Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Only Way To Travel?

I had an excellent cold lunch today at my daughter's house in Bristol, washed down with some very nice wine. After saying fond farewells to my daughter , my son-in-law, and my lovely granddaughters  we took the M4 eastwards. As we approached Chippenham I felt my eyelids drooping, so I allowed sleep to overcome me. My wife was driving of course, and I woke up at the Junction 8/9 exit. What a way to travel!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas

Just a note to wish a happy Christmas to all of you, and to hope that we never meet professionally.

Friday, December 20, 2013

More Schadenfreude

I have to remind myself to keep a straight face and suppress my glee when I read a tale such as this.
A lot of rich dupes were fooled into buying worthless 'investment' wine, seduced not by the wine, because they had no plans to drink the stuff, merely cellar it and gloat over their illusory profits.
I am reminded of a line from 'The Magnificent Seven' when Eli Wallach ,playing the bandit Calvera explains to Yul Brynner, crossing himself, :
If God had not meant them to be shorn, he would not have made them sheep

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Suffer Little Children

There is a piece in the Times (sorry, there's a paywall) about the continuing tragedy of young people who live in the 'care' of a local authority until they reach the age of eighteen, when they can be more or less on their own. Although the staff mostly do their best, and are certainly not overpaid' the simple logistics of running a care home mean that the children see different adults as shifts change, and rarely have the chance to form meaningful relationships.
Add into the mix the fact that many of the children taken into care have already suffered emotional damage, and it is hardly surprising that so many young and not-so-young offenders have spent time in care
There are plans to provide additional support up to the age of 21 in appropriate cases. That must be better than what happens now. I once chatted with an officer at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution who told me that when he talks to the lads during recreation time, he sometimes finds that he is the first adult male that they have ever spoken to for more than a couple of minutes at a time. 

I hope that Rupert will forgive me if I insert a direct quote from the article:

 " Less than 1 per cent of the population has ever been in care, but they account for between 15 and 25 per cent of the homeless, 24 per cent of adult prisoners and — according to the Home Office — 70 per cent of sex workers. Only a third get five good GCSEs, compared with four fifths of their peers, and 6 per cent go on to higher education, whereas 23 per cent of their age group do. Whatever society is doing as substitute parents, our record is a lousy one".

Cock-up Or Conspiracy?

Serco, one of the firms that dominate the custodial services market, is to repay the staggering sum of £68.5 million that it has overcharged for tagging services. The Serious Fraud Office will decide in due course if this results from malice or incompetence, but there are also serious questions about the role of the MoJ. Did they really shell out nearly seventy million quid of our money without rigorous audit checks?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Battery Charging

For some time now it has been rare to see a charge of Actual Bodily Harm, as the CPS has often opted to charge even nasty assaults as Common Assault, which avoids the cost and inconvenience of the defendant opting for a jury trial, albeit the maximum sentence available is then six months. Unusually we saw a couple of separate up-tariff assaults yesterday, one a Section 18 GBH with intent, the other a Section 20. Perhaps it was coincidence, or perhaps the CPS are having a rethink about under-charging.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Some time ago, the Times exposed the identity of the police officer who blogged (very successfully) as Nightjack. Many of us were uncomfortable about this, and the question that lodged in my mind was "why?". Nevertheless there arose a climate of uncertainty among bloggers and not everyone fancied taking a chance.

Since then several police bloggers have disappeared from the Interweb, notably the stimulating if often infuriating Inspector Gadget. I can only sympathise; it is all right for the likes of me to irritate the authorities, but this blog doesn't pay my mortgage or feed my kids (if only...).

It turns out that the Times obtained its information in  a dubious  manner (as did so many Murdoch staff at that time) and now the Times lawyer has come to grief with his professional body.

I believe that there is a Chinese aphorism that if you sit beside the river for long enough you will eventually see the bodies of your enemies float by. I am still watching that river.

Twenty Years On

Twenty years ago or so I dealt with a memorably high-level drink driver. The young woman had burst two tyres by hitting the kerb, and a member of the public called the police. She was arrested at 9.30 am, and on arrival at the police station she blew 171 in breath, as against the limit of 35. I don't know what happened to her as we adjourned the case for reports and a different bench dealt with her.

Last week, in a grim coincidence, we saw a man who had blown 171. In his case, members of the public had called police, who stopped him to find a nearly empty bottle of vodka on the passenger seat. This level clearly reaches the custody threshold so we adjourned for 'all options' reports, imposing an interim ban as we did so.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Salami Tactics

This is not a political blog (albeit politics and the law overlap much of the time) but I have to express severe reservations about the Chancellor's recent announcements. According to the Law Society Gazette the MoJ budget is about to be cut by another 148 million pounds.

I fully understand the need to reduce the deficit, but I am also aware, week by week, of the drip-drip of financial cutbacks on the justice system. On a superficial level our courthouses are becoming increasingly shabby, as maintenance is cut back. My home court has heating and (partial) air conditioning that works erratically if at all. In cold weather courtrooms have plug-in electric heaters here and there, and when it is warm there are cheap supermarket fans keeping the air moving. The lift from the car park can no longer make it beyond the second floor, and the pleasant little tea bar that used to be run at no cost to HMCTS has now been closed for two years for 'strategic' reasons, which I read as making it easier to flog off the whole building in due course.

Although the volume of work is dropping steadily, the managers are obliged to try and cram as much work as they can through the courtrooms. Now it's easy to scoff at judges and magistrates who call it a day at about 4.30, but that is not motivated by anything other than the quality of justice. Spending a day concentrating on evidence, if another trial is dropped in our laps at four o'clock, means that it's unavoidable for that bench's concentration to flag. By half past five thoughts might easily drift to getting on the road before traffic gets out of hand.

Foul-ups in the provision and service of documents have become the norm for the CPS, and it is a rare trial that starts on time with prosecutor briefed, witnesses ready, and everyone's ducks in a row. This is the inevitable consequence of fewer staff trying to run the  CPS' vital back-office functions.

Priorities are for politicians to decide, of course, but I think that they will be very unwise not to keep justice well up their list.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013


We had a run-of-the-mill day for most of today. A couple of trials did not go ahead (as so many do not) due to the non-appearance of one defendant and two witnesses. We sentenced a few reports cases, dealt with a warrant or six (a job that I passed to the least senior person on our bench as we now consider warrants as individuals, and the experience will have done him good). There was a bit of hanging around, and we suddenly heard that there had been trouble in one of our courtrooms.A prisoner had attempted to escape, and had caused a bit of damage in the process, so that courtroom had to close while police officers investigated.  We therefore took a couple of cases  from their list, and packed up just before 5 pm. It is so often the dull days that produce a surprise.

Pass The Port

I have been signing people's applications for passports, gun licenses and such for a couple of dozen years and more, and I have almost never been checked up on, with the obvious exception of anything to do with firearms. One such exception was a Sergeant from Dundee who called me at 5.30 on a Sunday morning to confirm that I knew a particular applicant for a shotgun. I couldn't resist asking him what time it was in Dundee, and when he told me I informed him that it was the same time in the Home Counties. He replied briskly, "Sorry, sorr, but I'm going off shift in half an hour and I have tae get this paperwork done".

Today I had a letter from the Passport Office asking me to confirm that I had signed a neighbour's form last month, which I was happy to do. I don't know if that is now standard procedure, or that it was at last my turn to have my name pulled from the hat.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

No Surprise There, Then

This article in the Law Society Gazette will come as no surprise to anyone outside of Whitehall. Ministers have long cast covetous eyes on the many hours when expensive courtrooms sit empty, and this is by no means the first attempt to put the assets to use. My own court ran pilot Saturday courts in the Eighties and Nineties, but they withered on the vine, as the only people who were interested seemed to be JPs who were keen to keep up their sittings without affecting their jobs.

