Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Beware of Stealth Lawmakers

This report is worrying, particularly in view of the shifty way in which the Criminal Courts' Charge was sneaked through Parliament at the eleventh hour before the election forced a halt. Now I do not have the time nor the inclination to pore through this stuff, especially as my dear granddaughters have taken up so much of my time over the last week.

Let us remain vigilant against sneaky rules made by the same bunch of Sir Humphreys who have served us so badly for so long.

Is there a single civil servant out there who can, granted anonymity, explain what is to happen with the pile of cash that has been imposed (if not collected) by the appalling and callous CCC?

I thought not.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

December 25th 2015

Twelve months from now I shall no longer be a JP, rather a retired magistrate. Judiciary, be they the Lord Chief Justice or a humble magistrate must retire at 70.

In the meantime, can I wish a merry Christmas to all of my 20,000-odd colleagues, to all of our court staff, and to the lawyers, probation officers and others who do so much to make our justice system work.

Can I also spare a thought for the thousands of casualties in our society, including prisoners. Some of those in prison are so seriously damaged that they must be kept away from society for everyone's sake. Others have just slipped through life without the nurture of a family and remain outside society's fabric.

I hope that no magistrate ever fails to ponder "there but for the grace of God go I".

I certainly do.

Merry Christmas

Monday, December 21, 2015

I Can Only Agree With This (credit to The Times)

Democracy must always insist on equality before the law. At the heart of this principle is the belief that all citizens, regardless of their faith, creed or gender, are equally worthy of legal protection and redress. If the rule of law is to treat everyone as equal, there can be only one rule of law, administered by the state according to known precepts. The forthcoming inquiry into the judicial role of Sharia councils in Britain is, therefore, significant and welcome. Where such councils act as courts in a parallel legal system, they encroach on the rights of those whose interests are given short shrift by Islamic jurisprudence — often women and children. The inquiry must find such cases, and government must put a stop to them.
Most cases brought before Sharia councils are family matters. As far as civil law is concerned, the councils’ decisions have little binding power. Sharia councils have no official jurisdiction over divorce settlements involving property, cases involving custody of children, or any criminal matters.
However, the councils can grant couples a divorce where their marriage contract itself was religious, not civil. Islamic law, as it is enumerated in the Koran and the collected statements of the Prophet, makes it difficult, though not impossible, for women to seek a divorce. Even where a marital dispute is about cohabitation alone, therefore, women’s rights are not properly respected.
Property and child custody issues will be touched by most divorces too. It would be deeply worrying if the inquiry were to find Sharia councils overreaching by coming to conclusions on these matters. Whereas British law emphasises the best interests of the child in determining custody, for instance, Sharia rules grant custody to the father if the child has reached the “age of transfer”, regardless of the facts of the case. A 2008 ruling of the House of Lords appellate committee, the predecessor of the Supreme Court, rightly branded this system “arbitrary and discriminatory”.
Anyone who has suffered discrimination before a Sharia council is legally entitled to a hearing before a civil court with genuine jurisdiction on these matters, but it can be difficult to claim that entitlement. Few people know the details of their rights of redress under 20-year-old legislation, least of all those who have been told that the decision of the panel before them is final. Even with all the information, the threat of ostracism by the community can deter victims of discrimination from coming forward.
The inquiry should also address those activities of Sharia councils currently recognised by the law. Any two parties who want to resolve a dispute outside the courts can choose to appoint an arbitrator to decide the matter and, if they invoke the Arbitration Act 1996, that decision can then be upheld in civil courts. The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal thus claims to offer Muslims the “opportunity to settle disputes in accordance with Islamic Sacred Law with the knowledge that the outcome will be binding and enforceable”.
British courts must enforce their own decisions alone. Under present law, they may have to uphold a Sharia tribunal’s decision to award an estate to sons and not daughters, simply because all parties signed themselves into a system of inheritance that privileges men over women in accordance with religious law. The civil law should not be so pliable as to yield to the competing jurisprudence of whatever faith wishes to reshape it.
Any agreement reached through coercion or other forms of pressure can always be overturned in a civil court. Coercion often goes hand in hand, however, with enforced silence. Attempts to muzzle victims of discrimination are almost impossible to prove. The inquiry must investigate this, but it can never know what it has not found. The only true protection is a single, sovereign rule of law.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bunkum

The late Lord Janner, who has just died, was not, by all accounts, a popular MP. After one emotional outburst when he took exception to remarks that he saw as anti-semitic, he said something to the effect of:"Mr, Speaker, half of my family were murdered in the Holocaust" when some unnamed MP called out "Yes, the wrong half"..

He was of course the subject of allegations that he had sexually abused young men several decades ago, despite claims that he was suffering from dementia that would have prevented him from defending, or even understanding the case against him. Recently it was decided that he could not safely or fairly be tried, quite rightly in my opinion.

The passage of time, and nature's decay often put horrrible offenders (and I make no comment about Lord J) beyond the reach of the justice system. Those who believe in divine justice may find it easier to rationalise the easy deaths of appalling monsters than do I.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

This Isn't What I Signed Up For Three Decades Ago

I went in to Court today to fill a gap in the rota. I found myself in a non-CPS court dealing with TV licensing offences, and local authority Council Tax cases arising from non-payment of the tax.
Never the most riveting work, we were faced with a number of poor people , mostly with a poor command of English, and little understanding of what the  cases were all about. The TV licensing cases are usually over in a few minutes but two cases between them took us over an hour.

Then we moved on to the majority that had simply ignored the summons, so we dealt with them by way of Section 9 statements read out by the prosecutor. That's where I started to feel uncomfortable. A colleague had her i-pad with the useful sentencing calculator. We have a fines matrix that ordains someone living on benefits to have an income of £120 per week, but those who do  not submit a statement of means are deemed to have a Residual Weekly Income of £440 per week. Hence, someone whose unlicensed viewing was for six months or more and who does not have the benefit of credit for a guilty plea faces a fine of £440 plus costs of £120 plus a 'victim' surcharge of £44 plus, even today, the Criminal Courts Charge of £150. Announcing these sentences stuck in my throat, given that the offenders are largely poor and inarticulate.

Monday, December 14, 2015


I shall chair a court tomorrow, in response to the entreaties of our charming and hard working Bench Support Team. I have no idea what cases to expect, but I can be pretty sure of the following:-

08:45 Leave home
09:25 (with luck) arrive at court
09:30  Look to see which court I am in, and with which colleagues.
09:32  Obtain coffee, commence retiring-room gossip.
09:45: See our legal advisor, and either get briefing on the day's business, or settle for winging it if it's all routine)
09;50 Brief colleagues (if we don't already know one another). Settle ground rules for when and if to retire. If we have a new colleague reassure him or her that their views will be fully taken into account, and not to be worried about challenging or disagreeing with the old codger in the middle seat.
10:00  Go into court. Fix all present with a glare, and address a firm "good morning" to the clock at the back of the room.

Now the possibilities diverge: an administrative foul-up (CPS no papers, defendant or lawyer not present, custody cases not yet arrived from prisons, and/or not had time to speak to lawyers. If likely delay exceeds 5 minutes, make plans for coffee and (if Mandy the clerk hasn't got there first) biscuits.

Sometimes we are ready to go at ten sharp, but that is not too usual.

From now on, anything can happen. What do we do when sitting out the back?

Drink coffee and grumble of course.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Back to the Coalface

I chaired a court today, and much of our list consisted of cases for sentence, most of them backed up by Pre-sentence reports from Probation.

