Tuesday, February 26, 2013

No, This is a Judge

A barrister who sits as a Recorder of the Crown Court has reportedly been arrested in connection with the Huhne/Pryce trial. I have no comment to make about that, but I do wish that the papers would stop referring to her as a judge. A Recorder is a part-time judge, paid by the day, who spends most of his or her time working as a lawyer (usually a barrister, but there are some solicitors too). I have seen her described as the most senior black judge, and similar nonsense.
Here  is an eminent and senior judge, who happens to be black. I have met her, and she wears her achievements lightly. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Twelve Good Men And True

Obiter J says most of what needs to be said on the subject of juries in the light of the mistrial of the former Mrs. Huhne. A couple of papers make the valid point that Southwark's catchment area for jurors is substantially inner-city multi-ethnic and multicultural (apparently only two of the jury were white).. Looking at the latest figures for the demographic mix of London and other towns and cities it is a probability that a significant proportion of jurors will not have been born or educated in the UK.

At present this is a mercifully rare problem, but we will need to keep a careful eye on how things work out in future.  

Even Odder

The Pistororius case has already thrown up some odd features, but today's news caps it all. The investigating policeman appears to be facing serious charges himself. It is difficult to imagine why he has not been suspended, as he most certainly would be here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


This was a comment on another thread, that we have moved as it seems to merit a thread of its own.

** Moderators** IS there a way 'Team-By-stander' can put together a post on the "very basic concept of jury trial" ??-
Andrew Edis QC, prosecuting, suggested to the judge that he should discharge the jury there and then, saying: “This is a jury which has not, it appears, understood its function.”
He added: “It is surprising they are still struggling with this very basic concept of jury trial...there is a substantial concern about whether the jury has sufficiently grasped its task to be permitted safely to continue it”.
He suggested that if the “eyes of the world” were not on the case the judge would already have discharged the jury.
The judge said: “Quite apart from my concern about the absolute fundamental deficits of understanding which the questions demonstrate I wonder [given that the answer] is all there and has been there the whole time the extent to which anything said by me is going to be capable of getting them back on track again.
“I am like Mr Edis in the position that after 30 years of criminal trials I have never come across this at this late stage. Never.”

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Just before Christmas we were surprised to walk into court to find two burly soldiers in combat fatigues sat in the well of the court. The clerk explained that the man who was on his way up from the cells was a deserter, who had gone AWOL from his regiment a couple of years previously. Deserters are automatically put on the 'wanted' list in the police computer system, so when they come to the attention of the police for one reason or another, their wanted status is flagged up, and the handcuffs go on. Once the police have him, it requires a very brief court hearing to commit him to military custody, but without that hearing the police have no power to hand him over to the MPs.

I will never know what happened to our man, but I do know anecdotally that the military detention centre at Colchester has an awesome reputation for toughness, and that a week in there is reckoned to be equivalent to  a month in a civilian jail.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

And Things Were Going So Well.......

I have written previously about the Curse of the Home Office that has done for the reputations of many Home Secretaries. Theresa May has so far trodden a fairly sure path, and her stock is said be high with her party. Then today she has placed a piece  in (inevitably) the Mail on Sunday in which she makes intemperate and frankly foolish remarks about judges who interpret the law in a way that does not suit her views.

The Home Secretary, of all people, should understand that the judiciary is and must remain independent. Parliament is of course sovereign, but if Parliament wants to change the law, then it must pass appropriate legislation to do so. It is outrageous for her to expect the judiciary to bow to hints and nudges, and then to threaten judges who apply the law as it is, not how she might wish it to be.

Her outburst is pure claptrap (it has of course delighted many of the Mail's slavering commenters) but it has degraded the high office that Mrs, May holds. I really had hoped for better than that from her.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


I have been watching the BBC Parliament Channel's retrospective on Harold Wilson, a man who played a prominent part in my Sixties consciousness. This not too serious TV programme is a delight to my generation. Give it a try, if you are over 50, or even if you are not.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Justice is a word and a concept that means very different things to different people. One man's justice can be another man's outrage, and it is far from unusual to hear people  use justice as a synonym for revenge, while others think of it in connection with the concept of mercy.

