Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sledgehammer Meets Nut

A columnist writes (edited extract)

So, just 10 days after tweeting vile racist abuse about footballer Fabrice Muamba, student Liam Stacey has been jailed. A victory, and instant justice, in the fight against racism. A sign of how Britain has changed in this new post-racial nation we live in. "Tweet justice," says the Sun newspaper headline. "LOL Ha-Ha!"
Well, hold on. Am I the only one to think that 56 days in jail for a drunken rant, despicable though it was – so noxious, in fact, that no newspaper has the stomach to publish it – is a bit severe? Yes, punish him; but if he is to change his behaviour, which we all want to see, he hardly needs a sentence of this length. I'd be happy to see him do some community work, where he might come into contact with some of those he currently dehumanises.

And whether you give drunken tweeters 56 days, or five years, or a life behind bars, it doesn't address the fact that the real racial abuses, the real peddlers of hate in this country, are going about their business with no fear of being held to account.
Seems fair comment to me.

The Guidelines are at page 42 of this PDF. It's hard to square them with this sentence.

Bluff Successfully Called

I recently posted a piece about barrister and author Tim Kevan's reply to a purported parking fine on private land. The charge has now been cancelled.
The parking company attempts to dress up its decision as a goodwill gesture, but the fact remains that they would not have been able to collect it in any event.

Monday, March 26, 2012

From The Other Side of the Wall

Those of us who have to take the awesome decision to send someone to prison have a duty to make ourselves  as aware as possible of exactly what is involved. What do prisons do? How do they work? What's it like for someone going in for the first time? What's it like for the case-hardened offender going in for the dozenth time?

A small piece of the jigsaw can be found in this newspaper for prisoners. 

Give it a bit of time, keep an open mind, and see what you think.

You Wait For One Case to Come Along Then Three Arrive At Once

When I learned that courts were to get the power to make a Restraining Order against an acquitted defendant, I was uneasy.
Guilty or Not Guilty is easy to understand, and I am uncomfortable with the idea of : 'Well, not-guilty-but there's-no-smoke-without-fire-so here's-a restraining-order-just-in-case'.
But sometimes, especially in domestic violence cases, the evidence does point towards there being a continuing possibility of violence, and at that point the Order becomes tempting.  
Earlier this year I found myself chairing three consecutive cases in each of which there was a prima facie argument for a Restraining Order (not put forward by the CPS might I add, but by yours truly). When it dawned on CPS Counsel that  an RO was in our minds he grabbed at the merciful relief of the lunch adjournment to look it up.
And as ever, it wasn't that simple. Our first-class clerk found and printed the case of Kapotra, a recent judgment that even a layman such as I can more or less grasp. I recommend those who work in the system to have a look at it, because as so often happens the enthusiasm of ministers and their advisers is tempered and moderated by cool heads in the higher courts. Para 14 lays down:

 Even if he (the judge - ed) was minded to exercise the discretion open to him under Rule 50.9, that judgment itself had to bear in mind the fundamental principle underlying these rules namely that any person faced with the possible imposition of a restraining order should be given proper notice of what is sought, the evidential basis for the application and, in addition, be allowed a proper opportunity to address the evidence and make informed representations as to the appropriateness of such an order. Thus, if the trial judge contemplates making such an order in relation to a defendant immediately following a trial (whatever the result of that trial), provided his or her representative has had the opportunity specifically to address all relevant issues, then consideration can properly be given to exercising the discretion contained in Rule 50.9. Where, as here, no evidence has been offered and there is no established evidential basis for the order, different considerations apply.
So yes, we can make a order, but not on the hoof. It requires proper consideration and the opportunity for argument,  so it will need an adjournment. And in today's straitened times, many a bench will decide to just leave it - as we did.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Worth A Look

I have only just caught up with the BBC series Crime and Punishment (episode one is here). It is an unsensational look at the day to day work of the system. I haven't yet seen all of the episodes on iPlayer but what I have seen is pretty familiar, and is worthy of a wide audience. I can't quite work out why the BBC has tucked it into an unimportant slot in the schedules, but that is their business. The series certainly ought to be made available to schools to give young people a reasoned look at criminal justice,and to show them that there are few places less exciting or glamorous than a cell. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Speaking Out

