Monday, December 29, 2014

So That Wraps It Up For 2014 Then

After a late night visit to Heathrow to see my son off on his 5,500 mile flight home, I was on the rota to sit today. We only used three of our five courtrooms , all of which were dealing with overnight custody cases and suchlike, no trials being listed. We sat a bench of two in Court One, and I was pleased to find that my colleague was a sensible and well-liked lady, and that we were clerked by a very experienced and senior legal adviser in whom I have total confidence.

The list was the usual holiday-time mix of domestic violence, shoplifting (usually to buy drugs) and suchlike. There was one case of prostitution (like most others today, the Romanian lady in the dock pleaded guilty) and a couple of referrals from our resident mental health worker. One of her customers was assertively flaky, full of demands to know this and that, despite having rejected free legal advice.

The new electronic system of shifting documents from the police to the CPS, to the court appears to be creaking,  causing a lot of delays. The freezing temperature in the court did not improve our patience either.

We had to allow a couple of breathers for lawyers to look up the ins-and-outs of some newish law. Then it was away by about 4.15.

I must have upset someone, because I am also on the rota for New Year's Day. Ho-Hum. That's another  year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Back to the Important Stuff

Things may quieten down round here for the next little while. I shall be off to join my family on Christmas Eve in a small village on Exmoor. Although my daughter and her husband are both lawyers, we hope to avoid any legal talk, but rather to enjoy the views, and the company of both of my children and my delightful granddaughters.

Thanks for putting up with my views this year. I am days away from the tenth anniversary of the blog and I shall thank my son (who has travelled nearly six thousand miles to be with us, and has to go all the way back next week).for giving me the original idea. The old stuff is still on the Law West of Ealing Broadway but the comments were lost in the changeover from the old comment software. It caused a furore at the time, even getting a Page 3 story in The Times. We have had the best part of four million hits since then, and I have survived the disapproval of a Very Senior Judge. I am now within a couple of years of enforced retirement, so I hope that I am now not worth powder and shot to the top brass.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Gas Bills

There will be a few MoJ apparatchiks who do not sleep all that well for the next week or two.

When setting the rates for JPS' travel expenses, the amounts were traditionally adjusted each year, usually with reference to the price of petrol, When petrol shot up  a few years ago, the MoJ rate remained stubbornly fixed. Finally, new costs forced the mileage rate for a 1600cc car up to  its present 58p per mile , which is on the high side these days. But if the MoJ wants to lower the rate in response to the oil glut, it will have trouble refusing to do the converse when the market moves, as it one day will.

Fair and Square?

Some papers (inevitably including the Mail) have rushed to criticise the lawyers who represented people who claimed to have been brutalised by British troops.

There is a gulf of understanding between the public and the legal profession. One of the questions that any defence brief  will hear regularly is "how can you defend paedophiles, or rapists, or whatever is tabloid monster of the month?"

Of course the answer is that anyone, however heinous his crime, is entitled to have his defence put professionally and thoroughly. I am often asked what crimes anger or upset me personally, and I always answer that emotion has no part to play in my job, and that my colleagues and I must consider the evidence solely on its merits.

In some countries, especially dictatorships, being a defence lawyer carries risks. In many cases those risks can involve physical harm. Compared to that, a slagging off in the Mail is small stuff, but the principle is the same.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Stat.Dec.- Stacked Deck

I have mentioned the Statutory Declaration before. It is a useful hangover from an 1835 Act that allows someone to promise that they have told the truth in a document without all the fuss of getting an Affidavit.
These days, if you go to your local courthouse (if there is one) and ask to do a Stat. Dec,. there is, I think, a fee of £25.
An old friend rang me the other day, to ask my help because his 22 year-old daughter had incurred a minor traffic penalty, but had moved house three times, as the young do, in the next couple of months. She is being pursued for the money, along with substantial added costs. Helpfully, those pursuing her had sent a draft Stat. Dec. along with an application to file the same out of time. All that she had to do was make the declaration before me, listen to my solemn warning about the consequences of perjury, and sign the papers.
The procedure is a routine one, that every magistrate will be familiar with.

In conversation, once the job was done, the young lady told me that she had found the matter distressing, particularly when she attended the local court, some five miles from home, to be told that they could not do it, and to be directed to the main court in the county, some fifty miles away despite that fact that there must have been at least a few JPs in the building at the time.

Now the whole point of having local JPs such as me is that our neighbours should know who we are and be able to approach us on small matters such as this. The stiff-necked HMCTS bureaucracy were entirely uninterested in this young woman's  problem.

At least the buggers didn't get their £25.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Bit of New Law

Last week's sitting saw a couple of novel bits of law. The first was an application for a Domestic Violence Prevention Order. The application has to be approved by at least a Superintendent then put before the court as a civil matter. We have to be satisfied that the respondent has either assaulted the person concerned or is likely to do so. The Order includes ejecting the respondent from the home, so it is pretty draconian.
The police files were meticulously prepared, running to a couple of hundred pages of A4. The Order can be no longer than 28 days, presumably to buy time while a County Court order can be sought.  

The other thing that was new to me was a pilot to fit alcohol abusers with a tag that detects via a transcutaneous sender whether there is alcohol in the blood. This makes it practical to impose an order to abstain from alcohol - that might prove to be very useful.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Routine Doesn't Have To Mean Dull

When I find myself allocated to the non-CPS court my heart sometimes sinks, because that is where we deal with the odds-and-sods cases that are privately prosecuted. That can include TV licensing, Local Authority summonses, fishing licences and suchlike. The cases can be low-level, but that doesn't mean that they have a low impact on the people summonsed. When a truly poor person comes in, summonsed for having no TV licence dropping litter or whatever, the potential penalty can easily run into hundreds of pounds, which is a fortune to someone scraping by on benefits.
Turning, as we must, to our Guidelines, we find that for someone who doesn't tell us their income we must presume they are getting £400 per week. Apply that to the usual fine scales, and for no TV licence we are imposing fines of several hundred pounds, plus costs of a couple of hundred more, plus the iniquitous surcharge, and the bill can rocket to £400 and more. We solemnly make a Collection Order, but I can tell you a secret - most of these impositions will never be paid.

We had a shabby looking couple last week, who were summonsed for failing to send their two kids to school. They stood in court holding hands, her eyes cast down,while she quietly sobbed and he stood looking at us in a bovine and uncomprehending way. I thought that this was a clear case for the social services rather than the justice system, but of course kids must go to school.

I am just not convinced that this is the best way to make them.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tip Top Typo

Today's Mail on Sunday has a go at senior Labour people who are too posh for its liking. Inevitably, their houses are valued in each headline.

Lord 'Charlie' Falconer, a cheery cove whom I have met, appears to have a £5 million house, which is bad enough by 'Mail' standards, but the paper caps this by calling him Lard Falconer. He won't like that.

I wonder what Paul Dacre's house is worth? Or his estate in the Scottish Highlands?

Friday, November 21, 2014


I have never been a fan of the Anti-social Behaviour Order, as regular readers will be aware. Although the Orders have some limited usefulness, they are too often given to alcoholics and other addicts, as well as the mentally unwell.

When a Government starts to run out of ideas, just as the present one is doing, there is a temptation to introduce complex legislation, often aimed at a multiplicity of problems. Something must be done. This is something. So let's do it. The resultant law is often muddled and effectively useless, as well as sometimes unjust. The dreaded Law of Unintended Consequences comes into effect, as set out in this article.

I have just done a full day's training on the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, and apart from the usual linguistic tampering it is a ragbag of new powers, many of which do not require full judicial authority, but  rather the opinion or judgement of a police officer (or even. lord help us, a PCSO).

This continues the trend of allowing judicial powers to trickle down the system, rather as some night club bouncers are to be empowered to issue fixed penalties.

We also did a session of training on new procedures for case management. A lot of that made sense, but the cynics among us wearily noted that it will all depend on the police and CPS getting their ducks in a row. At the moment, the canards are scattered all over the farmyard.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


This post by our old friend ObiterJ puts things so well that I shall not offer my own contribution on the subject. As I get closer to the mandatory retirement age, I feel more than ever that my generation has had the best of it.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sentencing and Public Opinion

Sentencers nowadays are obliged to follow the omnipresent Sentencing Guidelines, and on the whole that is what happens, although there are a couple of work-rounds available to the imaginative sentencer. Sometimes, though, there is a crime that attracts particular public anger, from recent appalling murders to, at the lower level, the case of the man who urinated on a war memorial, or the chap on my patch who stole the floral tributes left at the scene of s fatal car crash.

Recently I saw a man who stole a poppy collecting tin from a shop (with exquisite taste he did it on November 11th). He pleaded not guilty, so he will come back for trial in a few weeks. In the guidelines it is just a petty theft. If he is convicted someone (not me!) will have to sentence him for a £15 impulsive theft. What would you give him?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Caravan Sight

Apparently the police decided that this incident called for a hefty presence. I remember years ago when something on the same lines happened on our patch. There were arrests and at the subsequent trial an old-school Sergeant was asked why quite so many officers had been deployed. The unblinking  stony-faced reply came: "Safety in numbers, sir, safety in numbers".

