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The Magistrate's Blog (2005-2012)

This blog has migrated to www.magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk This blog is anonymous, and Bystander's views are his and his alone. Where his views differ from the letter of the law, he will enforce the letter of the law because that is what he has sworn to do. If you think that you can identify a particular case from one of the posts you are wrong. Enough facts are changed to preserve the truth of the tale but to disguise its exact source.

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Location: Near London, United Kingdom

The blog is written by a team, who may or may not be JPs, but all of whom are interested in the Magistrates' Courts.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Over There

Some years ago I went to stay with friends in Long Island, New York. I took with me a letter of introduction from the Magistrates' Association, and armed with this I contacted the Nassau County District Court who invited me to go and spend a morning with them. I was met at the door by a stocky female in uniform, who was carrying a revolver, a quick-reload clip, Mace spray, handcuffs, and a club. She was the usher, and a total contrast to the ushers in my court. I was made very welcome by the chief clerk, and after a briefing she took me to see a selection of courts in action. Most striking was the overnight remand court, where prisoners were brought in two at a time, handcuffed to each other. I have seen a few characters in my time, but these were really ugly-looking types and I was rather comforted by the handcuffs. Bail was either set or refused by the judge, but the US system requires real money, so the offender has to deal with a bail bondsman to get out.

The highlight was when I was taken into Court Number One and I was invited to sit on the bench next to the judge. He announced me to the court as Judge Bystander from London (by this time I had given up trying to explain about magistrates). He consulted me on all of his decisions and passed me the defendants' rap sheets, of which there were three, one for each level of the justice system. Plea bargains took place in open court, and The People, as the prosecution is called, would make one-day-only special offers of plea reductions, the offer to lapse if not accepted straight away. Very few cases make it to trial, as nearly everyone ends up doing a deal.

The system retains the split between a felony and a misdemeanor (sic) with the lowest level of crime being disorderly conduct. With the latter you are entitled to have your mugshots and fingerprints returned to you, so The People were occasionally offering to reduce charges from a misdemeanor to a disorderly conduct with a waiver, which allows the authorities to hang on to them.

The staff and judges were most friendly and I found the whole experience fascinating. As with so much of America's inheritance from Britain the origin of their justice system is obviously British, but a lot of detail has changed since 1776.

One difference between our systems is that when someone is convicted of DUI (drink-driving) it is possible to ban them from driving except from home to work and back again. Suburban America is totally dependent on the car, and to ban a driver completely might prevent him from working. If he is found anywhere other than on the prescribed route, jail beckons. It's an interesting idea, but the enforcement would be a bit tricky in the UK.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Sad, the Mad, and Occasionally the Bad (part 2)

Today was another bits-and pieces day, as I was in to cover for an absent colleague and therefore got the odds-and-sods court. The day got off to a bad start because the van that brings the prosecution files to court had a problem, so we feared an hour or more of hanging about. The van turned up in the nick of time, so we got going just a little after our 10 a.m. start time, but we were mentally prepared for the prosecutors to be struggling with their files.

As so often happens when you are resigned to tedium the morning list was unexpectedly interesting. Unfortunately if I were to blog the interesting cases I could be outed in a jiffy, so you will have to wait for a few months until I can drag them from the depths and disguise them.

There is one that I can relate, and it cheered me up no end. A chap was given a police fixed penalty for parking in a place that has, for security reasons, a more or less zero-tolerance policy. Instead of paying the fixed penalty our man wrote a long letter to the court explaining how he had been trying to drop off his elderly mother but had trouble getting hold of a wheelchair for her. We believed him, and it took us no time to decide on an Absolute Discharge and no costs. The very next case offered a not-dissimilar excuse that was so full of holes as to be not just incredible but an insult to our intelligence. Fine £100, costs £35.

Most parking is now decriminalised and administered by Council staff. That's quick and cheap, but if you truly have a story to tell, you won't do better than to go in front of a bench of magistrates.

In the afternoon I got my wish of a nice little trial, where the issues were simple, and the witnesses made our minds up for us. They revealed all of the undercurrents of human frailty that had led to a maelstrom of bad feeling among their very extended family, and then contradicted each other so badly that we acquitted the defendant in five minutes' discussion. Finished at 4.35 p.m. Not too bad.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Charm Offensive

Jonathan Miller has followed up his earlier email thusly:-

------------------------------------------------------
From: Jonathan Miller
Date: 05/22/05 16:08:34
To: Bystander@dsl.pipex.com
Subject: Who is stupid


You know perfectly well that magistrates get jobs via party lists – so why dissemble?

What a poltroon you are! But jumped up, all the same. Your little web notice claiming to be engaged in the business of law is frankly pathetic. You are not a lawyer. You are a lackey.

Yours with customary disrespect

Miller

-----------------------------------------------------

I am becoming a little worried about Mr. Miller. I think that he might need some attention to his sense of proportion. Still, at least he didn't call me a drink-sodden popinjay, although that might at least have been more accurate then the rest of what he says.

Aw, Shucks

The Independent on Sunday has us as Blog of the Week. That's nice, and I nominate them as my Sunday Newspaper of the Week.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Ton-and-a-Half Copper

A comment has already flooded in about the police officer who was cleared of speeding today after driving at a ludicrously high speed.