In recent months, I have often thought that much of our work would be better done in an NHS context, rather than the criminal justice system. We read one full psychiatric report today that went into great technical medical detail, while concluding that the defendant was fit to plead. Not for the first time we read that a man's fragile but stable mental state had deteriorated catastrophically following his acquisition of a  heavy cannabis habit. I am no doctor, but I have seen plenty of medical reports linking high-strength cannabis use with pushing people who are borderline-psychotic over the edge. Another man was so unwell that we could not realistically set a date for his trial.

Another man came up from the cells  with a quiet warning from  the clerk  that he was likely to be difficult. Sure enough he had refused to speak to the duty solicitor, or to engage with probation. I fixed him with a steely gaze, and spoke to him firmly, demanding  an answer to each question, refusing to acknowledge surly grunts. He was soon compliant and we tidied up his case without any problems.

Absurdly, we are still obliged to impose the Criminal Courts Charge, even though it will be abolished in two weeks' time. I expect that sums due will be quietly written off in due course.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.......

Glory be....the MoJ has seen sense

I just hope that the poor sods lumbered with this crass and unjust impost get their money back. Ideally, taken from Grayling's paycheque.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015


As my wife was out at a meeting this evening I decided to tackle the task of setting up my new   'e-judiciary' Internet account. Now I am not easily fazed by computers; I bought my first one in 1983, but I am quite baffled by this lot. Like many people I have used a multiplicity of accounts and passwords over the years, and in the nature of things which password goes where is now a mystery. To make things worse, the way in to the new website is via Microsoft Office 365's login page , a program with which I am totally unfamiliar. I seemed to be making progress when the bloody thing asked me for my Microsoft account, which I have not accessed this decade. Apparently my next step is to ask a colleague for help.

I anticipate that hundreds of JPs will struggle with the new system and that this will come as a nasty surprise to the MoJ.

Since I am in my last year on the Bench I am sorely tempted to say 'sod it' and rely on teasing information out of friendly colleagues.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sanity on the Horizon

The head of the judiciary in England and Wales said today that the criminal courts charge introduced by the last government for guilty defendants has ‘not gone correctly’ and needs to be reviewed ‘as soon as possible’.
Answering questions from journalists, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the lord chief justice, said that imposing the charge on top of other levies ‘is not raising much money’ and has increased the number of people who cannot pay.
He likened that to the situation posed by fixed penalty notices, where individuals found ‘very significant sums levied against them which they had absolutely no prospect of paying’.
When a policy ‘has not gone correctly’ it should be looked at again, he said. 
Pressed on what he meant by ‘not gone correctly’, Lord Thomas said: ‘It is obvious that there is a problem with financial penalties as a whole, so I would hope this is an area the government will engage with as soon as possible but in a wider context,’ he said. 
‘That’s why I very much hope that the lord chancellor will look at the matter in the round, and perhaps find an interim solution.’
Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said that the courts system as currently established would not be able to cope with a combination of spending cuts and an increased workload of complex sex, cybercrime and terrorism cases. ‘The only way forward is reform.’
He said that progress is being made on the Leveson proposals for increasing efficiency in criminal courts, but that more needs to be done. 
Answering questions from journalists, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, the lord chief justice, said that imposing the charge on top of other levies ‘is not raising much money’ and has increased the number of people who cannot pay.
He likened that to the situation posed by fixed penalty notices, where individuals found ‘very significant sums levied against them which they had absolutely no prospect of paying’.
When a policy ‘has not gone correctly’ it should be looked at again, he said. 
Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd said that the courts system as currently established would not be able to cope with a combination of spending cuts and an increased workload of complex sex, cybercrime and terrorism cases. ‘The only way forward is reform.’
He said that progress is being made on the Leveson proposals for increasing efficiency in criminal courts, but that more needs to be done. 
Containing a rise in costs is ‘critical to reform’, he said, noting that: ‘As for lawyers, the market has been good for them on the whole. Legal fees are high.’
I am humbly grateful that His Lordship has come round to my point of view at last. All that remains is for those of us who loathe injustice to club together to buy a suit of sackcloth for the appalling Grayling. I shall provide ashes without any fee.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Why Is That Then?

I was looking through a defendant's pre-cons today, when I was struck by one chap's conviction six years ago for fraudulently attempting to gain admission  to the UK. He was given a prison sentence of about ten months or so, and served it.

So why, half a decade later, is he still in the country, committing a regular series of low-level offences?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Murder 2

The case referred to in the previous post was indeed dealt with in a court some way away, but I had the privilege of finding out what is going on from Someone In The Know. As it turned out there was another murder that did come to us today. I was in a different courtroom, but the lay bench in another court did see the murder case, although our DJ was sitting doing something else.  The whole thing was over in five minutes, and the alleged killer was on his way to the Old Bailey.

I have no idea who it was but a couple of times during our morning trial there was a loud banging from the cells under our courtroom, as one of our customers was clearly unhappy. It is surprising how much damage a very cross man can do:on one occasion a steel framed cell door was loosened in its brick wall by a prisoner using no more than his own strength. On my occasional forays downstairs I still see the damaged plaster around the outside of that door.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It's Murder Out There

I see from the media that there has been a recent murder quite near my courthouse. It appears that someone has been arrested, so when I sit  later this week there is a small possibility that I shall see him or her. Once upon a time these cases routinely turned up on the magistrates' list, for a decision on bail before the inevitable committal to a higher court. We no longer have the job of deciding on bail in these cases so the whole business is over in a few minutes. Serious cases come on first, to allow the jailers downstairs to get the defendant on his way; the only unusual feature is a full press bench and perhaps a few more police than usual. Anticlimax reigns.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Droning On

For the first time I saw a case last week concerning the unauthorised flying of a drone near a licensed aerodrome. I can't say much more, but we did decide that a device weighing about 15kg (that's a stone to us oldies) **is capable of causing serious damage to an airliner if there is a collision, so it was off to Hizonner to deal with at the Crown Court.
** See numerous corrections in the comments. Mea Culpa.

Friday, October 23, 2015

There Are Cracks Appearing In The Dam

I have had my say about the Courts' Charge, and I have heard more than enough recitals of the MoJ line about those who use the courts...nada nada nada, but yesterday's Times piece by Jenni Russell was especially persuasive.  (sorry Rupert, but I do have a sub to your organ)

I think that this will get sorted out. Grayling remains beneath contempt.