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Worth a Look

This Post from a respected blogger is worth a read. Give it a go.(link corrected - it's the piece about cautions) . Thanks to spotters.

Weekend World

I was on the rota to sit today. We sit a full bench every Saturday and Bank Holiday, and an if-and-when-required court on Sundays. Our cheery security man told me as I arrived that we had eleven bodies downstairs, but as we worked through our list 'extras' began to appear and we ended up dealing  with about twenty cases, finishing around two o'clock. The list was fairly routine, and as usual we did not sentence many cases, but spent most of our time deciding whether to grant or withhold bail. A couple of low-level cases such as cannabis possession were met with a fine of a hundred pounds or so, and a decision to deem the sum served by the day-and-a-half that the offender had spent in custody.
A few bail decisions required extra-careful thought because we had to have regard to the interests of the complainant; today these were all female wives and partners who had been attacked or threatened by lover boy, in an alcohol or drug-fuelled rage that was often triggered by an argument about  money, these people invariably being poor.
One man was said to have punched his (by-now-ex) partner while she was holding their 14 month old son who was bruised as he fell. We had no hesitation in remanding him in custody, relying on a newish provision that he might cause harm to an 'associated person' if freed.

We dealt with a fines defaulter who had been arrested having racked up over £2000 in fines without paying a penny. The day in custody had come as a total (and nasty) surprise to him. I explained clearly that we were making a finding of Culpable Neglect against him, and that this finding empowers any subsequent bench to send him to prison. He made an over-optimistic offer of instalments, which we reduced to a realistic level, because failure to keep them up could send him inside. We ordered a review hearing in a few months' time and I checked my diary to fix it for a day when I shall be sitting, so that I was able to tell him that I expect him to keep his promises. The clerk marked the file to put it in front of me if possible. That is not usual practice,but I have been around for long enough to be able to get away with it.

So after a few drug cases, a forged driving licence matter and a few more bits and pieces, we knocked off and I went to the pub, to find that my pals had been and gone. It can be a hard life, sometimes.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Tragic Consequences

The appalling murder of Anne Maguire by an unstable teenage pupil has shocked the nation. A commenter has given the link to the judge's exemplary clear and logical sentencing remarks.

I often browse through the comments on the Daily Mail website, to stay in touch with that sector of public opinion. If you have a strong stomach have a look at the comments on the Maguire case. The sort of people who spill their bile through a modem almost always feel that no sentence is ever long enough, nor can any prison conditions be too harsh.

Numbers of the posters call for the death penalty to be exacted upon this 16 year-old boy, putting British justice on a par with that of Iran. Perhaps they would prefer it if he could be hanged from a crane, just as they do in Tehran.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Politics of Drugs

The current 'debate' about the state's approach to illegal drugs has a familiar ring to it.

I am old enough to remember a report on drugs by Baroness Wootton when I was a student.  The report was the product of a committee of people who knew their way around the subject, but that did them no good at all. The then Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan stepped firmly on any proposal to modify the drug laws, by some accounts not even reading the report. Then as now the government was terrified of tabloid headlines, and their reaction was like one of those Bateman cartoons where people express horror at something or other.

Forget the evidence, forget the facts; the drug laws are likely to stay as they are.

Lexicographers Please Note

Accidents have been abolished.

For many years RTA was police shorthand for a Road Traffic Accident,but it has been replaced by RTC - Road Traffic Collision.

The reasoning is that an accident may not be anyone's fault, hence no prosecution. A collision, on the other hand, opens the way to an investigation. That is why it is now normal practice to keep a motorway closed for some hours while the scene is examined for signs of a crime, particularly if there has been death or injury.

Mind how you go, now.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Full Circle

Thanks to David W-J for pointing me to this report.

Does nobody in the MoJ have a memory longer than six weeks? The idea of sitting courts in the church hall or a disused shop or wherever was trailed some years ago until the practical difficulties surfaced, such as security for staff and JPs, installation of IT equipment and other matters.

Mr. Penning, the genius behind this idea,, says that the proposal will 'restore the principle of community justice'. So that's why your department has busily closed scores of local courts, so that many people now live up to 50 miles from their nearest one?

He goes on to say that 'some people' are 'more than happy to go off to places where they are not known'.

It isn't the opprobrium of neighbours that people fear, but rather the penalty points and the fine and the costs and the surcharge.

Finally, and most ludicrously, he says that these little people's tribunals might be 'a job for the village bobby'. Which village bobby is that, Minister?


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Another Disaster

We saw another case involving a tragic death the other day, in what is known as a one-punch manslaughter. I can't go into detail, but a man punched another, who fell backwards onto a concrete pavement, hitting his head. The victim suffered a fractured skull, occasioning brain damage. The assailant came into court in custody,  charged with a Section 18 GBH With Intent but the prosecutor said that the doctors were expected to cease life support within 24 hours, and that the charge was likely to change to manslaughter. There was no application for bail.

What a total tragedy. If only people realised just how fragile the human skull can be, and how vulnerable the brain within.

That was the last involvement of the magistrates' court, as the case will now be sent to the Crown Court in a matter of a few days.

Friday, October 24, 2014

What's The Point?

(This is a post by Bystander N)

What’s the Point in a Situation Like This?

For an imprisonable offence committed after 1st September:-

“Your offence is so serious that only a prison sentence is appropriate.  You have blah blah blah.  We sentence you to X weeks/months in prison.  There has been no request for compensation.  The prosecution has asked for X as a contribution towards their costs.  You have no fixed address and are not receiving any benefits.  In fact you have no income whatsoever and are sleeping rough so we are not going to order you to pay anything towards the costs.  We are however obliged, we have no choice in the matter, to order you to pay a surcharge of £80.” 

So how is that ever going to be paid by someone with, quite literally, not a bean?  If it were ever to be chased for payment, which is unlikely, how will that be done and what will it cost to do so?  We have discretion not to award costs or compensation based on a defendant’s means, and to deem a fine served but we can’t deem a surcharge served, even if we put someone inside.  How daft is that?

We dealt with two such offenders yesterday and imposed the surcharge as we have to.  What a pointless waste of words in doing so.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Déjà Vu Once More

In a response to press comment on a number of trolling cases, in which people avail themselves of the anonymity afforded by the Internet, the Government has waved its big stick and threatens to increase the maximum sentence for this obnoxious form of bullying to two years' imprisonment. The politicos have been rewarded with Sunday morning headlines, as they presumably wished, but what will this achieve - really?

A saddo sitting in his bedroom late at night is hardly going to make a reasoned decision to desist from abusing total strangers because in the vanishingly unlikely event of his being caught the maximum sentence has just shot up. The sentencing court will of course have to have regard to the Guidelines, which rarely if ever point to the maximum sentence for anything. Lazy and ill-trained journalists love to point to potential maximum sentences to sex up a headline, although we all know that these will not be imposed. As I have pointed out before the maximum penalty for a straightforward drink-drive is a fine of £5000, plus six months inside, plus an indefinite driving ban. I very much doubt that this has ever been imposed. but it keeps the journos happy.

Sorry, but this is yet another knee-jerk reaction. With an election in the offing there will be many more, equally ill-advised and equally useless.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Small(ish) World

The sad news has emerged that the Duke of Marlborough has passed on to the stately home in the sky.

His title thus passes to his heir, formerly known as Jamie Blandford.

Some years ago Jamie was a regular sight in magistrates' courts, being burdened, as he was, with a penchant for driving like a lunatic as well as a fondness for 'certain substances' as they used to be called.

He was on my list one morning, and my eye was caught by his address of Blenheim Palace, which we don't see too often. The case went nowhere because he was on bail to so many different courts that the cases were consolidated and adjourned, and I thereafter lost touch.

Well good luck to the latest Duke.

Just mind how you go, your Grace.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Depressing But True

This piece in the Law Gazette  (the solicitors' trade paper) rings a lot of bells. I have often commented on the tendency of politicians who reach the Home Office to lose touch with reason and become bloodthirsty and populist fans of Laura Norder. Some people had hopes that a Lib Dem presence at the ministerial table might moderate the excesses of the unlovely procession of Home Secs. that included Howard, Reid, Smith, Blunkett and Straw. Straw was a particular disappointment to me as he led the National Union of Students when I was an undergrad, but veered off to the right once in power. I even voted for the bugger in 1968.

The virtual disappearance of legal aid has hit and will hit ordinary people who simply cannot cope with the complexities of the law. Someone once criticised politicians who could not use the word 'liberty' without prefacing it with the word 'diabolical'. I agree.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


As I came back from lunch today, I came across the bench from Court 6, on their way back into court. The chairman is not specially experienced, but very bright and capable.

"Have a good afternoon" I wished, "I don't think so" she replied. "We've got the Freemen on the Land in."

