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 coupĂ© 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