Gove must reverse this court charge scandal

Jenni Russell
Jenni Russell

The justice secretary knows that penalising those least able to pay is unfair and unworkable
Chris Grayling, the former justice secretary, came up with a brilliant wheeze earlier this year to help fund Britain’s courts at a time of budget cuts. His solution was to get criminals to pay substantial sums towards the running costs, with those contesting their charges paying the most. Since April everyone found guilty in a magistrates’ or crown court would be automatically charged £150-£1,200 on top of any fines, prosecution costs or victim surcharges, and regardless of ability to pay.
Perhaps it looked good on paper. The Ministry of Justice estimated that it would raise £95 million a year. In practice, a source tells me, it’s delivering “significantly less”. Courts deal overwhelmingly with people who are poor and who lead chaotic lives; the homeless, mentally ill, alcoholics and drug addicts, those on restricted benefits. Remarkably, these people turn out to provide a most unreliable income stream. The scheme is unworkable, illogical and patently unjust.
Two months ago a penniless asylum seeker appeared in court in Leicester, charged with defaulting on a mandatory court charge of £180. The Catch-22 was that, as an asylum seeker, he has no income and is not permitted to work. He has no legal way of raising money. Whatever he does in this situation — works, begs, steals or defaults — he will be breaking the law.
A sympathetic burger-van owner who occasionally fed the man was so moved by his case that he paid £60 towards it; he wrote to the court to say he couldn’t afford any more. The magistrate, Nigel Allcoat, was so appalled by the young man in front of him facing jail for a debt that he couldn’t legally pay that he volunteered to contribute himself. He was instantly suspended for his intervention and subsequently resigned in protest at the illogicality and inhumanity of what he was expected to enforce.
Magistrates around the country are doing the same, in an unprecedented revolt. More than 50 of these highly committed volunteers have already gone; more are wavering; 93 per cent object to the charge because they can’t adjust it to fit the circumstances. As one said to me: charging drug dealers, wife beaters, white-collar fraudsters? Fine. A poor person stealing food? That’s insane.
The insanity is evident everywhere. An Oxfordshire woman who stole a bottle of shampoo worth £2.39 was charged £35 costs and a £15 victim surcharge but £150 for the court charge. A homeless woman begging in a Warwickshire car park, a teenager who stole £5 of sweets, a newly released prisoner who needed to wash and stole a tube of shower gel, a hungry woman on restricted benefits who stole Mars bars worth 75p; all these have been given unpayable extra bills of £150, which is likely to see them back in court. The ministry expects 5 per cent of the money raised to be spent on jailing defaulters.
More than two thirds of magistrates say the charge is affecting sentences, often perversely. In an effort to restore justice, some are reluctantly discharging minor offenders just to avoid a disproportionate fine. Others are deciding not to award costs to the Crown Prosecution Service in order to make the charge more affordable.
This system is indefensible, and under the new, reformist justice secretary, Michael Gove, the ministry is privately willing to admit it. “This is a friendless policy. We can’t hit huge numbers of people with irrecoverable debts,” one senior source told me. A working group is looking at restoring discretion to the courts, so that wealthy criminals and the “truly wicked” are made to pay, but the hopeless and the naughty given another chance. Their biggest problem, though, is proving to an implacable Treasury that they have an alternative income stream to replace the notional one.
This summer Gove suggested that the country’s big law firms should help to subsidise legal aid. They were outraged. I think he could go further.
It’s the giant law firms who make vast amounts of money from the legal system. The charges of the top partners have doubled to more than £850 an hour over the past decade. In 2013 the revenue of the top 100 firms rose 8 per cent to 19.1 billion. These are the people who profit from smooth-running courts and can afford to pay. A 1 per cent annual levy on turnover would raise £190 million, twice the courts charge prediction.
Radical ideas such as this are being pressed on the ministry. “All revenue streams are being considered, however controversial or surprising,” I was told. They will be made public by the end of next month, to coincide with the Spending Review.
This government is already in trouble for undermining those who can least afford it with cuts to tax credits. Gove, who takes one-nation compassionate Conservatism seriously, believes that his ministry should operate on the principle that those with the broadest shoulders should carry the most weight. Grayling’s changes were patently unjust; if Gove can reverse them, he deserves to be backed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


As one whose voluntary efforts are under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice, I feel small but welcome relief that the MoJ will not now tout its services to the draconian Saudi authorities. The Justice ministry has already raised cash collection up its list of objectives, but this was a step too far.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Friday, October 02, 2015

Compassion? What's That?

This is the disturbing tale of an experienced magistrate whose sympathy for a down-and-out defendant got him into hot water.

The report speaks for itself, I can see the logic behind the official response, but it seems to have been a little heavy-handed.

I am reminded of a case well over a decade ago when a poor deserted woman was prosecuted for a car-related offence that was basically down to her ratbag boyfriend. Nevertheless, the bench was obliged to impose a fine and costs, totalling, as was the case in those days, about £40. One magistrate, who had better remain nameless, found this preying on his mind, and at the lunch break sought out a respected probation officer and asked her, on conditions of total secrecy, to take the cash to the court office, describing it as an anonymous  donation from a well-wisher. As far as I an aware, that was the end of it, Probation officers can be trusted to keep their mouths shut, and that avoided the flat feet of the authorities getting involved.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Worth a Read

Here is an informed view of the iniquities being perpetrate by the Ministry of "Justice"


Friday, September 18, 2015

Pognophobia Rampant

This is not a political blog, although I have been interested in politics for all of my adult life.

Here is a minor but useful axiom:-

 Any article about Corbyn that refers to the fact that he has a beard, should be torn up and ignored. The last senior politician to loathe beards and to attach importance to their presence or absence was Margaret Thatcher:

-and look what happened to her.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Busy, Busy, Busy

I was in court yesterday, and rued the ending of the school holidays, as my journey to court took half an hour longer than it did last month.

Our courtroom was very busy, and our clerk told us that there were already nineteen people in the cells, probably with more to come. Of course most of these people needed to see their solicitor (often the duty one), so it was almost eleven o'clock before we made a start on their cases.. Just to give you an idea of what we had to deal with, I made a note of our list, before the late entries and extras were added:-

Person banned from local transport hub - back again
Male exposing genitals on a crowded train (children present) Goes on to ask woman in next seat if she does head jobs,
Common Assault
Assault PC x 2, racially aggravated S4 Public Order Act, Possession of Class A drug
Breach Restraining Order x 2
Class B possession, obstruct drug search.
Handling stolen goods
Section 18 GBH with Intent x2 (indictable only) (had to watch nasty CCTV of man on floor being kicked on the head)
Conspiracy to do above
Theft of handbag from supermarket trolley (Lots of previous)
Breach of ASBO
Common Assault (Domestic)
Criminal damage to gaming machine (FOBT)
Breach of ASBO
Theft from shop
Breach ASBO
TWOC and breach of bail
£200 fraud on hotel - no means to pay, and he knew it.
Assault PC x 2
Shop theft
Breach of ASBO
Drive drunk, no licence, no insurance, use foglamp in daylight
Fail to Surrender to Bail
Domestic Common Assault x 2

Finished just before 6 p.m. Roads terrible. Went to pub.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Reality Dawns

Sorry that I have been a bit quiet lately, but for the last few weeks I have been preoccupied with a family wedding.

My daughter, a solicitor,  was married some years ago (to another solicitor), and last Saturday my son, a journalist, married his lovely Tata  (a TV presenter) in Colombia.  Few things in life can be more moving than to see one of your children married, so I hope that I might be excused a little elation at this time.


Friday, August 21, 2015

Er - Yippee - or is it?

I have just received an email from the Labour Party, inviting me to vote in the leadership election. I paid my £3, so here I am.

I have nothing to say about the election or the candidates (albeit I do have opinions) but who the hell dreamed up such a stupid system that sells the right to vote at three quid a go?

The rest is between me and my conscience, (such of it as remains).

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

It Gets Worse

Look, I know I have had  a lot to say about the Criminal Courts Charge, so I shan't repeat it, but today we saw a glaring example of its day to day effect. A scruffy man was arrested for begging at a Tube station. The facts related by the prosecutor made it quite clear that there was no aggression, such as walking up to people, but rather a request for 'any change' from a seated position.

He pleaded guilty, so he ended up with a fine of £50 (after discount for plea) £85 costs, £20 'victim'surcharge and a Courts Charge of £150, a total of £305 to pay from a man on the minimum level of workless benefit.

It will never be collected in the forseeable future, so what the hell is the point?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Call Me Mr. Difficult

I popped into the pub this lunchtime, as one does, and the conversation soon took its Dailymail-esque course into the migrant-refugee business. One of my well-heeled Thames Valley pals, his 4  x 4 comfortably nestled ino the car park, voiced his unease at the would-be migrant hordes in Calais, as people do. He had earlier dropped in the fact that he had attended church at 8.30 this morning, so I just couldn't ignore the open goal before me.

