Monday, December 31, 2012

How Will It Turn Out?

In wishing you all a Happy New Year it is impossible not to wonder how 2013 will turn out. We British tend to take a gloomy view, but look on the bright side - it can't get wetter (well if it does,I'm off to find a few cubits of gopher wood and a few pairs of animals) - we are getting used to the idea of having no money - we may wonder where to put our next two million incomers from the wider EU, but at least a hand car wash is still under six quid - and if court business continues its ten percent decline I shall be retired before the tumbleweed blows through the yard where the Serco vans used to park.

Always look on the bright side - yes, that's it!

Have a good one, and good luck for next year. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Forrest Gump Had it Right

When we turn up for court in the morning in one of the courthouses in my amalgamated bench, we look at the printed court sheets to see which courtroom we are allocated to, whether we are in the middle seat or on the wing, and what the court business looks like.
Nowadays, as our group does not do much traffic work, the staple diet is trials (many of them involving domestic violence, such cases producing a goodly proportion of Not Guilty pleas) with remand work (early appearances) in one or perhaps two courtrooms. Every week there will be one or more 'non-CPS' courts; these dealing with unpaid bus and train tickets, unlicensed fishermen, health and safety prosecutions, and suchlike. Then there is the Borough's business, for unpaid council tax, truanting, littering, and the rest.
A list of 250 train-fare prosecutions is mind-numbingly dull most of the time, as it is unusual for more than a handful of people to attend in answer to a summons, so the bench will carefully consult the guidelines for the first couple of cases, then stay on the same track (geddit? Sorry, it is Christmas) for all of the others. Some of us wince at the levels of costs that are requested, and the guideline fines for people who do not give any detail of their means are very high, so an unpaid fare of say £5 can end up with a fine plus costs totalling two or three hundred quid. In the rough and ready days before prescriptive guidelines we used to assume that every defendant was on benefit, because experience of sitting in the fines court when the big fines went unpaid usually showed that to be the case. 
But sometimes, non-CPS stuff throws up a good'un, such as an environmental prosecution where our sentencing powers are hefty (up to £20,000 per charge) or a trading standards breach for selling fake cosmetics - that one finished up costing the defendant company north of fifty thousand.

So as Forrest Gump said - it's like a box of choclits - you never know what you're gonna git.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Deck The Halls

The team is going off duty today, each to spend Christmas in our own way, with family, or friends, at home or away. As we clock off, let's spare a thought for all those people who will be kept away from their families by jobs that serve the public 365 days a year.

Let's not forget those who are paying the price of committing crime, who will spend Christmas behind high grey walls. With very few exceptions they too feel the human emotions of separation fom family and friends.

Thanks to the thousands who have visited the blog in its eighth year - the year in which some high-ups wanted us to disappear. We shall try to remain constructive and cheerful, however hard our patience is tried by clumsy legislation and flat-footed administrators.

I am proud to be a Justice of the Peace, and I hope that 2013 will be a year in which we see justice and peace prevail.

Merry Christmas

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fingers Crossed

Just in case the Mayan prophecy turns out to be true and the world really does end tomorrow, can we just thank those of you who have read this stuff over the years, and wish you well in whatever galactic maelstrom we are destined for.

And while we are on the subject, here's a loud raspberry to the cadre of spammers trolls and critics who have taken the opportunity, faced with a blog written in part by  real if low-level members of the judiciary to hurl abuse and contempt, just like the kid that we always had at the back of our class who couldn't resist a snide dig at teacher.  So, to quote the Bard:  "The Figo for Thee".

Anyone offended by this should address their complaints to the Ministry of Justice.

If it's still there on the 22nd, that is.

Just For Info

We never criticise another bench's sentence for the simple reason that they have heard the facts, had legal advice, and considered the guidelines, and we have not.

However, we would like to hear the reasoning behind this case.

To repeat, every case is different but the reasons can be interesting.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"If This Is Justice, I'm a Banana"

Ian Hislop' s famous remark comes to mind whenever I read the phrase Sun Justice .

This oxymoron is the label under which the paper slots its regular calls for retribution against unfashionable criminals (as opposed to criminals who have worked for the paper).

It's ironic isn't it, that the Sun's stridently populist approach to matters of crime and punishment will soon slip into second place in the public mind behind the image of the paper's former editor and chief executive tossing her flame-coloured locks in the dock at the Old Bailey next year?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Very Old Lags

There will be a TV programme tonight (9 pm ITV1, thereafter on ITV Player) about the recent rise in the number of elderly prisoners, a rise that I imagine is driven by a number of factors, but chiefly the number of indefinite IPPs passed in recent years and the authorities' failure to provide these prisoners with the opportunity to undertake the courses that might permit the Parole Board to allow their eventual release.  The current efforts being made to identify and bring to trial many hundreds of historic sex offences are bound to lead to the incarceration of (mostly) men in their sixties seventies and beyond. In addition there are a fair number of whole life tariffs that have been passed in the last few years.

