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.