These not-specially-original thoughts were triggered by the comments of Mrs. Denise Fergus, bereaved mother of the murdered Jamie Bulger, who met his awful end twenty years ago. She is on a  mission to hound the two men who tormented and killed her son, and is even (but hopelessly) eager to have Thompson (who has not reoffended since his release) re-incarcerated; Venables has of course been recalled to prison following a conviction for having child pornography on his computer and Mrs. Fergus plans to make representations to the Parole Board when his case comes up for review.

This is all horribly reminiscent of another poor mother who lost a child,  whom the tabloids never left alone until she died. Mrs. Fergus has suffered more than most of us can imagine. To stoke her rage and keep it simmering for twenty years is simply cruel.

Friday, February 08, 2013


I have just been watching the late-night press reviews on the telly. The two hot topics of the day are of course the horsemeat scandal, and the appalling hospital mismanagement that may have killed a lot of people, and caused suffering to many more. Inevitably, the strident tabloids are calling for police investigations (that may already have started) but let's have a little think first. The NHS will be the tougher nut to crack in a legal sense because it will be impossibly difficult to separate negligence and poor management from truly criminal acts or omissions. Much of what happened seems best suited to action by the appropriate professional bodies.

Meat fraud is different. I have some knowledge of the food industry, and of the huge international trade in boneless meat. When most meat was shipped in carcass form, anyone in the trade could see what the animal was. These days the meat is deboned in factories, then either vacuum packed or frozen for shipping. Only the biggest and most sophisticated producers would have in-house testing facilities, so everyone else has to rely on his suppliers' assurances. Margins are very tight in meat trading, and there is a huge temptation to cut corners, for example injecting water into meat post-slaughter and of course substituting species. But whoever does this knows he is doing it, and it seems eminently suited to a police investigation - but - given the worldwide cross-border trade in meat, it is going to be very hard indeed to prove that a Polish (or wherever) abattoir falsified the documents for a night shift six months ago, and slipped a few zlotys to the inpector who is trying to pay his kids through college so that they can come and work in England.

Not simple at all.  


A recent Parliamentary answer elicited the fact that the current strength of the magistracy is 24,003. That is way down on the number of 30,000 that used to be bandied about.

The drop is not surprising, because recruitment has more or less ceased since the latest wave of bench mergers, with the drop-off of business continuing between five and ten per cent. Retirements meanwhile continue, and the age profile of the magistracy means that most benches will lose almost half of their members within ten years.

Some recruitment will have to continue, to prevent the bench profile becoming grossly skewed towards old codgers like me. Unfortunately there is anecdotal evidence that employers are increasingly reluctant to allow time off for magistrates.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

CPS Again

The other day we were in a remand court, dealing with a rapid-fire succession of cases, most of which we did not sentence, as there were more stages to go through later.

For several hours a large and surly looking man in his twenties sat glowering through the armoured glass of the gallery. He was brought into the bail dock in the late afternoon, It turned out that he was a member of a large and troublesome family that lives on our patch and was due to be committed to the Crown Court on a serious charge. The prosecutor apologetically told us that the committal papers were not complete and he asked for a two week adjournment. We probed further and found out that the case had already been adjourned from one target committal date, and had commenced before Christmas. The defence solicitor opposed the application, saying that her client had now been on restrictive bail conditions for two months, and after a quick discussion we decided to refuse to adjourn, and to discharge the case.

This is never an easy decision to make, but it is wrong to let sloppy work from the police or CPS (either could be at fault) leave a defendant who is innocent until proved guilty in limbo. The Crown can always re-charge a case that has been discharged, but we have to be careful not to leave victims without redress. 

