Wednesday, March 30, 2011

All In A Day's Work

The Remand Court is usually busy as a stream of defendants pass before the bench, some in custody, most on bail. We never know what we are going to get, and in the main court last week, among the 50 or so cases we saw were few odd ones. A woman in her thirties was charged with Class A possession. We heard that she is a struggling single mother who ekes out her benefits by working as a dancer in a club. It is the practice to have a whip-round the punters so that they can show their appreciation of the girls; one donated a wrap of cocaine instead of the usual cash, or so she told us. She knew what it was, so didn't have a defence. A normally-respectable man of 30 with no previous convictions got himself very drunk, and was chucked out of the function he was attending. He blundered into a storeroom and the door clicked shut behind him. He smashed his way through two doors to get out, using a metal bar that he found. The alarm went off and he was arrested. He was mortified to be in court, and kept apologising and saying how ashamed he was of his behaviour. We ordered him to pay nearly £5000 for the damage and put a £2000 fine on top. Oh yes, and a £15 surcharge. He paid the lot by credit card on his way out. As I said to him, that was a very expensive drink. Unusually for these days we saw a breach of the peace, for which the only penalty is a bindover that doesn't count as a conviction. The woman concerned wasn't having it though and we had to run a very emotional trial there and then, so we were late breaking for lunch, having found the breach proved and imposed a bindover.
Then there was an ordinary-looking man, neatly dressed and blinking as he stood in the dock. He is charged with rape of a 14 year-old girl and indecently assaulting a six year-old. We were slightly surprised when the CPS did not oppose bail but they told us that the police were satisfied that ordering him to live with his brother in North Wales would keep him away from the victims. By the time we got away at ten to five I was ready for a nice pint in my local.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

I Don't Believe It!

BBC1 is currently showing something called 'See You In Court'. I watched the beginning, to see if it was any good, and what did I see?

A sodding gavel, in the opening titles, that's what.

No excuse, BBC, no excuse at all.

Sentencing Council Pronounced Defective

The Sentencing Council has announced its consultation on new guidelines for a range of drug offences. Unsurprisingly The Sun and The Mail don't like it, and have launched their usual intemperate attacks. It looks as is Leveson LJ (whom I have met, and who is nobody's fool) is set to be the new bogeyman of the hang-'em-high brigade. I think that he is bright enough not to be surprised, nor terribly worried either.

Later - thanks to Briar for this link

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Get A Move On!

Carlene sits in the armoured-glass dock, next to a Serco officer. Carlene is a dumpy young woman whose lifestyle has taken its toll of her appearance. My list tells me that she is 22, but she looks as is she is getting on for 40. She is charged with a serious offence, so we decide that it is too much for us, and decline jurisdiction, thus sending the case to be dealt with at the Crown Court. It is the usual practice to allow six weeks for preparation of committal papers if the defendant is on bail, and four weeks for custody cases, so I look at the advocates and say "four weeks then?". The CPS Associate Prosecutor ('CPS-Lite') gets to his feet, and tells us that since the case involves forensics papers will take seven weeks to prepare.
The defence lawyer protests that her client has two small children and wants her case dealt with as soon as possible. CPS digs his heels in, and says that the wait for DNA results is six to seven weeks so that is that.
I say that we are not happy with this situation. A DNA test is a relatively quick procedure, and the delay is due to a queue. This defendant is unconvicted and in custody, so we say that we expect the tests to be prioritised.
There is still a good possibility that the CPS will do nothing and simply ask for a further adjournment in four weeks' time. If I were sitting on that day (which I will not be) I would seriously consider discharging the case, telling the CPS to re-charge it once they have got their case together. Leaving a mother to sit unconvicted in prison for administrative convenience is unfair and unacceptable.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Politics vs Reality (Chapter 94)

