would mean I would be paying my own travel costs from about March onwards.
I would be very interested to hear how things are panning out around the country, as those of us involved in negotiations need all the information we can get.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

More Gesture Politics

The proposal to deduct up to £25 per week from benefits to pay off fines is a political gesture designed to look tough and play well in the right-wing press, but it doesn't make all that much sense at court level.
Jobseekers' Allowance (by far the most usual source of income for those who appear before us) is at the rate of £53.45 per week for under 25 year-olds, and £67.50 for those over that age. 16 to 24 is the peak age for offending, we are told, so if this proposal is implemented younger offenders will be expected to live on £28.45 a week - just over four pounds a day.
The reason why standard Deduction From Benefit Orders are set at a fiver is not misguided leniency, but the fact that when benefit rates were calculated the Civil Service worked out the basic necessities of life and added on a munificent £5 for little luxuries - that is what is deducted.
Another enforcement tool for those in work is an Attachment of Earnings Order, but the rules for that provide a Protected Earnings Rate below which income must not fall; no such caveat is proposed here.
It is mandatory to fill in a Means Form, but there are no resources to check these, and most are works of pure fiction. Someone on benefit, or unwaged such as a student, is deemed to have an RWI (Relevant Weekly Income) of £100, and that's what most defendants turn out to have. So if someone is fined on Band C (1.5 x RWI) the fine will be £150, dropping to £100 for a guilty plea. For Band A (low-level offences) it is 50% of RWI, so that's £35 for a plea.
Won't take long to knock that off at £25 a week will it, even after costs and the pesky Surcharge?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bunkum

A famous if controversial disc jockey has died. Comment of the 'nudge-nudge' variety has been going on for years, but on the basis that dead men can't sue there may soon be a rush to dish the dirt.

No poor-taste comments please.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

New Spin - Old Hat

The No. 10 spin machine has overruled Kenneth Clarke on penal issues, and a raft of measures has just been floated for reasons that are blatantly political.
As it happens I had lunch with two good magistrate friends today; between us we have something like 80 years' experience on the bench. We had no trouble agreeing that today's measures were largely presentational, and will make little real difference at magistrates' court level and not much at any level. The IPP (way above our pay grade) might have been a good idea, but the resources to make it work were never provided. The stuff about youths and knives will apply to only a few defendants, but might keep the Mail happy.("some hopes" I hear you cry). The stuff about householders being able to kill intruders will be of scant comfort to my 82 year old neighbour, and only confirms the present de facto situation anyway. Tabloid crowing over this might lead a few of the nasty tendency who inhabit our grottier estates to ensure that they are tooled up ready for the next burglar - unfortunately this sometimes turns out to be the paper boy or some other innocent passer-by.
The spirit of the Blair sofa lives on.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Information Underload

Like a lot of people I sometimes watch one of the many Real Police type of TV programmes. I think that these are a good way of showing those of us who spend the small hours of the night safely tucked up in bed some of the things that are going on in our locality. One series focuses on Thames Valley, which is where I live, and I recognise many of the places that feature in the clips. Of course, telly being a visually demanding medium, there is lots of footage from patrol cars and even helicopters (nice to see where my Council Tax goes though). At the end of the programme the narrator often says what sentence was handed to the offender, and I am sure that I am not the only person to be surprised at the relatively mild punishments imposed.
When you have seen the potentially homicidal driving of the (usually uninsured) young men for whom stopping for the police is seen as a bit uncool, the Dangerous Driving charge seems pretty obvious, and the eventual sentence looks plain silly. The Dangerous guideline is here at page 120 of the pdf.
And there is my point. Take a typical clip in which the driver chooses to put innocent lives at risk. I see it, you see it, the officers see it.
But the magistrates don't.
These days, driven mostly by cost but sometimes by indolence, police and CPS are happy to take the low-hanging fruit of TWOC or Due Care or No Insurance, and turn their backs on Dangerous because of the cost and difficulty of proving it if their man goes Not Guilty. But the kind of driving we are looking at here can only properly be met with a prison sentence. JPs who saw the film (which they do not on a guilty plea) and heard the full facts would, I am sure, go for custody. But what they do get is a skimpy account recounted by a harassed and overworked Associate Prosecutor and bargained-down charges that lead to under-sentencing. And that isn't justice. But it may be all we can afford.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


It is axiomatic that when one is exercising a judicial function emotions must be firmly parked on one side, and the case considered in the light of the law and of any appropriate guidelines.

Nevertheless, when dealing with a case of a carer who had systematically stolen money from the accounts of people he was supposed to be caring for (we had no hesitation in sending the case up to the Crown Court) I could not avoid a sense of distaste as the defendant stepped out of the dock, bail form in hand.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Facts and Figures

Here is a survey of Crown Court sentencing by the Sentencing Council.

For those who like this sort of thing this is the sort of thing they will like.

Friday, October 21, 2011

I'm With The DJ On This One

A report deals with a District Judge's insistence on court staff being treated with formal respect. I agree.

A Small Victory For The English Language

Thanks to Tony for sending me this:-
Bystander, I don’t know if you watch the forensic drama “The Body Farm” on BBC, but last night a policeman used the word “forensicate”, and the forensic scientist told him there was no such word.