Some people became terribly excited about the swift, sometimes rough-and-ready, justice dished out after the 2011 riots when courts sat all night on occasion. Of course these were exceptional times, and not nearly as efficient as people seemed to think. A District Judge of my acquaintance told me that she spent hours at a time waiting for cases to come on, because of the inevitable delays while those detained instructed their lawyers.

In recent years bright ideas have been the bane of the lower courts. Let's hope for a breather while we digest what we have learned.

Small World

My wife and I took tea at the Savoy yesterday, as one does.

(The afternoon tea was a birthday present from my son and his fiancée, and very nice it was too).

During the couple of minutes that the doorman took to (literally) whistle up a taxi, I did a double take as a white haired gent strode towards the entrance. Could it be? Yes, it was none other than The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, The Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Close Call

Following the last couple of years' upheaval and reorganisation, my colleagues and I don't see a lot of traffic cases these days, as they are concentrated into 'gateway' courts, an arrangement that saves money and trouble for the police and the CPS.

For one reason or another a case came before us last week in which we had to deal with a driver who had accumulated the dreaded twelve points that made him liable to a six-month ban as a 'totter'. Legal Aid is not available for these cases, so he came before us on his own to ask us to find that he would suffer Exceptional Hardship from a driving ban. Along with many colleagues I tend to be a beady-eyed sceptic when these cases come in, but we listened carefully and we felt that our man was genuine when he said that he was supporting his small family in a rented house with a modestly-paid job as a mechanic, a job that required a driving licence. The case law and the guidance that we heard from the clerk was familiar, in that 'exceptional hardship' needs to be pretty strong before it can be right to decide not to endorse or disqualify. A theme that runs through successful EH submissions is that hardship to third parties can be persuasive. In this case we felt that this man's efforts to look after his wife and two small children in a foreign land (he was from Eastern Europe)  justified us in deciding not to endorse or disqualify, although we still fined him and ordered costs and surcharge, as well as endorsing his licence.

He looked mightily relieved, as well he might, and thanked us effusively, at which point the usher did her job and ushered him out of the door.

Not every bench would have seen things the way we did, and neither a strict approach or a softer one is definitively right or wrong. In these days of prescriptive guidelines  this is one of the diminishing chances to use our judgement.

A couple of footnotes: I warned our man that he still had 12 points on his licence, and that he could not use the Exceptional Hardship argument again for another 3 years. As he left the courtroom one of the lawyers sitting in court muttered "I should have asked for his lottery numbers".

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Falling Through The Cracks

This country has a comprehensive and consequently expensive welfare state, designed to eliminate destitution at the bottom end of society. Nevertheless a lot of people slip between the cracks, and a proportion of them end up in front of magistrates. Usually there are underlying mental health issues, or an addiction to drugs or alcohol; sometimes both. It is common for such people to be a nuisance to the public, which may attract the attention of the police.
We have recently seen a man of 67, who came into the glass dock on crutches. He was represented by the Duty Solicitor, and faced a charge of breaching an ASBO. He is forbidden to go to a local facility that attracts drifters and homeless people because it is open for 24 hours a day, but, inevitably, he goes there anyway.
Breach of an ASBO is an either-way offence that can carry up to five years' imprisonment at the Crown Court, or six months at the Mags'. Our man had been to the Council's homeless unit and they had sent him to one of the cheap B & Bs that abound in our area.  He complained about the lack of heating in his room, and was promptly told to leave. He then saw breaching the ASBO as a route to a a bed for the night, so breach it is what he did. He has previously been imprisoned for doing this, but it looked uncomfortably like locking him up for being homeless so we imposed a fine, deemed it served, and left it to the solicitor who promised that he would take his client to the council and try to sort things out (for which he will not be paid).
One of the first things that I was told when I joined the Bench was "You are not a social worker" because we have virtually no tools at our disposal to deal with the sad and the mad among our clientele. Only a week ago a man was brought in for hurling a brick through the front window of the police station - for the thirteenth time. There was an application to give him an ASBO, but we refused on the basis that an ASBO ought not to prohibit something that is a crime in its own right. Getting arrested and put into a warm cell was exactly what he wanted, so an ASBO would be more than usually useless.
There but for the grace of god.............

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Top Tip (part of an occasional series)

We try on this blog to point out some Bad Ideas that will not improve your life. Here is another:-

If you are disqualified from driving on a Tuesday, DO NOT drive again on Wednesday. But if you do, DO NOT drive past two police officers sitting in a marked car. But if you do, DO NOT have your phone in your hand as you yak away to someone. But if you do, and you are stopped, DO NOT be surprised when the computer fingers you as a disqualified driver, and therefore uninsured. When you are in custody at the police station, DO NOT express surprise when the officer points out that you have two previous convictions for Drive Disqualified. Most people remember that kind of thing, you see.
DO NOT be surprised when the nasty magistrates decide that you are a piss-taker and send you to prison to think about things for a bit.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sort Out The Basics, Girls and Boys

The CPS, an organisation that teters on the edge of meltdown, is appallingly poor at carrying out its basic functions of getting cases to court on the right day and with the right evidence. Only last week I saw a prosecutor serve an 80-page file on the defence advocate in court at 10.10 am on the morning of trial. The court had directed it to be served some weeks previously. The poor devil had to beg for time to read it, so the court cooled its heels for an hour or more.

Now the organisation is trying, as it often does, to take over the much more interesting job that belongs to the judiciary - here is an example.

Parliament makes laws, and courts enforce them. Stick with that madam Top Prosecutor, and sort out the nuts and bolts of your job.

A Disgrace

It is common knowledge that the balance of power at the lower end of the employment market has shifted firmly in favour of employers. The minimum wage has become the usual wage in a wide range of occupations. I fear that for some employers this situation has bred arrogance in their management.

An incident recently happened at the close of business in a local pub operated by a large and profitable chain. Attempts were made to steal from the business. The deputy manager on duty rightly called the police, who were pleased to find that there was CCTV available. The manager  helped the police to investigate the crime and stood by as the recordings were viewed and SOCOs took lifts of fingerprints. She finally left to go home at around 5 am. Unbelievably, she was not paid for the more-or-less five hours that she spent protecting her employer's interests, while the multi-millionaire owner of the business was no doubt safely tucked up in his mansion, or on his boat.
He should be ashamed of himself and of his company.

By the way, the CCTV was lost somewhere between the police and the CPS, but the lady concerned gave clear evidence of what it had shown.

The CPS should also be ashamed of itself for a pathetic failure to put together a proper case. But then they don't do shame any more than the smug millionaire who owns the pub.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Vice Tightens

Ever-anxious as I am to keep you up to date with happenings in the courts, the current squabble between the Magistrates' Association and the National Bench Chairmen's Forum has excited my curiosity about the casus belli that has sparked it. I find it hard to view a bubbling pot without feeling the need to give it a stir, so I have had a look at the document involved. It seems from Gross LJ's report on Judicial Governance in the Magistrates' Courts (you can look it up) that magistrates' fingers are to be further prised from the levers of power in our courts. Hitherto the JIG (Justices' Issues Group) for each cluster of courts has included their Bench Chairs. Now the groups are to be much larger with only three or so Chairmen at the meetings, giving them no say in the management of the courts.
The MoJ has gradually become more centralised, with the de facto abolition of the Justices' Clerks (if not their titles). The old JCs were independent and answerable to their court's committee - now they are civil servants answerable to the Minister, only their legal advice being protected and independent.
Too many in the MoJ see JPs as a kind of lower-level staff to be buggered around at will, and not many of us can see the process coming to an end.

