Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Small World

This Daily Mail report caught my eye today, and I was particularly interested to read it because I was at university with Mr, Abbott and we spent some interesting times together. I will not embarrass him by recounting any of the things that we got up to, but I can safely say that he is a fine actor and one of the funniest men that I have ever met.
No wonder he has done well at the Bar.

Mission Creep

As many of us feared, the practice of so-called 'Community Resolution' is quietly spreading to more and more serious offences that ought to come before a court.

It offers a quick clear-up, boxes ticked, files tidied away, and that's the end of it. It's also cheap. These factors were bound to render the practice irresistible to target-driven policemen.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Autres Temps, Autres Mœurs

The series of arrests that began following the Jimmy Savile revelations continues apace, and some charges have now been laid, while some cases are not being proceeded with, the arrested people being released from what must have been an appallingly stressful period on bail.

I have no comment to make on any particular case, of course, but I do feel a niggling sense of unease at the sheer age of some of the allegations that are being made. Given the very high burden of proof in a criminal court, just how sure can a jury be about something that is alleged to have happened twenty, thirty, or even more years ago?

With the impending abolition of committal proceedings in the magistrates' court, our function will simply be to shunt the cases off upstairs to Hizonner.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Picking Up

After a quietish couple of months my rota has started to fill up. We are four-sixths into the rota period, so a lot of vacancies are cropping up, and the rota team can be excused for turning to a retired old gent such as yours truly. I only choose to do adult court work, but I can be flexible, and I can sit in any of the three seats on the bench. Last week I was called at twenty past nine to chair a court; fortunately I was up and dressed, so I just put on a jacket and tie, and was walking into court at ten past ten.

I have agreed to take on a couple of two-day cases, but I shan't get too excited about that until we see how they turn out. When a not guilty plea is entered the court must actively manage the case before setting a trial date. Totting up witnesses, then factoring in such time-hungry features as one or more interpreters, a vulnerable witness who needs screens or a videolink, we reach a time estimate that all too often proves to be unnecessarily long. Then there is the reluctant witness that is such a common feature of domestic violence cases, or the defendant who has chosen not to avail himself of the one-third discount for an early guilty plea, but changes his mind at five past ten on the day of trial.

Court staff will then scurry about rearranging work between the courtrooms. If all goes well we may still get a day's work to do (thanks to the practice of over-listing) but if not it's off home. perhaps via the pub where they are not used to seeing me in a suit.

Monday, April 22, 2013

What Is It About Lawyers?

Today, in a remand court. Defendant has a tenuous grasp of English as his second (or third) language. Interpreter is not too good, and prosecutor is a mumbler who would come second to Mrs. Malaprop in an English test.

"So you attended the property that evening?"   Blank stare, and interpreter doesn't look any more sure.

What's wrong with; "did you go to the house?"

So that's how the grumpy old chairman rephrased the question.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Just Wondering....

Do people think that I ought to accept advertising on the blog, as so many others do?

Friday, April 19, 2013


This  looks like good news for the humble blogger. We had already decided to ignore the proposed regulatory structure, but it looks as if we may be beneath the notice of the Whitehall heavies. So be it.

The recently-updated guidance on judicial conduct includes last summer's guidance on 'blogging' pretty much word for word. So while it looks as if we are unlikely to be stuffed for two million quid in legal costs, we might still face bell book and candle for dissing the senior wigs. Which is something we have never done.

Let's see how it goes.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Me Voici Encore

I am sorry that it has been a bit quiet around here recently, but a bug acquired in France got the better of any urge to write, or even to whistle up another team member to fill in. I was due to sit in court at the beginning of the week, but I was relieved to find that the office had cancelled me because another case had overrun. The tablets that I was given by a pharmacist had a distinctly soporific effect and I have no wish to embarrass myself and the court by nodding off on the bench.

A lot has happened in the last couple of weeks, and I shall try to catch up with some key points in the next few days. In the meantime, can I recommend the excellent The Prisoners that was broadcast last Monday on BBC1 (so it should still be available on iPlayer). There have been a number of interesting factual programmes about prisons in recent months, and they serve as a useful antidote to the usual 'they're all just holiday camps aren't they?' rants. Prison Dads, broadcast on March 27th, focused on the many young men who sit in jail while their wife or girlfriend struggles to bring up one or more small children.

I shall return to the theme.

Monday, April 08, 2013


When it goes quiet around here it is usually down to my indolence, or, less commonly, the fact that I am busy.
I shall be taking Madame Bystander for a few days in Normandy tomorrow, but I plan to take my iPad, as the hotel promises wifi (en Français: 'weefy') so if the Apple virtual keypad doesn't beat me, I may be able to chip in a few aperçus.
À bientôt!