I first became aware of  this situation when I visited Wandsworth Prison a few years ago. One wing was kept for elderly and disabled inmates, and I was taken aback to see wheelchairs and mobility aids parked outside cell doors. The prison has to provide proper medical and other care for these people, and because they are, for obvious reasons unsuitable for regular prison work some raised flowerbeds have been established th the yard outside to allow prisoners to tend them.

One of the most famous, or should I say infamous, old prisoners is Harry Roberts . who was involved in the murders of three police officers in 1966. The cold blooded nature of the crime, his notoriety, and the fact that he has by no means been a model prisoner means that he may stay inside for some time yet.

The idea of what amounts to an old people's home with bars on the windows is a strange one, but it is a fact and the Prison Service will just have to get on with managing the issues that arise.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Keep Taking The Tablets

From Bystander J

Technology is slowly starting to arrive in the Magistrates' Court. The CPS is starting to load up case files onto shiny new pads thus avoiding lugging around tonnes of paper between courts and office. Great idea yes? Actually, not really. Here’s one scenario, probably repeated at a court near you.

Picture the scene at Blanktown Mags. It has 8 courts sitting at any one time, at least 3 of which are dealing with adult CPS matters today, 1 busy remand court and 2 trial courts. The remand court has a CPS staffer complete with pad. The 2 trial courts have CPS agents armed with paper files. One of the trial courts collapses (probably due to the fact that the CPS has failed to provide primary disclosure to the defence – but that’s a whole different posting!!). The court offers help to their hard pressed colleagues in the remand court. But wait…all the CPS files are loaded onto the shiny pad…there are no other papers for the CPS agent to work from…all he or she can do is borrow the court papers which are fairly minimal (the charge sheet only at first hearing perhaps) leading to embarrassment, inefficiency, delay and frustration all round…and this is deemed ‘progress’. How can a bail application be handled for example without the necessary information to hand?

At least until sufficient technology is made available to the CPS and its agents, all this will do is further bring the Criminal Justice System into disrepute as it’s made to look idiotic and stupid in the eyes of the defendants and the outside world. Once again, I suspect that the idea (which isn’t inherently bad) just was not thought through properly at the coalface. Sad, but true…

Friday, December 07, 2012

Long Ago And Far Away

Now I have absolutely nothing to say about yesterday's arrest of Max Clifford - oh no - but one thought has been bothering me, and that is the fact that this and other similar cases that are under investigation are said to have happened in 1977 or thereabouts. I had a think about what I was doing in 1977 (wasn't that Jubilee year?). I had a young family and was running a small business. Since then I have changed jobs a few times, and finally retired. My young children are now around forty, and I am a grandfather. A lot of water has passed by Big Ben in that time.
If I were called to give evidence in a trial relating to an incident in 1977, how could I or a jury or a bench be 'sure' that my memory was accurate to the very high standard required for a criminal  conviction?
These sort of offences are way above anything that a magistrate could be expected to deal with (other than to decide on bail) and those more legally erudite than I will make their decisions in due course, but think about what you were doing 35 years ago. Could you give evidence that reached the criminal standard of proof?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Tout Passe, Tout Casse

Most magistrates have now attended training on the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which is just as well, since much of the Act came into force yesterday. Rather curiously, the circular that I received said that the training was 'essential, but not compulsory'. Make what you like of that.

You can find full guidance on the Act via a non-taxing (or is that untaxed) Google search. 

As so often happens, the Act is being brought into effect in a piecemeal fashion and my Clerk was forced to send out advice on the new bail provisions as late as last Friday so that when making pronouncements about the grant or withholding of bail we do not paint the next bench into a legally awkward corner.

The training was spread over several weeks, so the first few cohorts of JPs had to rapidly unlearn a few things that will not now apply, at least for the time being.For example, the Act returns us to a position where we have the power to take no action on a breach of a community sentence other than to impose a fine - or at least it will do so when the new bit is brought into effect.

I was unsurprised to note that the Act abolishes Custody Plus and Intermittent Custody, hangovers from the 2003 Act. I  remember sitting for a day in a smart London hotel being told about Custody Plus (the lunch was really nice) but for all the good it did I might as well have gone fishing.

Intermittent Custody was a fiasco and was quietly sidelined. I had an email from a solicitor who had experience of the pilots, in which offenders had to report to an open prison on Friday evening and were released on Sunday afternoon. Apparently the local lads all met up on Friday lunchtime at a pub near the prison, and spent a jolly afternoon on the lager before turning up at the gates, and getting their heads down at the first opportunity to sleep it off. Some were even sent away by the prison for being too drunk to be let in. The only penalty for misbehaviour was for the (short) sentence to be made continuous, but a good few offenders decided to go for that option and get the whole thing over with.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Prisoners' Votes Again

Today's Daily Mail carries a piece about the latest tinkering with sentencing that goes on to say

Mr Grayling also revealed he may be forced to support a contentious European ruling to give prisoners the vote when the issue comes before the Commons.
He said he was in a tricky position because, as Lord Chancellor, he is duty-bound to uphold the law.
So indeed he is. So are we all. So are Members of Parliament, but you wouldn't believe it from what some of them are saying at the moment.  
By the way, the piece is bylined 'Gerri Peeve'. What a perfect name for a Mail journalist!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