De Minimis (2)

One or two commenters have been scathing about my suggestion that some cases are too small to bother a court with. I am afraid that if they realised the vast number of cases that are NFA (no further action) at the police station, or not proceeded with by the CPS, or dropped at various stages through the court process they might be very surprised and shocked. Of course any crime is bad for society and bad for the victim but we have to keep a sense of proportion. The proportion of offences that are charged or summonsed is tiny.
There is also cost to consider. One lesson from the post-crash years is that desirable things are often not done because the cost cannot be justified in the greater scheme of things. The case I mentioned probably cost a good £1000 all in, and that is before the ongoing cost of keeping an eye on our two heroes in the future. It's an imperfect world down here, and we shall have to see how things pan out in the next.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

De Minimis?

We heard a trial yesterday that took a good four hours to deal with, including three-quarters of an hour sitting out the back drinking coffee, while the CPS finally served the last of the required disclosure, and the defence read it. Each of the two defendants faced four charges, but by 10.30 the Crown had dropped all but one against each man.
The allegation was theft of goods worth ten to fifteen pounds from a garden shed, and the two men affirmed their pleas of not guilty. There was some identification evidence that contained enough inconsistencies to render it unreliable, and  we were just left with the principle of Recent Possession to consider. Briefly, they had the stuff with them when arrested within half an hour of the theft, which creates a presumption that they were either the thieves or the handlers. So guilty it was. Neither had significant previous so the guidelines pointed to sentences at the bottom of the range. We laboriously wrote out our reasons, and went back in. The CPS asked for about £800 costs, plus a surcharge, so we were left with an impossible task to extract that kind of money from two men on benefits. On the whole, although we did it by the book, the case felt unsatisfactory. Realistically, the CPS should have dropped it, given the very low value involved but the stripped-down staff numbers that they now have do not allow for thorough reviews. Not a good omen for the future.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Who The Heck is This?

This photograph appears in the Law Society Gazette, and the paper claims it shows Richard Monkhouse, MA chairman. I have known Richard for some years, and this looks nothing like him. Is there some foul plot to discredit Richard and the MA by trying to make him look like a nuttter?Richard MonkhouseT

He actually looks like this:-

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Diversity Galore

I am due to sit tomorrow, and as usual I have no idea what will be waiting for me, other than the fact that I shall chair the court. If my last sitting is anything to go by the daily list will bear hardly any local-sounding names, a reflection of the great and increasing diversity of our patch. Let's see how it goes.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Penny Wise Pound Foolish

I sat on a couple of trials yesterday, prosecuted by a dreadful Crown Prosecutor who is slow-thinking and long winded. We found both defendants not guilty, because the cases both came down to 'he said, she said' conflicts of evidence. An allegation of breach of a restraining order was based on the making of one call between a bitterly estranged couple, but presumably for reasons of cost no arrangements had been made to download the defendant's phone. Hence we could not be sure, as we are required to be, so not guilty it was. I don't know what a download costs, but this case wasted half a day of court time, and that isn't cheap either.  The other case was a workplace spat between two people; the only independent witness didn't turn up so once again we could not be sure to the very high standard of Beyond Reasonable Doubt.
It must be a horrible experience to sit in court while the magistrates are outside deliberating, and the tension rises before our verdict.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Innocence Abhorred

I am not an easy man to shock, but a case last week gave me a lot to think about. I cannot say too much, but the core of the case was that a young girl was being threatened by girls from her school, and consequences ensued from that.
Three young girls gave evidence via video, and they came across as ordinary kids, typical of our area. As the saying goes, butter would not melt..
As evidence emerged it turned out that one girl was a victim of nasty bullying, and that an incident had arisen when one of her bullies assembled a gang and went to the vicinity of the victim's house, the whole business being co-ordinated by BBM (Blackberry messenger) ( A kind of mobile telephone, m'lud).
My colleagues and I each concluded that this was a 'Lord of The Flies'  situation. The targeted girl said in evidence that she and he ringleader had fallen out last year, but that she could not remember why. The reasons have faded, but the hatred remains fresh.
I can't say much more about this, but as a human being and a grandfather of two little girls I find it depressing that children in a a comfortable area of a rich country in the 21st century can behave with such basic savagery. What on earth will they be like when they are adults?

Friday, November 01, 2013

Cruel Deception

I agree with this piece on the Spiked site. The tabloid-driven sentimental slush about victims was right up the street of the Blair government. Cruelly, victims get to express their pain (providing, by the way, some nice sexy headlines) while the judge is specifically forbidden to adjust his sentence as a result.

Goodbye Old Friend

My long standing friend, defence solicitor John Cochrane, met me for a pint last week, and told me that he has appeared in court for the last time. He is a victim, along with many others, of the emasculation of Legal Aid, and plans to move away from London. The cost of his practising certificate and  professional indemnity insurance would be such that it would hardly be worth his while to carry on working, especially as he is less than a year off pension age. I shall miss him. He is a very good advocate, thorough and professional, but has never taken himself too seriously. I have often shared a lunchtime glass with him, and gone back into court to deal impartially and professionally with his case, exactly as we should do. He won an excellent Abuse of Process argument before us one day, and I still remember that his case was based on R v Croydon Justices, although that name is all that I do remember. When a good friend of mine was involved in a tragic road accident I had no hesitation in pointing him towards John, who did a first class job at a court some way away. I hope to see him in Court Seven* when he comes back to visit his old haunts. 

*Court Seven is the preferred name for the pub round the corner from the court.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Flat Footed

Is there nobody left in our police service with a sense of proportion?  The heavy handed attempt to lean on a newsvendor for displaying Private Eye is the latest idiocy that will give great comfort to the Fleet Street fat cats as well as making the whole force look silly.

Here's some free advice chaps:-

If you don't want to look foolish, and if you don't want to be mocked on prime-time telly, for heaven's sake don't pick on Private Eye. They will make mincemeat of you.

I do so hope that the fool behind this nonsense receives some very frank advice from someone of rank.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mersey Beaten

Here is the final death warrant for the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre, born of a bright idea from the Downing Street sofa, blessed with a charismatic judge, and supplied with ample funds and a barrowload of political goodwill.  Now the funds and the goodwill have gone, and the experiment is limping to its close. The enthusiasts who sold the idea to the government of the day are now silent, and have probably moved on to other projects and other jobs. I take no satisfaction in any of this,  but I would really like a ten minute chat with one or two of the evangelicals who told us that this was the future of summary justice.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Not A Satisfying Day

We saw a weary succession of the slow-witted, the difficult, and the confused today. One chap, who appeared by prison videolink, assisted by an interpreter, spent his 20 minutes on camera staring dully before him showing little reaction. He is charged with an offence that, with a guilty plea, is unlikely to attract more than a low-to-medium community penalty, but he has unresolved mental health problems, no fixed abode, no family in the UK, and refuses to speak to the mental health services.
Another fellow, who appears in the glass dock, is charged with an assault that mercifully caused negligible injury, but refuses the services of the duty solicitor because 'there is no justice in these courts' and the officers who arrested him are corrupt and will always lie, and by the way have stolen his house keys. He says that he will not attend his trial because he does not recognise the court. I resist the temptation to state the obvious, that the court recognises him, and we make arrangements for his trial next month. Another videolink case ends with the prisoner being led away sobbing by a prison officer. More and more of these people are now appearing without representation, and there will soon be visible consequences of that.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Wrong Kind of Keystone

In the last couple of years the police have come in for heavy criticism, and a worryingly large number of matters are a long way from being cleared up or even explained. The Hillsborough affair looks, prima facie on the evidence disclosed so far, to show incompetence followed by panic followed by a systematic cover up organised from a high level. The De Menezes affair has revealed a story that is a long way different from the news that was released at first. The Ian Tomlinson affair was only resolved because someone happened to have a cameraphone to hand, and that led to the question as to how the thuggish officer involved had kept his job for so long. Plebgate is not resolved yet, and many people are worried about the authorities' lack of response to the revelations of CCTV.

