Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Outbreak Of Common Sense

It seems that the CPS has decided to drop action against people who allegedly removed waste food from bins at the rear of a supermarket. Good.

Some years ago I heard an odd case of a man prosecuted for theft of a small item (I think that it was an old and rusty toolbox) from a public tip. In addition there was a heated dispute over the item in which someone received a black eye. In evidence we heard that waste that has been taken to the tip is the property of the Council (or in this case its contractors) so it was proper to convict.

It is a feature of a throwaway consumer society that lots of stuff is discarded, sometimes randomly, but it all belongs to someone.

My daughter lives in an area where people who want to get rid of serviceable things such as fridges and microwaves simply leave them at the front of the house. One neighbour left a fridge by the front gate, but there was no interest for several days. Neighbour then had a brainwave, and put a notice on the fridge saying "For Sale: £20".

It was gone in an hour or two.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Here's a Tricky One

I have watched every episode of 'Benefits Street' so far, and the bottom-of -the-heap types who feature in it have, if I recall correctly, admitted various misdemeanours such as shoplifting, attempted theft, benefit fraud, and drug offences. The papers now report that some of the characters in the programme have been arrested, which is going to present a challenge to Channel 4's lawyers if they are charged. It is a long standing principle that every effort should be made to avoid publishing anything that might prejudice a future trial. You don't often hear the phrase 'sub judice' these days, but how can Birmingham Crown Court assemble a jury that hasn't already formed an opinion about the denizens of James Turner Street?

(The Sunday paper tells me that they have nearly all been charged with conspiracy, which makes Crown Court trial a certainty, so we shall see what Hizonner makes of it all.)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I Knew It Would Happen If I Waited Long Enough

More than two decades ago I was inspired to apply to join the Bench by, among other things, a report in the local paper of a man being charged with being drunk in charge of a bicycle. "That's for me" I thought, and the rest is history.

Today I was overjoyed to find that selfsame charge on my daily case list.

Not only that, but Case no 1 was a man who shares my surname and my son's first name who had been up to some misdeeds.

These things all help to keep up our interest.

Oh yes, and during an enforced twenty-minute hiatus while we sat out in the retiring room I realised, after looking at some old portraits of distinguished elderly gentlemen that decorate the wall that my court's Justices' Clerks were members of the same local family for well over a hundred years, grandfather to father to son.

HMCTS wouldn't like that.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Numbers Game

This report deals with the well-known fact that the lay Bench has shrunk by some 20% in recent years. That will surprise no one, since the pressure to close some courts and maximise throughput in the rest has resulted in a near-freeze on recruitment. The latter fact will, in the medium term, serve to consolidate the iron grip of the over-50s on the Bench. The current business climate is making it harder and harder for employees to get time off to act as JPs (even firefighters are under pressure to limit their sittings).
Nevertheless, I do not (quite) subscribe to the conspiracy theory that lay justices are being eased out in favour of DJs. Recruitment to the paid judiciary is also at a low level , and although the balance is changing a little, that may be due to the cost and difficulty of cutting back on DJs other than by limited recruitment.
The real threat to JPs is that some genius will come up with an idea to bring in courts that are a low-fat version of what we have now, to deal with simple cases, such as TV licensing and the rest. I am sufficiently close to retirement not to be worried about that personally, but I cannot escape the thought that my generation have had the best of it.

Here are some numbers

Thursday, January 09, 2014


This is encouraging news.

Home Secretaries all seem to yearn for greater power to clamp down on naughtiness among the lower orders, or even the merely eccentric, and I am pleased to see that the Lords had the steel to reject the latest wheeze yesterday. If merely annoying people were to get you in trouble with the law, there are many MPs who would need to watch their step.