These nutters are no threat to a court with a determined and experienced chairman and a solid clerk.

I hope that my colleague was happy with how things went.

You Can Lead A Horse To Water......

I have previously written about the increasing practice of disqualifying people from driving in their absence. This commonly happens when people tot up twelve penalty points, but do not attend the court, for whatever reason. The advice from our clerks is that we should proceed, but there is no hard and fast proof that the driver knows about his ban. Of course quite a few are playing the game, but quite a few are also unaware of the court's decision, because of the vagaries of the post (first class post is deemed to be good service as recorded delivery is too costly).

Today's defendant, a middle-class man of no previous convictions but with an unfortunately heavy right foot, insisted that he pleaded not guilty because he did not know that he had been disqualified. The duty solicitor, the prosecutor, and our legal adviser all told him that he did not have a defence in law, and that his claim amounted to no more than mitigation.

He was warned that a trial (in which he was likely to come a poor second) would involve about £600 in costs, whereas a guilty plea, in which he could put forward his mitigation would be £85.

I then went as far as I dared to give him a hint, saying "you have heard legal opinions from three experienced lawyers. We cannot advise you, but it seems to my colleagues and me that their advice is sensible and in your interests".

No dice. Trial listed.

You can lead a horse to water...........

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Another Odd Day

I sat yesterday at one of the outlying courts that now forms part of our amalgamated bench. The courthouse is pretty tatty, and only uses three of its four courtrooms - the whole place stays closed on Fridays.

We had two trials listed, one of them down as all-day, but we were not able to start either, due to the non-attendance of witnesses. The complainant/victim in a case of alleged DLT-style groping  at her place of work has gone to Scotland to live with her dad. We had the option of issuing a witness summons, but enforcing it in Scotland could be tricky (and expensive).

We then took a trial from another court, and the defendant was clearly a man with multiple problems, including mental issues ( a clue was the fact that in police interview an Appropriate Adult was called in).We acquitted him, and he flung himself to his knees in the well of the court, with his hands in a position of prayer. He seemed to have every intention of staying there a while, so we retired, leaving his counsel to persuade him that he ought to go outside.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Not an Everyday Case

We dealt with an alleged manslaughter the other day, which is not a usual sight in our court. I can't say much about it, but what we did see was a reporter at the back of the court (a rarity these days,that used to be an everyday sight) and a gaggle of relatives of the deceased in the gallery, on whom I kept a beady eye, although they were well-behaved and dignified.

Unlike murder, we retain the power to consider bail in manslaughter cases, but the defence didn't apply, mindful of the fact that their client is probably safer inside than he might be on the out.

Off he goes to the Old Bailey this week.

Not My Cup of Tea

In response to a desperate plea from the court at about half-past-four yesterday afternoon, I agreed to sit today. We dealt with a fairly standard remand list of about two dozen cases , which resulted in the usual range of sentences, from a couple of Conditional Discharges and a few fines to a two month prison sentence. We were just about finished with our list and preparing to go home when the clerk threw himself on our mercy, asking us to clear up the tail-end of Court Four's list that was running well behind. Two of us agreed to help, releasing a colleague who had childcare commitments, and we sat down to tackle a huge heap of Council prosecutions for dropping litter - mostly involving a cigarette butt.

Our local Council has hired a squad of litter-control people, who issue a fixed penalty ticket when they see litter being deposited. I think that it's £30 if you pay up within 14 days, more if you don't. If (as many do) you ignore the notice and the ensuing written warning, you will be reported for prosecution. Only one chap turned up, so we sentenced him by the book (on benefits, so deemed income £110 per week, less a third for the plea, plus the pesky surcharge of £20, plus the Council's costs of £100.) That's a lot of money for a fag end, but all of the other cases didn't even get the third-off for a plea of guilty since they hadn't responded to the summons.

I still have trouble squaring a penalty of (all-in) a few hundred quid for dropping a sweet wrapper when we only charge £60 for jumping a red light, an offence that can and does kill people.

Don't blame me, guv, I don't make the rules.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining For Someone, (And Vice-Versa)

The result of the Scots referendum has delighted some people and upset some more.

Had independence gone ahead, it would have been a bonanza for law firms on both sides of the border, as untold thousands of contracts and suchlike would have had to be looked at and made compatible with the new arrangements. One of my relatives is a corporate lawyer with a large company that operates across Europe, and you can imagine the complexity of ensuring compliance with a new jurisdiction, with implications for employment and consumer regulation, especially if Scotland had been outside the EU. The costs would have been horrific.

Meanwhile criminal defence lawyers have won a clear victory over the legal aid cuts imposed by the MoJ. Cynics tend to sneer at the bottom end of the criminal defence community, but low-level criminal cases often involve inarticulate bottom-of-the heap defendants who need legal advice more than most. The rewards payable to legal aid lawyers are very low in most cases, the overall figure being distorted by high-profile silk-heavy matters in the big boys' courts.

Tomorrow is another day, as someone said in the movies.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Way, Way Off Topic (again)

Chatting with a colleague on the phone today, the topic turned to the Scottish brouhaha that will come to its climax this week. He was pretty fed up with the situation, and went on to discuss the what-happens-next scenario.

Among his wilder ideas was a boycott of Scottish things. I offered to support him, and decided to boycott porridge, whisky and Aberdeen Angus. Rather than rush things I decided to start with porridge, and then see how things go from there.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Nonsense (ii)

(Scene:- the Old Bailey, a Red Judge presiding, the law showing its full majesty)

"You have been convicted of an appalling series of crimes resulting in death and injury to innocent people. The offences are aggravated by the factors that I have already mentioned. You will go to prison for life, and I recommend a minimum term of forty years before you may be considered for parole. Oh yes, and there will be a victim surcharge of £120. Will you pay by cash or cheque?"


Nonsense (i)

We had a man in today for Drive Disqualified. He asked for an adjournment to run a Special Reasons argument because he was disqualified in his absence, and claims that he missed any letters from court because he moved house twice.

Despite the firm advice we have had from the Justices' Clerks' Society and others I am solidly against disqualifying in absence for two reasons: firstly because the defendant can claim not to have known about the ban (and could even be right) and secondly because the moment that you are disqualified your insurance becomes void, and that can have an adverse impact on innocent third parties such as you and me.

Why do courts do it (and I won't) ?

Because it's cheap of course,

Tough Stuff

Today, among a list of some twenty cases in a remand court, I had the job of telling a man that he was going to prison for sixteen weeks. I can't say too much about the case, but it was obvious from the pre-sentence report and the man's previous convictions that we had to face up to the unpleasant decision to send him inside.

His solicitor made a strong case to either suspend the sentence or to impose a community penalty, but when we went outside to make our final decision we agreed that we could not avoid custody and neither could we sensibly suspend it, as he had previously breached a suspended sentence.

We called out the clerk, ran the decision past her to make sure that we had got the law right, then after a call had been made to the cells to get a couple of officers to our courtroom we went back in and sat down. I delivered the bad news (to which he showed no surprise) crisply, and gave the legal reasons for our decision. He went with the officers without a word, while his partner sobbed her eyes out in the gallery. Our usher quietly passed in one of the boxes of tissues that we keep handy for these occasions, then that was it.

He is in Wormwood Scrubs as I write this, in the first-night cells. Most people find the admission to prison horrible, but our man has seen it before so may cope better. His partner will be alone in bed in their cramped flat.

Will it stop him reoffending? I have no idea.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Penny Finally Drops

I have just had an email about the rules for claiming expenses, and, praise be, we can now file them electronically. In fact, we were filing them on email a good few years ago, until some nitpicking penpusher decreed that we had to submit a wet-ink signed copy by post or by leaving it at court. In the five years or so that this has been the practice I must have bought about 60 first class stamps - for two pins I will claim for them on my first electronic form.

There is also a rumour that magistrates' sentencing powers will be doubled, to keep cases out of the Crown Court. That is an obvious win, because the cost of sending stuff to Hizonner is vastly more than leaving it to humble JPs. The figures show that a good proportion of the cases that are sent up are dealt with within the power of the lower court. My hunch is that too many magistrates are wary of dishing out sentences to the top of our range, sometimes abetted by a nervous clerk.

I will believe this one when I see it.

Monday, September 01, 2014

I Quite Agree, Your Honour

Here is part of a report of a tragic case concerning the death of two cyclists.

I can only agree with the Judge's comment about the Victim Surcharge.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Beyond Satire

Thanks to Martin B for bringing this splendid story to my attention. Even the immortal Beachcomber would have found it hard to surpass this tale.

Congratulations M'lud

A few years ago I mentioned Sir David Bean , a High Court judge whom I expected to go far. He has just been elevated to the Court of Appeal as Lord Justice Bean, or Bean LJ as he will be known in the law reports. Humble congratulations from a member of the lesser judiciary to a member of a very high level indeed.