Quite right too, it's a barbarism.

And another thing - I was in a meeting with HMCS civil servants the other day and someone spoke of the 'granularity' of something or other. Now what the hell is that supposed to mean?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Decision From The Top

Here is the judgment just handed down by a very strongly constituted Court of Appeal. The Court has taken a firm line on offences committed in the context of the recent riots, and those handed stiff terms of imprisonment will have to get on and do their time.

This will be gratifying to the senior Clerk who took a decision at a time of stress and fatigue:

Much the same applies to magistrates courts. Legal advisers to magistrates are indeed legal advisers. It was clearly appropriate for them to advise magistrates that the magistrates’ courts sentencing guidelines were not drafted with offences committed in the context of riot and public disorder in mind and that it was open to courts, if they thought appropriate in the individual cases, to impose sentences outside the range suggested by those guidelines. If any individual sentence was excessive, it would, of course, be subject to appeal to the Crown Court in the usual way.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


I returned earlier today from a few days away in Norfolk, and I was surprised to see the number of replies to my last post about the chap who refused a bindover and is insisting on a trial. The comments (for which I am, as ever, grateful) raise lots of issues and I shall get round to them as soon as I can.

My wife and I had just parked the car last Wednesday at a nature reserve, planning to have a look round the salt marshes and take in the vastness of the skies, when we went to cross a small wooden bridge over a sluice gate. I was astonished to hear a cry of "That's (real name) Bystander!". The person who had spotted me was one of my contemporaries on a national committee a few years ago, so we eagerly swapped gossip until our spouses' expressions made it clear that this was quite enough court talk, thanks.

Small world.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Balancing Act

It's no secret that the Justice budget has been hit pretty hard by the fiscal crisis, and every court user is seeing cutbacks on what used to be taken-for-granted services. There is increasing pressure on us all to push business through the courts (I have to attend some training in a few weeks called 'Stop Delaying Justice') which is all very well if we resist unreasonable or unnecessary delay, but about which we need to be vigilant if we are not to hamper a just outcome.
We had a drink-drive case in the other day, in which the defendant had contacted a specialist firm of solicitors who deal with motoring matters, who gave him a letter to hand to the court saying that they couldn't attend today, so would we please put matters off for two weeks? No we couldn't - the Criminal Procedure Rules require a plea to be taken on the first appearance, and courts no longer grant long adjournments on the nod.
We thought that we were about to deal swiftly with the next case, which came about as a result of someone taking exception to the sight of an acquaintance being arrested and going on to give the police a lot of unwanted advice and comments. After a warning, he was given an £80 ticket for the usual Section 5 Public Order offence. But he refused to accept it and demanded a court hearing. On the day the CPS had a look at it and decided on the pragmatic course of offering a bindover, which our man firmly refused. I explained that a bindover is not a conviction, and does not go on your record, but he was adamant. He wants his day in court and he wants a trial.
So we listed the trial for half a day as he is calling two witnesses and the Crown have three PCs to call. I couldn't help wondering what all this was going to cost, allowing police and court time - it must be well into the thousands.
I just hope someone senior in the CPS has a look at the file and drops the case, bindover or no bindover.


John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, is a man who has had a lot of adverse stuff written about him in the press, and who has recently been embarrassed by some flamboyant behaviour on the part of his wife Sally. I mentioned his name to some friends today, and they all came straight back with sniggering remarks about his wife, several people mentioning that she is a good deal taller than her husband. The reason for my mentioning Mr. Bercow is that I recently went to the AGM of a charity at which Mr.Speaker was the speaker, being a local MP.

He spoke for about an hour without notes, and came across (as an experienced politician should) as reasoned and sensible, being able, in a non-political meeting, to avoid the tiresome point-scoring of party politics. One of his comments was that gibes about someone's height or appearance are the last acceptable kind of bullying. If you dismiss someone's views because they are black or gay or disabled you will rightly be thought a bigot, but making snide remarks about Bercow's height, or Eric Pickles' girth is fine.

Bercow, who can take a joke about himself. said that he is not the shortest Speaker, as he had found a couple from the 14th Century. Unfortunately their shortness resulted from their having been decapitated by the executioner.

Driving home, I mused that it is almost unknown these days for a politician to be listened to for an hour, allowing him time to develop an argument, since the soundbite culture means that most people never get to hear a political speaker for more than about 30 seconds.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Strasbourg Scores From The Spot

A pub landlady has just had a good result about her use of a foreign satellite feed of football matches.

This decision is of course a poke in the eye for the Murdoch empire - coincidentally there is a tear jerking piece in today's Times (prop.R.Murdoch et al) about the blow to the rights of media millionaires.

I don't follow football, but I won't lose too much sleep if the ludicrous economics of the game suffer a dousing in cold reality.