"You are right. Jesus was particularly strong on refugees and migrants. If he was here today, he wouldn't bother with money changers and temples, but would get on with sorting out these bloody asylum seekers"

Sadly, my words fell on stony ground.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Er - Could We Have Another Look at That?

With its customary sloppiness in matters legal the Daily Mail website, reporting on the Lord Janner case, has promoted the Deputy Chief Magistrate to Mrs. Justice Arbuthnot, a good few steps up the judicial ladder from a DJ(MC).

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Apathy Reigns

The Magistrates' Association has never had much influence on my bench, due in part at least to the geographical layout of the MA' s archaic structure. I live in Buckinghamshire, to the west of my court's area, and MA branch meetings are held in Bloomsbury; an 80-mile round trip (for which mileage cannot be claimed).

Having been a Bench Chairman I came to know quite a few MA people, including the outgoing Chairman Richard Monkhouse, who was a member of the National bench chairmen's forum at the same time as me.

The saddest thing to have come out of recent MA elections is the voting figures:- the turnout from an electorate of almost 18,500 was a puny 3.100, or 16.8%.

This is a shame, because the increasingly authoritarian MoJ needs to be balanced by a robust body representing JPs as well as the various professional court users.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Word Is Getting Round

This article  shows that the public are staring to be aware of the injustice of the Courts' charge. The scheme will eventually collapse under the weight of its contradictions, unless Mr. Gove accepts the sensible advice he has been given, and knocks it on the head.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

More On Bloody Gavels

The Law Society Gazette has this piece that clearly disagrees with my objection to sloppy journalism that uses a gavel to illustrate any law-related story. Yes, of course it isn't that important, but it still drives me crackers.

More On The Courts' Charge

This is a view from the Law Society's journal about the unfair and callous Criminal Courts' charge. A number of JPs have resigned from my bench in protest, and I suspect that there are more to come as we gain day to day experience of this Government-imposed injustice.

When I was sworn in all those years ago I promised to do right by all manner of people.

This charge is not right.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

So Long, Farewell,........

The wheels of the MoJ have turned and have ground out a quite predictable result.. The 'consultation' on closing courts (which is MoJ code for announcing what you are going to do anyway) has earmarked one of my local courthouses for closure. The courthouse in question is Feltham, and I can find no rational case to oppose the closure. Feltham is an old court, converted many years ago from a music-hall. The first time that I walked in to the magistrates' entrance I saw a lovely Victorian/Edwardian tiled room that was formerly the box office. My initial reaction was to ask for two stalls seats and a Raspberry Mivvi,
Unfortunately, the rest of the courthouse is entirely unfit for purpose, for reasons that I shall not trouble you with.
The bulk of Feltham's business will probably be shunted off to Hammersmith (a DJ-heavy outfit by the London side of the flyover)

I do not have much longer to serve as a JP, but when I go, I shall not miss shabby but charming old buildings like Feltham Mags.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sense of Proportion Needed

This Piece of nonsense is the kind of thing that a case hardened old Sergeant could have sorted out with some choice words of advice in a quiet corner of the canteen.

Put this case in front of any Bench that I can imagine, and it would have conditional discharge written all over it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Home Again

We are just back from a short stay in Picardie, by the Bay of the Somme. It was interesting to pass through Calais, which has been on TV most nights for the last week or two. As we left, finishing touches were being put to tall fences, topped with razor wire along several miles of the access road to the docks.

Groups of young men, presumably migrants, were to be seen near the lorry parks, but there was no sign of the police.

In the CRS France has some of the most effective riot police around, but they are presumably hamstrung by the impossibility of deciding what to do with the migrants once they are in the bag, as are Kent police.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Legal Aid - A Look At The Reality

This article goes some way to correct the continuing untruth that criminal defence lawyers are little better than their clients.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Old Joke Revisited

This story put me in mind of a case where I was sitting with  a colleague who has an irrepressible sense of humour.

The defendant was driving too fast in an uninsured car that he had no right to drive anyway, and when the inevitable crash occurred he was said to have demolished a length of garden wall along with a front gate. We reached a swift decision, which I announced in my best Pronouncement Voice.

My colleague leant across, and muttered "Did he want any further fences to be taken in consideration?"

I maintained my composure, with difficulty.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Double Standards

The law lays down strict rules about the treatment of children in court, be it as witnesses/victims or defendants. Although I do not sit as a Youth magistrate, I sometimes see a case that has to be sent off to what is flippantly called the Kiddy Court (usually by lawyers).

When this happens I have to make an order under the Children and Young Persons' Act that forbids the publication of anything that might serve to identify the young person concerned.

You will often read a press report that says 'we cannot name the young person involved for legal reasons', and that is as it should be.

But then I look at the current case of a foolish mother, blinded by what she sees as love for her son, who defies a High Court judge and flees with the boy. The court will make a decision on Monday, but today the boy's face is all over the tabloids. When a celebrity is photographed for the popular press, it is the practice to pixellate the faces of the children, but this lad has no such luck.

Just a couple of points, because the drift of the media's coverage is to sympathise with the mother:-

A High Court Judge will have made a decision based on the law, having regard to all the facts, and with the benefit of comprehensive reports from professionals about the case. We have only heard one side of the case, but the tabloid- reading public has been nudged into the conclusion that a mother's love trumps the considered judgment of the law (cue 'out-of-touch' jibes).

Of course, it's a good story, and good stories sell papers, but can we put this one to rest, and allow this little boy and this sadly warring couple a little peace and anonymity?

Friday, June 12, 2015


We were down to deal with a dozen or so sentencing cases last week, most of them with the help pf pre-sentence reports from Probation. Inevitably, a good proportion of the cases were drug-related; either possession (not supply, that usually goes off to Hizonner) or acquisitive crime committed to fund an expensive habit.

Somebody on £65 a week benefit or thereabouts cannot fund a £20-a-day Class A habit without thieving, and for the addict the most usual target is any self-service shop. High-value low-bulk stuff is the usual loot, so we are well used to seeing top-line razors, Duracell batteries, and the inevitable bottles of spirits.mentioned on the charge sheet.

One of our customers was a young woman of 23 or so, a serial drug user an shoplifter. We considered the case carefully, and could not avoid the conclusion that she would have to go to prison (not for the first time).

The report said that she had grown up in care, and that she had been with four different sets of foster parents. That alone would have added to her insecurity, and that is sadly a pointer to going off the rails.

So we did what we had to do, and gave her 12 weeks, of which she will serve 6. It won't do any good, of course.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


If anyone here knows Andy Coulson, could they ask him if I could have his lottery numbers?

Of course a court's verdict must be final, as I accept, but Mr. C. must have a guardian angel somewhere.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


I was due to sit yesterday, as chairman of a GAP court. Yes, it's new to me too, but it stands for Guilty Anticipated Plea, which gives the court and the CPS an opportunity to allocate the proper resources without wasting too many people's time.

I was unavoidably delayed on my way to court, and since we had a full list of cases, it was decided to carry on with one of my wingers in the chair until I could arrive.

Turning up late is never easy - just popping your head round the door with a cry of "hi, guys" isn't right, so I despatched someone to warn the legal adviser that I was there. So far, so fairly normal, and the bench retired to reconvene with yours truly in the middle chair.

The morning proceeded with its busy list of sentencing and allocation cases, and then we had a break while the new-fangled computerised displays proved too much for the CPS and the usher (to be fair their training was pretty sketchy).