Thanks For That

I read that the UK's terror threat level has been raised from "substantial" to "severe".

That's interesting, and I do not doubt it is true,but what, exactly, are we supposed to do with the information?

I am to sit in court tomorrow morning.I shall just have to take my chances, I suppose.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


When I walk into the assembly room on the morning of a sitting day, I never know what awaits me, other than whether I am to be a Chairman (as I usually am). Sometimes one courtroom is down for non-CPS work, such as local authority, TV licences,  RSPCA or suchlike. I am afraid that these sessions can sometimes be very boring, especially the TV cases where 90 per cent of those summonsed do not turn up, so we hear the case in absentia, which makes the whole business rather mechanical.

The other day, in among the Council's failure-to-attend-school cases we were faced with a Fail to Comply with Enforcement Notice matter. It turned out to be a Beds in Sheds case; where a suburban semi had acquired a substantial unauthorised outbuilding that was being rented to recent immigrants for £650 per month. I can't say too much about it, but we imposed a five-figure fine and added on an amount to reflect the gain from illicit use over a couple of years. The defendants were pretty unhappy once they added up the bill, complete with costs and surcharge, and the council added to their woes by serving an assessment for Council tax, backdated two years.

Aerial surveys show these outbuildings to be a large and growing problem. There have been a number of fire-related deaths in these cases, so the council does need to keep a close eye on them.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

So Far, So So-So

ITV has come up with a Judge Judy clone, called Judge Rinder,(played, in reality by a respected barrister). The TV set is a shabby pastiche of an American court room, complete with flags behind the bench, and those swing gates that I remember from old US movies.

Unforgivably, there is also a bloody gavel on the pretend bench.   (for those new to the blog, no British court ever uses a gavel).

I looked the programme up, after a couple of ladies in my local pub enthused about the sexiness of the faux judge, and added the caveat that they thought he was camp, and drew the usual conclusion.

I will give it a run, but  I fear that it is unlikely, on the present showing, to improve the public's understanding of courts

This is his day job

Fishy Matters

This piece describes a classic nonsense prosecution.

Only last week I ate a delicious plate of sardines, suitably dressed in garlic. Those sardines were hauled from their habitat, allowed to asphyxiate in the fishing boat, then sent to a fish merchant who filleted them and sold them to a restaurant, where I enjoyed eating them.

What, pray, is the difference, between my eating those sardines, and this sad drunken boy drinking live fish? I hope never to find out whether it is worse to be gulped into someone's digestive juices, or to gasp out my life on the deck of a fishing boat.

No more cash to the RSPCA from me, then (their costs applications are always way above CPS scales)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Age and the Judiciary

Susan, a JP, has emailed to ask me to comment on the fact that JPs have to retire at 70, which would now be illegal in everyday employment.

The entire judiciary, right up to the Lord Chief Justice has to go at 70, (with a very few exceptions) and I have no problem with that. We can't have old codgers like me, in my 60s, clogging up the bench and getting in the way of young fresh people. The late Lord Denning sat on to a very advanced age, but that will not happen in future.

Police Force

A journalist of whom I am extremely fond (all right, he's my son) has sent me this link that highlights the creeping militarisation of the police in some US states. If we are not careful. that might happen here - if you dress the police like commandos and arm them like commandos, they might possibly start to act like commandos.

This is what I thought some time ago.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Search Warrants (3)

Here is the form

And here is the S8 form

Search Warrants (2)

Here is a senior lawyers's view.

He is unnecessarily and insultingly dismissive of lay justices; in any event the JP (or it might have been a District Judge or a Circuit Judge) would have had access to a legal adviser if required. I, and I suspect, most of my colleagues are just as aware of the implications of a search warrant for the liberty of the Queen's subjects as a highly-paid silk.

I reiterate that new legal guidance has been given to every JP about warrants in recent months. It would be naive to discount the possibility that some officers in a certain county might have formed an unhealthily close relationship with one or more compliant JPs, but even then a new and exhaustive form has to be completed by police and judiciary, and that form, in this case, is certain to be rigorously scrutinised.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Search Warrants

The recent search of a celebrity's house raises a number of questions, not least that of who tipped off the press, and why. Troublingly, the Daily Mail has now added a nudge-nudge-wink-wink to its report, to the effect that further witnesses have come forward, without mentioning that they may exculpate Sir Cliff entirely. Does no one believe in Innocent Till Proved Guilty any more?

A lot of guidance has been given to the judiciary in the last while, much of it focused on the great interference in the subject's liberty that a warrant will cause. This excellent blog post gives great detail. An important point that has been neglected in the past is the need to give and record full reasons behind the application for the warrant and the magistrate or judge's decision.

I imagine that lawyers instructed by Sir Cliff Richard will be looking very closely indeed at the reasons endorsed on the paperwork behind this warrant.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


I have no view one way or another on the current news story regarding Sir Cliff Richard;- except that Sir C is reported as saying:-

 "However, the police attended my apartment in Berkshire today without notice, except, it would appear, to the press."

That's a bit of a coincidence, bearing in mind the whole brouhaha about certain tabloids. Has some one been on the receiving end of a 'good drink', or am I too much of an old cynic?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Not a Lot of People Know That

A firm of solicitors called Woodfines publish a useful letter updating transport law. I don't do a lot of traffic stuff these days, but I do glance through the key points, and I was amused to read that the limit for HGVs on single carriageways will shortly increase from 40 mph to 50 mph. On dual carriageways, HGVs over 7.5 tonnes will have their limit increased from 50 mph to 60 mph. I have driven a good few miles in my time, and I have never gained the impresssion that lorries travel at anywhere near their limits. And on the motorways, white vans such as Transits and the aptly-named Sprinters often travel at well over 100 mph. The ubiquitous BMWs that hurtle along six feet from the car in front are gradually being replaced by Audis, especially the big 3-tonne 4 x 4s.


The previous post about jury trial has attracted some interesting comments, but I have had an email, for which I am grateful, from a barrister in a respected set of criminal chambers pointing out the potential difficulties of revealing anything that happens in the jury room. I have therefore edited the post (edits in italics) to ensure that the case is not identifiable, and to remove reference to discussions. I repeat my gratitude to M'learned friend.

It is a couple of years or so since I was mentioned on the front page of the Daily Mail, and I would like to leave it at that.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Good Old Jury Trial

Whilst sitting in the retiring room having lunch this week one of my colleagues recounted their time on a jury a few months ago.  They said they found it almost unbelievable, and not in a good way.

After a week and half of sitting around doing nothing other they were put on a two day trial.  The defendant was charged (with an offence).  The evidence, I was told, was absolutely overwhelming.  The jury went out and took a vote.  It was in favour of conviction.  One of (the minority) wanted to question some of the evidence so they went through it, quite rightly, in just the same way that a bench of magistrates goes through the evidence before arriving at a decision.  After the discussion they took another vote, and it became (guilty by a small margin).

Of those for not guilty (one was unwilling to convict for religious reasons and another for reasons of principle)..

They went into court to tell the judge they could not reach a unanimous decision.  (the judge gave the majority direction, but they still couldn’t agree) hence the defendant walked.

Say what you like about magistrates but in my experience I have never seen anyone push a vote in a certain direction as a result of openly expressed prejudices and anyway it would need two of the three to affect the result.

(posted by Bystander N, edited by Bystander)

Thursday, August 07, 2014

George of Arabia

I read that the unlovely George Galloway, MP for Baghdad Central, is being reported to the police for alleged remarks calling for an Israel-free zone in his constituency. The police should keep out of it: this sad old chancer should be denied publicity. Derision is the appropriate response, as I see it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014


Give this blog a go:-

It looks very promising.

Another Judge Gets It In The Neck

This story is infuriating on several levels. I have commented previously about the Victim Impact Statements that were introduced a few years ago. They were introduced, as I see it, to give a bogus impression that the criminal justice system is all about victims, despite the fact that the court may not adjust its sentence in response to the Statement. It is a cruel and patronising  fraud on the victims and their families. This is what I thought about it nine years ago, and my view has not changed.

The poor judge is being pilloried for stating a truth that is obvious to anyone in the system.

I suppose it is news because the Silly Season is well under way, and all the grown-up journalists are away in sunny places.


Helen Rumbelow writes in Wednedsday's (paywalled) Times to make much the ssme points.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

There But For The Grace of God......

