Thursday, May 31, 2012


I was privy last year to an email exchange about a case that stretched out over three days. One comment sticks in my mind (and I paraphrase) 

"After all that, we hated having to announce the verdict that we did, as we were so disgusted by what had happened"

This Bench did its sworn duty to acquit in a case where they were certain that the defendant had committed the crime, but where the evidence (presumably) had a fatal flaw.

That's what you get from an impartial bench that knows its duty, and that's why I defend the system that allows them to do it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Any Old Iron?

In the last month I have seen a couple of cases of the currently prevalent crime of stealing metal to sell into the burgeoning scrap trade. We sent both to the Crown Court, even though the value in one case was only a few hundred pounds, well below the guideline threshold for sending it off to Hizonner. We took account of  prevalence, of the vulnerable victims that serve the public, and the collateral damage in which one church hall ended up with a bill approaching £20,000 to replace £200 worth of cable. Both offenders had cut live cables, showing disregard for the risk of a penalty far higher than any that my colleagues and I can impose.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Well Down To Standard

Today's Mail headline reads:

Contempt for our democracy: Overruling our Parliament, unelected European judges insist prisoners MUST get the vote

Ah yes, those unelected judges....could the Mail remind me when the next elections for the High Court Bench will take place? I might give it a go myself. Or perhaps I will have a go in the by-election for editor of the Daily Mail when Dacre slouches off with his millions.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Give It a Break

We have reached a stage in our national politics where the government has set in place an overriding strategy, and has little choice but to watch nervously with fingers crossed to see if it works. Those of us trying to keep our system afloat on three quarters of the money that we used to have, hope that it will.
History shows that when Parliament doesn't have much on its legislative plate that is likely to make any real difference, Hon. Members occupy themselves with passing useless new laws  that give the illusion of activity to mollify the press, while the rest of us hope that not too much damage will be done before the law falls into disuse or is quietly repealed.
The vast majority of laws in this country are relatively new; the body of common law that served us well for so long has been supplemented by a mass of new statutes, often duplicating what has gone before and frequently muddying the water so that learned judges and lawyers have to devote their finely honed minds to make sense of things.
So it was with the Asbo, one of Tony Blair's bright ideas, aimed at the Sun/Mail Law'n'order axis. The Order has gradually fallen from favour as its limitations became apparent, and almost all of the breach cases that I see these days are pathetic and hopeless addicts or those with a personality disorder that isn't quite bad enough to result in a hospital order. New plans are being cooked  up as I write; I haven't read them in detail, but it will be very surprising if they have any real effect on the behaviour of the unruly part of the populace.
I am often reminded of the irrelevance of so many new laws when I look at my printed court list that  refers to the law that is said to have been transgressed. The other week a man came in charged with stealing a lot of stuff from a railway. Now theft and the associated handling charges are an everyday matter but this fellow was charged under the Malicious Damage Act of 1861 because his action 'caused to be obstructed an engine or carriage'. This law was passed in the height of the Victorian Railway Age, at a time when the criminal law ran to a fraction of its present complexity, but here we are in 2012 still using it. I have seen two drunks who strolled through a road tunnel at 2 am charged under the Licensing Act of (I think) 1872 and a few years ago some Jihadist wannabees were charged under an Explosives Act that was passed when Queen Victoria was around to give the Royal Assent, despite the plethora of anti-terrorism law passed in recent years.
So I hope that our Parliamentarians have a nice quiet summer, enjoy the Olympics, if that is their kind of thing, and put their feet up. Leave the law alone for a bit lads, because you can do precious little good, but quite a lot of harm if you carry on making daft laws.

For the record here is the Malicious Damages Act 1861 in its original and its present amended form.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Jury Service Can Be a Drag

Not every juror takes their duty with the seriousness that they should - Like this fellow

The Dark Underside of Society

I am not one who is easily shocked, and over the years I have seen some unpleasant examples of human frailty, but last week I had to read about some of the nastiest ever.
I was asked for search warrants by an officer from the Paedophile squad, and as is usual the applications were supported by Informations that were given on oath. I can't say anything other than that the internet conversations between active paedophiles and undercover officers went beyond nauseating.
As a besotted grandfather the emotional impact on me was potentially a strong one, and I was careful to consider the applications exactly by the book, focusing only on the objective facts.
If that was tough for me, what is it like for the detectives who have to deal with this stuff day after day? It cannot be easy to remain professional and detached, but that is probably the only way to cope.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cave Canem

The Sentencing Council has published its new guideline on dangerous dogs.