And did you notice the sneaky way in which these ridiculous measures would be by way of a County Court Injunction, rather than a proper Order by a magistrates' or Crown Court. None of that Beyond Reasonable Doubt nonsense then.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Own Goal

I have the greatest respect for the Bar; at their best they are the finest and most principled advocates you can find. Surely the integrity of the Bar and the incorruptibility of our courts are the reasons that cases from around the world that involve huge sums are so often heard in the English courts.
The popular view of the Bar is that they are out-of-touch overpaid elitists and in some cases that is partly true: the best barristers are indeed the elite. There are not cheap, either, but neither are the best surgeons.  The constant chipping away of the Bar's independence and the salami slicing of their fees is something that I deplore, because the losers will be ordinary people who face the awesome power of the state without the protection of powerful advocacy. I remain wedded to the notion that it is better that ten guilty men go free than for one innocent man to be condemned because that is an outrage that we cannot accept. 
The real losers are those on the lowest rungs of the Bar ladder. My son has a good friend (whom I consider to be a friend of mine) who has achieved a decent degree from a fine University, passed his Bar finals and been called by the Middle Temple. There he has hit the brick wall, in common with three quarters of his cohort, of being unable to find the pupillage that would permit him to practice. Consequently he works at a lower-level legal job. Even if he were to achieve that magical pupillage he would be working for very little money; few barristers get near a living wage before their thirties.

Having said that, and supporting the protesting barristers as I do, I feel that the learned lady who carried an expensive designer handbag before the cameras, to have it immediately identified and priced by the Daily Mail did a lot of damage to her cause. That's a shame.

On a personal note,I am very happy that the two lawyers in my immediate family are solicitors who have wisely chosen to stay away from crime, and to enter the sunlit uplands of commercial law.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Cash Converters

This report in the Telegraph is an example of the increasing number of cases that come before the courts under the Proceeds of Crime Act (PoCA). This is a draconian piece of legislation that was enacted to prevent criminals from enjoying the benefits of their activities, even if there is insufficient evidence to bring a criminal charge. The Americans never laid a glove on Al Capone for racketeering, but jailed him for tax evasion.
The important thing to remember is that these are civil proceedings, so the burden of proof on those seeking seizure and forfeiture is only on the balance of probabilities, rather than the much stricter beyond reasonable doubt test for a criminal charge. Another consequence of the proceedings being civil is that legal aid is not available, leaving an individual who faces the full resources of the state alone in court.

It is clearly just that a professional criminal who can can lounge in his Essex or Spanish hacienda courtesy of the loot from his misdeeds, should face a rigorous examination of the source of the money, but inevitably many of those who fall foul of PoCA are small fry. If a police raid on a drug dealer turns up a large amount of cash in addition to a stash of drugs and the usual paraphernalia such as scales and plastic bags then it makes sense for him to lose it. I cannot feel easy though, when, to quote a real example from a couple of years back, a man who had worked on construction sites for two years to  earn money to take back to his family, and paid tax and National Insurance on it, had £15,000 seized as he left the UK, on the grounds that since his work permit had expired the cash was the proceeds of unlawful conduct and therefore subject to forfeiture. We applied the law in accordance with our Clerk's advice, but I was left with an uneasy feeling that while we had done our judicial duty, the result was not really fair.

Another concern is that the agency that seizes the cash, be it police, UKBA, or whoever gets to keep some of the proceeds. That doesn't feel right to me.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Happy New Year - For Some, Anyway

I arrived at court to find four Serco vans in the yard, with a fifth pulling in behind me. Fortunately they weren't all full, but we still had seventeen prisoners to deal with in one courtroom. The Prosecutor was one of the best ones who comes to our court, so I was pretty confident that we would get the job done by lunchtime.
The paperwork was all in order, but as usual we had to drink an extra cup of coffee while the two duty solicitors took instructions from their clients and gave appropriate advice before they came up the steel staircase. There were a few difficult ones, in particular a man in his forties who was either drunk or drugged, and who tried to tell us that we had got the law quite wrong, and by the way could we make an injunction against his landlord for illegally refusing to let him back into his rented bedsit. Another man refused to see a solicitor at all, and I had him confirm the fact in open court, before he suddenly changed his mind, so we sent him back downstairs. While he was down there he changed his mind yet again. There were a couple of breaches of bail (that is not an offence per se, but it allows the question of bail to be revisited, which quite often results in its being revoked or conditions made more onerous).
We saw, as we often do, the salutary effect that a night or two in the cells can have. One man had breached a bail condition not to contact his estranged wife, and been arrested as a result. We re-bailed him on the same conditions but I gave him a stern reminder that if this happened again he could wait for his trial date in Wormwood Scrubs. He firmly shook his head: " No sir, I have had enough.". We believed him, so he is out now, hopefully wiser than before. 

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Happy New Year

I shall celebrate New Year's Day by chairing a court tomorrow. Let's hope that nothing too nasty has happened on my patch.