Unsung Heroes

The Probation Service is an essential part of the criminal justice system, and is involved in every serious case in one way or another. Probation Officers are not well known to the public (apart from the occasional ranter in the Mail's readers' comments) but we would be in a fix without them. Few other services have been so comprehensively buggered about over the last two or three decades, their mission moving from 'advise, assist, befriend' to becoming part of the punishment apparatus with, these days, an emphasis on assessing and managing risk.

Last night's BBC1 programme "Out of Jail and on the Streets" showed (mostly female) officers marching  into dubious locales to carry out home visits to offenders, many of whom had committed violent crimes. There is always a danger when someone with mental health problems fails to take his medication, so there is a real, if mercifully rare, chance that an officer might be attacked one day.
These days anyone who has served in the military in any capacity is a 'hero' to the tabloids, even if he was a cook at a base well behind the lines.These probation officers deserve to be called heroes too.

The programme is on iPlayer for a while. Don't miss it. 

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

More Work Needed

Yesterday, in a by-no-means-untypical start to the day, we walked into court to find the prosecutor's seat empty, his desk bare of papers. Apparently someone had called in sick, and we were relieved when a replacement CPS man rushed in at 10.15. Nevertheless we had to give him half an hour to download the files, and have a quick look at them, before having huddled conversations with defence advocates.
Court 3 was worst off; they had no prosecutor either, and lost the whole morning. They had an early lunch and finally got going at 1.15. We are so tightly scheduled these days that any loss of court time can have a big knock-on effect.The CPS know that they have problems, but they need to do better than this.

Huhne Cry

The precipitous downfall of Chris Huhne is a human tragedy for him and for his family. The text and email exchanges with his son that have just come to light are a heartbreaking read. Whatever Huhne's offence, the bitter poisoning of his relationship with his son will, over time, be the hardest thing to bear, Huhne is an able and wealthy man who will, given time, rebuild his life, but the family rift has the potential to sour every new day.
As a father and grandfather, I treasure my family above all else. Whatever Huhne has done, he has my sympathy for the appalling rift with the son who ought to be one of his greatest comforts, and we can only conjecture at the pressure on a young man who should be enjoying the best years of his life as an Oxford student.

L'affaire Huhne has served to remind us of the extraordinary lengths to which otherwise rational human beings will go to avoid losing their driving licence. There are many cases of people spending tens of thousands on Mr. Fixit lawyers, and of others who lie and cheat to avoid the consequences of their actions and end up jailed and ruined, all for the sake of a year's taxi fares.

One of my acquaintances has openly boasted of the fact that he has twice laid off speeding points on to his wife, and that does not cause me to respect him. I am quietly relieved that I do not have to make the moral choice whether to inform the police, because I do not have a shred of evidence other than saloon-bar hearsay.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Not Revolutionary (But Commonsense Anyway)

The bush telegraph tells me that there is to be a change in the way that District Judges will sometimes work in future.

Hitherto lay and professional benches have been kept firmly separate. Tim Workman, who was the previous Chief Magistrate, set his face dead against mixed benches with the single notable exception of a case in which the defendant was a High Court Judge, and the chief sat with two JPs, presumably to avoid any hint of an old-pals-act stitch-up (and I hasten to add that Tim W is an impeccably fair judge).

My understanding is that in certain circumstances, such as when a DJ's case has gone short, a mixed bench can be convened to deal with other work and that will be a one-man-one-vote bench, just like a lay bench, although the DJ will take the chair.

This will avoid the frustration of sending lay magistrates home to allow their work to be passed to the DJ, who needs, at well over a hundred grand a year, to be kept busy. Another likely benefit is to sit JPs with DJs to help improve their case management skills. With pressure on court time and resources it is vital to manage cases firmly and fairly to avoid waste and delay, so these skills are vital. 

A minority of magistrates (but not I) cleave to the conspiracy theory that DJs are set to replace the lay bench, and these latest measures may go some way towards building trust.