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.