This Judge (in fact a Recorder, who has the powers of a circuit judge but sits part-time) has been reported to the authorities for apparently falling asleep on the Bench. The usual suspects have lined up to denounce him, and Vera Baird, who ought to know better, has just told the BBC  this casts the criminal system in a bad light, or words to that effect. She is reported thus: 
 Former solicitor general Vera Baird said she was shocked by the allegation.
"It's a pretty personally insulting thing for somebody when you're describing probably the most important event in your life.
"But also what does it say about the state, about judicial governance, about the criminal justice system?"
She added it would reinforce general views that the judiciary "are out of touch".
This is utter nonsense: what it proves is that the judiciary is made up of human beings, most of them well the wrong side of forty, and some a good deal older than that, and therefore prone to nodding off at times
Now if the unfortunate  Recorder  had bullied a witness or misdirected the jury, or committed any one of the judicial sins that amount to misconduct, then they are sins of commission. To fall asleep is a misfortune: I have sometimes felt drowsiness creeping up on me, particularly on a warm afternoon two hours in, in a court with ineffective air conditioning and being forced to listen to an advocate who thinks he is being paid by the yard. I sit with two colleagues, and as I am usually the one in the middle I keep an eye on the other two, and I hope that they will keep an eye on me.
I used to sit with a colleague, now retired, who was a local GP. In potentially soporific cases we agreed to monitor each other.
There cannot be many magistrates and judges who have never come close to dropping off.

I hope that the JCO cuts the guy a little slack. Unfortunately the rules will forbid him from ever disclosing his point of view.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Où Sont Les Flics D'Antan?

As one does. I devoted the occasional; lazy hour, glass in hand, during my recent holiday, to thinking about small issues, and one of the first to come to mind was that we had driven from the Thames Valley to a few km west of Quimper. without seeing a single traffic cop, English or French, in car or on bike.
The French seem to have followed the English lead in pretty much doing away with manned policing. When I first became a JP we dedicated one courtroom four days a week to traffic matters; today many of us do not see a traffic case in six months. The cost-driven move to a fixed-penalty regime means that many police officers make day to day judicial decisions.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pi**-up Failure In Brewery

Today I wasted my morning, having got up an hour early, and driven into West London. Another magistrate did the same, as did a Circuit Judge, numerous court staff, learned counsel, and their supporting lawyers.

Due to the kind of sloppy preparation that is routine from today's slimmed-down CPS, we had neither of our two witnesses, and the prosecution papers were pathetically disorganised. It wasn't even clear what offences he had been convicted of, and whether the 1872 Act or the 1990-whatsit applied. The Bench trooped outside, as one does, and phone calls were made while we drank coffee. Ten minutes later we went back into court where the CPS threw in their hand and offered no evidence. Appeal allowed, conviction and sentence quashed, defendant's costs order made to be taxed from central funds. My colleague and I cancelled lunch and went home having achieved absolutely nothing at considerable public expense.

I fully understand the Government's overriding need to cut spending, and to sort out the deficit, but the cuts to criminal justice amount to classic false economy, at the level in which I work.

And by the way, all three of us on the bench were a bit surprised at the costs order but Hizonner looked up chapter and verse in the three-inch thick law tome that was in front of him, and yes we could, so we did.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Ker-Ching! (Part 2 of a Never Ending Series)

The Times has a first class scoop today about a sophisticated tax-avoidance scheme that has been used by public figures. The Times sits behind its paywall but the Mail picks up the story this morning, under a headline that included doctors and judges among the would-be evaders. That is suspicious - for one thing the press are very free with whom they style a judge (eg Ms Briscoe) and the person involved might well be a deputy District Judge at Mudtown-on-the-Wolds County Court. Secondly, judges earn a fraction of the sums that the people named by the Times are pulling in. A Circuit Judge won't  bring in much more than £130,000, and that is petty cash to most of those named by the Times.

This story will run for a while, I suspect.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Cynical? Moi? Make it Realistic, Then

I first received the news of Rolf Harris' sentence when I was away on holiday, and it did not surprise me, but what did surprise me was the announcement, immediately after sentence was pronounced, that the sentence was being referred upwards as Unduly Lenient. I understand that such an application can be made by anyone within about four weeks of the pronouncement but this seemed to be extraordinarily swift.
Then it clicked:- just imagine that a tabloid newspaper had a reporter primed and ready to make the application in his private capacity, with a motorbike messenger on standby outside.
Commenters in the tabloids have shown their customary mixture of relish and sadism over the fact that a ruined man stands to die incarcerated. The law makes that unavoidable, but what do these people want?

Monday, June 30, 2014


Sorry there isn't a lot going on, but I'm in Brittany, with just an iPad, and McDonalds' weefy to rely on. Back next week.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

So It's NFA Then........

This report speaks for itself. Perhaps in future those who rushed to condemn will think twice.

Here's what we said at the time

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

That's A New One

We were listed to hear an all-day trial yesterday, but the defendant had returned to his Eastern European home town a week ago, where he sadly died, so that was the end of that.
We busied ourselves with a few Search Warrants, which are much more complicated these days, following High Court rulings that a warrant is a serious interference with the citizen's liberty. There is now a multi-page application form on which the judge or justice has to state reasons for granting the warrant. JPs who deal with warrants at home have to be extra careful these days.
 I have never dealt with an application at home because I live too far from the court, but colleagues who live a short way from the police station are well used to a nocturnal phone call from the duty clerk followed by a visit from an officer.
We then dealt with a couple of Pre-Sentence Report cases, both involving Eastern Europeans, and I was able to warn them that if they were tempted to ignore the financial penalties, such as costs and surcharge, the fact would come up on the Border Force computer every time that they came to the UK, when they could expect some cell time at the airport.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


This article summarises planned increases to the maximum fine levels that may be imposed by magistrates. The press have mostly jumped to the conclusion that the maximum fine will become he usual fine. It will not - after all when did you last hear of a simple drink-drive attracting the maximum £5000 fine? Courts must impose fines that are commensurate with the seriousness of the offence, and within the ability of the offender to pay within a reasonable period. Really hefty fines are usually levied on businesses with deep pockets, often for Health and Safety or Trading Standards offences. In practice, our run-of-the-mill customer on JSA is unlikely ever to face a fine of more than about £250 , because deductions from benefits at £5 per week will take a year to pay off at least.

So in reality, not a lot will change. A whacking fine that is uncollectable simply makes a mockery of the system.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

No Surprise Then

Here is a story about interpreters

Depressing, and not surprising.

Amen to That

Tony Kerr is a former Chairman of the Sutton Bench. Last month he wrote to the Sunday Times' Camilla Cavendish about a piece she had written, and I think that his remarks deserve wider circulation.
I read with great interest your article in The Sunday Times(11/05/2014), lamenting the way in which government involves itself in sentencing.  What seems to have been forgotten is the overriding principle that the judiciary must be independent of the executive. The problems began when the previous government, attempting to achieve consistency, introduced sentencing guidelines. Certainly guidelines can be helpful to both judges and magistrates provided they are just that, guidelines that allow judicial discretion.  The problem now is that guidelines have become so prescriptive that any small deviation from them will result in a successful appeal. Discretion has all but disappeared with the executive now having political control over sentencing. I can assure you that both judges and magistrates do bitterly resent not having the power to sentence in a way they think appropriate.  All of this is compounded not only by early prisoner release but on top of that prison governors, at their discretion, can release  prisoners even earlier than the half way point. So some prisoners will only spend a little over a third of their sentence actually in prison. People simply do not understand why someone who has committed a serious crime and is sentenced to 10 years in prison can be out in just over 4 years. My biggest concern lies in the fact that people are rapidly losing faith in the judicial process as a whole. Law and order is largely consensual in this country.  When trust in the system breaks down only chaos will follow.
Tony Kerr JP

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Another One Bites The Dust

A recent wheeze from the MoJ's Department of Bright Ideas was a corker, even by their standards. Magistrates' appointments were to be limited to ten years in an effort to improve diversity on the bench. After ten years we were to be eased into some worthy but useless positions in the 'community', whatever that is.
It is a great strength of the magistracy that benches of three usually cover a range of experience, with a seasoned chairman and wingers who may just prefer not to chair, or who are new to the job (and thus more up-to-date in their training). If you took away all of the old sweats the quality of benches would be irreparably damaged.
The grapevine now tells me that the idea has been quietly shelved as too difficult. Unfortunately there will be similar stuff to come, as the MoJ seeks to reinforce its micro-managing control obsession.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Oxford Blues

The President of the Oxford Union is the subject of serious allegations that remain just that - allegations. This report gives more detail, but at the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, has it not occurred to any of the Union's members officers or prospective speakers that he remains innocent until proven guilty? This has the smell of mob justice about it, and Oxford ought to be able to do better than that.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Slightly Odd Day

Today was a bit out of the ordinary. Our trial fell apart because of a Mickey-Mouse foul-up by the CPS. These days the wind is blowing pretty briskly in the direction of telling the CPS to get on with it: this usually results in them offering no evidence and the case being thrown out. Today, however, there were victims to be considered in a case of harassment, so we adjourned, making it quite clear that we had performed a balancing act.

We then took a case involving two Eastern Europeans, who were assisted by an interpreter. That meant that the trial took at least twice as long as it might have done, especially as prosecuting counsel took ages to get over the simplest points.

Ploughing through the reams of evidence we were diverted by a racket coming up from the cells under the court. Incoherent shouting, thumps and bangs carried on for about half an hour as a prisoner expressed his displeasure at being locked up.