This interesting speech by a very big wig indeed may appear to be well above the pay grade of a humble JP blogger but it does show how matters have moved on. When I started the blog in 2005 there was horror in some quarters that I was trying to cast a little light on the system that deals with nineteen out of twenty criminal offences.  I have been at a meeting when a senior person declared that the blogger had to be found and dealt with, no doubt with bell book and candle, while unaware that the 'guilty' party was sitting at the same table.

On another occasion I was less than a day away from filming a report for a BBC programme on a crime-and-punishment issue when I had a phone call from a senior wig who more or less said 'you are of course an independent member of the judiciary,so it would not be right for me to tell you what to do; that is your decision. But I would rather you didn't do it". So of course I didn't because in a hierarchical judiciary in which I inhabit the lowest tier I am used to deferring to those higher up.

I have not changed my view: the more that light is shed upon the processes of justice the better. 

Numbers Game

The Commons Public Accounts Committee is less than impressed by the MoJ's financial management in its latest report. The papers have seized on the headline figure of uncollected cash but to be fair to the MoJ (not something that comes easily to me) the accelerating trend of making seizure and forfeiture orders has resulted in some huge sums becoming due, with little realistic hope of their ever being collected.

Fines are a touchy subject, but the iron law that you cannot get blood out of a stone is beyond hope of repeal. Sometimes we fine someone who is able and, more importantly, willing to pay his fine there and then. Only last year we took about £7000 from a man in fines and compensation and he paid it on the way out with his credit card. More often the person being fined is on benefit, so the best that we can do is  to make a Deduction from Benefit Order. It's only a fiver a week but it keeps the books straight.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

I heard some trials today; as so often these days they were mostly Domestic Violence related. This kind of work forms a large part of our caseload, partly because DV is recognised as a great social evil that needs to be brought under control, and partly because political targets demand that the CPS gives these cases priority. The unfortunate side effect of this policy is that the CPS will rarely drop even the flimsiest case for fear of being unable to tick the right boxes.
In any context other than DV two out of three of today's cases would never have got near a courtroom.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Housekeeping Updated

I have no idea what has happened to the comments - JS-Kit was dumped on me when they bought out Haloscan. I have tried to get in to put it back to normal, but I haven't got time. I'll have a go when things calm down a bit.

It's very frustrating!

Current Affairs

The CPS are shortly to begin their new 'paperless as far as the door of the court' document handling system. I wish them well and hope that the widely expressed fear that this will be just another Government IT fiasco proves to be groundless.

The gossip grapevine tells me that local solicitors are tooling up with the gizmos to allow them to deal with electronic files at court, and the potential savings are tempting.

But there's a snag (that surprised you didn't it?). A well used laptop will often run out of amps and volts within a working day. So, as one would, the lawyers will charge them from a convenient point. Snag? Many court managers refuse to allow stuff to be plugged into an HMCTS socket unless said stuff has been safety tested and bears the appropriate sticker. Even the -wait for it- kettle in our clerks' rest room has to be solemnly checked and have its sticker attached each year. (Thought - since Tescos do a kettle for well under a tenner, isn't that less than the facilities company will charge for the test and the paperwork?) .

I hope and pray that someone in HMCTS will have a Lord Nelson moment and ignore the whole stupid business.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Oh Dear

The Government is hinting at a new wheeze to get a grip on the unruly behaviour of the British public. This is reminiscent of the most manic and absurd days of Tony Blair.

Moral panics are a regular feature of life in this nation. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that Louise Casey was involved in this latest one.

