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.