Only Bentley and Lamborghini salesmen have very much to fear.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Vino Cheapo Collapso

This lavishly illustrated piece from reminded me than until not too long ago magistrates granted (and revoked) licences. This kind of utterly irresponsible marketing would have brought the old-time Chairman of Licensing down like a ton of bricks. The job was passed to a council committee, and look what happens.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Following an arduous trial that turned out to be much simpler than it looked, we acquitted the defendant. As I was leaving the court I was mildly alarmed to meet him with his mother and brother (also witnesses) waiting for the lift. I was greeted with smiles and nods from the family, so it would have been rude to just turn my back. Then materfamilias, followed by the other relatives, expressed their thanks, and stuck out their hands. Of course I shook those hands, but I made no comments and contented myself with an awkward grin and a nod of the head.

What would you have done?

Mind you, nothing can equal a case from years ago that we acquitted, when I met the accused on the way to the car park, and he said, having made eye contact: "Thanks, Mate, You're a dead fair judge"

I still treasure that remark.

Confusion Guaranteed

What is it about the bureaucratic mind?
Years ago, when I were but a lad and the M1 was under construction, some genius in the then Ministry decided to name a service area Watford Gap, despite it being 67 miles north of the already well-known town of Watford, thus guaranteeing that thousands of travellers would be confused. A few years ago the building that housed Uxbridge County Court (and was adjacent to Uxbridge Magistrates' Court) was flogged off to be replaced with flats, and the court relocated a few miles to the East in Hayes - but it's still called Uxbridge County Court. As a result the desk staff at Uxbridge Mags' see scores of people who turn up asking if this is the County Court, and have to be directed eastwards to the unlovely town of Hayes.
The current reorganisation of London's courts will see the creation of the new West London Local Justice Area (snappy, eh?) that combines the Uxbridge Ealing and Hounslow benches. Unfortunately there is already a West London Magistrates' Court that nestles by the Hammersmith flyover, and has done so for about 15 years. That one is to be grouped with Westminster, and renamed lord knows what, but you can be sure that over the next few years numbers of court users who have business with the new West London bench will pitch up at Hammersmith and have to scurry off to Ealing Feltham or Uxbridge.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Cell Phone

The recent case of a young man sent inside for two months for taking a photograph in a Crown Court has been widely reported - widely, but not all that accurately, as David Allen Green points out. I have sat on appeals with Judge Mensah on several occasions and she is as calm courteous and balanced as you would expect a Circuit Judge to be.

The sloppy journalistic habit of selective reporting of court proceedings, focusing on trying to find a 'why-oh-why' angle is one of the things that has eroded public confidence in the courts and fostered cynicism about justice. It has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Do You Really Mean That, Officer?

We know that the cuts to police budgets are unnecessary, we know that the proposed cuts to our wages and pensions are driven by a personal hatred of police officers, who they see as glorified Edwardian domestic staff who have grown ‘too big for their boots’.

So writes a well known police blogger with a large following. Just have another look at the quote.

"personal hatred" "Edwardian domestic staff"

Either the officer's hyperbole has got the better of him or his judgement is seriously skewed. That would be worrying in a traffic warden, let alone an Inspector.

New Broom Raises Dust

I can think of a few circles in which this proposal will be greeted in a less than ecstatic manner.

A Straw In The Wind

The Court of Appeal has begun to consider the sentences handed down to those so far convicted of taking part in the August riots in London and elsewhere. It is a heavyweight court by anyone's standards - Lord Judge the Lord Chief Justice, Leveson LJ and Thomas LJ. The latter two have each served as Senior Presiding Judge in recent years (and by coincidence I have met all three members of the court). The Guardian report hints that the Recorder of Manchester's approach may not meet with approval. For what it's worth I think that the Times report is more helpful but it lurks behind the paywall.
Let us see what the court comes up with; their decision will set the tone for the many cases that are still outstanding.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Public Face of Justice -Poll

Essex JP, a regular commenter, has posted this:

Utterly off the point and my apologies Bystander, but what a miserable and depressing piece of concrete architecture Redbridge Mags Court is. It beats the portacabins Cambridge Mags Court had in the park and ride carpark a few years ago.

So what do experienced court users, be they magistrates, clerks, lawyers, defendants, or whoever think of their local court? And its staff? And its magistrates? Praise and criticism will be equally welcome. Inevitably, I know London courts best, but what about everyone else?

For myself - Brent is newish, shiny, and awful, with an echo in each of its courtrooms that I have sat in, plus drab and dispiriting retiring rooms. Harrow was shabby but friendly, and is now closed. Feltham is a former music hall (yes, really) and has an eccentric layout including a retiring room that was obviously the old box office at one time. Highbury Corner is chilly grey concrete. Bracknell is a grotty little suite of rooms in a scruffy shopping centre; the waiting room that I sat in struck me as an East German one might have been in about 1953.

Any offers?


Apropos Highbury Corner, I sat in a traffic court in a largeish cupboard right at the top of the building. It was an early 'gateway' court and we were faced with 320 cases. Many defendants attended, and were forced to sit on the floor in the corridor outside. We managed to do all of those attending by 5.45, when we block adjourned everything else. There was nowhere to retire to except another corridor, and the coffee and the loos were two floors down. Not good.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Appeal Date Set

The Court of Appeal is to consider the first tranche of sentences in connection with the August riots.
As anticipated, Lord Judge is to preside, and all being well we can expect to see clear guidelines being laid down for the future handling of these cases. I don't expect to see an across-the-board reduction in sentences, but it is important that Their Lordships lay down the underlying principles, as well as putting to rights any clearly anomalous sentences.