There's always something new coming through the door of our court.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Teachers' Pest

There is a current controversy about parents' right to take their children out of school to go on holiday. There are valid arguments on both sides, but my sympathy lies on the whole with the parents. The loss of ten days' teaching is unlikely to cause long term damage to a child's education, and there are many benefits to be gained from a holiday en famille. In addition holidays outside the peak period are substantially cheaper. Hitherto head teachers have had discretion to grant leave, but the rules have now been tightened.

I strongly dislike the idea of schools imposing fines - that is a job for the judiciary, not teachers.

Councils prosecute as a last resort, and those who are summonsed are likely to be serial offenders, rather than holidaying families. What is a court supposed to do when a bedraggled single mother comes in to tell us that young Bradley just doesn't like school? I recall one case when the mother delivered the boy into the classroom, and handed him to the teacher, only for the boy to slip out and take a short-cut home, arriving before his mother. Fining very poor people (especially these days with the unjust surcharge and heavy costs that we must impose) is unfair and ineffective. It often happens, too, that by the time a case gets to court the child will be just a few months short of the age at which they can leave.

On another subject, as the school year draws to a close, our local secondary schools have taken to closing down one day before scheduled, to avoid bad behaviour on the last day, that can run to criminal damage and near-riots. One pupil indignantly contacted the local paper to complain that the school's action 'disrespected' him. Well, sonny, throwing eggs and damaging school property isn't all that respectful either, is it?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Growing Out Of Crime

Crime is, on the whole, a young man's pastime, but fortunately for society academic research suggests that offending tails off at about the age of 23 or so, often when the calming influence of a girlfriend comes into play. Even Shakespeare knew that 23 is the key age, as I commented here.

Today we sentenced a 22 year-old man with a chronic drug dependency, funded by regular shoplifting. He has had the lot, from probation to custody and back again.

We wearily decided that unless the drugs could be addressed, the pattern of offending would just carry on, so we imposed a sentence that included a  Drug Rehabilitation Requirement, backed up by a suspended prison sentence.

His shabby looking girlfriend was sitting at the back, so I told him that the only way he could get away from the revolving door to prison would be to allow the DRR to work, then I looked at her and said "there is someone here today who obviously cares about you, and I hope that she will keep an eye on you." I was rewarded by two big smiles and two nodding heads; the girl's vigorously so.

I live more in hope than expectation that the DRR will work, but it had to be worth a try.

Fingers crossed.

Criminal Damages

Criminal Damage is an offence that every magistrate will be familiar with. The Guidelines point to a wide range of penalties for an offence that can have a variety of aspects that affect seriousness. Fines, discharges, and, for the worst cases, custody are all prescribed, but in every case we must consider compensation. It has always seemed to me that there is a neatly just solution in making the person who commits damage pay for it. The sums involved can be very high: for example a drunken young man who thought it a good idea to lob a concrete litter bin through a shop window in order to lay hands on a £2.50 bottle of alcohol found himself looking at a bill for almost £2000 for repairs, making it a very expensive drink. We still have quite a bit of discretion about compensation and where we do not have a proper  invoice we can use our personal judgment to settle on a rough-and-ready figure, which is what we did today. We were not happy about the undocumented claim , so we cut it in half. If we were wrong (which I doubt) the loser can always lodge a civil claim.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

I've Done It Again

Call me self-indulgent, call me a pedant, but there are a few linguistic atrocities up with which I will not put.

The Crown Prosecutor, who is usually a coolly competent type, referred to evidence waiting to be 'forensicated'.

I stopped her, and said: "to be what?"

She looked puzzled, so I rubbed it in. "can you say that in English?"

"Sorry, sir", and she produced a decent paraphrase.

Surely we have to draw the line somewhere?

To be fair, I was rather enjoying myself.

I have previous.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

The sheer gormless stupidity of many offenders is a recurrent theme on this blog.

Two days ago a petrol station half a mile from my house was broken into during the night. The haul included (inevitably) cigarettes, but also a quantity of National Lottery scratch cards. Brilliant. The cards are serial numbered, and will presumably be very difficult to claim on in the event of a winning line.

So if you are offered a few scratch cards at a bargain price, have a care.

Friday, May 09, 2014

No Surprise

Nobody who works in the justice system will be surprised to read this article.

This was clearly a Crown Court case, and I suspect that most magistrates' courts would do a little better - at least mine would. We are meticulous about witness care and such things as waiting facilities, but nothing much can be done about the endless hanging around.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Numbskull Cracker

The so-called Skull Cracker is back in custody. So it's back to a closed prison, fresh charges of escaping, and an alleged new robbery, for someone who was in sight of eventual release.

Every now and again, on the low-level crimes that I deal with, I am tempted to say "Look matey, you are absolutely crap at this crime business. Why not try something else? You have buggered up your life, spending years in a small cell along with someone who is just as stupid as you. How long before it sinks in? Pack it in, you loser".

I mustn't say that though, but sometimes it's tempting.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

From The Saloon Bar

It is well known to my social circle that I am a magistrate,and I have no problem with that. I am teased, of course, but I am also approached by people who have been angered or confused by the polemical voices in the press as well as by people who just want to know how the system works.

I am happy to inform when I can, and to try to counter any misconceptions as simply as I am able to.

Today the press has been concerned about the fact that a serving prisoner, on several life sentences, has absconded from an open prison. 

This raises numerous questions, of course. For one thing, it is high time that we rebranded the 'Life' sentence, that is in fact nothing of the sort. A so-called life sentence is in fact an indeterminate sentence, the length of which is driven by the judge's tariff. Once serving the prisoner is managed by the prison service and the parole board. 

Several things drive the practice of moving prisoners from closed prisons to open ones, and the underlying principles are sensible. After serving a long sentence it is both logical
and humane  to move the prisoner to an environment where he can be gradually eased into society. That usually works, but this latest case clearly didn't.  

Friday, May 02, 2014

Just a thought

Watching TV news reports about Max Clifford, I realised that he was sentenced in the very courtroom in which I was sworn in as a JP a very long time ago.


At first sight the eight year sentence passed on Max Clifford  looks a bit on the steep side, but the judge's closely argued sentencing remarks here set out clearly the reasoning process that led to the sentence.

The practice of releasing sentencing remarks on the Internet as soon as possible is an excellent way to de-mystify a sentencing process that can be opaque to the public.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

What Was She Thinking?

The Briscoe affair will be settled tomorrow by a judge.  (it was - 16 months )

I have no comment on that, but on a human level, I remain baffled as to what can have motivated Ms. Briscoe. I am not a lawyer, but over the years I have worked and socialised with a great number of them. Ms. Briscoe was a Recorder of the Crown Court and over the years I have often sat on appeals with Recorders such as her. On the whole I have been impressed by their professionalism and dedication. Personalities and styles may differ widely but when it comes down to the law and to dissecting evidence,  I have always been happy that we were going in the right direction.

So knowing what she knows, and given her presumed understanding of judicial culture, I cannot imagine what was going through her forensically trained mind when she made the fatal decisions that she did.

Was it misguided loyalty to a friend? Hubris? Something Else?

It is sad whichever way you look at it.

A Straw In The Wind

Here's the most serious problem so far caused by the near-abolition of Legal Aid Case Halted .

It is unlikely to be the last.

Plus Ça Change (no. 17 in a never-ending series)

Nine years ago I posted this about crime figures. Not much has changed, except that it has now become apparent that many police forces have shamelessly fiddled their figures, while the CPS persists in allowing under-charging that affects the figures too.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Charmless Rage

We spent a day dealing with Domestic Violence cases this week. Unusually a couple of defendants chose to plead guilty so we adjourned their cases for reports, but the rest all went not guilty, so we had to deal with case management.

"There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face" may well be true, but we were given clues by a few of those we saw. One large man's body language made it as clear as can be that he considered the whole business beneath him. His face bore a scowl that suggested aggressive resentment  and his answers to the Clerk were brusque, but just short of the dividing line that would oblige the chairman to step in. His solicitor's face gave us a clue that he had a difficult and surly client.

Another burly young man had been seen dragging his girlfriend along by the hair, and when challenged by a passing motorist he said "Fuck off. She's my woman and I'll do what I like" . The lady concerned was sitting in the gallery of the court to see how lover boy got on. She has already made a withdrawal statement, but the case may still go ahead on what the police have got. She presumably knows what to expect the next time that he gets into a drink-and-drug-fuelled rage.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Not Guilty Doesn't Mean What It Used To

The case of Nigel Evans, who has been acquitted of a string of sexual offences, has pointed up the sheer injustice of the present system that prohibits the acquitted defendant from recovering the costs of his defence. Mr. Evans claims to be out of pocket by a six-figure sum that represents the bulk of his life savings.