My Tiny Part In History

Lord Justice Leveson, of whom we shall hear much this morning, once helped me on with my coat.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

More More

I was reminded by the erudite responses to my mention of the late Lord Chancellor (now Saint) Thomas More that as a London lad I was always fascinated by the ingenuity and wit of so much of the rhyming slang that I heard  day by day. One word puzzled me for years: when I was on drinking terms with quite a few police officers 'tom' made a regular appearance  to refer to a prostitute, and I was puzzled, because I thought that the connection was with a tom, or male, cat. Then the penny dropped. D'oh!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Non-Political Bit

This blog stays carefully clear of politics unless politicians who influence justice start to drift off into crowd-pleasing and damaging demagoguery.

Today the 'Telegraph' (formerly the house journal of the Tory Party) runs this spendid profile of Her Majesty's Secretary of State For Justice, who is, in his spare time,  Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, a successor to Sir Thomas More (who was a man for all seasons and died for his faith).

He is also my boss, after HM the Queen, so I hope, Your Lordship, that the article amused you too.

Technology Overtakes Law

I referred a few weeks ago to the alleged abduction of a young girl by one of her teachers. She was freely named in the press, and photographs of her were widely published. Once the case came to court a 'section 39' order would have been made prohibiting the publication of anything that might serve to identify the young person. The Children and Young Persons Act was passed in 1933 when the press and communications networks were very different from what we see today.
The invaluable Crime Line reports on a case and includes a transcript of the Judge's remarks. Section 39 will either need to be smartly amended, or quietly left to one side while a 21st century-compliant form of order is devised. It will be interesting to see how Mrs. Sally Bercow's inadvertent breach of S39 on Twitter turns out. She may well get away with it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


I had to go into court last Sunday morning to deal with a remand case that couldn't wait, for reasons that I won't go into. We routinely sit a three-JP court every Saturday, but there is also a duty Legal Adviser and a list of colleagues who are available for Sundays and Bank Holidays, including Christmas Day. Until a few years ago a single justice would take the Saturday court; it felt a bit odd at first having nobody on either side, and using the word 'I' rather than 'we'. The court's powers are limited with a single justice, who can grant or refuse bail, and issue warrants. Punishment used to be limited to a fine of one pound or one day's custody, and that could be useful for drunks and suchlike, who had already spent a night in the cells. These days it is only the DJ who sits alone, and of course he has full powers.
My friends in the pub were surprised to see me turn up in a suit  on a Sunday lunchtime, and they all wanted to know what I had been up to.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Here is a link to a sad story about a tragedy that befell  a family with what appeared to be everything going for it. Money, education, contacts; all of the things that ease one's way up the ladder into a comfortable life - yet it all went horribly, tragically, wrong.

One's heart must go out to the bereaved family.  The lesson here is not one for those who grieve, but  rather for the many of us who set out in life with what we may see as an assured path to success.

Thanks, Captain

The Flight Level 390 blog that has long been a feature of the sidebar appears to have been taken down. 'Captain Dave' the anonymous author wrote beautifully about his job as an airline pilot in the USA, allowing us a glimpse into the highly professional world of the Captain who commands a multi-million dollar machine and is trusted with the lives of many people, but whose professionalism is accompanied by humanity and perhaps an enduring sense of wonder at the natural world that is sometimes beautiful and sometimes threatening. Perhaps someone in his employer's PR department got nervous of what he could not directly control - not too different from our beloved MoJ, if that is the case.
I shall leave the link on for a while, in case the absence is a temporary one. I hope so. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

In The Name Of The Law

I am in two minds over the proposed introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners. In London, where I sit in court, Boris already has the job. Where I live, we are about to vote for a PCC. It seems to be a potentially valuable reform, but its implementation is being bungled.

I never expected Inspector Gadget to be too keen on the idea; nor, for that matter, do I anticipate an ecstatic reaction from ACPO, but I certainly never dreamt  that I would be able  to invoke Godwin's Law so early on. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Suffer Little Children......

The Mail has had another look at the agenda for next week's Magistrates' Association AGM, and has picked up a motion to increase the age of criminal responsibility from its present ten years to something nearer the norm in other countries. The piece has attracted the usual torrent of comments from nutters, many of whom would seem to prefer the Iranian system  of executing children who transgress by hanging them from a crane in a public square.

The MA is a strange creature, lumbered with an impossibly complicated structure and a system of 'branches' that has made it simply irrelevant to many JPs. For example, the Middlesex Branch - and the County of Middlesex was abolished in 1964 - meets in Bloomsbury, making it very difficult and expensive  for magistrates living to the west of London to get there. The Association is belatedly getting round to sorting out a structure to match the newly amalgamated benches but it still seems likely that the new system will be full of anomalous groupings.
Motions for 'debate' are hand-picked in advance, and are totally ignored within five minutes of the vote being taken. Nobody has ever regarded the procedure as having the slightest significance other than to put a bogus gloss of democracy on to MA decisions.