I know that this stuff is read by many journalists, so could I beg those in the inky or telly trade to do one thing for me?

Tell the subs that 'Hike' means walk. It doesn't mean 'increase' or 'raise'.

Is that too much to ask?


Monday, September 19, 2011

Lies, Damn Lies, and..............

There has been a lot of huffing and puffing recently over the revelation that a good proportion of the rioters arrested in August had previous convictions, and that quite a few had accumulated a dozen or more without seeing the inside of a prison. I find that unsurprising, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you did a random trawl of passers-by in one of London's less salubrious areas in the middle of the evening you might well find that a goodly percentage of those you stopped had convictions. Secondly, the crude number of convictions doesn't tell you very much. Looking through the PNC form, it's quite normal to find a number of smallish convictions spread over a few years, dealt with by discharges, then fines for low level drug offences, small thefts, perhaps a bit of Section 5 Public Order, and suchlike. Disqualified driving and the like frequently appear. Quite a few of these offences are fine-only, so the question of prison doesn't arise. For Drunk and Disorderly and similar crimes-of-the-thick-and-gormless, it is usual to impose a fine and deem it served by the day that has been spent in custody, which clears things up, but leaves a conviction on the record.
When society gets into one of its regular panics about law and order reasoned consideration of the facts goes out of the window. I'm not saying that plenty of rioters were not criminals before the riots kicked off, but simply that these things are rarely as simple as they look.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

So Let That Be A Lesson To You

One of the dishonest parliamentarians has been released from prison, having served about nine weeks for defrauding the taxpayer out of £14,000, so that's about £1,500 per week. A student who stole water worth £3.50 was reportedly given six months, so on the assumption that he too serves a quarter of his time he made about 58p per week.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

End of the Line

It's the last case of a full day in the remand court. We have long completed the listed cases and are working our way through the late arrivals. A familiar face appears behind the armoured glass dock screen; he is a small man of just about 40, with wary eyes that flick around the room. This must be at least the sixth time I have seen him and he is on first name terms with some of the jailers. His solicitor has left for the day and has to be brought scurrying back from her office to see her client. This is yet another shoplifting case, involving £130 worth of knicknacks from a local chain store. He is well known in the area and CCTV easily showed him as he slipped the stuff into his pocket, so he was smoothly picked up as he left moments later.
He had no possible use for the stolen property, so the irresistible conclusion is that he planned to sell it to raise cash for his well-entrenched drink and drug habits.
The list of previous convictions says it all - over 80 separate convictions for 150 offences, resulting in every conceivable sentence from discharges and fines to a string of prison sentences, a couple of them up in the Crown Court band.
Miss East does her best. Her client is anxious to address his addictions, he plans to go to the local drop-in centre next week, so how about a Conditional Discharge? She sees my eyebrows being raised, and goes on to suggest a fine, deemed served by his time in custody - a blank look from me. So why not get reports, with a view to a community penalty? Probation have long since gone home, as she establishes with a glance across to their bench, so it won't be possible to get an old report out of the files. If we do impose custody, could we at least suspend it?

We retire.

We talk without even sitting down. We all think that the whole panoply of reports and community sentences is a complete waste of time in his case. We have sufficient information to make a decision without their help. Back in we go.

"Mr. McDonald. I will start by saying that you will receive full credit for your plea of guilty". (Not that he had any real choice, but no matter). "We have listened carefully to what has been said on your behalf but while this is not the most serious shoplifting case that we have ever seen, your large number of previous convictions and your repeated failure to respond to non custodial sentences make this case so serious that only a prison sentence can be right. We have sufficient information to proceed without reports. You will go to prison for 70 days. Go with the officers please".
He trudged off, unsurprised, to go through the reception at the Scrubs just as he has done so many times before.

I don't kid myself that what we did will do anyone any good apart from the shopkeepers of West London. At least our man will have a few weeks off the sauce; I am less optimistic about the drugs.

There are, as we all know, severe limits as to what the criminal justice system can achieve.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


As the post mortem on the August riots continues (and it will be a long process) this report fuels the suspicion, felt by many, that the judiciary was not left to make its own decisions about the flood of alleged rioters coming through the courts, but was subject to pressure from ministers.
I have heard from an unimpeachable source that MoJ civil servants have attempted to manage some aspects of what is properly judicial decision making.

This article highlights the fact that piling large numbers of people into prisons, whether sentenced or on remand, can cause collateral damage within the system.