The Probation Officer blogs about the War On Drugs from a position of near-unrivalled experience. Most of the points he makes are perfectly true,even obvious, but depressingly, the combination of realpolitik and tabloid pressure means that there is next to no chance of any meaningful political movement in the foreseeable future.
This has been so for all of my adult life - I remember James Callaghan binning a report on cannabis unread, because he was enough of a case-hardened old politician to know trouble when he saw it, so into the too-difficult file went the report. To be fair, it is by no means a simple issue (that may be this blog's understatement of the year) in which we are bound by a network of international treaties and protocols. Medical opinions are divided too. Don't hold your breath.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Chairmanship Log-Jam

Some magistrates can't wait to sit in the middle seat, and chair the court. Others say 'not for me thanks' and happily sit out their magisterial time as wingers, supporting the chairman and taking a full one-third share of the decision-making out the back. There is no laid-down timetable to progress to the chair, but introductory training can start about four or five years into your time on the bench. Once selected to go forward, the aspirant chairman will attend formal training, including role-play and video sessions, and then will have to do six chair sittings under the supervision of an appraiser. If all goes well, as it usually does, the Bench Training and Development Committee will add him to the list of approved chairmen. The Catch-22 is that the BTDC has a duty to appoint no more chairmen than the court needs to function. It is essential that those who take the chair maintain their competences by regular sittings in the centre seat, so on a typical bench of 100-110 JPs about 50 or so will be chair approved. The level of recruitment tends to fluctuate, for reasons that are beyond me, and the rate of retirements and resignations will again vary from year to year. As a result, my own bench has a group of a dozen or more magistrates with five years' experience who may well have to wait as long again before a chair becomes available. I was appointed at the time of a lot of recruitment, and I had to wait for ten years to become a chairman. A few years ago that was down to five years for many. Like most benches we are in the throes of merging with two neighbouring ones to give a strength of about 400 JPs and with a common seniority list. That may improve the prospects for would-be chairmen or it may not. At the moment we do not have the figures.
In contrast, I have been to sit in a court not too far away where they have trouble finding enough people to take on the chair, and are reduced to putting little notices in the lift asking for volunteers.
Well trained and competent chairmen are absolutely essential to the effective running of our courts and to the maintenance of public confidence. It's just one more thing that needs to be sorted out within the very short deadline for the merged benches that will be open for business straight after the New Year.

I was interested to note that with a strength of about 400, a grouping of three London Boroughs will be the same size as Birmingham or Manchester's courts.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I Must Be Getting Old......... find myself nodding in agreement with this piece in the Daily Telegraph.

I have long felt real sympathy for the Probation Service, who have been buggered about on a grand scale for a couple of decades during which they have been under-appreciated, underpaid, under-resourced, and despised by many of the offenders they deal with, despite the fact that said offenders aren't fit to shine their shoes. No Probation Officer ever watches football, because they can't cope with the sight of goalposts that are not constantly moving.

For what it's worth, Probation people, I think you make the best of a bad job. I wouldn't last five minutes before I bawled out some yob or some manager, and probably got assaulted or fired as a result.

Friday, March 18, 2011

There May Be (More) Trouble Ahead........

The Mags' Association has met HMCS functionaries today to talk about financial issues, and one of the items on the agenda was magistrates' travel and subsistence claims.

Mileage rate for all cars would be a single flat rate of 40p a mile to replace the three tiers as at present. This rate would to be in accordance with that approved by Revenue and Customs (HMRC) before it becomes taxable. Although at present magistrates are exempt from that requirement the MA were told HMRC were considering it again. This rate would provide a slight increase for the smallest cars from last year but a reduction for most.

Subsistence is to be removed altogether and replaced with claims for expenses actually incurred up to maxima rates. HMCTS will require receipts for any claims, although they acknowledged that they only had the resources to check about 10% of claims. The maxima will be as follows:
5-10 hours £4.25,
10-12 hours £9.30 all claims.