Cheap and ubiquitous cameras are behind a lot of scandals being revealed  (the first that I can remember was Rodney King). Good. Let's make sure that police and public all make good use of the technology.

Nobody can take pleasure from seeing the hitherto high reputation of the British police diminished, but the best hope of restoring and maintaining it lies in throwing daylight on what goes on day to day. The best officers have a lot to gain, and the worst have a lot to lose, as they should.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Unwarranted Interference

New guidance has just been issued about the issue of search warrants, and official documentation has been revised following some important decisions in the higher courts.
The underlying theme is to remind us all just what a major intrusion a search warrant can be, when the authorities are allowed to batter down the drawbridge of the castle that is, or should be, the Englishman's home. Having police officers turn over your home, down to the children's toys and your personal effects, must be traumatic, and can only be justified for good and serious reasons.
Hitherto the justice has heard the officer on oath, and asked whatever questions he thinks fit about the Information that the officer must produce. A legal adviser should always be present if possible or, if not, available on the out of hours duty phone. In practice the questioning was usually pretty mild, asking whether vulnerable people or adults were likely to be in the premises and so on.
Now all that has changed, and the officer, in pursuance of his duty to provide full disclosure of the known facts to the justice, must prepare a standard document to take when he makes his application.
Many colleagues are familiar with dealing with applications at home, often at oh-my-god o'clock dressed in slippers and dressing gown. There is a rota of experienced JPs who are available at home; I have never been on it as I live some way from the court and in a different police force area, but a few colleagues live a couple of hundred yards from the Borough police HQ and are well used to a nocturnal call, that should be preceded by a phone call from the duty legal adviser.
It was high time that these reforms were brought in, as we must never forget our duty to act as a buffer between the citizen and the authorities and to see that any interference with liberty is fully justified and proportionate.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Handbags At Ten Paces

A spat appears to be developing between the Magistrates' Association and the National Bench Chairmen's Forum. John Fassenfelt,  the MA Chairman, who is due to retire this year, to be replaced by Richard Monkhouse, (a good man, whom I know fairly well) has issued a letter expressing differences with the NBCF over some bits of higher politics that are of no interest at all to anyone outside the organisations concerned. The relationship between the MA and the NBCF has long been an uneasy one, as the younger body was formed as a reaction to the perceived ineffectiveness of the MA. The MoJ and the Courts Service go through the motions of consultation but some of us have wearily concluded that they will do what they want anyway. It's all a bit redolent of the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front. I'm just waiting for someone to cry "Splitters!"
I was amused to see that the MA is claiming to be more independent that the NBCF because the latter uses offices that are provided and staffed by HMCTS. I am quite sure that this has no influence at all on the NBCF's views.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


I cannot recall any other occasion on which a judge or magistrate has openly expressed the hope that his decision will be appealed, although it must happen occasionally. This chap has made his views clear, and I shall be interested to find out how things turn out.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Silky Advocacy

I sat on a three day appeal at the Crown Court last week. The defence counsel was an experienced QC and he was clearly well accustomed to addressing juries. For those of us who practice in the lower courts it is a rare treat to listen to high quality advocacy. We allowed the appeal but as we expected the costs application was eye-watering. We ordered the sum to be 'taxed' (assessed)  but even if the appellant had to pay it himself he would have had value for his money, as he is in a profession where even a low-level criminal conviction can have devastating consequences, personal; and professional. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Just a word to say why it's been a bit quiet here . Holidays and unexpected family visits have got in the way of our usual stuff, and something had to give. Lots of comment-worthy things have come up, so we hope to get stuck in soon.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Me Voici Encore

So here I am, back in the  Royaume Uni, refreshed, relaxed, and pretty well fed and watered. In a moment of weakness I took along my trusty iPad. Le weefy  is not as common in France as the guidebooks tell you (ask for le code weefy in a bar or restaurant and the waiter will charmingly say that it is hors service five times out of ten). Ever reliable is the world's most deservedly successful restaurant chain, known to the young as MaccyD's. Ronald's setup is illimité, and gratuit and works. So for 1.3 € for a coffee you can tap away as long as you like. I didn't (being reluctant to push my luck with my beloved's tolerance) but I made a point of downloading the day's 'Times' and reading as much of the Daily Mail as I could without gagging.

The team have managed to moderate the comments that have come in, and I have made a mental note of some of the issues that seem to warrant a bit more attention. (But give me a break, all you Anons - call yourself Anon 123 or anything you like, but give me a chance to know who is who or which or whom).  This request does not apply to MH because I can spot his style at a thousand yards in heavy fog.

In response to one query, the reasons for my failing to address the future of the magistracy are twofold:- The main one is that I haven't a clue how things will go because I am no longer one of the movers and shakers, and neither do I care that much,

Whatever ministry is to emerge from the next election is a total mystery and anyone who says that he knows is a fool or a knave.  A Minister will be appointed, and like so many of his predecessors he will have no clue where to start, other than peering into his empty purse.

Even the most crusty time server in the Civil Service will be able to recognise the presence of about 24,000 honest sincere and dedicated JPs. He will soon be told by the MoJ hardcore that professionals such as DJs are easier to manage (a chap on a £130,000+ packge might just be biddable, if only procedurally). So what will he do with these JPs who will be subject to natural wastage anyway?

Some rising 35 year-old probably knows the answer, but I am damned if I do. But I have had a bloody good run (pushing 30 years quite soon) and I shall help when I can and shut up when I can't.

Holidays - aren't they great?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

A Busy Day - Eventually

Before getting down to our list today we were forced to hang about drinking coffee and grumbling while our courtroom was taken over to do the case management on a forthcoming tricky and sensitive trial. We finally got going at about 11.15, and from then on we were kept busy. We did a few 'allocation' exercises, deciding on the appropriate level of court that would handle cases, and then we dealt with numerous sentences, assisted (most of the time) by pre-sentence reports from Probation. Heroin, the curse of the underclass, featured strongly and I was reminded yet again of the unmistakable signs of the drug's abuse. Hunched shoulders, pinched and pallid features, hollow eyes, and a hunted expression were present as they so often are. One woman, 33 according to our list, but looking more like 53, was obviously 'clucking' having been away from her chemical comfort for half a day or more. The kindest thing to do was to get her remanded as soon as possible, and away to the meagre comfort offered by Holloway's medical wing.
Wife beater followed shoplifter followed drug dealer (over half a kilo of skunk in the wardrobe, three thousand quid in the bedroom, but it wasn't his - he was looking after the stuff for a friend whom he owed a favour. We decided to let a jury sort that one out.
We mostly stayed within the guidelines, but used our power to go outside them (which is all right so long as we give our reasons in open court).  We were done by 4.30, had a quick debrief with the clerk, and were on our way.

I wasn't sorry to get away as I am going away for a couple of weeks tomorrow. I shall take my iPad to stay in touch, but the Breton cottage we have rented doesn't have wi-fi. I told this to my son, who said: "What! Are they Amish?"