In the druggy subculture of our rougher neighbourhoods a pit bull or similar can be used as a weapon, or simply to convey an image of the owner being dead hard. Significantly the creatures are often called something like Tyson or, I suppose, Barton. I discovered, during the trial of a couple who had 23 pit bull puppies in their one-bedroom maisonette, that the street price for a entire male pitbull is about £500.

Apart from the disturbing sight of these creatures on the street, there is a distressingly regular flow of stories of children and lesser dogs being mauled, sometimes to death. Personally, I feel quite unsentimental about any dog that attacks a human, and I have signed a few doggy death warrants in my time. After the shambles of the original Dangerous Dogs Act, that became a byword for rushed and ill-thought-out lawmaking the rules were relaxed so that a pitbull 'type' could be so defined by a trained police officer, and returned to its owner so long as it was chipped and neutered. I would simply destroy any of these dogs - after all, if the requirements of the DDA had been enforced the breed would now have died out in the UK.I still hope that it will do so.

My friend Colin, who dislikes all dogs, wants to see a law that dogs may only be fed on other dogs, but I think that would be going a bit far.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Foot Down (and The Boy Who Cried Wolf)

It looks as if the government is serious about raising the motorway speed limit . As those of us who are regular motorway users well know the de facto limit has been 80 mph for some time, with a substantial minority going a good deal faster than that. The old cliché about always having a BMW in your mirror is out of date nowadays as the hooligan executive is much more likely to be at the wheel of an Audi, at least in the Thames Valley.
I am perfectly comfortable with an 80 mph limit, especially if it is enforced firmly, because motorways run smoothly and safely when speed differentials are small. I think that it is high time to fit mandatory speed limiters on 3.5 tonne vans, too. Many of these have a top speed of well over 100 mph and drivers very often use it.
And while I am on the subject, I would like to see a penalty of the utmost severity on those responsible for making the multi-million pound network of electronic motorway signs utterly useless, by allowing a high proportion of  their messages to be out of date or simply wrong. Time and again I pass a sign warning of a speed limit or a queue only to find that the road is perfectly clear. Every inch of the motorway is covered by CCTV but nobody bothers to turn off the warnings. As a result most drivers simply ignore them. And don't get me started on patronising rubbish such as 'Take Extra Care Through Roadworks' - well, well, I had never thought of that. 
I haven't dealt with a speeding case for a good five years, partly because of the inexorable rise of the fixed penalty ticket and partly because my area concentrates all traffic cases into 'gateway' courts for administrative convenience, driving another nail into the coffin of local justice.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Left Hand, Right Hand

We had a bit of a gossip at lunchtime today, and a colleague told us about a recent case involving the troubled UK Border Agency that he had learned about from a lawyer friend.

The case was a massive multi-defendant one involving alleged immigration fraud - a pretty high priority for UKBA, one would think.

The case recently collapsed and the million of pounds spent on it went down the drain. Why? Well, one of the main reasons for the Crown  throwing in its hand was that the selfsame UKBA  had absent-mindedly deported a number of the key witnesses. The judge was pretty fed up about it if you read the report.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