My colleague K who had sat in  was greatly relieved to see me, but when I spoke to the other winger and the clerk, they both said that things had gone just fine, including a couple of tricky cases. So over coffee I gently asked her why she had never put her name forward as a chairman. "Oh" she said "I have never had the confidence". Her 40 minute leap into the deep end has changed her mind, and she will now apply for chair training.

Twenty years ago it was practice, in a quiet (perhaps traffic) court to put a winger in the chair straight after lunch with no warning, thus giving them no time to become nervous. Rules now forbid that, but that was probably a retrograde step.

I have informed the Justices' Clerk that there is a potential chair taker among us, so it is now out of my hands.  I wish her well.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Raving Mad

I have just received an email from the Thames Valley Constabulary asking me to keep a good eye out for illegal raves over the Bank Holiday. Various pointers to rave-type activity are listed, and I am urged to tip off the Old Bill if anything happens in my locality.

But hang on a minute - of course raves are a Very Bad Thing at which people, most of them decades younger than I, listen to loud (and to my ears discordant) music, drink copious amounts of alcohol, smoke dubious cigarettes, and indulge in enthusiastic carnal activities. Of course, I would not want them at the bottom of my garden, and I pity householders who are subjected to a couple of sleepless nights, but really, is that the worst that the police have to worry about?

Throughout the years, nothing has enraged the comfortable middle-aged more than the fear that somewhere young people are having fun.

Shakespeare called it 'wronging the ancientry' and Milton spoke of the 'sons of Belial, flown with insolence and wine' .

Relax, folks , it will all be over well before Wednesday.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Banged Up

When I was sworn in in the mid 1980s there were something like 40,000 people in prison. Today there are about 85,000, so it must be worthwhile to think about how and why this has happened.

Here is an article by an ex-MP who has done time and in common with other well-known ex-cons has decided to pass on what he has learned.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Telling It Straight

I never thought that I would say this, but I was impressed when I stumbled across Teresa May's speech to the Police federation today, on live radio, and I was struck by the way in which she reminded the assembled Federation members of their track record of  alarmist claims that they trot out every time that they have a Home Secretary on their platform.

Report Here

Because the police are a disciplined force with a strong rank structure, some of them find it impossible to resist the temptation to yah-boo very senior people from the comfort of anonymity at their conference.  Well, as Ms. May said, it does them no credit.

As a part of the public service that is unprotected from present and future cuts, the police share with the courts and the prisons the prospect of things getting tighter still. We shall have to make the best of it, but constructively, so that when we point out areas where cuts have gone too far and have damaged justice, we can be taken seriously.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Top Tip (one of a series)

If you decide to take up burgling people's houses as a lifestyle choice, you will someday need to find a way of disposing of your loot. Cash is simple, but other stuff can be difficult. Things are so cheap these days that a telly that would have fetched £100 in the pub ten years ago can now  be bought for that on the Internet.

There is always Cash Converters, a 21st century pawnbrokers-cum-money shop that is run on spotless lines, that would have appealed to Fagin.

The chap we saw today was a regular client of  CashConverters, which is where he disposed of much of his stuff. The firm takes the precaution of requiring ID from its downmarket client base, and in addition takes a full face photograph of each of them, as well as snaps of the pledged valuables.

So the stolen stuff was traced to our man, and his mugshot matched the police database. Hardly Sherlock Holmes is it?

Crime Punishment and Rehabilitation

I spent most of this morning dealing with people who had breached various community orders. Some were easy - a young man whose attitude problem  makes him an impossible 'client' for Probation (or whatever it is called these days).He was sentenced to 100 hours of unpaid work and had managed to do two of them. We revoked his order, resentenced him to a suspended prison sentence and explained exactly what that means.

I spoke directly to him and pointed out that the courtroom has two exit doors: one leading to the lobby and the High Street , and the other to the cells. I explained slowly and directly that it was his choice as to which door he leaves by on any future appearance.

Then we saw a painfully thin and hunched woman of forty-something who looked at least ten years older, who had been brought low by her alcohol addiction.  We decided to cancel the existing order, and replace it with supervision with mandatory alcohol treatment.She was accompanied by her teenage daughter, whom I praised for her devotion to her mother's illnesses, and asked to remind her mum of her probation appointments.  Encouragingly, she and her mother thanked us as they left.

Fingers crossed, as ever.

Monday, May 11, 2015

New Face

So Michael Gove has been handed the Justice portfolio in succession to the unloved Chris Grayling. I wish him well and I shall reserve my judgment until he has started on the many tasks that face him. He is, by all accounts highly intelligent; I just hope that he can find the subtlety and balance that the job will require.

This article by the excellent Joshua Rozenberg sets the Human Rights issue into context. The HRA has never impinged on any decision that I have been called upon to make (although every magistrate had to do a day or two's training on the Act). The HRA has caused fury in the offices of the Daily Mail and its fellow right wing papers as well as among the unreconstructed Right of the Parliamentary Tories. I see the abolition as a bone thrown to these slavering hounds - I cannot in truth see that its abolition will be of more than symbolic importance. More urgent, in my view, is to do something about Grayling's bullying and callous legacy of court charges before the unpaid imposts get out of hand.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Nothing to See Here Folks, Move Along Please

Today's election results justify, for once, the journalistic hyperbole about them. 'Historic' Astounding' and suchlike are appropriate.

We wait with bated breath to hear who will be the Justice ministers. The Government's avowed overriding priority of dealing with the deficit will of course impose stringency on the finances of the justice system; so far, so inevitable, but I cross my fingers in hope that the medium-level ministers involved will not see the price of everything while knowing the value of nothing.

Justice is difficult to define, but awkward to support from day to day, but it remains true that to allow injustice as a consequence of financial stringency is a outrage.

Let's give things a few months and see what happens.

Monday, May 04, 2015

No Visible Means of Support

I spent this morning in what used to be called an 'occasional court', it being a Bank Holiday. Quite a few of our dozen or so cases resulted from the police clearing out their in-tray of arrest warrants for such things as breaching community penalties or failing to surrender to bail; a Bank Holiday being a perfect opportunity to dig a few PCs out of the canteen, at a time when the cells were unlikely to be too busy.

One character came into the dock with his hands firmly in his pockets. I heard the Serco guard mutter for him to take them out, and so he did, at which point his trousers fell down to his knees. The bench then invited him to keep his hands in his pockets, and thus preserve his decency.

On to more serious matters including an allegation of rape, in which the duty solicitor had a brave try at applying for bail, but the man's previous convictions for indecent assault on a minor and for exposing what used to be called his 'person' but is now called his genitals did for him and we sent him to the Crown Court in custody.

His mother and sister were in the gallery, wearing that look of shock and disbelief that is so common when a decent family has to see a member hauled before a court

Sunday, May 03, 2015


My little heart went pitter-patter this morning on my daily trawl through the press.

Apparently Chris Grayling might hang on to his seat, but is unlikely to hang on to his job.

I am not a vindictive man, but the sheer callousness of so many of his measures makes me yearn to see the back of him .

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


I have the bitter-sweet duty tomorrow of attending the last sitting of a much liked and respected colleague. She has not reached the retirement age of 70, but she has grandchildren both here and in the Antipodes, for whom she feels a grandmother's unconditional love.. She has reluctantly decided to sell her English house and acquire two smaller ones, one of them south of the Equator, hence her decision to leave the Bench early.

She has been an exemplary colleague, playing a full part in the committees that help to keep the Bench running. At the same time she has retained her grace and sense of humour, treating everyone in the courtroom, be they staff  professionals or defendants, with just the right mixture of courtesy and firmness.