For a cool and considered view, you need to have a look at Ian Duncan Smith's piece in today's Times (sorry, it's behind the paywall) so here's a piece about IDS' piece.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Whiplash Backlash

There has been satisfaction expressed at the Government's intention to abolish referral fees paid by solicitors' firms to obtain details of people who have suffered loss or injury in an accident - usually on the roads. Phrases such as 'ambulance-chasing' and 'so-called whiplash' have been bandied about.
There is no doubt that there have been abuses: I recall several men being imprisoned for deliberately setting up rear-end collisions then claiming damages for whiplash, the symptoms of which they had taken the trouble to learn. One unfortunate side effect of that is a general public cynicism about whiplash injuries.
I know a bit about this because I have been helping a relative who was the blameless victim of a collision with a vehicle that emerged from a side road, and she has indeed suffered genuine whiplash that has been confirmed by five different doctors, two of them orthopaedic consultants. For two years she was in pain, unable to do simple tasks like vacuuming her home, and has had to rely on help from her sister and daughters. The other side accepted liability quite early on, so the only issue now is the level of damages. This is likely to settle for a sum well under £10,000 which doesn't seem in any way excessive for what now amounts to three years' pain and restriction on her activities. So the next time that someone in the pub taps his nose knowingly when the word whiplash is mentioned he may get a quick rundown from me to the effect that genuine cases do indeed happen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

There May Be Trouble Ahead (part of a series)

I am sorry -

I'm sorry that it's been a bit quiet here lately, but I have been quite a busy boy. My court is one of those due to merge with two neighbours on January 1st, and that takes a lot of sorting out, especially as HMCTS hasn't finalised its staffing yet, due to the precipitate speed of the mergers and the cuts.

All benches will be holding their elections of officers for 2012 about now, and I am sorry that resource implications have prevented the use of anything more sophisticated that a simple first past the post voting system, because two-thirds of the electorate will not know the candidates well, or at all.

I am hopeful (as in fingers crossed) that the planned CPS move to paperless files early next year will speed things up and reduce cock-ups (you would be shocked to see just how often papers are physically mislaid) but I am sorry to say that worries remain - firstly of course this is a Government IT system, with all that implies. Secondly, there is a real worry that when evidence has to be released to defendants, as it must, that sensational documents or video will end up on the Internet. Victims aren't going to be very happy to see their interviews on You Tube. This needs fixing, and I hope that somebody has a handle on it.

I'm sorry too to say that you won't be seeing my judicial frown, plus occasional raised eyebrow or two, on TV any time soon.

The plans to relax restrictions in filming courts don't worry me at all. In fact I welcome anything that serves to open up the administration of justice to the public view. That is, after all, why I started this blog, ,and why I have taken every opportunity to publish judges' sentencing remarks whenever I thought that it would help understanding. But the lower courts are rarely newsworthy enough, as all we can do is pass on the serious stuff to the wigs upstairs. There will (I hope) be heavy restrictions on what can be shown, and sadly that will include lots of the most dramatic bits such as witnesses' evidence, the verdict, and the defendants' reactions.

Television tends to corrupt whatever it touches, and it is asking too much to expect even our most eminent and senior judges to resist the temptation to lay it on a little bit for the cameras, especially when you know that some millions of people will see your efforts.

Parliament imposes severe restrictions on images of MPs at work, and I hope that the courts are allowed the same, because if they are not justice will degenerate into entertainment in a very short while.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

A Bit Of Housekeeping

The comments are one of the best bits about writing this blog, but we have a small problem, which is the many people posting as Guest. I can see the IP addresses of commenters, but you can't, so I am asking you to comment in your own name or in any other name you prefer, so that we don't have to scratch our heads over which 'guest' this is. There is space on the comments box for you to put in a name - the choice is yours, subject only to common decency.


Here is a story in - guess? - The Mail about a perfectly routine and unexceptional bit of prison management. Only those on very short sentences are left in the big city prisons for long, because they have limited space that is needed for the rapid turnover of inmates - last time I was at Pentonville they told me that they turn over well over a hundred men every day, a hefty administrative and logistical workload. Remand prisoners need to see their lawyers and families often, hence the need to keep them within sensible travelling distance.

Those such as Gilmour who present a negligible security risk are assessed and then, if suitable, shipped out to a Cat C or Cat D establishment in a few weeks.

I get very tired of newspapers that cannot give the length of a sentence without the prefix of 'just' so many years or months, or who imply that the standard 50% remission of sentence is some kind of special treatment, and that televisions in cells are the ultimate in cosseting those who the Sun delights in calling 'lags'.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Friday, September 02, 2011

Sour Cherie Pie

A recent sentence passed by Ms Cherie Booth, has been well and truly increased by the Court of Appeal, reports The Daily Mail, falling gleefully on the chance to savage one of its main bêtes noires.

I have no comment on the sentence itself, nor on Ms Booth, whom I have never sat with (although colleagues have).

My conclusion from this is that the Court of Appeal has shown yet again that the criminal justice system incorporates a number of self-correcting mechanisms, which in this case have served to rectify an unduly lenient sentence. If that Court, and those same mechanisms, serve to reduce a few of the recent riot sentences as being unduly harsh, I hope that those who start to wail about the cases will remember that appeals work both ways.

I hope that, but I am not sure that I expect it.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The (Metaphorical) Jury's Still Out On This One

John Thornhill, the MA chairman, is quoted in today's 'Times' (paywalled, I'm afraid) as defending magistrates against allegations of 'conveyor-belt justice' and over-harsh sentencing in riot cases. Once again, he did not go out of his way to stress that magistrates had little to do with it, as almost all of these cases have been handled by District Judges, a decision taken, we are told, by the Senior Presiding Judge (Goldring LJ). The seriously heavy sentences, measured in years, were all passed in the Crown Court.