The MA representatives were not happy. A lot of JPs will not be happy either. Some will be furious at a reduction of one-third in their mileage rate as petrol hits 135p a litre, while others are not going to like changes to subsistence and loss of earnings rates. On the other side, I have already had an email from a colleague who is unhappy at the MA's concern with expenses rather than with the myriad other changes faced by JPs.

This one will run and run, I suspect.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ex Cathedra

Here is the new sentencing guideline for assault, which is one of the commonest offences dealt with by magistrates. They are not yet in effect, but will be soon.

No Surprise There Then

This PCSO corruptly sold information from the Police computer - guess which papers bought it?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Breath Of Fresh Air

This report of remarks by The Justice Secretary is such a refreshing contrast to the heavy-handed bullying of the Blair-Brown years.
You wouldn't have heard Blair say:- 'we would prefer not to legislate'. Once he had reached a consensus on the no.10 sofa and run it by Alastair Campbell he would have had a Bill drafted before breakfast, and rammed through in a matter of weeks. What an illiberal mess that led to, time after time.
I do not suggest that Ken Clarke is perfect, any more than the Coalition's policies are, but isn't it nice to hear words of reason emanating from Whitehall?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin

You may find that the blog takes a more introspective view than usual over the next couple of months, as my bench, along with many others, goes through the process of merging with two neighbouring benches. As one of the greybeards attached to my court I am taking part with the Bench Chairman in the process of managing the merger at magisterial level. HMCS staff are working very hard to sort out admin and staffing issues, driven as ever by desperately tight budgets. Merging our three benches will involve the loss of two smaller courthouses, leaving us with three, with about a dozen courtrooms between them, to serve a population of about 700,000 people. It's not just about real estate though, because the number of available courts will be driven by the size of the pool of legal advisers. LA's are qualified lawyers on Civil Service terms, so they do not come cheap. Their numbers are being trimmed, (and maternity leave for those remaining doesn't help) so there will be a cap on the number of courtroom days we can sit. Here are a few of the problems that we are addressing:-
Do we use one courthouse or three to deal with Youth work? It is notoriously difficult to get young offenders to court on time when they have just a few miles to come. Faced with a long bus ride, many may not bother, with all the cost and frustrations that involves.
It is more efficient to concentrate some kinds of work in one courthouse - this already happens with traffic, TV licensing and suchlike. This means that JPs will have to be prepared to move about to keep up their experience of different kinds of work. Not everyone will like this.
Travel and subsistence costs are bound to rise, but nobody has any idea how much. I met an old pal who sits in Buckinghamshire the other day, and he told me that JPs attached to High Wycombe court are being sent on occasion to sit in Milton Keynes. That is something like a 100 mile round trip, involving a good three hours on the road, taking a route that is notorious for congestion at rush hour. 100 miles in a 2-litre car is a £58 mileage claim, with staff mileage expenses on top. In our case, the courthouses are only about ten miles apart, but along routes that are awkward for some colleagues.
Because magistrates' courts were historically self-governing there are many differences in local practice, such as whether or not people sit half-days (we don't, some do) whether rotas are quarterly, half-yearly or annual, how to handle swaps (staff do it in some courts, we do our own emails except in emergencies).
So as you may see there is a lot to sort out, and time is short. In late summer we have to elect new officers and committees, in preparation for the whole thing to go live on January 1st.
Above all we have to meld three benches into one that retains the character and camaraderie of its precursors, while concentrating on serving the public well with horribly limited resources. With goodwill and hard work, we can do it.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


D'ye know, scarcely a day in court passes without my learning something, be it banal or significant.

As one born and bred in West London I am pretty familiar with the local language, but I had to do a bit of deduction the other day. A witness kept referring to the fact that the person he was with was about to 'do one' and after a few reiterations I had to ask. "Mr. Parkins" I said; "When you say that Mr. Harris was going to 'do one', do you mean 'do a runner?'.
He seemed surprised at the question, and replied "yes", then carried on with his evidence.

Ex Middlesex semper aliquid nov
i, as the Roman nearly said.

Monday, March 07, 2011

How Could They?