De Haut en Bas

The far reaching changes to bench structures that were brought in at the turn of the year as a result of budgetary pressures have  had a few months to settle in, and we are seeing what works well, what just about works, and what doesn't work at all.Most magistrates have been messed around to some extent. The Voluntary Early Departure programme was successful in reducing staff numbers, but because the Treasury would only make one-off sums available to fund it up to the March cut off date the whole business had to be done in a tearing hurry.
What this meant in practice was that there was little or no time for people taking over from the outgoing staff to work alongside them, as any sensible company would arrange, to pick up the myriad little tweaks and fixes that make a complex organisation function. Creating a workable rota was (and still is) pretty tricky, when some new benches have more than 400 magistrates spread over several courthouses, and those magistrates may or may not be youth or family qualified, they may or may not be chairmen, or a number of other factors need to be considered. When I see how the staff at my court have coped with being thrown in the deep end I sometimes think that it is a miracle that we have been able to function at all. The Treasury's iron fist has clamped on to staff levels so tightly that no replacements are allowed for sick leave maternity leave and holidays. This throws extra stress on the remaining staff, and in most cases their response has been a credit to them. 
Perhaps the worst thing from the magistrates' point of view is travel. As the mergers began, the Senior Presiding Judge ruled that any magistrate had to sit at any courthouse in their Local Justice Area (LJA). Unfortunately, he omitted the words 'if necessary' and as a result JPs have been sent all over the place, often for no business reason. Some LJAs use one courthouse just for trials, another for remands, and, perhaps one for youth. This means that magistrates have to move around to experience a variety of work and maintain their competences. In other cases, particularly in large geographic areas there are two or more courts that have  a mixed workload, so there is no need to move around other than to meet new colleagues. Of course it is vital to mix up the legacy benches to create over time a unified bench culture, but the price of all this travel is high, both in money and in time. Most people drive to court, but a substantial minority use public transport, which can be highly inconvenient even in London, a city that is reasonably well served with buses and trains. As an example (based upon a real person) someone who lives in Northwood, and used to be attached to Uxbridge court can be sent to Feltham to sit. The Transport for London website says that this journey takes two hours each way, with several changes of bus and train. If someone is to have four gruelling hours added to their court sitting day, there ought to be a solid business need for it. And if they pass a colleague travelling in the opposite direction, there is no excuse for the waste. As I have said before, Buckinghamshire is one LJA and a friend who lives in and used to be based at High Wycombe can be sent to Milton Keynes. The return trip is from 80 to 120 miles (the latter being apparently quicker) so a the JPs' car mileage rate it costs between £45 and £67 to get him to court. Sooner or later the penny will drop in the MoJ and the costs will be found to be unjustifiable as well as unnecessary.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

An Answer In Search Of A Problem

Apparently the Queen's Speech will contain new measures to deal with drug driving. As the Defence Brief (link on the right hand side) points out the existing law already forbids driving under the influence of drink or drugs, and the penalties are the same for both. The problem with drug driving, which is probably highly prevalent, is the lack of any quick and reliable roadside test equivalent to the breathalyser.
Designer drugs are increasingly popular among the young, because, as a student told me, "you get more bang for the buck with pills".
Still, a 'clampdown' will please the tabloids, if it achieves nothing else. 

Friday, May 04, 2012

Just One Thing Though Ken......

The MoJ has sent out this encouraging news release about a rehabilitation project that surely deserves to succeed. The Timpson connection presumably comes from the fact that one of the eponymous business's owners is a Conservative MP.

Sorry to appear to carp, but should we really be teaching key cutting skills to offenders prior to their release?

Delicate Toes

I am always gratified to see comments on the blog and the police one below has attracted a good few. All comments are welcome, and I only remove the blatantly offensive ones, but why is it that my post, the gist of which is that I don't like police to dress like Robocop unless it is unavoidable, has produced a flood of rubbish about how I hate the police, have an anti-police agenda and so on?

As I have said before, I am on cordial terms with a few serving officers as well as some retired ones. I have been a lunch guest at Scotland Yard (years ago).  I have a relative who is a ranking officer, and a young friend who has just been accepted for training. They would  laugh in anyone's face if they were told that I had an anti police viewpoint.

Lighten up, chaps.

Wallets Out

I have had a look at my bank account and the Magistrates Association has just collected the annual direct debit of £34.50 that I have been paying ever since I joined the bench.

Look after it lads; that would buy a modest lunch for two or a bottle of decent malt.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Pass Me The Long Spoon Dear

I usually feel a bit uneasy when I find myself agreeing with Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn. Yes, he is a right-wing polemicist, and he writes with an eye to selling newspapers, but I can't really hold that against him.
I find myself in sympathy with the argument if not perhaps the tone, of this piece in which he deplores the increasing trend for some police officers to dress up like something out of a Hollywood movie or a video game. We are in danger of the army and the police blurring not just their appearance, but their functions. I made this point some time ago following the tragic death of the barrister Mark Saunders, and it holds good today.
Yes of course there is officer safety to consider, but there is also the relationship between the police and the public they serve that is worth protecting.
In France they have the Gendarmerie, who are controlled from Paris rather than locally. In Italy they have the Carabineri who used to be under military control, and may well still be so. In these countries whose democracy is a deal younger than ours they feel a need to have a force that is separate from the citizenry. I don't want to see that here.