The investigators and prosecutors have at their disposal the full resources of the state, including the freedom to choose the most senior (and thus costly) counsel to present their case. If the case fails, m'learned friends will be paid by the state, whereas the other side are on their own. There is so much at stake in a case such as the Evans one, and the trial process is so complex with so many potential pitfalls, that anyone who can afford it is well advised to fight fire with fire and brief a top silk himself. So he is damned if the does and damned if he doesn't.

As I have said before much of our work involves domestic violence these days, and we now see applications to make a Restraining Order on acquittal, so we are saying, in effect: "We find you Not Guilty, but we are making an Order to ensure that you don't do it again".

I can hear Rumpole turning in his grave. He would have said that you can no more be a bit guilty than you can be a bit pregnant.

Off to the Sticks

I have just finished writing a reference for a former colleague who has moved to a rural area. Unfortunately she is unable to obtain a transfer to a bench near her new home. This sort of thing happens all the time, as the radical reorganisation of our courts as well as the remorseless shrinkage in the size of the magistracy has led to a majority of benches putting a near-freeze on recruitment and transfers.

It is hard on someone who has gone through the training process and then gathered valuable experience of sitting to find him or herself out in the cold like this, but limited recruitment must continue to allow the bench to renew itself, if we are not to end up as a bunch of pensioners (like me, I hear you cry).

My ex-colleague has volunteered for Witness Support (which is what the reference is for). That is a very important and necessary organisation, and I wish her well.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Recorder on the Record

This sits-vac ad is not one that we see every day. The post is surrounded with historical overtones, while being a key position in the administration of the nation's justice system. There are probably two or three dozen judges who could do the job, but only four or five dozen people know who they are.

I shall not apply, for more reasons than I care to mention, even if the undeclared salary were not to put me off.

Good luck to the successful candidate. I hope that he or she is not allergic to champagne.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Domestic Science

For many years neither the police nor the courts took domestic violence as as seriously as we do today. There was an underlying assumption that a man (usually a man) had a right to beat his wife, and old-time police were quite accustomed to turning up at a domestic incident only for both parties to turn on the officers.

All magistrates have now been trained in DV issues, as have the CPS and the police, and the resultant cases form a large part of our workload. There seems to be a higher proportion of not guilty pleas as cases are often a matter of  'he said, she said'. which can be tricky for a court to sort out. There is also a good proportion of withdrawn complaints. A screaming late night row including blows being struck can bring a police visit, but in the morning when the booze and the adrenalin have worn off the victim may well go back to the police to make a withdrawal statement. Such cases are now looked at carefully, and the CPS may go ahead using the statement made at the time, but that is not always a certain solution.

Recently we saw a case in which the victim had to be coached by our excellent Witness Care people before she would  even come to court, and when she finally took her place behind the screens that we had provided, she simply said "I don't want to give evidence". What do we do then?

The lady solved our problem by failing to return from the lunch break, when the CPS threw in their hand.

One person who saw this case asked me why we didn't proceed against the lady for contempt. I didn't answer directly, but my expression probably gave a clue. Not a chance as far as I am concerned.

Evans Above

Nigel Evans MP has been cleared by a jury in the latest celebrity sexual misconduct trial. So be it; that is what juries are for (although as I have said before, there may be a trend emerging of juries deciding that enough is enough of a certain type of trial).

Nevertheless, I cannot feel comfortable about police and CPS staff making carefully-worded comments on the courthouse steps to the effect that 'we considered it all carefully' and suchlike. If the jury says no, then no it is and no it stays. Nobody should go behind that.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Lucky Break

I have nothing to say about the people involved in this but isn't it a coincidence that Press photographers happened to be on scene at exactly the right time and place?


That Takes Me Back

I was recently asked by the Council to sign a notice requiring the removal of vehicles and caravans from privately owned land in the Borough. The Council's officer gave evidence on oath to substantiate his Information and after a few questions we said that we were satisfied. So far, so simple, but I was reminded that it is a good ten years since I last dealt with one of these applications.

Back then, we were regularly asked for summonses that, if granted, would be taped to the vehicles and caravans that were illegally sited. It was almost unknown for anyone to turn up next day in response to the summons, so an order would be made that authorised the Council to tow away the offending wheels. The owners would then slip quietly away before the deadline.

Just once, we had two travellers turn up to the hearing. They were two young women, one cradling a small baby. I explained that if the Council's application was in order we would be obliged to grant it, but that we would listen to anything that they wanted to say. It turned out that the one with the baby had recently arrived in the Borough, heavily pregnant, and was delivered of her child in the local hospital a few days later (thus putting herself at the head of the queue for housing).

"I can't see the problem" she said in a soft brogue "All we want is a house or a flat".

She almost certainly got one.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Old Bill Gets Cheapie

This report  is disturbing.

Like many JPs I have signed dozens of applications to seize criminal property. Over time these amount to a lot of money.

There must be something not-quite-right about authorising the police to seize money that is, or may be, the proceeds of crime, and then allowing them to keep half or thereabouts of the proceeds.

That is likely to tempt officers to skew their enquiries in the direction of stashes of cash, but worse, it is an encouragement to corruption once they have their mitts on the readies.

Seized cash should go into the Consolidated Fund, along with all the rest of HMG's petty and not-so-petty cash. Can anyone justify the present rules? Damned if I can.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

It Wasn't Meant To Be Like This, Was It?

The trial on which I was due to sit yesterday illustrated much of what is happening to our justice system as resources are slowly withdrawn from it. The case was set down for trial in January and so we assembled at ten o'clock sharp. There were three magistrates, a legal adviser, a Crown Prosecutor (in fact a barrister acting as an agent) a defence solicitor, the defendant and his mother, sitting anxiously at the back. Three of the five witnesses had arrived and were in the Witness Care suite upstairs.
When a case is set down for trial the parties complete a booklet that lists the expected witnesses as well as any that can be agreed without the need to appear.. Dates are set for the prosecution to be directed to serve the necessary disclosure (statements, interview records, CCTV and suchlike) on the defence. Both sides sign to acknowledge their responsibilities.
Yesterday we heard that the CPS had missed the deadline for service by a good six weeks, and that most of the disclosure had been handed over at court last Friday. Inevitably we were asked for an adjournment and equally inevitably we refused (the rules of that game have changed irrevocably since the case of PICTON).
Without going into too much detail, what happened was that we gave the parties ten minutes to sort themselves out. We filed back in to hear the Crown offer no evidence, whereupon we dismissed all four charges.
Any magistrate will recognise this situation, and it has almost certainly happened in a lot of courts today as it will tomorrow. There will be no sanction on the CPS for a gross failure of its duty to cope with a simple bit of paper handling that just required a low-ranking clerical officer to look at it.
It's expensive, it's unfair, and it just isn't right.
I wish that I could feel that someone in the MoJ cares, but sadly they seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.


Just for the record:- You cannot be sent to prison for failing to buy a TV licence. Ever,

But you can be sent to prison for failing to pay any fine for any offence (but it's difficult, and the numbers are small). Inability to pay is not the same as refusal to pay.

I wish the press knew this.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

So That's All Right Then

I had a pleasant lunch today with some current and some retired colleagues. We meet as former members of the old Licensing Committee that used to consider licensing the sale of alcohol, betting and gaming, and suchlike.

Since licensing was taken away from local JPs and given to the Council the criteria for grant or refusal of a license have become a mechanistic tick-box exercise. Magistrates retain the right to consider appeals.

Our conversation inevitably drifted on to the changes, and one colleague made the point (and I paraphrase) that the town centre has seen a big increase in late-night drunken violence, while many of us are concerned about the pernicious effect that FOBT (roulette-type) machines in betting shops are having on the poorest and least rational of our fellow citizens.

Frank summed it up: "That worked all right then, didn't it?"

Way, Way, Off Topic

The quondam guru of PR and tabloid stories, Max Clifford, was for many years the go-to guy for any celebrity who was threatened with undesirable publicity. Clifford could negotiate with the press, usually with a successful outcome for the client.

So isn't it ironic that Mr. Clifford is now on trial (on which I have no view other than to leave it all to a jury) and that trial has thrown up allegations that he has a really small penis. What could he have charged a rich client to keep that out of the red-tops?

That's what I call irony.

Suppressio Veri, Suggestio Falsi (again)

A while back the MoJ released figures purporting to show the earnings of Legal Aid barristers. Not to put too fine a point on it, those figures were skewed: I quote (thanks Rupert, that's another one I owe you):-

"Ministers issued potentially misleading figures about barristers’ earnings to justify cuts to legal aid, the statistics watchdog has said.
In a critical letter to the Ministry of Justice, Sir Andrew Dilnot, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, said that the department had effectively neglected lower estimates of barristers’ average earnings in favour of the higher calculation of £84,000 a year.
Figures published by the ministry in January represented the mean fee income from public funds for full-time barristers, but any barrister with a fee income of less than £10,000 was excluded, the watchdog said. Calculations also included VAT, which barristers must pay to the taxman, and expenses such as travel costs"

And that's from a Ministry that claims the word 'Justice'  for its letterhead. Disgraceful.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Thoughts From The Crown Court

I have a few Crown Court sittings on my current rota, in which I sit with a Circuit Judge or a Recorder, plus one other magistrate, to consider appeals from the lower courts. An appeal against conviction is by way of a complete re-hearing, whereas an appeal against sentence is much simpler.
A recent sitting gave rise to a number of thoughts, which are in no particular order.