We respect her, and, to be honest, those of us who have worked with her for about twenty years love her a bit as well.

We shall miss her. I hope that she will like the flowers that will be furtively concealed  in the retiring room tomorrow.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Dog That Didn't Bark In The Night

There has been a total lack of any significant debate on the criminal justice system in the election 'campaigns' so far.In a way I am relieved, since in the heat of a campaign the only ideas likely to emerge would be stupid or vicious or both. Instead the parties are trying to buy our votes with improbable amounts of our own (or our grandchildren's) money. Depressing.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Oaf Fait

A charmless young man came before us charged with assault, having punched the referee in a game of park football. Spectators on the touchline were shocked and someone called the police who duly arrested and charged the assailant.

Our colleagues at the early hearing adjourned the case for the preparation of pre-sentence reports, with a view to a community penalty. Twice he failed to turn up for his interview, then when he finally deigned to attend his behaviour towards the probation officer was so confrontational that she terminated he interview and submitted a so-called 'non-report' to us. His extensive list of previous convictions showed a propensity to violence,  so we took the precaution of putting him in the armoured-glass dock  in case he kicked off again.

We decided that there was no future in the community sentence route, so we sent him to prison for 18 weeks, reduced to 12 weeks as credit for his plea. I hope that he learns a lesson from this episode.


An election leaflet from my Lib Dem candidate dropped onto the mat yesterday. I had a glance at the candidate's details and was surprised to see that he claims to be a JP. When I was sworn in, we were told of certain basic no-nos, and high up the list was misuse of the JP status, including on any election literature.

I expect the hapless chap will be hearing from the Clerk to the Justices any time soon.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A New One On Me

We had a case of Outraging Public Decency in the other day - not an everyday occurrence in my court. A rather unsavoury looking woman of 22 admitted having full-on sex with a man on public transport, in full view of other passengers at eight in the morning. For some reason the man concerned had been dealt with a couple of weeks ago, so it seemed fair to give her the same sentence.

There is no specific guideline for this so we took a cue from that for Sexual Activity in a Public Lavatory, namely a fine. She had spent two days in custody, so we deemed the fine and surcharge served.

What's Going On At The MA?

The Magistrates' Association has puzzled a few of us in recent weeks.  I have been a member for about 30 years, dutifully coughing up thirty-odd quid each year. In recent years the MA website Members' Section has included a (passworded) forum. It has never attracted many contributors, but I have chipped in occasionally, as have luminaries such as Richard Monkhouse, the MA Chairman. Now, it has simply vanished, without any notice to readers and contributors nor any explanation as to why. My passwords for the Members' Section are now rejected.

This seems a shabby way to treat paid-up members. I cannot see that the Forum did any harm to anyone, after all.

Forum software is cheap and plentiful, so perhaps someone will set up a site where JPs can talk to each other and compare notes without fear of being got at by the tabloids.

Monday, April 13, 2015

On a Personal Note

Saturday's Boat Race (s) and tonight's University Challenge remind me of my 1950s childhood in the school playground. Menacing groups of lads (ignorant to a man of anything to do with universities) would question you whether you supported the dark or the light Blues. The 'wrong' answer would be punished. For whatever reason I supported Oxford.

Many years later my dear daughter got into Cambridge where she met my son-in-law. They married in the College Chapel, so I have to admit that I have changed my alliegance.

It doesn't mean a thing really. but it shows how small things can create loyalties.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

How Much Did That Cost?

(From Bystander N)

I recently spent time in a crown court’s public gallery.  I’m used to being on the bench with a judge or recorder, but not elsewhere in the court room.

My first two impressions were not favourable.  Much of the seating used by the advocates was ripped or badly worn and held together with masking tape.  The proceedings started about forty minutes late mainly because the prosecutor needed time to copy a summary for the jurors.  Why, I asked myself, wasn’t this done before the start of the trial?

The offence was sexual assault and definitely at the lower end of the scale.  A hand was alleged to have cupped a buttock, over clothing.  I was there on day two and heard that when the alleged victim gave evidence she said she hadn’t felt anything and hadn’t known an offence had taken place.  A friend who was with her said she had seen it.  I heard the defendant being examined and cross examined.  No doubt the judge, in summing up, would have told the jury that his having no previous made him more believable than otherwise. 

To give just a little of the background the defendant said the incident started when a small group of teenagers on his bus seemed to him to be talking about him and laughing at him.  He told them to behave themselves.  Based on his evidence, the CC TV from which I could not see any offence committed, and what I heard of what the other witnesses had said I felt the prosecution had not proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.  I came away with a question though.

I knew by lunch on day two that there were three civilian prosecution witnesses, the defendant and the officer in the case who I also heard give evidence.  There were some agreed statements.  The officer’s evidence left questions in my mind over the way they had dealt with it, but I digress.  I worked out that if held in my court the trial should have been set for a day.  I would be surprised if a magistrates’ court had declined jurisdiction and it was more likely that the defendant, or rather his solicitor, had opted for crown court. 

In those august surroundings, three days had been allocated.  What did that cost, whoever ended up paying, compared with what it would have cost in my court?  No wonder the justice system is short of money.

Monday, April 06, 2015


Comments to this blog are always welcome, and are moderated with a light touch. However I have just had to hold a couple that go into detail of someone's case. Unfortunately the blog is not the place to go over old individual cases. Sorry.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Callous and Destructive

This is the latest atrocity to be imposed on the courts by the ministry that calls itself "Justice" with no sense of irony.

Whoever dreamed this scheme up must not only lack any empathy with fragile human beings, but also lack any kind of experience of what day to day life is like in the lower courts, and the rough estates.

Most of our defendants are poor and many are ill-educated and close to unemployable. A high proportion are in receipt of benefits.

Now, in addition to the courts' sanctions we must, without judicial discretion, impose large financial penalties on those who appear before us. We may not take account of ability to pay, which has been an underlying principle for as long as I have been on the bench.

The impositions are unlikely to be collected (Blood/stone principle) and the amount outstanding will rapidly escalate into the multi-millions.

So much for the fine principles of rehabilitation.

When our revolving-door druggy shoplifter is released from his latest prison sentence, along with his release grant he will be handed a bill for potentially hundreds of pounds to pay out of his princely seventy-odd quid a week benefit. What is he likely to do?

 Go back to crime, of course.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

More From Bystander N

Magistrates don’t usually know until arrival what the business will be of the court room we are allocated to, or who we will be sitting with for the day.  It could be remands, trials, breaches of orders or other work.  Recently, for me, it was sentencing.

Over the day we completed our list of about a dozen or so cases and helped out another busy court with some of theirs.  We agreed with most of the report recommendations and changed a couple.

At the end of the day I asked my colleagues if they had noticed anything unusual about the day.  They hadn’t and perhaps they were right but it had struck me that every single one of the reports we had read said that the defendant had a mental health problem and in several cases we had an extra report from a mental health team worker.  One offence took place in a hospital in which the defendant and victim had been admitted as a result of acute mental health problems.  In another, and with no extra report, I was far from convinced it was true but in many cases we didn’t even need the extra report to recognise the blindingly obvious in front of us. 

Probably the most notable, but in the scheme of things totally unremarkable case was the drug addicted alcoholic before us who stole a pack of four cans of lager.  He got two out of their plastic top cover but was stopped on leaving the store.  He hadn’t opened any of the cans, they were repacked in the supermarket and put back for sale, but he was arrested.  We had no idea why the store didn’t just tell him what for and send him on his merry way but I suspect they knew him of old and had simply had enough.  Many shops have a policy of calling the police when they stop a thief, regardless of the value of what was taken.