Many magistrates are seriously unhappy about the way things are going in the lower courts, with large cuts in resources, clumsy mergers of benches,  loss of experienced staff, and many more issues. You won't hear much about that at the MA's meeting, because the historically supine approach of the Association will ensure that nobody rocks the boat. It took the recent 'guidance' on blogging (or 'blogging' as the document called it) to uncover the existence of a shadowy group that discusses matters affecting magistrates' courts with the MA, senior judiciary and other figures in the system without any attempt to ascertain  members' views, nor to report back on what was discussed. The group recently revisited the 'blogging' guidance, but decided (or so I believe) not to have another look at it, regardless of the weight of informed opinion that concluded the policy to be ill-advised misconceived and under-researched.

So the Mail has had its fun for another year, next week's meeting will take its course and deep peace will descend on the MA for twelve more months.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Pressure When It Is Needed

It's no secret that the CPS, which is losing resources as fast as the courts' service, is struggling at the moment. Recent inspections have reported serious problems with many CPS areas, and every magistrate is familiar with missing files, unwarned witnesses and similar foul-ups that can bring a trial to a halt. My guess is that the CPS is now understaffed to a sufficient extent to have a serious effect on its ability to do its job. Tesco runs a vast logistic operation across the country, and seems to get perishable goods to its stores at the proper time. The CPS frequently fails to get an A4 folder of papers the few miles from its office to the correct court.

A couple of weeks ago we were due to commit an either-way case to the Crown Court. Two previous attempts had failed, and our colleagues had adjourned the medium-serious case each time, no doubt grumbling at the Crown Prosecutor. Another embarrassed application to adjourn was made  because, of all things, many of the statements in the file were unsigned and not, therefore, legally valid, suggesting that the checking process had been sloppy and perfunctory.

I gave the prosecutor a hard time, and he told us that the OIC (officer in the case) was attempting to find the signed originals. I decided to play hardball. "We hope and expect that he will find them and bring them straight to court. If they are not here by xx o'clock, we shall invite the parties to address us on our option to discharge the matter."

The CPS don't like that, because although they have the option to start again, someone will have to explain to the boss what has gone wrong.

The papers and the OIC arrived with fifteen minutes to spare, so we committed the case, and set a date for the first Crown Court hearing.

Do you think that could have happened without the threat to discharge the case?

No, nor do I. 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Upstairs or Downstairs

The forthcoming abolition of committal proceedings reminds me that benches continue to be, in our view, too timid in accepting jurisdiction. Only yesterday we committed a case to the Crown Court that is highly unlikely to attract more than our maximum of six months' imprisonment, and will probably end up as a suspended sentence order. Nevertheless our colleagues had declined jurisdiction.  When we sit at the Crown Court on appeals judges often ask why we send up low-level stuff; I don't have the figures to hand but a good proportion of cases sent to Hizonner end up being sentenced well within JPs' powers. We lost an argument last year and declined a case that finished up attracting a six-week sentence. The defendant was released immediately because he had served longer in custody waiting to get to the Crown Court than the eventual sentence. That is unfair as well as costly.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Yeah, Right!

The Government has put out a breathless announcement about the abolition of most committal proceedings. We blogged about it here.

The rather over-excited functionary who wrote the piece says:-
Criminals will face justice far more quickly as court committal hearings are abolished in dozens of areas of England and Wales from today.
Scrapping the hearings will help the courts run more efficiently and ensure they provide a better service for users.
Far more quickly? Far more?

A 6(2) committal rarely takes more than five minutes and we don't often do more than two or three in a day in the remand court. As we have said, it's a small piece of tidying up to get rid of a procedure that has passed its sell-by date -  but don't overdo it, sonny. People might become cynical and we don't want that now, do we?.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Plate Sin With Gold (Chapter 42)

It is being reported that HM Revenue and Customs are continuing with their policy of prosecuting only a tiny minority of tax evaders (and it is an equally tiny minority that ever gets caught) and dealing with the rest by imposing penalties. All of this takes place behind closed doors, and the perpetrators, who may have effectively stolen many thousands of pounds from the public purse,, can go about their lives without the humiliation and public opprobrium suffered by more downmarket thieves. Their CRB checks will continue to come back free of convictions and arrests.
Only the other week we passed a case of tax fraud on to the Crown Court, reminding us just how few of them we see.  Down among the lower orders, we imposed a community penalty on a shoplifter who had stolen goods worth £55 from a store.

(later) And today we hear that an 'honourable' MP has been found to have stolen £12,900 through the issue of twelve fraudulent invoices. He should think himself lucky that he didn't nick fifty quidsworth of Duracells from  WH Smith. He might have ended up in court.

(later still) The about-to-be-ex MP told the BBC that he wanted to take responsibility for his 'mistakes'.  I suspect that he thinks his mistake was to get caught.