Many magistrates feel that we are at the back of the queue for resources, and that the Crown Court gets better treatment. In my limited experience things go awry for Hizonner nearly as often as they do for the humble JP. My latest sitting was scheduled for two full days and was over by the lunch break, leaving my colleague and I an unexpected free day, and the court staff the task of finding one and a half days' work for the Recorder. A Recorder is a solicitor or (usually) a barrister who sits with the powers of a Circuit Judge for a few weeks a year. Since they get about £500 per day it is as well to keep them busy.

Lunch in the judges' dining room can be fun, but it is a far cry from the popular conception of silver service and post prandial port. Whatever food you have ordered is found in the heated or chilled cabinet at the end of the room, and you help yourself.. A few years ago there was an influx of female judges, and it was decided to improve the healthiness of the food. As a result there is a rota to act as Fruit Monitor, and the designated judge has to bring in a selection of fresh fruit on a Monday morning. To offset this, there is a goody box of assorted chocolate bars and suchlike. I really like the idea of a QC acting as Fruit Monitor.

Since the Resident Judge was appointed as an Honorary Recorder he now gets to wear a red robe, and is addressed as 'My Lord'. It hasn't gone to his head from what I can see.

Some Recorders are used to practising civil law, and don't know much about low-level crime, or motoring offences, so that's where a couple of JPs can come in handy.

Even if you have been dealt with by a district Judge below, any appeal will be heard by a bench that is made up  of two-thirds lay justices, so the lay element remains embedded.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Good Name Gone

In these days of criminal record searches and the slow and unplanned death of the old Rehabilitation of Offenders' principles, a criminal conviction can now have devastating and long-lasting effects. A drug conviction, for as little as one spliff, can disqualify the offender from most jobs that require a security clearance, such as working at an airport or on the railways. You have to declare criminal convictions to an insurer, and may then be refused cover, or offered a restricted version at best.

So it was sad today to have to sentence a 50-something year-old man of previously good character who had succumbed to temptation by stealing from someone who trusted him. He produced a thick sheaf of character references , and his close family all came to sit in the gallery to support him.

In formulating the court's pronouncement we took care to avoid excusing or making light of the dishonesty involved, but we expressed our view that it is a terrible thing for a man who has gone through life honestly to have to admit to his family  that he had been dishonest. He must have gone through hell, but his woes were self-inflicted.

I can't say much more, but it is safe to say that his guilty plea pushed the sentence down by a level or two.

Sunday, March 09, 2014


Thanks to the Times for the following letter:-


The address for Merseyside Police’s Camera Enforcement Unit is “Liverpool, PO Box 1984”. Most apt.

Frank Greaney

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Now That's a Crackdown

Colombia has introduced a draconian new drink-drive law that can lead to fines from $880 to nearly $15000, along with a ban of up to 25 years for the worst repeat offenders. Beer sales (on which SAB Miller have a near-monopoly) have unsurprisingly plummeted. 

Just A Thought

Investigations are under way to establish the cause of the loss of a Boeing 777 in the Far East. Given that the 777 is a sophisticated modern aircraft, operated by an airline with a good record, there is already suspicion that foul play might be involved, especially as it appears that two of the passengers were travelling on stolen passports.

However, forged and stolen passports are an everyday occurrence at major airports, and I would hazard a guess that if you went through all of the passengers travelling on a single day, most aircraft would be carrying at least a couple of dodgy documents.

These are early days, and the truth will come out in due time, as it did with the Air France disaster a few years back.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Thoughts From The Lord Chief

Lord Thomas has been speaking about the continuing cutbacks in the courts.Harsh as these have been, there are many more to come, and the next few years are set to see cuts of more than a third.

It will be surprising if the courts' system is recognisable in ten years' time, and nothing appears to be off limits. Good luck to my younger colleagues who will have to adapt to some very different standards and practices.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Quality Public Service

I was recently inspired to respond to my county's fire service website and to request a free fire safety survey on my home. Today a full-sized fire engine turned up (by appointment) and the very helpful crew gave us advice and installed new smoke detectors with 10-year batteries. As the leader completed the forms, we asked if we could get our 83 year-old neighbour added to the waiting list. "We'll do it now, while we're here" was the response, so my wife and the firemen (they were men) went next door. While they were in there I rang the doorbell of the house over the road, to alert six year-old Bradley to the big red machine that was blocking the bridleway on which we live. The driver invited Bradley and his young sister up to sit in the cab, and explained what some of the equipment was for, Bradley was fascinated in his six year-old way. As the crew left, I thought what a splendid example of public service this was. The crew were on call, with their radios switched on, so the machine was still available for its main task. Well done.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Art Silk

There has been some tetchy reaction from the legal profession over the latest episode of the BBC drama 'Silk', due, inevitably, to the writers' taking liberties with the law and with court procedure (despite the fact that a QC is credited as legal adviser). I remember feeling the same about Judge John Deed, who wouldn't have lasted a week in the real world. Nevertheless, when I lunched with the judges at Crown Court at the time, the main topic of conversation was the fictional judge. I suspect that the assembled Hizonners rather liked seeing a brother judge portrayed as being a bit flash and a bit randy.

So I enjoyed Silk, and put any legal criticism to one side for the sheer pleasure of watching the delicious Maxine Peake strutting her stuff. It's only pretend, anyway.

Breach of the Pizza

I have seen several cases, most recently last week, of a mean little scam in which a couple of low-lifes phone up to have pizzas delivered, and ambush the unfortunate delivery person on his moped, stealing the pizzas as well as any cash they are carrying. In one case they took the moped as well, although that was soon recovered.

Pizza delivery people are low-paid part time workers who are  alone and vulnerable, usually at night. The offence involves pre-planning, and I think that the perpetrators can think themselves lucky to have been charged only with theft from the person, rather than robbery.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

JPs In The Nick

The idea has resurfaced (as bright ideas do) of dealing with certain low-level offences by way of a single magistrate sitting in a police station. That isn't as simple as it sounds; for one thing a legal adviser will be needed, and for another there is the question of police and judiciary keeping at healthy arm's length from one another. Many years ago a shiny new police station was built across the road from my court, and there were thoughts of putting a tunnel under the road to ease the transfer of detainees into court. My Clerk (who was independent, as Clerks were then) killed that one on the grounds of separation of powers. At the time we dealt with a good few Customs cases, and Customs offered to build a courtroom in their local HQ but the answer was again a firm no.

Until a few years ago our Saturday courts were taken by a single experienced Justice, of whom I was one. Single-justice powers were restricted - I could adjourn, grant or withhold bail, and sentence to no more than a fine of one pound or one day's detention. That was useful for overnight drunks and the like, and worked fairly well. More serious stuff would be put off to a full court during the week.

It took a while to get used to using the word 'I' rather than 'we'  and at first it felt odd to hear a bail application with an empty chair on each side of me, but it soon became easy to go through the decision process as the application progressed.

Let's see how this one goes. If it turns out to be cheap, it might happen - if not, it won't.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


I chaired a Saturday court today. We were a bench of three, thus allowed to sentence where appropriate, and we were dealing with all of the overnight business from three London boroughs. We were faced with about a dozen cases, plus three or four that turned up late. I cannot say too much about the details, but we saw a mixture of cases. As usual there were a few shoplifters, inevitably stealing to fund their drug habits.
One sad creature sat, as they do, in the dock in the heroin crouch, arms clasped round her chest. The list said that she was 39, but she looked a good fifty, again as they do. She had about fifty pre-cons, and had committed the latest offence on bail - as they do.
We saw a lanky youth of 17, and had to wait for about an hour while the YOT (youth) team tried to find somewhere we could send him for the four days it would take to get him in front of a qualified Youth bench. In the end we remanded him to the local authority which means that the authority must find somewhere for him. His grandad and another relative were in court and I felt desperately sad for them, knowing just how I would feel to see one of my grandchildren confined in the cold glass sided dock.
A couple of cases were met with immediate prison sentences, given the offenders' long histories of ignoring court orders, and planned campaigns of theft.
Another man had attacked his daughter's boyfriend, for reasons that I cannot go into. We remanded him in custody as we were pretty sure that he might do it again, and as he was taken down the steel stairs he pointed a finger at me and said "I hope you have a daughter, and then you will know how I have suffered.". As it happens I do have a daughter, but I do not ever take the law into my own hands, but he would never understand my reasoning. The file showed that he had served some years in prison, and I surmised that this is what had formed his attitude to his daughter's boyfriend.

A reasonably hard morning then, but we agreed, in the wash-up session before we left, that we had done our best, and had delivered fair judgements to the best of our ability.