This report will fuel the 'why-oh-why' and the 'out-of-touch' fans in the dimmer tabloids.

A Muslim extremist who burnt poppies on the anniversary of Armistice Day was today fined £50.

The penalty imposed on Emdadur Choudhury, a member of Muslims Against Crusades (MAC), was immediately condemned as an “insult to Britain’s war dead”.

The sentencer is not a proper magistrate like me, but rather the Chief Magistrate, Howard Riddle, a District Judge (Magistrates' Courts).

He sentenced the offence, not the offender, and came in at a tad below the fixed penalty for a Section 5, but unlike an FPN case there will have been costs and surcharge to pay.

It was a sensitive case, but I suspect that he may have been right in treating it on a par with any other gobby street yobbo. If someone is looking for martyrdom, there is a lot to be said for denying it to him. I have done the same myself in the past, and it still seems to have been a good idea.

Er - Sorry 'Bout That

The above is what a US officer is supposed to have said after a map reading error resulted in the razing of the wrong village in South Vietnam.

I wonder who will say what about this?
The landlord of the Bristol landscape architect Jo Yeates has been released from police bail nine weeks after another neighbour was charged with her murder.

Christopher Jefferies, 66, a retired school teacher, was originally arrested on December 30 on suspicion of murdering Miss Yeates, who was found strangled on Christmas morning. Miss Yeates had been missing for eight days since attending a Christmas party with colleagues from the Bristol firm where she worked when she was found covered by snow by a couple out walking their dog.

Mr Jefferies was released without charge two days later but until last Friday police had not clarified his status as an official suspect even after another man was charged with the murder.

Or - this?

Before I am accused (again) of having an anti-police agenda, may I say that it is the media from which a statement is due.

Since there are currently a few burnt fingers over contempt, we may have to wait for a conclusion to the Yates case for an apology. Don't hold your breath though.

Looking on the bright side, Mr. Weirdo (as was) can look forward to a nice new home and a world cruise or two as recompense for his savage treatment at the hands of Fleet Street.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Sadly I Was Too Busy To Join This Bench

" And the next case, ma'am is Ms Chantelle Miggins, who is said to have watched her television set without a licence"

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Batsman Out

There are reports that a top cricketer has declared himself to be gay, a move that has attracted admiration for his courage in the macho world of top-class professional sport.

This reminded me that in more than two decades on the Bench I have only ever sat with one openly gay colleague. Common sense tells me that I have probably sat with very many, but the chap concerned was the only one who has ever spoken about his (male) partner with whom he had just spent a holiday. There was nothing in-your-face about the pre-court chat, and the existence of the partner came into the conversation naturally. Most JPs are small-c conservative I suppose, but it is still surprising that more do not feel comfortable about allowing their sexuality to become known.

Perhaps it is a justifiable fear of the sniggering nudge-nudge of the tabloid press: I can just see the Sun running a headline like "BANGED UP BY THE GAY-P". Yuk.

Slow Learner

I always find it rather sad to see an elderly person in the dock, but as people nowadays stay active for longer, it is not unusual. One of the most poignant sights I have ever seen is the old codgers' wing at Wandsworth Prison. Many of the cells have wheelchairs or walking frames parked outside their doors, and there are some raised flower and vegetable beds in the yard to give the old inmates some work to do, the usual workshops being impractical.
Last year we saw a man of 70 who had committed yet another offence of dishonesty. His record was a great sheaf of paper, detailing convictions that started in 1951 when he was a young boy (discharged, costs half-a-crown) and going on to list countless prison sentences, none of which had the effect of making him pack it in.
What I wanted to say was "Look, you silly old bugger, you have been a thief for 60 years, and you still can't see that you are rubbish at it - that's why you keep getting locked up. Go away and make the best of your old age. The pension will even pay better than thieving". I didn't say it of course, but then what difference would anything I say make to him?
Incorrigible isn't a word that comes up in court much nowadays, but this old bloke is exactly that.