Heavy Matters

I chaired a remand court the other day and among the cases not on our printed list was a man charged with murder. The lower court has very little to do in a murder case, other than to identify the accused, and remand him to a Crown Court in the next few days. We have long lost the power to consider bail.
These hearings are swift and lack any real judicial input from us. The man looked awful though; he was in prison-issue grey sweatshirt and tracksuit bottoms, and seemed to be in a mild state of shock, which is not surprising when you consider that as a man in middle age he is unlikely, if convicted, to regain his freedom before he becomes a pensioner. Murder is a uniquely awful crime, but the consequences for the perpetrator are awful too.

CPS Under The Microscope

HM CPS Inspectorate published a less than flattering report on the London CPS last year and have followed up with another look at it: this is the press release, and the full report is here. It is over 100 pages long so I have not read it in detail, but a quick scan suggests that CPS in-house advocates in the Crown Court are not well thought of, and those who toil in the grubby end of the trade in front of magistrates aren't too impressive either. The CPS tries to avoid briefing the Bar these days, for cost reasons, and I am sorry to say that a significant proportion of the prosecutors who appear before me are of poor quality. The Associate Prosecutors, qualified to a lower standard, and with limited authority to make decisions, come out of the report quite well by contrast. Our most prominent local AP was looking very pleased with himself yesterday - so much so that he pointed me in the direction of the report when I saw him in the lobby.

More On The Police

I am going to risk the wrath of Murdoch by quoting from the (paywalled) Times site; for one thing, I think he has enough on his plate not to to have to bother about little me (too poor to be worth suing) and for another thing the Times listed this as one of the 40 blogs that really count, and for yet another, I do have a full six quid a week sub to the Times multimedia output (and jolly fine value it is - is that all right Rupert?).

So here goes:-
...the lack of formal educational attainments for entry (to the police) is striking, and could well deter intellectually able people with the right qualities. For too long, policing has been unfairly regarded by many as an occupation with most in common with blue-collar work. The roots of policing are firmly in that context and the attitudes of some police officers remain fastened in that mindset of the past. It holds them back and reinforces the lower social and professional standing that too many people wrongly associate with police officers.

So says Tom Winsor in an article today. I have made more or less the same points over recent months, but I elicited virulent abuse from some bloggers who think that any comment on the way the police is run makes me anti-police. I made the very point about the 'blue-collar' attitude of some officers, and was branded with saying the police were 'below stairs' which I have never said and do not believe.

Anyway, the cat is out of the bag. The management of the police service is fossilised, and its governance is sclerotic. Change is coming, and not before time.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lions Led By Donkeys

There is a well known and outspoken police blogger who won't be too keen on this, I suspect.

Here's an old post of mine.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Just a Thought

A further group of people have been arrested in connection with the News International scandals (and I think that the plural is now justified) including Rebekah Brooks and her husband. I have no comment to make and am happy to let the law take its course, but one thought occurs to me:- if something like this had happened a few years ago to anyone but an NI insider in the days when when the Murdoch tabloid felt, with some justification, that it had special privileges, the squads of police who delivered the dawn knock on the door would very likely have had a Sun reporter and photographer in tow. Do you remember when one of Maxwell's boys was arrested? His feisty wife yelled from a window for her visitors to "Fuck off before I call the police" only to be answered with "We are the police". With any luck that kind of over-cosy potentially corrupt relationship between the press and the police will soon be a thing of the past. A friend of mine who once worked on a Fleet Street paper tells me that stories all carried a price to be paid to the copper passing on the tip off, expressed as 'a drink' ' a good drink' a well-decent drink' and a 'f*cking good drink'. The latter would be good for a couple of weeks spent somewhere sunny.

Jack of Kent commented on the shift in power here.

Friday, March 09, 2012

From The Grapevine

A bit of retiring room gossip tells me that a District Judge was recently rammed from behind by another car when he had the temerity to stop for an amber traffic light. The other driver yelled at the judge for stopping at a mere amber signal.

So far so bad, but the guilty party must have had a nasty surprise to discover that he had not only caused several thousands of pounds' worth of damage but had done it in clear breach of the Highway Code, and to a judge to boot.

Told You So

As I predicted the MP who attacked fellow Members while drunk in a Westminster bar was dealt with by the Chief Magistrate, Howard Riddle.