Back in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013


The Mail is unsurprisingly one of the papers to feature the release on licence of Jon Venables, one of the boys who murdered James Bulger in 2001. James was two years old at the time, and the boys were ten. The Sun's coverage is more strident, but even BBC Radio news led its 11 am bulletin with the story.
As usual when the case is mentioned poor Denise Fergus, who suffered the trauma of losing a child in horrible circumstances, is wheeled out to tell a reporter that Venables should stay inside still longer. She has taken the place of the late Mrs. Bennett, whose agony at the murder of her son Keith by Brady and Hindley was regularly refreshed  by the press. Both women have suffered terribly, but it is a cruel deception to speak as if grieving victims have a veto on parole. That is why we have a well resourced and judicially supervised Parole Board.
Venables' case is uniquely difficult and I do not envy the Parole Board its task. Knowing that powerful and rich newspapers are keeping a lynch mob in the wings cannot make it any easier.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Where's The Logic?

Bystander N has posed the following question:

At seventy years plus one day I am too old to sit as a magistrate, despite possibly having enormous experience.

At seventy five years less one day I am fine to sit on a jury, despite possibly never having done it before.

Where's the Sense?

Monday, August 26, 2013

Way Way Off Topic

I was born a few miles from the then London Airport, and it was an ever present part of my young life. We could predict the weather from the direction in which flights were landing; Runway 23 meant winds from the south west, and that meant rain. Similarly, if we could smell coffee from the Nestles factory, rain was on the way. (Just a note to our pedants; anyone calling it 'Nestlay' would have been  regarded as a pretentious idiot).
I saw my first 747 Jumbo in  1968, on final approach to the westbound runway, over Hounslow. I was awed by its sheer size and the illusion that it was flying  very slowly.
This post is prompted by the fact that I am sitting  in my garden to the west of London and a steady stream of airliners is passing to my south, en route to LHR. Among them is the occasional A380 superjumbo, and despite its ungainly mien, that reminds me of some of  the gormless looking fish that are hauled out of the Mediterranean, it has a commanding presence in the air, but still looks slow.
Sorry to bother you, but it fascinates me.

Straight In Or A Bender?

Constrained as we are by ever-more-detailed  guidelines, we nevertheless still come across clear yes-no decisions that we have to take.
A recent example was a man whose offence clearly crossed the custody threshold, and the question was whether we should suspend it. The guidelines say that we must always consider suspending a custodial sentence, so consider is what we did. On the one hand it was tempting to impose a salutary immediate prison sentence and send him down the steel stairs to the Serco guards. The alternative was to suspend the sentence and impose conditions such as a curfew or unpaid work as well as probation supervision. But the real choice was between a four-month sentence (i.e. six months less a third off for the early plea) of which he would serve half. As his offence was not violent or sexual he would probably be released on a tag after a few weeks. A suspended sentence order with 200 hours of unpaid work would not attract any reduction, and would dispose of his spare time for a good few months, and allow him to continue his not-too-special job.
So an SSO it was. We had to balance the reality of either choice of sentence, and in the end the SSO seemed the best solution for him.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Bottom Line

We sat on a simple little trial the other day. I usually sit in the middle chair, but this was one of my chances to sit as a winger. We heard the crown's case, and its only witness, who was not shaken in cross examination. The unrepresented defendant, a young woman only just old enough to vote, admitted her presence at the scene, and to being upset and angry, but she staunchly denied that her anger was expressed outside the house concerned - so the issue was whether this all happened 'in a public place' . We heard from her, and we retired to think about it. To be frank, we were convinced that she had been in a temper, and that her language was to say the least indelicate,  but the case boiled down to whether the incident happened in a public place.  Of that we could not be sure to the (very high) criminal standard of proof, so we agreed to acquit her. Did she do it? Probably. Did the prosecution prove it to the required standard? No they did not, so off she went.
Call me an old softy if you must, but I found it satisfying to find a not-very-bright young woman who lives near the bottom of the heap not guilty, despite her not having legal assistance.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Worthwhile Speech From A Top Wig

Lord Justice Moses recently gave an interesting after dinner speech.

It's worth taking the time to read it.

Déjà Vu Yet Again

Governments of all parties and of none habitually announce new initiatives (often described as 'Crackdowns') that have little or nothing new about them but are intended to garner a few headlines; this technique is especially common in the Silly Season when grown-up journalists go on holiday and the kids are left in charge of the newsroom.

And so it is with the recent fuss about so-called Middle Lane Hoggers, tailgaters and suchlike motorway nuisances. Driving without due consideration is already illegal, as, of course, is careless driving. The change is to make Due Care a fixed penalty offence, which takes those picky old courts out of the process of fining drivers. Now the thing about Due Care is that the wide variation in the seriousness of bad driving has led to courts having the option of imposing between three and nine points or a disqualification, which is just the sort of thing that a bench of justices is very good at assessing. That judgement will now be made by a police officer, but here is the best bit :- the number of police patrols continues to decline, so that very few of the tickets are likely to be issued.

In the last few days I have travelled several hundred miles on motorways, and apart from 90 boring minutes sat on the M4 with the engine switched off while a fiercely burning lorry was extinguished I saw nary a patrol car, so I could have hogged the middle lane with impunity.  

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What Do We Think Of This?

A new film from the MoJ.

Ho Hum

I am sitting in the retiring room, wating for the staff to sort out something for us to do. Since starting at 10 O'Clock, we have heard one videolink application for bail, drunk several cups of coffee (once my colleague had made the machine work) few and set the world to rights. Nothing unusual, but it is not a good use of time.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Utterly Illogical

Tonight's television news included a piece about a missing teenage girl who has now, fortunately, been found. Some individuals have apparently been arrested on suspicion of child abduction. The report included the girl's name, and a full-face photograph. Now if the suspects come to be charged, and appear in court, the bench chairman will solemnly make a CYPA order forbidding the publication of anything that might serve to identify the young person involved. What on earth is the point of that? Isn't the cat already out of the bag?

Friday, August 09, 2013

Fame? Is That All There is?

Drifting, as one does, around the obscure shores of Google, I find that I was born in the same nursing home in the same fortnight as Nick Simper, founder member of Deep Purple, and went to the same school as him.
A decade later, I was at university with Don Airey who still plays keyboards with that band. He was pretty good even then.
Small world? Yes. Does it matter? Of course it doesn't.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Own Goal

This news report illustrates a problem that arises increasingly often these days; the advice of the Justices Clerks' Society and others is that courts should disqualify in the absence of the defendant as a matter of course. I have never agreed with this, because a defendant can always claim that he has not received the notice and there is no proof either way. If he has to stand in court and have his disqualification clearly explained by the likes of me, while the clerk records the matter, there can be no doubt. In addition, the disqualification immediately invalidates any insurance, thus probably prejudicing innocent third parties. If matey won't come to court we can simply issue a warrant for his arrest. I suspect that the new system is driven by saving money, but to me it looks like a false economy.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pathetic Bravado

The cocky little twerp in this report has had his moment in court but has also put himself in the front row of the local traffic police wish list. Now that he is disqualified, if he carries on driving he moves into the imprisonable sentencing range. Just one thought though - given the horrendous speed that he reached why didn't the CPS charge Dangerous Driving?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Useful Reminder

Tony M writes with something for every JP to think about:-
You have probably seen the MA’s warning about checking that we are insured before we drive to court, and I thought you might be interested in passing on my experience this afternoon. I was told categorically by the Aviva call centre person that I was insured, and because I am a regular at an outer Londontraffic gateway court I asked for that in writing. Whereupon it all got vaguer and more hesitant and after being on hold for 2 minutes I was told that this did not count as social, domestic and pleasure use and I would have to pay c£50/year extra for commuting coverage. This works out at about 30p a mile. I have put in a suitably fierce complaint to Aviva and if the decision is not reversed will go immediately to one of three many cheaper options found on Google. I don’t suppose any regular traffic JP will need reminding that insurers are slippery beasts and only tell the truth when they have to write it down, but I was going-outside-the-guidelines furious at Aviva’s performance.