One thought occurs to me - why should I pay the MA £34.50 per year to defend the actions of the professional judiciary? Can't they look out for themselves?

The raw facts are that 64% of riot cases were heard in London, almost all of them by DJs. Night courts were exclusively DJ led. 46% of offenders were given a custodial sentence as against 12.3% for similar offences last year.

Now I can live with the decision to use DJs as they are easier to deploy than JPs and I can also live with the concept that it can be proper to sentence in the context of widespread disorder damage and theft, although it is a bit of a coincidence that so many judges had the same idea at the same time by some mysterious osmosis.

What continues to puzzle me are the bail figures - 70% of those arrested were remanded in custody against a norm of around 10%. What led to this near-unanimous decision by DJs to put the Bail Act on ice? The Act criteria are well known (especially to regular readers of this blog) there must be 'substantial grounds' to fear a failure to surrender, further offences, or interference with justice. While the riots were raging in the streets there was certainly good cause to fear further offences, but as soon as the Met put enough officers on the street the trouble ceased. Defendants with previous convictions for failing to surrender or ignoring court orders might give cause for concern but what about people who handed themselves in? Are they an absconding risk? Did the number of people giving 'serious grounds' really jump from 10% to 70%?

A few people are rubbing their hands at the possible return of swift, if rough, justice. This idea appeals to politicians at regular intervals. Margaret Thatcher wanted striking miners dealt with by hastily convened tribunals - cooler judicial heads squashed that one. Tony Blair was seduced by the idea of night courts, an experiment that threw away several million pounds and achieved nothing before it was dropped. The 'Times' says that one Chief Constable wants to see why this 'rapid, robust' approach cannot be used all the time.

I'll tell you why officer: it's because justice is too important to do in haste. If, heaven forbid, you should find yourself facing allegations, as the occasional senior copper seems to do nowadays, I bet you would want enough time to give full instructions to your lawyer, to prepare your defence, and to gather evidence or examine the other side's evidence. If that's good enough for you, it's good enough for for a hoodie-clad youth from the streets of Tottenham.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Court Clerk or Clerk Who Works In a Court?

This report gives, I hope, the wrong impression. There are many clerical employees in the courts' service, but only legally qualified people are referred to as Court Clerks. These days the favoured title is Legal Adviser.

I suspect, although I do not know, that this gentleman falls into the first category. Our Legal Advisers are not all saints, I imagine, but every one I have ever worked with has been professional and beyond reproach.

No Delay

We had finished our morning's work when a casually dressed man panted into the courtroom and spoke to the clerk sotto voce. We were asked to deal with the matter straight away and of course we agreed. The officer (for such it was) apologised unnecessarily for his informal appearance, took the oath, and handed up his Information.

It was an application for a search warrant that he described as "very urgent". I cannot say anything about it, but I expect that shortly after I signed the warrant a squad of serious policemen went to visit a place in our locality that is known for problems.

These days we have been advised that warrant applications, even if made in open court before a bench, are a matter for a single justice; previously we have looked upon it as a Bench decision, although a single justice has of course the power to grant it.

So it was my turn, and I signed the warrant with my special (illegible) Warrant signature. Well you never know, do you?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Turnkey's View

The president of the Prison Governors Association has gone on record about the riot-fuelled increase in prison numbers.

I can understand the rationale behind exemplary sentencing for involvements in the riots, although the appeal courts will clearly need to do some tidying up of a number of inexplicably harsh sentences, but what truly puzzles me is the fact that the Bail Act is being interpreted in an unprecedented way. When the riots have died down, as they have, where are the 'substantial' grounds to fear failure to surrender, further offences, or interfere with witnesses when someone has voluntarily turned herself in to the police?


John Thornhill of the MA has chipped in. I can't understand why he failed to point out that the overwhelming majority of these disposals have nothing to do with JPs but have been dealt with by full time salaried District Judges.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Riot Update

Here are more sentencing remarks in the latest batch of riot-related Crown Court cases. As before the sentences are awesomely heavy. There are bound to be appeals, and they will set the tone thereafter.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

They Just Don't Get It

It is depressing that a law firm finds it necessary to defend itself for accepting instructions from Libyan sources.

It is a feature of many of the worst tyrannies (Iran is a good example) that lawyers who defend unpopular clients can be harassed or even arrested for speaking for their client. I understand that defence lawyers are challenged on a regular basis on the lines of : "how can you possibly defend someone like that?"

I have quoted from 'A Man For All Seasons' before:-

Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man's laws, not God's - and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Back to the Grindstone

I am going in to sit for a colleague tomorrow,and it will be nice to get back to a bit of everyday business. All of the heavyweight riot stuff is now listed at Camberwell and Highbury so we may be able to return to our regular diet. Let's see.