He pleaded guilty and appeared to be sober when we saw him.  I pointed out to him that this would be the ninetieth offence on his record and you can imagine what most of the previous offences were.  He has been to prison many times for theft.  In mitigation we heard that he had no home and had been an addict for a long time.  His life revolved around going to his chemist for his heroin substitute prescription, and finding ways to get alcohol.  He looked at least twenty years older than his true age. 

He had been arrested almost twenty four hours before appearing before us so we fined him, deemed it served as he had no money, and ordered that he be kept in the cells until they closed later that afternoon.  At least he would then go away having had a meal, back no doubt to hanging around his chemist and anywhere stocking alcohol.  I resisted the temptation to say goodbye and see you soon, but no doubt I will.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Told You So

I have previously mentioned Lord Justice Bean, whom I respect and admire. In the past I have had the temerity to predict that he would go on to greater things.

He has now been sworn in to the Privy Council.



This BBC report  surprised me and will probably surprise  a lot of magistrates. The offence boils down to a potentially vicious attack, in a context of road rage. These factors would led me to expect a serious sentence of at least a year or two, but this disposal appears a bit milk-and-water. Any thoughts?

That Ridiculous Surcharge Again.

(from Bystander N)

I have just been reading the full sentencing remarks of HHJ Pontius in the matter of R v Brusthom Ziamani, who had planned to cut off the head of a British soldier.  As is usual from a judge they give a clear and precise explanation for the sentencing decision he came to.   

He said “Formally expressed, therefore, I pass an extended sentence of twenty seven years, the custodial term of which is twenty two years, with a licence extension of five years” and his final sentence reads “If a Victim Surcharge is appropriate in this case the relevant order will be drawn up and served on the defendant in due course.”  I noticed a card on the bench in my local crown court where I sat this week with just this wording.

In the magistrates’ courts we have to work out the surcharge and announce to the defendant what the amount is and then we deal with payment, or at least we set the terms, and then wonder if they will ever be met, even if the defendant has agreed them.

The crown court does not always seem to deal with this in detail but can someone tell me the point, in a case like this, of applying a charge of £120?  Does anyone seriously think it will ever be paid or will it just be added to the vast number of fines, costs, compensations and surcharges that don’t happen as the court instructed?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged

Judge not, that ye be judged

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

The news that four judges, of varyingly modest eminence, have been sacked has inevitably elicited a degree of glee in the press.
Let's get one thing straight: none of these guys was a proper judge, any more than I am. (Note to pedants: on the few times a year when I sit beside a Crown Court Judge  on appeals, I am, in law, a judge. But not a real one). 
My daily paper tells me that most adult men have at some time viewed the pornography that is ubiquitous on the Interweb. That is up to them. The four Dirty Beaks (as the scurrilous press will no doubt dub them) stand convicted of nothing worse than naivety: that their internet trawling was and would remain secret. Using the judicial IT system (to which I have limited and unused access) may have been careless, and certainly was naive.
The point of this post is to say that in the present social and political climate no journalist can resist the lure of bringing down the dignity of a judge. 
I have been a Bench Chairman several times over the years, and one of my duties included giving an introductory pep talk to new JPs.
I always pointed out that a silly spat between neighbours that held no interest for the local rag became headline material when it became "JP in Neighbour Row".
I have met and worked with all levels of judges over the years, and I can say without reservation that almost without exception they are impressive  hardworking and straight.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Auld Acquaintance

"This is Mr............"announced the usher. She didn't need to, because I recognised him as soon as the guards brought him up into the dock. He recognised me too, with a very wary look,  as he should have done, since I have dealt with him on more than a dozen occasions  over the years. He is a slight, balding man in his early forties and he has something like 175 previous convictions. His manner is apologetic, as ever, probably because a night or two in the cells is about as close as he ever gets to being sober.

The duty solicitor did her best, explaining that he has had a long-term addiction to alcohol, and reoffends either by shoplifting the stuff or by pinching something else that he can sell to buy booze.(Much the same cycle applies to drug addicts, by the way). She didn't need to tell me this, because he is firmly in my memory.

He has been in and out of prison on the well-established revolving door, for years. Today's offence was fairly trivial, and he had just spent almost 48 hours in a cell. We were told that he had self-referred to a local organisation for help with his addiction, but had relapsed and taken a few cans of beer from Asda.

I took off my glasses and looked him in the eye. "We have seen quite a lot of each other over the years, haven't we?" I said. He gave a sheepish nod. "You know the score as well as we do. We ought to send you straight back inside today." No reaction. "But we are going to give you another chance, although you have had loads of last chances before. We are going to fine you £100 but deem it served by your time in custody. We hear that you are having help for your problems.  We cannot make you take that help, but we want you to.

Only you can sort out your problems, and we are giving you a chance to make a start. Go with the officer please". A nod of the head and he was gone.

As I turned over the photocopied list of cases I spotted his date of birth, that is one week after that of my son.

There but for the grace of god............

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Saturday Club

Yesterday I chaired the Saturday court that covers three London Boroughs. As usual I asked security what trade we had and he told me that we had nine downstairs in custody: as he saw my expression lighten, he added "but there could be quite a few extras, sir".

We had a quick pre-brief with our legal adviser, who told me that she had been in the job for just a few years; at which point I promised that we would work as a team. If I didn't know, I would ask her  in open court, and if she didn't know I would fall back on the Ways and Means Act, allowing her to look stuff up where necessary, ideally for the time it took the bench to drink cups of coffee.

As usual on a Saturday we were faced with a few Domestic Violence cases, a handful of shoplifters, mostly drug-driven, and a few Fail To Surrender to Warrant cases.

One lucky lad had been picked up on a warrant but the custody sergeant was  off his form, and the time limit to hold the man was just expiring. So I gave him the good news, but I did point out his good luck, in that his only penalty for breaking a court order was two uncomfortable days in a cell. Rough justice of course, but I can live with that.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Dole Bludgers

Every magistrate will be familiar with cases brought by the Department for Work and Pensions against people who have claimed benefits to which they are not entitled. Sometimes it is a claimant who manages to get a job, and fails to declare it, sometimes it is failing to own up to living with someone else while claiming single-person benefits. Most people I have seen are women, ranging from young claimants who apply for nursing training and fail to declare the bursary to which they are then entitled to young mothers who allow lover-boy to move in on the quiet.
In no time at all the amount overclaimed runs up to some enormous figures, especially once housing benefit and suchlike is factored in. In suburban London a not-too-special one bedroom flat can easily cost £700 per month. A recent case involved overclaims of over £22,000 piled up over a mere 78 weeks.

We imposed a period of unpaid work as the only realistic option, and as often happens there was no claim for compensation because it is now policy for the paying authorities to carry out their own enforcement procedures. We imposed minimal costs, because there was no chance that they would ever be paid.

I let my house for a couple of years some time ago, and the tenant's business went bust after about eight months. Housing benefit was paid directly to me by the council, and that worked fine. I have no idea why the system was changed to give the cash directly to the tenant - it looked like asking for trouble to me.

Monday, February 23, 2015


Will Straw is the son of former Home Secretary Jack Straw. After being president of the National Union of Students, Jack went to work for the late Barbara Castle, and in due course he slipped smoothly into her seat in the Commons.

By an amazing coincidence, young Will has been selected to stand for the adjacent constituency of Rossendale and Darwen.. Well, I say coincidence, but I suppose something might have slipped under the radar, as the saying goes.