How would a bench of magistrates react to a bang-to-rights thief apologising for his 'mistake'? Only a politician steeped in the Westminster culture would dream of trying it on.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


Tariq and Colette stood side by side in the dock, co-defendants in a shoplifting matter. As is so often the case, the driver was the overriding need to fund their drug and alcohol habits. When you are living on benefits of about £70 a week, spending the same amount each day on heroin leaves a gap that can only be filled by crime. Every magistrate will have seen many similar cases, with the unsophisticated methods used making arrest a near certainty .
They looked terrible. Her hair was scragged back, her face puffy, her skin blotchy. He exhibited the classic heroin crouch, back bent, elbows in, head held low. And yet they were holding hands. I would not normally allow that, but to have told them to stop would have been unnecessarily cruel. For various reasons the case could not go ahead; for one thing Colette's litre-a-day vodka habit had caused her admission to hospital when she began vomiting blood a week ago.
We bailed them to a later date to obtain reports, and I gave them the usual warning that if they failed to turn up for their appointments we had the power to remand them in custody to ensure reports were done. She clutched his arm, looking up at him adoringly. "Oh no" she said "I can't be without him. He's everything to me".
I found their plight strangely moving. Of course they will be dealt with according to the law, and within our guidelines. I am unlikely to see them again, but I would not be surprised to hear that they were given a Community Order with a requirement for drug and alcohol treatment, which is by no means a certain cure, but is probably their and society's only hope.
The fact that two people so near the bottom of society's heap find solace in each other even as they inject and swig their way into an early grave is just a tiny glimmer of hope that the human spirit can survive in the most desperate circumstances.
My experience and my judgement tell me that neither of them is likely to see the age of thirty. I hope that I am wrong.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Small Earthquake In Chile

We see that the issue of prisoners' votes has resurfaced, with, inevitably, the Mail going for it with a claim that this strikes at the 'soul of our democracy' whatever that may be.

The blog first mentioned the issue about seven years ago and again two years back. Nothing has changed other than an apparent firming of the government's determination to paint itself into a corner and to throw away a few million quid in an attempt to make itself look dead hard over Europe.

It's a pointless fight over a non-issue, and it begs the obvious question to those who govern us:-

Haven't you got more important things to worry about?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Simple, Speedy, Summary

A drunken oaf who assaulted a footballer in full view of TV cameras and thousands of witnesses was weighed off  today, in a hearing that took place with exemplary speed. By pleading guilty (not that he would have got very far by denying it) he saved himself two months off the six months' maximum.

To some extent he was lucky, because such an act in the volatile atmosphere of a packed football crowd could lead to widespread mayhem.


I was alarmed to see a news site headline:-


and relieved to see that this was the story it  linked to.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Not So Élite

Trenton Oldfield, who disrupted the Boat Race in a so-called protest against élitism. has been sent down for six months. Here are the Judge's sentencing remarks, setting out with impeccable clarity the reasoning behind the sentence.

We blogged about the case here and here and here.

Mr. Oldfield will probably have woken up this morning in the less than élite company of the other 1200 or so inmates of Wormwood Scrubs.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I Ink, Therefore I Upset The Boss

However much indignation it has engendered in the ranks of his increasingly touchy troops, I have to agree with the Met Police Commissioner that visible tattoos are inappropriate on police officers, as they would be on magistrates, doctors, nurses, and chartered accountants. When I was younger a tattoo signified that you had spent time in the Navy or in prison. Now the dratted things are , inexplicably, everywhere.

Uniforms engender confidence, and that is why I support their use by those whose jobs involve face to face management of the public. And that is why I shall wear a suit and tie tomorrow.

For Those Who Should Get Out More

The people who like this sort of thing, are going to like this.

There is a  link here to a spreadsheet that includes all sorts of data about magistrates, who they are, their gender, age, ethnicity; there is enough to keep anyone who is interested supplied with data. There are a couple of people on my bench whom I could name but will not, who are probably well over halfway into their analyses as I type.

No Comment - Well, Hardly Any..

This case, albeit all we have is a Daily Mail report, will be dealt with impartially by the usual processes, so we have nothing to add, other than profound relief that it was only a Taser, rather then a Glock 9 mm automatic.

We Got This One Right Anyway

A year ago we decided not to mourn the death of a certain TV personality. I cannot find out how to import the old Haloscan comments, or I would be able to cry 'Ha!' at the posters who deplored my disrespect to a well-loved character.

You know who you are.


No Wonder The Service Was Rubbish

Thanks to the Law Society Gazette for this damning report about the shambolic change to interpreting services that we suffered from earlier this year. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Here is a speech by Lord Justice Gross that he delivered in September. His Lordship is to be the next Senior Presiding Judge, in succession to Goldring LJ.

Friday, October 12, 2012


The mostly well-off people who offered themselves as sureties for Julian (Wikileaks) Assange to surrender himself for extradition have been ordered to forfeit their money by the Chief Magistrate, exercising his special jurisdiction in matters of extradition.

This will have come as no surprise to anyone who has any experience of  bail, securities, and sureties.