It was a nice little drink-drive, with a couple of experts and a back-count, as well as a legal point or two. Can't say any more, but it made a nice change.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Reasoned View

ObiterJ, who is one of our regular commenters, has posted a first-class summary of the present position regarding the riots that occurred a couple of weeks ago. Order seems to have returned to the streets - in London flooding the place with a reported 16,000 officers seems to have done the trick - and the criminal justice phase has only just started. I share OBJ's curiosity as to the rationale behind, in particular, the draconian attitude to bail, much of it seemingly inconsistent with the provisions of the Bail Act.

Fortunately the system has inbuilt mechanisms to put things right if the heat of the moment led to disposals becoming a little over-enthusiastic, but that will face the higher courts with a very large workload in the coming months.

Friday, August 19, 2011


I was alarmed to see a link to the Gadget Show on my TV planner. I had a vision of no-nonsense armed-to-the-teeth coppers being egged on by an ex-military Inspector.

Mercifully, it was this.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

From The Horse's Mouth

Here are the remarks of a senior Judge when sentencing some of the first riot cases - obviously all of them guilty pleas.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Thanks to all those who have kept the comments going while I have been away for a few days.

One of the benefits of even a short break was brought home to me today. Having breakfasted handsomely with our hosts my wife and I went to Tarr Steps on Exmoor for a stroll before heading back eastwards.

Standing under the damp and lovely green canopy, accompanied by only the occasional walker, we watched the bubbling flow of the river as it tumbled across its stony bed, flowing under the ancient and heavy stones of the old bridge, put in place by unknown humans possibly 3000 years ago. We agreed there and then that whenever life became stressful, we would cast our minds back to that river, that was flowing countless millenia before we were born, and will still be flowing long after we and our petty concerns are utterly forgotten.

There was just one interruption when a bright yellow Sea King rescue helicopter roared by about fifty feet above the trees. I can readily forgive the sudden disruption of our peace, because that helicopter, like a fire engine or a lifeboat or an Intensive Care unit, has no malign function, being created and used entirely for the benefit of humanity.

So if you see an old JP looking a bit pensive on the bench in the next few weeks, please forgive him. He might be me and his mind will be in the courtroom but his heart will be on Exmoor.

Friday, August 12, 2011


It's easy to discern the contempt that some of the illiberal elite have for the people, as recriminations and why-oh-why journalism flourish in the aftermath of the riots. The Mail (inevitably) reports gleefully that some grandstanding council leaders are threatening to evict whole families from council accommodation if one member is convicted in connection with the riots. This is nonsense, and what makes it worse is that those making the threats know that it is nonsense. For one thing it smacks of collective punishment, for another thing it breaches the right to family life in the HRA, and for another thing the council has a statutory duty to house homeless people. Such an eviction would never get past the courts, but the bullies making the threats assume that the public is too stupid to know that and will be impressed at the council's toughness.

Met Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Kavanagh is reported as saying that some of his officers are disappointed that the courts have been dealing with young rioters by making a referral order when the law leaves the courts no alternative and he knows it. DAC Kavanagh is paid a lot of money to be a leader, so why isn't he telling his 'disappointed' troops what the law says, rather than patronising them and the public by suggesting that the courts have somehow failed in their duty?

There will be lots more of this kind of stuff as people try to make themselves out to be the people's tribunes, and most of what will be said will be utterly bogus.


It's been another night when courts have sat to deal with those arrested in connection with the riots. A couple of thoughts occur:

The great bulk of the cases have been handled by District Judges. Some lay justices' noses have been put out of joint by this, but it was probably inevitable, firstly because professionals with no other commitments are easier to deploy than lay benches, and a word from the Chief Magistrate is an easy way to achieve a degree of consistency.

Many of those arrested have been refused bail. Expect a flood of fresh bail applications, as two are allowed in the magistrates' court, and thereafter application may be made to a Circuit Judge. Nevertheless given the weight of numbers those incarcerated may face some time inside.

We had to allow a trial date to be vacated yesterday as the CCTV evidence wasn't ready and the available specialists are all up to their ears processing riot footage.

The papers are already fuming about younger offenders 'walking free' because they do not understand, and do not want to understand, the constraints on dealing with the young in court. All but the most serious offences have to be dealt with in the Youth Court with its maximum power of (I think - it's not my turf) a two year Detention and Training Order. For the youngest, if they have no previous convictions, a Referral Order is about all there is. Frustrating as this may seem, there is a perfectly good principle behind treating the young differently and keeping them out of the adult justice system.

Here's an informative piece.

And here's another.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Enter Rumour, Painted All With Tongues

I have had an email from my local police today, via our Neighbourhood Watch, to say not to worry about rumours of trouble in the biggish town a few miles along the road.

It reminds me of the Southall riots, some years ago. I ran a business in the area, and quite a few of my competitors started to board up their premises. My wonderful assistant fell for it all, and rushed into my office to say that the National Front were massing on Hounslow Heath.

She was affronted when I burst out laughing, first because Hounslow Heath is now mainly under Heathrow Airport, and secondly because I asked her how three men and a dog could 'mass' anywhere.

Expect more of the same until things cool down. And carry on praying for rain. Heavy rain.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A Few Basics

All we can do while riots are still going on is to support those who are tackling the trouble on the ground, and to wish them well. The criminal justice phase will begin shortly. I am not commenting on the system but here are some of the issues:

Those arrested have to be taken to a police station and booked in in the usual manner, where the custody sergeant has to authorise their detention. That has the effect of taking one or more officers off the street, and if the cells are full, as I imagine they are, detainees have to be shipped out, requiring more resources.