A Sap's Guide to Verbing

A distinguished District Judge and I each take delight in turning up examples of improper verbing (e.g. "I am going to guinea-pig you on this") and suchlike barbarisms. The latest that he has come up with is "scaffolded" (e.g. "support will need to be scaffolded"). This has cropped up twice recently, once in family proceedings and once in the youth court. He goes on to make the point:- "Do they not realise the associations that word will have for a criminal lawyer?"

Friday, July 26, 2013

These Rules Mean What They Say

From Bystander T To anyone who is even the most casual of observers of magistrates' courts, the Criminal Procedure Rules must be a subject that invades their consciousness constantly. And so it was with some surprise that I witnessed counsel, clearly appearing on behalf of a friend, bowl up and assume that at a first hearing all he had to do was ask for a couple of weeks to read the papers and an adjournment would follow. Oh the disappointment! Counsel, (not the baby barrister variety) was obviously shocked at the regime with which he was confronted. Initially, the Legal Adviser suggested that he read the papers and then take instructions on plea. His response was that neither he nor his client had received the papers and so he could not possibly take proper instructions without time to consider all the evidence. Both the Legal Adviser and the Prosecutor attempted to explain the position with regard to the rules, with which said counsel appeared to be distinctly unfamiliar. In any event, he would not accept their suggested offering of the papers and an agreement not to call on his client until later, giving him time to consider the papers and then enter a plea. Enter the bench. Counsel immediately rises to make an application and starts by informing the bench of the important status of his client and of his good character. But hold fast, says the Chair, "What is your application?" "Well if you will allow me to finish, the nature of my request will be clear". To which the Chair responds "If we don't know where we are going, we shall end somewhere else". Or something similar. Counsel eventually admits that he seeks some time, perhaps just a couple of weeks, to do what he needs to do. The Legal Adviser intervenes to remind counsel that the Criminal Procedure Rules, and the exhortations of the previous Senior Presiding Judge, make it clear that a plea is expected at first hearing, unless there are very clear reasons not to, and even then, only if the reasons are exceptional. This appears to be new information to counsel who is clearly not happy and continues his application by reiterating the important status and good character of his client. The local solicitors, now gathering at the back of the court, appear to find this display of ignorance both absorbing and amusing but the unfortunate barrister is not aware because he is getting more irate at the lack of understanding being displayed by the bench and the Legal Adviser. Part one concludes with said barrister being told in a loud and somewhat aggressive voice by the chair to take the copy of the papers that was previously offered; to leave for 30 minutes then come back for a plea to be entered. Part two: Counsel and client return with the Case Management form partially completed. Repeating his earlier display of a lack of knowledge, counsel now wants one of the police officers named to be called as a witness. Why, was the question from the Legal Adviser (LA). "There was a conversation with my client and the officer may be able to assist in what exactly was said". "What part of the officer's evidence is to be challenged?" Is the chorus from LA, Prosecutor and the bench. So the issues at trial eventually get established but in the face of a truculent barrister who has now confirmed his lack of appreciation of the case management methods now in place. Not only are pleas assumed to be taken at first hearing, but the trial issues and the significance and timetabling of witnesses are also assumed to be settled at that same hearing. There may be an accused person who has or will suffer because of the stringent adherence to these rules, but proper case management has shortened lead times, reduced trial times and has avoided the unnecessary appearance of police witnesses who are taken off their duties only to find that their evidence is not challenged. It is a pity that an otherwise professional lawyer, such as the barrister described above, should take time out of his area of competence to assist a friend without taking the trouble to review the changes to the way the magistrates' courts operate. In all, this case demonstrates that the changes are quite radical and if an otherwise competent lawyer is not aware of them, what chance the myriad defendants forced to represent themselves in the absence of access to legal aid?

Website Woes

The Magistrates' Association website has been offline for a few days, and it turns out that it was hacked earlier in the week. Now why would anyone bother?

Monday, July 22, 2013

It's Being So Cheerful As Keeps Me Going

I have recently been following Fleet Street Fox, the Mirror's columnist, and this article struck a chord. The great British Public are woefully ignorant about so much of the life of the nation, to a large extent because of wilful misinformation in sections of the Press. Indignation seems to sell newspapers, and the habit of, for example, prefacing every mention of a prison sentence with the word 'just' implants the idea that courts set out to avoid punishing anyone. Every magistrate will have been cornered by the bore who wants to see more and longer prison sentences, usually dropping in the 'fact' that you only get community service for mugging an old lady. I started this blog in 2005 to try to shed a little light into the dusty corners of the summary justice system, but it's proving a hard slog. So things aren't all that bad, crime is dropping on most credible measures (blowed if I know why, but there we are) so lets enjoy the sunshine while it lasts.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Another Bright Idea Down The Pan.......

I am grateful to our friend Obiter J (link on the sidebar to the right) for the news that the MoJ is consulting (i.e has decided upon) on the closure of the North Liverpool Community Justice Centre. I am one of those who sat through repeated presentations on the future of 'community' justice, and I heard David Fletcher, the judge in charge who could morph between Circuit judge and DJ(MC) at will, speak about the project. It turns out that it didn't work, and cost a bomb. My doubts were immediate, reinforced by the enthusiasm shown by populist politicians, and sure enough, the curtain is about to fall. I blogged about the project several times, such as here here here and here. I know it's childish to say it, but I TOLD YOU SO!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Talking Of Chiefs

I was interested to see that former Chief Magistrate Tim Workman was brought in to sit on the case of Ray Wilkins. Looking at Wilkins' previous there are those who would consider him fortunate to have gone home that night.

Hail To The (Lord) Chief

Lord Justice (John) Thomas, who has manfully borne the burden of his name since his schooldays (it's a bit like A Boy Named Sue, isn't it?) has been announced as the next Lord Chief Justice. I can't add much to what I have written about him before - if you are curious, just use the search box in the top left corner. I have had the privilege, as a humble lay justice, of meeting the last three LCJs, each of them as personally approachable as they are legally and intellectually formidable. Good luck, your Lordship, and may the chalice not be too poisoned.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Hoist With Their Own Petard?

There are stories in the Press saying that two of the major outsourcing contractors to the MoJ might have been a little imaginative with their billing practices, for example invoicing for tagging a dead person. I have no comment on that, as the investigation must take its course, and both sides have heavyweight legal resource available, but here's a thought:- If those responsible face a court, and if they are convicted, prison sentences are likely. Wouldn't it be ironic if the executives concerned were carted off to a prison run by their own company, in a van staffed by their own employees?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Arthur Daley Principle - The Price Is All According

The principle referred to in the headline was a favourite of my first Justices' Clerk, who in those dear dead days described himself as a cross between the family solicitor and a butler. He trained and mentored us, and set the culture of the bench. There is a fine old hoo-ha going on at the less reputable end of the Street of Shame over a fine imposed on a footballer (as a direct alternative to a community penalty that became impracticable). Footballers earning the money that they do, the fine looks derisory, but of course that sort of thing happens every day, albeit not on this scale. I believe that we fine the rich far too little and the poor far too much. As an example, a straightforward drink-drive carries a maximum penalty of a £5,000 fine and/or six months inside. In reality we never see fines of anywhere near that level, even on some overpaid Porsche-driving hooligan. Since the increase in the pesky surcharge (that is at a rate that takes no account of income) even low-level offences can easily run into several hundred pounds, that are then deducted from benefit until the cows come home. Financial Penalties in general lack any consistent sense of proportion: £60 for jumping a red light (that can potentially kill someone) to £100 plus for driving in a bus lane, or £70 for parking outside Sainsburys without a 60p ticket. One day, someone will have to sit down and take a look at the system and bring the whole lot into some sort of order.