I have seen a good few cases such as these, and the first thing to say is that in the usual way in England and Wales cash upfront is not required, as it so often is in the USA. Unconditional bail is normal, unless there are 'substantial' grounds to fear that the defendant will abscond, or do other naughty things, but for the purpose of this post we need to look at the former, something that Americans call  'flight risk'. When a security (cash) or a surety (a promise to pay) is offered the court needs to be satisfied that the person concerned has, or can easily raise, the cash. A surety can be taken at a police station but that is not the practice at my court, where we expect the surety to appear, be sworn, and be examined about his means and his hold over the defendant. This can be a gruelling process, and I can still remember how disturbed I felt to see a respectable man in his late fifties, who had never been in a court in his life, but whose son had done something stupid with drugs. After the lawyers had done their stuff I had to warn this decent fellow that if his son absconded and the surety was not paid, he himself might be committed to prison.
I concluded that day that I would not offer a surety to my granny. On second thoughts, close family probably, everyone else, sorry, no. 

If you offer to stand as surety for someone, just make sure that you trust them implicitly. If not, set fire to a pile of banknotes now.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Minister Speaks

Here is a news release about the forthcoming 'flexible court' experiments. We look forward to hearing from magistrates lawyers and others how things are working.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A New Approach

Here is the Sentencing Council's latest effort to explain how sentencing works.

Anything that helps to dispel the fog of ignorance that surrounds most discussion of sentencing must be welcome.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Cry From The Heart

This is a contribution by Bystander J 

Tell Me It Ain’t So…

Off to court yesterday morning. Standard kind of court list, three CPS trials listed, 2 in the morning, 1 in the afternoon. The subject of the charges also pretty usual, a couple of Assault by beatings (Common Assault) with domestic violence overtones and a Harassment without violence. In we go at 10 am all fired up having had some Case Management Training on Saturday…sadly it all went downhill from there.

Under the Criminal Procedure Rules, when a defendant pleads Not Guilty, the prosecution are under a statutory duty to serve Initial Disclosure on the defence within 14 days. This comprises the witness statements, interview summary and basically all the evidence on which the prosecution intend to rely. The defence then have to indicate whether they intend to serve a Defence Case Statement based on the information the prosecution have disclosed setting out in broad terms the defence case. This is to prevent either side springing an ambush on the other…

As JP’s we have been exhorted by our masters at the MOJ to speed up justice and to actively case manage trials to ensure that there are no unnecessary delays and this includes detailed questioning of the parties at the entry of the plea to assist in the completion of the Case Management Form…all intended to avoid unneeded attendance of witnesses (especially police officers) whose evidence is not likely to be questioned as its uncontroversial, and therefore whose written statements can be read thus saving lots of court time and attendant cost – a mission close to the hearts of said masters.

First case called. Defence rise…we cannot proceed as Initial Disclosure has not been served and despite repeated letters to the CPS it’s not been forthcoming. Can it be served now we ask? No, says CPS, we don’t have it either, as it was sent on Friday (ie, zero working days before the trial) and there are other issues causing difficulty anyway. Case reluctantly adjourned.

Next case…can you guess dear reader? Oh yes exactly the same problem with failure to serve Initial Disclosure, and with the third case. Result a whole court wasted with 3 ineffective trials because someone failed to do their job properly. Now I don’t know if it’s because when the files come back to the CPS office after first hearing no one actually bothers to follow up what has happened or it’s because the unit at the police which deals with statement preparation aren’t responding to requests from the CPS…in a sense I don’t care where the fault lies. I DO care that justice is not being done as a result. Victims of crime feel let down (who can blame them) and defendants suffer delay. The court system (and particularly hard working staff and JP’s) take the blame and have resources withheld or courts closed because we are considered ‘inefficient’  Instead we are foisted with half thought through initiatives put together by a nameless civil servant whose probably never set foot in a Magistrates Court in their lives.

In speaking to colleagues at other courts, it’s clear that this complete failure to follow the CPR is now a commonplace occurrence and the frustration throughout the system is palpable. It’s not acceptable; it’s wasteful of time, money and resources. And if that doesn’t get the attention of the MOJ then nothing will.

Realism From Chancery Lane

The latest Law Society Gazette features two pieces on important issues facing the courts as a result of hasty and ill-thought-out legislation.

The first reports second thoughts on the proposed extensions to court hours, which are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of just what happened during and after the 2011 riots, and the second is a justifiably scathing attack on the political grandstanding involved in the free hand that is supposed to be granted to householders who come across burglars in their home.

It is deeply depressing to see the Coalition' s minister descending to the desperate and craven measures that so appealed to Jack Straw in his efforts to pander to the Murdoch press.

Here is more

Monday, October 08, 2012

A Few Statistics

An official website here gives some interesting statistics about the make-up of the judiciary. Make of them what you will, but one thing in particular caught my eye:- some 29.1% of District Judges (Magistrates' Courts) are of the female persuasion  as against about 53% of lay magistrates, and 2.8% of DJ(MC)s are of black or minority ethnic (BME) origin.I do not know the figure for BME lay magistrates but I am sure that it is a good deal higher than 2.8%.