Charges will be decided by the CPS, and the confusion and chaos of a riot will make it exceptionally difficult to gather evidence of the necessary quality for a conviction.

CCTV is less help than the public commonly suppose, particularly in view of the well-known Turnbull guidelines on ID evidence.

Most of the likely charges will be either-way, such as burglary, theft, robbery, affray, criminal damage (this has to be above £5000 to make the offence e/w, but setting light to a car or building will soon get you past that threshold). The CPS is likely to rely on 'joint enterprise' in many cases, which should provide plenty of work for lawyers.

The early batch of people dealt with in court were reported on by the BBC today who said that there were many guilty pleas, but that most were committed to the Crown Court for sentence.

Crown courts in London are currently under pressure to get through their work. If there are lots of not-guilty pleas the system may take a year or more to get through the cases.

And a comment from me:- These are dreadful and outrageous incidents that need to be dealt with under the law, but nobody can justify cutting corners. Cases that cause outrage must be dealt with meticulously, however slow and frustrating that may appear to be. This is Britain - we have seen this sort of thing before and we shall see it again, and the rule of law is too precious to be bent in a moment's indignation.

Good Timing

A long-serving fireman of my acquaintance who is also a JP has just worked his last-ever night shift - last night, in West London. Talk about going out on a high!

JPs and The Riot Act

The Riot Act disappeared from English law some years ago, but had remained unused for a very long time. The prescribed wording had to be read to the mob by one of a list of functionaries, often by a Justice of the Peace. How anyone was supposed to hear is hard to imagine, in the time before electronic amplifiers.

I can't remember where, but I recall reading of one incident where a Justice read the Act only to see the mob repair to his house and burn it down. Call me a coward if you like, but I think that would deter me from taking on the duty.

If Only

I am sure that I'm not the only person who would like to see heavy rain for the next three or four nights. Sadly, it isn't forecast for London.

Afraid Not

David Cameron is quoted:

He told rioters: "You will feel the full force of the law. And if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment."

Unfortunately, that is not how the youth justice system works. The under-18s won't be hit very hard and the under-16s are more or less bulletproof so long as their offences aren't too far up the scale.

Sunday, August 07, 2011


I am starting to get a bad feeling about the riots that started in North London yesterday. Of course a full and impartial investigation will take place to find out what led to a man being shot by police officers, but that will take many months. The early press reports suggested that the deceased was stopped in a Trident operation and was shot dead after producing a weapon and firing it, the bullet lodging in a police officer's radio. The press ran with that story and the usual commenters made the point that a man who had fired at police had himself been shot. That would seem fair to me too, but the latest reports (all unconfirmed like everything in this post) suggest that the bullet in the radio was a police one.
There is a depressing feeling of déja vu about a police incident in which the early press reports turn out not to reflect the truth. That truth will be established in due course, but what worries me is that practically no one now accepts the first police account of these sort of incidents. That allows for rumours and hysteria, then violence. And violence is so often followed by looting, as the glittering shop windows become irresistible to local thieves, who seize their chance.
As usual, the police on the street stood up to the bricks and bottles and contained the riot as best they could. But if their managers had not tossed away their force's credibility so often in the past, the riots might not have kicked off at all.

I see that even Gadget sees the potential trouble from this.

Silly Season Update.....

Shock Poll? Shock? Really?

Prison drug taking is so bad that even the wardens are getting stoned... on the fumes
Don't believe a word of it. Prisons awash with drugs? Course they are. Wonder how they get there? Me neither. Officers getting high? Nah.

MP has Rolex stolen in Ford prison. If he took it in then he is a prat. But then we knew that anyway.

Police have been attacked for fiddling their expenses - by MPs. Pot? Kettle?

I posted this a year ago. The Mail has dragged the poor old lady back to Saddleworth Moor yet again. How cruel.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Perfect Story For August

Here is a classic Silly Season story that almost has everything. An Irish gentleman finds himself in court charged with being drunk in charge of a horse.
The article is illustrated with a most unlikely stock photo of a posh looking carriage (just in case Mail readers cannot visualise a horse and cart) while the report refers to a 'trap' which the photo certainly isn't.
The horse was colour blind apparently, and the Irishman's account of a few pints in a few pubs rings true enough. The hapless reporter was made to ring up a vet to see if horses really are colour blind.

Just to put the tin hat on it, the defence brief was Mr. Dobbin.


Friday, August 05, 2011

For The Record

Today's appeal by the Murdoch pie-flinger is all over the news.

Since it has been reported little, if at all, may I add that the appeal court consisted of His Honour Judge Pitts, together with Paul Brooks JP, and Mrs. Lobanov-Rostovsky JP.

Each of the three people on the bench had an equal vote, but the judge had, of course, the last word on the law.

JPs' presence on appeals is invisible to the lazy reporters from the press, just as so many cases in the lower court are reported as if the presiding Chairman was sitting alone.