Sunday, April 07, 2013

I sat idly in the waiting room of my local tyre dealers last week while a couple of new tyres were being fitted, and I was reminded that when I first joined the bench motoring courts were a daily feature in Court Four. Sometimes the offences were technical, such as bald tyres or other vehicle defects, sometimes bad driving was alleged, and sometimes there would be document offences such as no licence, no insurance, and no MoT. The only guidelines that we had were on four sides of pink A4 paper,, and dealt exclusively with motoring offences. Fewer than half of those summoned ever turned up, either taking the chance to plead guilty by post or simply ignoring the summons in the hope that it would go away. Cases were presented by a police officer and the postal pleas could develop a rubber-stamp feel to them, even though we were meticulous to see that everything was done properly.
The letters were usually left until the afternoon, and in those more relaxed days the chairman would sometimes put one of the wingers into the chair without prior warning, which gave newbies the chance to get the feel of making pronouncements in an environment where you couldn't do much damage.
I haven't heard a motoring list for about ten years, because such work as remains after fixed penalties and other out of court disposals such as vehicle defect notices and speed awareness courses, is dealt with in so-called Gateway courts. I spent a day sitting as a visitor in one of the earlier Gateways at Highbury Corner, and was alarmed to find a list of over 300 cases, with a queue stretching along the corridor and down the stairs. We managed to deal with the appearances by about 5.45 pm and then block adjourned everything else.

Friday, April 05, 2013

A Bit Of Something and Nothing

I spent an unproductive day in court today. My bench was listed to hear two trials, estimated to last for the best part of the day. The prosecutor was an agent, briefed at a late stage, and both defendants were represented on legal aid. Due to an error in the office our printed list told us that our first defendant faced three charges, but had already pleaded guilty to two of them. We said that we would disregard this fact, but the prosecutor went on to offer no evidence on the contested matter, that we accordingly dismissed. We then sentenced the remaining two, deciding that a hefty fine plus costs and a compensation order would be appropriate, and (of course) well within the guidelines. Even after knocking off a third for the earlier pleas the final sum that I told him he had to pay was enough to make him visibly wince. We then went out for a coffee while the prosecutor telephoned those instructing her, and the upshot of her call was that she offered no evidence on our second case. We dismissed that too, and retired again while the clerk looked for some more work for us.

We went on to sentence a chap who had pleaded guilty to a small cannabis possession , and we fined him the guideline amount, and ordered forfeiture and destruction of the drug. . Unfortunately for him, he worked as a self employed tradesman at a secure establishment, and a drug conviction, even for ten pounds' worth of cannabis means that he will now lose his security pass, and hence his job. That wrap will cost him many thousands of pounds in years to come, and hamper his efforts to find a new job.

As lunchtime approached it was decided to close one courtroom in the afternoon, so I volunteered to give my chair to a colleague from the redundant court and take the afternoon off. So that was me done for the day.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Still a Huge Gulf of Understanding

The appalling Philpott case has rightly attracted a lot of interest and many comments in the press and elsewhere, those comments serving to point up the widespread public ignorance of the most basic principles of the justice system. Of course there is no reason why the man in the street should understand the niceties of  the law, and parts of the press do their best to muddy the water in the interest of creating a good story. The justice system does itself no favours by choosing to ignore the effect of misleading terminology, such as a 'life' sentence that in most cases means nothing of the sort. So the impression has been given to some people that the life sentence with a 15-year minimum tariff handed to Philpott is somehow less than the 17-year determinate sentences on his accomplices.

Firstly, the charge was manslaughter, not murder, as the prosecution could not prove that there was an intention to kill the children. From reports of the trial, that appears to be the right charge. Secondly, the 15 year minimum is just that - a minimum time before he can be considered for parole. Given his previous convictions and his predilection for violent and controlling behaviour the parole board is going to be very cautious indeed before letting him out on licence. He might well serve a good deal more than his  minimum term. The other two will be eligible for release after half of their sentences, but they will serve a good deal less than Philpott.

The two thousand and more comments on the Mail's website are predictable, and you can read them if you want a glimpse of what a lynch mob looks like. What is less excusable is the attempt by some politicians who ought to know better that this horrible case has anything to teach us about the welfare state.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Bar Looks Ahead

With the drastic erosion of legal aid the courts, both civil and criminal, are going to see a rapid increase in the number of people who represent themselves. Most practitioners including magistrates know that an ordinary honest citizen who is totally unfamiliar with the law and its ways can rapidly find himself out of his depth. Of course the court will do its best to explain procedures, but cannot assist the person with his case. Unrepresented defendants can slow the court down woefully, and some of the more assertive, who think that arguing in front of a bench requires the same skill set and approach as a saloon bar discussion  can require careful handling.

Now the Bar Council has published a very useful Guide written by people who know what they are talking about, and carefully reviewed to avoid any possibility of misleading the lay person.

I have only had a quick skip through it so far, but it can only be helpful in keeping courts working to deliver justice, with far less money than was previously the case.