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.