Monday, July 08, 2013

12 Hours in A & E

For reasons that I need not trouble you with I  recently spent an evening in the A & E Department of a large hospital. As usual, I was deeply impressed with the general professionalism and friendliness of the medical staff as the steady stream of the sick and injured (or drunk or drugged) came through the door. One thing that struck me was the number of police officers present. They certainly outnumbered the doctors, and at times outnumbered the nurses too. It cannot be easy to take a proper statement from an obviously distressed woman while the business of the hospital ebbs and flows around you. I was told that their presence is particularly welcome at the weekend when "Wander forth the sons of Belial, flown with insolence and wine" as Milton put it.


The Curse of the Home Office has struck again.

Just look at this:-

Ministers are to look at curtailing benefits for those suspected of terror offences, the home secretary has said. (BBC report)
"Look at"? "Curtail"? 

That's bad enough, but "Suspected" - that is frightening.  What about due process, the rule of law, and, yes, "proved" rather than "suspected"?  Thank god for a (so far) free and independent judiciary.

Friday, July 05, 2013

It's Nice To Be Noticed

A piece in the Law Society Gazette by the estimable Joshua Rozenberg gives us a mention on the topic of the 'victim' Surcharge that I recently wrote about. I last met Mr. Rozenberg about three years ago, when he interviewed me on Radio 4, and a few years before that I met him when I visited the Daily Telegraph office, then in Canary Wharf. He is one of those commentators who knows his stuff.

Thursday, July 04, 2013


Our modern, largely secular, society still has a primitive need for demons and monsters to loathe and fear. The Parole Board appears to have taken the inevitable decision to free a deeply troubled man who committed a terrible crime when he was a young boy, and has spent the rest of his still-young life paying for it. Tomorrow's strident tabloids will not be a pretty sight.

Here We Go Again

Theresa May has continued the long and disreputable Home Office practice of ignoring considered expert advice, and imposing a useless and damaging ban on yet another drug - a ban that is likely to be as ineffective  as the present drug laws have proved to be. From Jim Callaghan's binning of the Wooton report decades ago to this latest edict, politicians have shown themselves to be terrified of the tabloids, and lacking any sense of reasoned judgement.  Plus ca change..........A previous post

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Taking Their Time To Catch On

Our local lads of a criminal bent can sometimes be a little slow to catch on to the latest developments in policing. Take young (18) Dwayne, who broke into a house in a comfortable suburb on my patch, and stole the keys to the 11-registered quality German sports coupé that was sitting on the drive. Fifteen minutes later the crew of a patrolling police car (yes they do exist, but often at unsocial hours) were suspicious when they saw a young black boy at the wheel of fifty grand's worth of Stuttgart's finest heavy metal, and tried to get him to stop. He managed to get a mile or two before the inevitable crash,  but given the disparity in pace between an Astra and the stolen car, he had run off (or decamped as the Old Bill call it) before the officers arrived on scene.
Sadly for Dwayne, the crash had caused the airbag to deploy, and being smacked in the face by one of those is a forensic dream, providing skin flakes, hair, snot, saliva and more.
The culprit's name soon emerged from the computer, and he was arrested at home, protesting his innocence.
The prosecutor said that the DNA captured gave a billion-to-one trace to our man.
Nevertheless, he pleaded not guilty, and applied for bail.
A jury will have to decide on the former, As for the latter - not really. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


A few weeks ago I volunteered to chair a two-day trial. Now that will usually mean a case that dies on its feet sometime on the first morning, leaving us either to slink off home or spend the remaining day and a half dealing with work from other courtrooms. Not this time: we got off to a clean start not much after ten, the witnesses were all present, the interpreter there ready to go, and the prosecutor seemed to have all his ducks in a row. for once.  The defence lawyer was of decent calibre too, as he was being paid by the defendant's employers, a large company.

The charge was a not-too-serious assault matter, but a conviction might have had devastating consequences for the defendant by putting a decent job at risk.

Following recently introduced procedures, we applied a strict timetable to the case, allowing (say) 15 minutes per witness' evidence in chief and then another 15 minutes for cross-examination. This worked remarkably well.

As in so many assault cases, the evidence came down to one person's word against another, and although there were several witnesses, colleagues of both victim and accused, there was no reliable corroborated evidence one way or the other, so after going through the evidence we were each convinced that a doubt remained in our minds.

I wrote out our reasons and we went in to deliver the verdict. That is always a tense and dramatic moment, and when I got to the words "we find you not guilty" there was a palpable gasp of relief from the supporters of the defendant, and then hugs and handshakes all round. As the bench filed out, the defendant mouthed "thank you" in our direction.

Not the most momentous case, but desperately important to the person in the dock. We had the satisfaction of feeling that we had done justice, and that makes all the time that we regularly waste seem worthwhile.


On the day that the Chancellor has announced a further 10% cut in MoJ resources many JPs will have received a letter announcing centralisation of the process for claiming Loss of Earnings and other expenses.
I have heard heavy hints from HMCTS staffers that a beady eye is being cast upon the Loss of Earnings, in particular. Most magistrates do not claim this, but a few (especially those who sit often) claim substantial sums. I think that we can expect a squeeze either to limit claims, or to ensure that those who do claim LoE do not sit too often.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

An Odd Story

This story (all right, it is from the Daily Mail) seems a bit odd. Those of us who preside in court are usually pretty chary about delivering words of advice to those we sentence, although I confess that I have been known to point out to people who have caused extensive damage after a night on the booze just how expensive that night has turned out to be. Nevertheless, there must be something more to this than meets the eye. We shall see.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Unfair Becomes Absurd

Regular readers of the blog will be aware that I have never been a fan of the so-called Victim Surcharge.When it was first brought in I was able to explain it to John Humphrys on the Today programme.
The amounts are arbitrary, and the proceeds do not go to victims, but rather to various bodies such as the CPS. With the changes that have been in place since October 2012, the surcharge is extended to many more sentences. The surcharge on a fine is now 10% (as opposed to a flat £15) with a £20 minimum and is capped at £120. What that cap means is that very large fines (such as those for environmental or Health and Safety breaches) carry a proportionately lower charge than that levied on a small-time  drunk or shoplifter.
The details are here.
The genius who cooked up these new rates only needs to spend a morning in a courtroom to see what a high proportion of those dealt with are broke, the majority on benefit.
Dafter still, an immediate prison sentence carries a surcharge of £80-£120 depending on its length. This will prove difficult to collect, and even if the effort is made, the cost will far exceed the amount recovered.
Let's give it time to settle in, and we can do an FoI request to find out just how much has been collected.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Balancing Act