If you do a search for Jack Straw on this blog, you will see that I am not his greatest admirer. Will must be cursing his luck at this latest affair.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Rich, Spoilt, Irresponsible Bastards

My wife and I have just returned home from from a lovely week in North Wales. Our cottage was comfortable with stunning views across Conwy harbour. Being out of the holiday season (although we were blessed with three sunny days) the roads were quiet and for once we travelled at our own modest speed rather than that of the cars in front.

The A55 runs east-west across the North Wales coast, and is of near-motorway standard. The other evening we were on our way back from a trip round Anglesey and my wife was driving at a relaxed sixty-something as I contemplated the dinner to come. Suddenly, with a blast of noise, we were overtaken by a Lamborghini, followed at a few car lengths, by a Ferrari. I do not presume to estimate their precise speed, but they appeared to be racing or in convoy, and their speed was, at a conservative guesstimate, well into the realm of double the national 70 mph limit.

Then they were gone. A mile up the road was a gathering of Heddlu cars (Welsh for police, I am told) but they would have had no chance of doing anything about the hooligans in their £150,000 worth of toys, even if their diesel Skodas had been up to the job.

All right, nobody died, but the drivers concerned took a calculated risk with others' lives. My magistrate's instincts kicked in, and I saw this as a clear Dangerous Driving matter, calling for heavy fines, and, most importantly, substantial driving bans. They can throw money at their cars, but it's loss of licence that really hits home.

I rarely do traffic cases since they have been hived off into special courts, but sometimes I would like a flip-up sign on my car saying "If you knew I was a magistrate you might not have done that".

Pure fantasy, of course.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Monday, February 09, 2015

Even Clouseau Was Better Than This

This is an outrage.

For one thing it is the sort of thing that the Stasi used to specialise in, and for another what the hell is going on in the command structure of this police force?

Friday, February 06, 2015

I Think You Are Right There M'Lud

I understand that Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice (so my boss) has expressed doubts about the practice in most criminal courts of putting the defendant into a secure glass dock. Unless there is a good reason to prevent escape, or assault on court staff, we never allow a defendant to be handcuffed, because that might prejudice him in the sight of the jury or bench. I have seen a handful of cases over the years in which cuffs were allowed, but in most cases there is no real need to lock the defendant in a glass cell, especially if he is unconvicted. Let's see how this turns out.

Only The Best

We sent a credit card fraudster up to the Crown Court for sentence last week. He had a string of previous convictions, and the latest set showed sophistication and planning. The totality of his offending pushed him past the Too Serious For Us test.

The total amount of the latest frauds was well over £19,000, mostly on travel to exotic places. I was struck by the fact that our man had chosen to fly  business class. Clearly he had no wish to rough it with the hoi polloi at the back of the plane. He is now in less-than-luxurious accommodation, paid for by the taxpayer.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

It’s not all about guilty or not guilty.(by Bystander N)

One day last week my courthouse played host to a group of youngsters from a primary school in our justice area, under the auspices of MiC.  Magistrates in the Community gives magistrates a chance to volunteer to talk to groups of school kids, university students or adults, about the court system either at the court or outside court.

First the group went into a court room before the start of business; whilst two magistrates explained generally what happens in court, about the offences dealt with etc. etc.  Witness Support came and spoke for a few minutes about how evidence is given by young people and the measures taken to help them to prepare for giving their evidence, and about screens and video link.  They saw the cells and a prison van thanks to the Serco staff who went out of their way to be helpful and spoke to the group about some of their work.  I’m pleased to report the kids definitely had no wish ever to see a cell or the inside of a van again.

Then it was into a court room’s public gallery.  Unfortunately they then spent quite some time listening to a case management form being completed which was hardly the lively cut and thrust they might have wanted to hear but we were in the real world.

Finally there was a question and answer session.  It was amazing how much of the detail they had picked up during the case management and of the bail conditions so they were clearly listening intently.  They asked a lot of very sensible questions.  They knew about several offences but it came as surprise that if they decided to stop going to school and play truant every day, their parents could face prosecution. 

All in all a very well worthwhile morning’s work and the future suddenly seems a little safer.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Not Always Exciting, This Job...

Today was a stultifyingly boring sitting at one of our outlying courthouses. We dealt with a couple of routine applications (that are of course important to the applicants) and moved on, after a good 20 minutes' coffee time, to a trial. Well, that was the plan, anyway. The CPS were not sure about how far the case had got and the court office was not too sure either. We hung around, as one does, and went to lunch.

My day then brightened up, because I was accompanied to the outlying courthouse by one of my favourite colleagues , a charming and amusing former teacher, who spotted the fact that the west London traffic had prevented me from buying a pre-packed sandwich en route. Bless her, she bought me a Greggs chicken-and-something sarnie and, as ever, refused to take a penny for it.

Back to the court: the prosecutor had a soft and even-toned voice that would lull  anyone to sleep ( in fact the usher did nod off) .

So we followed first principles and acquitted the defendant, following our guidelines to the letter

Heigh-ho, we can have another go in a week or three.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Tempora Mutantur...

This article gives a professional's view on our courts today.

Swearing Stuff

It is reported today that pressure is being applied to the Duke of York to make a statement about allegations of sexual misbehaviour that have been made against him. Interestingly the statement 'should be on oath'.

In today's resolutely secular Britain a vanishingly small percentage of people would feel that their chance of going to heaven might hang on whether or not they lied on oath. These days I would guess that around half of witnesses choose to affirm rather than take a religious oath.

Anyone who has spent much time in a Magistrates' Court will be well aware of the blithe way in which many people who have sworn to tell the truth go ahead to lie through their teeth.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


Prince Andrew has denied press allegations that he has had sex with an under-age girl .

Where is Mandy Rice-Davies when we need her?

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

No Praise For Appraisal

The Law Gazette carries this piece about the quality of magistrates' training.

It's a complex subject, because furnished as we are with  a qualified barrister or solicitor as legal adviser, we only need to know the basic principles of law and procedure. Appraisals take place every three years (my next one is in February) and are carried out by an approved fellow magistrate. Unfortunately, the legal adviser was removed from the process some years ago, to save money.

Appraisals must be frank and honest, not always an easy task when the subject is someone you have known for a decade.

As for routine training, it has withered over the years, and only a token amount takes place, usually on new appointees and new chairmen. There ought to be more, and the appraisals should be tougher, but it's the money, you see,

Monday, January 05, 2015

Here We Go Again

One of my most cherished possessions is a leather diary cover that I was given when I was sworn in in (ahem) 1985. It bears, in faded gold embossing, the legend "Justices' Year Book" and the proud arms of the ancient county of Middlesex. It remains in daily use.

I was appointed to the Commission of the Peace for Middlesex and at the swearing-in at the then newly-built Southwark Crown Court we were shown the Commission itself, sumptuously lettered on vellum, and assured that this was the document, signed by Elizabeth R and sealed with wax, from which we were to draw our authority to deal with the scoundrels and ruffians (I paraphrase) of Her Majesty's county of Middlesex.

I have the diary before me, and for the last ten years and more I have had to buy my own refill (best part of a tenner with postage). In earlier times we were given a diary insert ( a sad, cheapo thing) and a directory of our bench colleagues. That went too, in a panic about confidentiality.

So I opened the diary today and entered my allocated sittings, along with the usual family reminders,

So what will the year hold? I have a bad feeling about the inevitable May election. If the recent opening shots in the campaign are any guide the level of argument is likely to descend to sloganising at best.

Mercifully, no party seems so far to have lit upon the criminal justice system as grist to the populist mill. Cross your fingers, friends, and let us hope if not for the best but for the least worst.

Happy New Year.