Someone who has met Mr. Riddle tells me that he thinks he has one of the best jobs in the judiciary, as his caseload is so interesting and varied. He may be right.

Very Useful

Barrister and author Tim Kevan has put a fascinating piece on his blog about a so-called parking fine issued by a private company. Tim's letter would make an excellent template for a response to any other private company that tries to bluff you into paying them money.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Ruined (3)

Here is another case of a lawyer who has abused the trust placed in him, and who quite rightly faces prison as well as professional ruin.

Sometimes one just cannot understand the motivation for an offence such as this. It says something about the previous post on deterrence that a man who must have understood how criminal justice works could risk so much for what was probably so relatively little.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012


The reliable core of hardline contributors to our comments are to a man (or woman) convinced of the value of, and need for, deterrence to prevent offending and reoffending. Of course deterrence can work - I would not dream of parking in a location where I might be clamped any more than I would consider shoplifting, that would have different but devastating consequences for me - but I have often pointed out that for someone to be deterred they must possess rational reasoning and thought processes. Drink and drugs, taken in sufficient quantity, will often blank out any deterrent effect, leaving the user to do things that are not just wrong, but manifestly against his own interest. Others simply do not connect actions with consequences, and these people fill our courts every day.

That brings me to Adam, a man in his early forties who could easily pass for 65. I do not know what has brought him to his present state, but his brains are truly scrambled to the extent that he cannot even remember his address. He is an unpleasant nuisance to the local community, prone to urinate and defecate in public irrespective of who might be watching. Inevitably he was given an ASBO a couple of years ago that has entirely failed to deter him; he has breached it nine times and has served numerous shortish prison sentences, sometimes reoffending on the day of his release. ASBO breach can carry up to five years at the Crown Court, and he has indeed been committed there a few times for sentence, receiving up to six months inside. And the entire process has been utterly useless in preventing him from carrying out acts that disgust innocent civilians. Many thousands of pounds have been spent on processing him through the courts and locking him up in a system that simply isn't meant to cope with the likes of him. His problem is more one for the NHS than for the prison service, but there is simply nowhere for him to go, and no money to provide any help.

In his case deterrence is simply pointless. Incapacitation, by locking him up away from the public obviously offers a short term solution, but it is an expensive and inhumane way to deal with a wreck of a man.

Friday, March 02, 2012

JP: 10/10 - C4 7/10

I have just watched Channel 4 News, that has picked up the continuing interpreter story that seems to be going from bad to worse.

The report was a fair one, and included a fascinating clip from Dragons' Den in which the founder of ALS (the new agency that is supposed to have a monopoly on court work)failed to convince the panel of potential investors that he was worth backing.

The Chairman of the Peterborough Bench, Peter Beeke, gave a good and reasoned account of the problems, and came across as the sort of commonsense chap that a Bench Chairman is supposed to be. So ten out of ten to him, but only seven out of ten to C4 News because the idiots used clips of a gavel being banged to illustrate a court.

Note to each and every editor:-



If that's too difficult, try 'COURTS DON'T USE GAVELS' and make every journo in your outfit repeat it a hundred times.


Thursday, March 01, 2012

Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot....

A long time ago I posted about Jason. I have stayed in touch with his probation officer, to see how things are going. I haven't heard much of him recently, until I was presented the other day with an Information in support of a Search Warrant to search the home of - guess who? - for Class A drugs.

I granted a similar warrant for a different dealer a month or so back, having heard that drugs were routinely concealed in his baby's nappy or his girlfriend's vagina on the erroneous assumption that police officers and their drug dogs would be deterred or, literally, put off the scent.

It is a truism that most drug dealers live with their mum. Jason lives with his little family in their council flat, and ekes out his benefits with dealing a bit of Class A.

I fear that it's becoming a little late to expect Jason to change. As always, I tried not to think too much about the life that lies ahead for a baby whose filled nappy provides a malodorous hiding place for diamorphine or cocaine hydrochloride.