So whatever the pros and cons of the salaried DJ bench, if it's diversity you are after, a lay bench ticks the box every time.

No Smirk Without Fire

I have recently read yet another report of a man, sentenced for a serious crime, who is said to have 'smirked' as he left the dock. The popular press often seize on this as implying that the man feels no remorse, but of course it isn't as simple as that. The rictus reflex is common to great apes and to man, and is more likely to indicate fear than anything else.
Of course the young men who make up the greatest part of our customers sometimes try to show a bit of swagger, especially if their mates are in the gallery, but it doesn't often last beyond  the bottom of the steel staircase.

On a prison visit a long time ago I had a cup of tea with a very experienced officer who was approaching retirement. I asked him about the attitude of his charges as they arrived and departed the system. "Oh yes" he said. "They often try to be cocky as they come in, as young men do, but they nearly always have a good cry on their first night, as they find that they miss their Mum". I went on to ask about discharge day; do they offer thanks for the care they have received? "No", he said, "we sometimes get a mouthful once they feel safely outside the gates, but we always respond by promising to keep their cell ready for when they come back, and to discuss matters further then".

Real Life Meets Fiction

There is a murder trial going on at the moment on which we have no comment, other than to note the extraordinary names and places involved:-
The alleged victim was Lt Col Robert "Riley" Workman, the alleged killer Christopher Docherty-Puncheon. The crime took place in Furneux Pelham, a village not too far from Stocking Pelham.

Those names are pure Midsomer Murders, are they not?

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Probation Viewed From The Bench

From Bystander M

I had an interesting sentencing hearing yesterday. An man in his 40s who had pleaded guilty to failing to provide a sample, driving not in accordance, no insurance and to top it off racially aggravated public order 'words' towards a police officer in a hospital a&e. All this done while heavily under the influence of alcohol and during a community order for assault PC.

A stand down report had been asked for and the probation service duly provided an aural report in court. The chaps advocate informed us the unfortunate offender suffered from a personality disorder and schizophrenia (he didn't have schizophrenia he was a manic depressive but that's splitting hairs) and this behaviour is very out of character.

The original community order for for 18 months supervision which according  to his supervising officer was running very successfully. I think he or she missed the point his offending had continued and in fact got worse. If that's success for a community order then I'm a chicken. He had attended 23 of 25 offered appointments which is one thing I suppose.

The convicting bench had indicated to the probation service that a community order was to be considered but custody was not ruled out. Punishment though a curfew was suggested with a program to rehabilitate.

We heard from probation about the unfortunate chap's mental health problems, which shouldn't be overlooked or belittled, then we heard a great deal about his girlfriend's, who was at the back of court, problems with cancer. All well and good. Then we moved onto looking at an appropriate sentence.

Prison was ruled out, as it normally is, mainly due to his vulnerability due to his mental health and previous suicide attempts. A curfew was ruled out as he shares a home with his elderly parents and he has a conviction for a domestic assault on his father. Unpaid work was ruled out as he was currently 'on the sick' due to his mental health. An ATR, ruled out, as he did not recognise that alcohol is a problem in his life. A program to look at his clearly racist beliefs, ruled out as he did not consider himself to be racist.

So what's left? The recommended order form Probation, 12 months supervision and a low level program requirement to address his dislike towards those in authority. So we would be re-sentencing to a lower level order than the one he breached for a an increase in offending behaviour.

Suffice it to say we did not follow the recommended course of action but a higher level of programs to address all the issues and a longer period of supervision. Maybe our sentence was too lenient or too harsh. But the tail about how this chap couldn't do any sentence because of his offending, his health, his lack of acceptance showed the inflexibility of the system and really showing, they have missed the point.

A Little Knowledge Can Be A Dangerous Thing

(From Bystander T)

Virtual Internet lawyers are not real, and certainly not reliable.

A quiet day in a Magistrates' Court near you, sees a trial about to take place.  The defendant is a fine upstanding citizen of good character who is on trial for the offence of 'Speeding'.  He is representing himself and strives hard not to demonstrate the old legal adage that "the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client". 

This is Mr Driver's fifth appearance in court on this charge, and this is his third trial date.  The first trial date was ineffective because he asked for certification details of the camera used.  The second trial was lost because of a lack of court time.  It is now more than a year since the date of the offence. 

Miss Prosecutor requests an adjournment because one of her two witnesses has been called to a Crown Court some 150 miles away.  Mr Driver also asks for an adjournment because he has only just been told that the prosecution will not be providing any further information about the type approval of the camera.  It will be part of the evidence called. 

The Bench denies both of them.  The trial will proceed today simply because any further delay cannot be in the interests of justice.  If it is allowed to churn through the system any further, everybody loses.  Those attending court need to understand that progress must be made at every hearing. 

So the trial went ahead.  The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had the camera operator but the technical expert, who the court later learned had submitted a 35 page statement about the camera, how it works and all that good stuff would not be available. 

