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!