The sentence passed on disgraced TV person Stuart Hall has attracted a predictable mob reaction that it was too short, so it is good to read a considered and informed analysis here. Sentencing can be a delicate thing to get right, and in many cases (such as this one) there is no 'right' answer.
Incarcerating an 83 year-old serves only as a punishment and a possible deterrent, and the prison authorities will be obliged to make special provision for him.  Once an offender reaches a certain age, he has already been by time's fell hand defac'd, and the time approaches when nature will wreak its havoc on him, mocking anything that the justice system can inflict. The trickle of very old men who were involved in the Holocaust has slowed but I often wondered what would be achieved by punishing them.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

To Sir, With Love

A teacher who ran away to France with a besotted 15 year-old pupil is currently on trial for child abduction, and his fate will now be in the hands of a jury. The press are meticulously avoiding any mention of the girl's name, as they must because there is almost certainly a court order against her being identified. Unfortunately the order is pointless because her name and much more was all over the press before they were run to ground in France and the teacher was charged. A Google search against his name will turn up the girl's in a trice.
It is standard procedure in any case involving a  child to make a CYPA order prohibiting the publication of anything that might serve to identify the young person involved, but that's a fat lot of good if the press have been running the story for days in loving detail. The law about identifying children is a mess, as protection from publicity only kicks in once the case goes live. I cannot think of any remotely practical way of getting round this problem.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Carelessness And Luck

Today a group of would-be Islamic terrorists were jailed at the Old Bailey, continuing the authorities' run of success in dealing with such aspiring murderers. Of course there is nothing to say that they may not succeed one day: as one who lived through the IRA campaign from 1969, I well remember the phrase "We only have to get lucky once, you have to get lucky all the time".

This latest gang were careless to use an uninsured car, and to turn up, absurdly, after their targets had gone home for the day. The police were lucky to seize the car that was later discovered to be loaded with weapons and explosives. Finally, having lost the incriminating car and been sent on their way, the men missed a priceless opportunity to get out of the UK before the car was searched.

They now have a very long time to contemplate what went wrong for them.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Food For Thought

Here is a thought-provoking piece. The massive reorganisations of recent years have piled resources into central management, while cheese-paring at a local level. I have never seen any credible figures for the net savings realised, if indeed there were any.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Speaking Of Traffic.......

I drive a popular 1600cc hatchback, and along with millions of other people I have a satnav device. The satnav has a speed readout that shows the car's speedometer to over-read by 3 mph at 30, up to 6mph at 80. My previous car was the same.

A couple of points arise from this:- firstly, that if I set the cruise control at the limit in long camera-monitored roadworks, I am going about 4 mph faster than other drivers who are relying on their speedometer reading. Secondly, I am unimpressed by people who grumble about getting a ticket for doing, say, 36mph in a 30, because their speedometer almost certainly read nearer 40.

I know a lot of people who have done speed awareness courses (including several colleagues, a District Judge, legal advisers, and my own daughter) and all but the most cynical have admitted that the course is useful and thought-provoking.

Useful Updates

This is a useful site for those who wish to keep up with changing traffic laws.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Bluff And Nonsense

This morning's papers dutifully report (here is The Guardian's effort) plans to increase fines for some run-of-the-mill traffic offences. Inevitably, the offences will be assessed by police who will decide whether or not to issue a fixed penalty.

These measures will be utterly ineffective in changing drivers' behaviour, for the same reason that the ban on mobile-phone use has left huge numbers of drivers unimpressed:- to detect and punish these offences there needs to be a police officer or two on the spot, and  traffic patrol cars are now a rarity. I use motorways several times every week and I cannot recall the last time that I saw a proper jam-sandwich patrol car, unless it was hammering down the outside lane on its way to a call with lights and sirens going full blast.

In court careless driving can attract a fine of up to £5000 and three to nine penalty points, allowing the bench wide discretion to assess the offence. The new arrangements will have no visible effect on drivers' behaviour, and those in charge know it perfectly well.

Monday, June 03, 2013

It's Only Perruque And Roll

It is reported that a relative of a man who had just been sent to prison took it upon himself to attack the Judge at Ipswich Crown Court. The oaf responsible is probably one of the many people whose only reaction to not getting their own way is to lash out violently.This time he chose the wrong place to do it.

Inevitably he was restrained and arrested, and tonight he is sitting in a cell to await his appearance before a different judge from the one he assaulted. Only a prison term can be right here, and my guess would be a term of a month or two, or perhaps more. We do need to deter this kind of thing, as it strikes at the heart of a judicial system based on reasoned deliberation.

From the reports, Hizonner showed proper sang-froid, and he was fortunate that there were a couple of police officers in court to back up the security staff.

This kind of  thing is mercifully rare, even down in the magistrates' courts where security is thin on the ground, and few police officers are likely to be available. In two and a half decades I have never felt unsafe on the bench; let's hope it stays that way.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Told You So

The unloved and largely ineffective Anti-Social Behaviour Order is slowly slipping out of use (which is not to say that none has ever worked). Two weeks ago I sat on a bench that imposed an ASBO on a confused Eastern European woman who was making a nuisance of herself on a regular basis. On Friday she was in the cells and back on my list for breaching the Order. The Guidelines suggest that she will go inside this time, and given her apparent lack of a normal reasoning process she may be facing the Revolving Door syndrome.
There must be a better way

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

No Need To Advertise

I was on the rota to sit a few days ago (Bank Holiday Monday). Our main courthouse dealt with all of the work that has come in since Saturday from the three London boroughs that make up our Local Justice Area. We opened two courtrooms, and the duty clerk told us that we had 22 people downstairs in the cells at ten o'clock. Inevitably there were delays while the CPS and defence solicitors sorted themselves out, so we didn't get started until nearly half past ten.
We saw the usual mix; a few breaches of bail, in which we had to decide whether or not to re-bail or remand in custody, a couple arrested on warrant for failing to turn up at court, some drug dealers arrested in warrant-backed raids on their homes, and some assaults.
One of the bail breachers had been on a 'doorstep' curfew from 7 till 7, and had simply got on a bus and gone to meet his mates. The police don't check every doorstep curfew every night, but our man got involved in a bit of a ruckus four miles from home. He tried giving a false name, but the Livescan fingerprint machine soon identified him, and he  was held overnight to be brought to court. A couple of youths were in the mix, and one sixteen year-old sticks in my mind. A skinny youth, he was uncommunicative and his body language made it clear that he wanted to express defiance. As I addressed him (using, as we must, his first name) he half turned to make it clear that he wasn't interested in what I had to say. His bail breach was so blatant that we sent him off to Feltham, to be brought before a youth court later in the week.
The men ( and they were all men or boys) who had been held overnight were all in custody because of previous bail breaches or simply their previous records.
We were all done by about two o'clock, so we were off into the sunshine, as the Serco prison vans prepared to pull out of the yard at the back.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Straw In The Wind

The MoJ has denied having plans for 'wholesale' privatisation of the courts. (Cue Mandy Rice-Davies:- "they would, wouldn't they?")

Until last Autumn my court had a nice little snack bar, looked after by a lady who supplied reasonably priced refreshments to court users, staff and magistrates. It was a meeting point for lawyers and others, and was run at no cost to HMCTS. Last Autumn the lady decided to move on, and the bar closed. We were assured that a replacement was being sought, but had to go through the full ponderous civil service procurement process. Then silence.

Recently a colleague was party to a conversation with someone from the court management side, in which he was told that the facility would not be replaced as a result of a "strategic" decision at MoJ level.

Could this be that it might be a tad harder to flog off the courthouse with a small business installed, or even that the deal might be tastier if the buyer could pop in a Costa franchise or suchlike?

Go on then, call me a cynic. In the wonderful world of the Civil Service, one man's cynic is another man's realist.