The camera operator gave his evidence and ticked all the boxes.  Film installed, tests run, no errors reported.  Mr Driver asks him about radar beams hitting birds, railings and all that kind of stuff.  He appears to be consulting a file of papers and asks about the white line markings in the road, the interval between them, and the speed calculations based on those lines.  He talks about their spacing and the defendant then says that his colleague, who had to go to the Crown Court calculated the speed, according to those lines, at 35 mph, therefore less than the 37 in the allegation. 

You know when someone drops a bombshell into a conversation and everyone goes quiet for an instant, then they all talk at once;  this was such a moment.  The Chairman raised his head somewhat wearily and says something to the effect that "What it is this document ..."; the Prosecutor rises and starts talking about the missing witness; the learned Clerk, (sorry, legal adviser) intervenes over all of them and suggests that the bench retire to allow her to discuss a point of procedure with the parties.  Off they go for their morning coffee.  Or so they thought. 

While they are out, the Legal Adviser explains to Mr Driver that because the missing witness is not being called, his statement is not before the court.  If he is sure it will help his case, he can accept it under what is commonly known as "Section 9"; provisions that allow a statement to be used if both sides agree the content.  It appears to be the only way such a document can be put before the court.  The defendant is told that he should be sure that it will help his case because the CPS want the whole statement, not an edited version, put in.  The defendant is asked if he is sure hat he wants that.  He should consider whether the rest of the statement contains material that would not help his case and whether on balance, it would be better not to have it in at all. 

In the absence of a lawyer on the spot to assist, Mr Driver elects to accept the statement under S.9 and the bench is invited to return - without anywhere near enough time for that coffee, not even the nasty instant stuff in paper cups that is now the standard in most magistrate courts. 

The long and the short of it is that the statement is that of a speed camera expert who provides copious details of type approval for the machine, how it works, it's tolerances, error checking and how it's calibration certificate has been established as reliable.  He also calculated the different speeds reported by the radar gun and the photographs and says the potential difference is something like 2mph. 

Mr Driver then gives evidence of having measured the white lines, with a household tape measure, and his calculation is that it shows his speed as 34mph.  His argument being that the camera and radar system are inaccurate, plus his sworn testimony that he was sure he was only doing 30 should entitle him to be acquitted. 

After due deliberation by the bench, he was found guilty.  He had been given incomplete advice when told that he could challenge the type approval and speed calculations;  he had no-one to advise him about the procedural step of accepting the second witness's statement;  he clearly forgot that 34 is greater than 30, so even his own calculations from the photos, condemned him. 

This must be a salutary lesson for speeders who think there are simple loopholes left in the regulations.  There may be a few left, yet to be found, but if you are tempted to find them yourself, without a well informed lawyer, you will probably fail.  And the costs implications are dire.  In this case the defendant was ordered to pay over £400 in costs, plus the fine and the victim surcharge, and it happened a while ago so the only way is up.  

(Editor's Note:- Bystander T is a new kid on this block and could be forgiven if he were to conclude that commenters who have nothing constructive to say are all too eager to jump in with snide gibes at petty grammatical points. T is a well educated chap (he went to the same university as me) and he is computer literate. This post was drafted on a brand new iPad with pesky predictive text, and that accounts for apostrophic solecisms and, possibly, others. Pedants 'R' definitely not us. Pack it in.)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Enfant? Terrible!

We have nothing to say about today's news that a teacher and one of his pupils who allegedly ran away to France together have been apprehended. The law will take its course as far as the man is concerned, and the girl will presumably be returned to her family as she has committed no offence.

Just one thing though:- if this teenager had appeared in our court this week as a victim or as a witness the chairman would have made an order under the Children and Young Persons' Act prohibiting publication of anything that might serve to identify her. Instead, her photographs are everywhere across the press and the internet. However matters turn out, this young woman, whom the law sees as a victim, will need to rebuild her life away from the glare of the media. We wish her well.


It may not have been entirely by chance that one of us heard this haunting Beatles track on the car radio this morning:-

Wednesday morning at five o'clock
As the day begins
Silently closing her bedroom door
Leaving the note that she hoped would say more

She goes downstairs to the kitchen
Clutching her handkerchief
Quietly turning the backdoor key
Stepping outside, she is free

She...(we gave her most of our lives)
Is leaving (sacrified most of our lives)
Home (we gave her everything money could buy)
She's leaving home, after living alone, for so many years (bye bye)

Father snores as his wife gets into her dressing gown
Picks up the letter that's lying there
Standing alone at the top of the stairs
She breaks down and cries to her husband
"Daddy, our baby's gone.
"Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly?
How could she do this to me?"

She...(we never thought of ourselves)
Is leaving (never a thought for ourselves)
Home (we struggled hard all our lives to get by)
She's leaving home, after living alone, for so many years

Friday morning, at nine o'clock
She is far away
Waiting to keep the appointment she made
Meeting a man from the Motortrade

She (what did we do that was wrong)
Is Having (we didn't know it was wrong)
Fun (fun is the one thing that money can't buy)

Something inside, that was always denied, for so many years...
She's leaving home...bye, bye.

(Copyright acknowledged)