I will break my usual rule about never commenting on a case where I have not heard all of the facts to say that there can be no excuse for anyone, no matter how skilled, to drive at that speed on a public road. It should have been a clear case of Dangerous Driving, and a short custodial sentence would not be out of the question. He should certainly no longer be allowed to drive police vehicles. Acquitting him of speeding is even more extraordinary.

The decision was of course taken by a District Judge (Magistrates' Courts) who is a full time paid lawyer who sits alone. I cannot imagine any lay bench reaching such a decision, nor making such an extraordinary pronouncement.

50,000

At 10.53 this morning I had my 50,000th visitor to the blog since it started in early January. Thanks everyone.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Charmless

I have previously expressed my personal reservations about the enforcement of TV licensing. My original post attracted a lot of feedback from anti-licence campaigners. I mentioned licence enforcement again the other day, and I received the following email from Jonathan Miller, a journalist who campaigns on the issue:-

From: Jonathan Miller
Date: 05/16/05 15:41:34
To: Bystander@dsl.pipex.com


My dear fellow

I am appalled by your participation in the continuing TVL farce. Do you have no guts? Why not fine these poor people a fiver and take a stand against the injustice of this system where a prosecution-mad BBC criminalises poverty in order that they can pay millions to their ‘celebrities’ at the expense of welfare mums on benefits?

How did you get your job? Which political party list were you on?

Contemptuously, I am afraid…

Jonathan Miller



This seems a strange way to address someone whom he would presumably wish to have on his side. I don't think that he has yet got the message about one's personal opinions being subordinate to the law, and the gibe about political parties is simply stupid.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Sad, the Mad, and Occasionally the Bad

It was a bitty day last Friday. We spent a couple of hours dealing with fine enforcement, and we were grateful for the fact that it is a lot easier these days to have fines deducted from the person's benefit at source. At between £5 and £8 per week it can take a while to collect,especially when compensation is involved, but at least it trickles in eventually. One young lad tossed a concrete bin through a supermarket window to get his hands on two bottles of cider valued at £3. The bill for the window was £1500, which made for an expensive drink.

Then we did a few TV licences. The inspectors had turned over one of our local college residences and we saw about twenty cases involving students. Those who turned up and pleaded guilty were fined an average of about £40 and £20 costs, but those who just ignored the summons were convicted in their absence and fined an average of £120 plus £45 costs - it pays to turn up and to explain just how skint you are.

We then sentenced a young woman with learning difficulties who was involved in a minor theft. She lives in a special hostel, and in all the circumstances a Conditional Discharge was the obvious way to go (guilty plea, low value, no previous convictions, unsophisticated) so that's what we did. A significant number of our customers either have a learning difficulty or have a diagnosed mental illness and I find them very hard to deal with. There was a man who had breached a nuisance order by continuing to make his neighbour's lives hell with constant shouting and screaming. He caused a scene in the foyer and when we got him in we heard that he has been in and out of hospital having been sectioned several times. He was so agitated that it was hopeless trying to make progress, so we put it off to another day when things may be calmer. We finished the day by issuing a Mental Health Warrant allowing medical staff and social workers to go and pick up a potentially dangerous patient who had escaped from what was supposed to be a secure unit.

With one exception every single person that we saw during the day was either a student or on benefit. As I walked into the pub later and looked at the well-fed and well-clothed people around me I was reminded of the diversity of our society.

I am sitting again tomorrow, so we shall see what the morning list brings. I fancy a nice all-day trial, with verdict at about a quarter past four. I should be so lucky. Perhaps I'll see a bit of Happy Slapping instead.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Voice of Experience

Douglas Hurd, as a former Home Secretary, is worth listening to on matters of law and order. He has no further political ambitions, which gives his views an added strength since he is far above playing to the gallery.

Have a look at This or

This in "The Spectator"

(Copyright gratefully acknowledged - thanks Boris)

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

It's A Bargain

Plea bargaining, which is routine in the USA, exists in a shadowy half-world in the English jurisdiction. It goes on, of course, but nobody likes to admit to it. At its lowest, if someone is facing half a dozen charges (easy enough in the motoring court) the prosecutor might take a view on the lesser ones and drop them in return for a quick plea to the serious one. In cases of assault, where the facts can cover a wide spectrum, the commonest deal is between Actual Bodily Harm and Common Assault. ABH is either-way, so there is an option of a Crown Court trial. If the defendant digs his heels in on the ABH and threatens to opt for jury trial, but his brief hints that a plea might be forthcoming on Common Assault the prosecutor might well go down that route. It's rough justice in a way, but it's quick and it's cheap. Common Assault is summary-only and the maximum sentence is £5000 fine, and/or six months' prison, with the power to award compensation to the victim. A case that might have lingered for months at the Crown Court, with Counsel briefed and a jury empanelled, with a Circuit Judge presiding can be dealt with on the day, with a quick pre-sentence report and the job is done. The lower court's power of sentence for ABH and Common Assault are the same.

We sometimes see an Agreed Basis of Plea, which is little understood outside of the courts. In a case of, say, common assault, the actual assault can be anything from spitting, to grabbing someone's arm, to a punch, or a kick, or worse. It may or may not have been repeated. If the defendant agrees that he committed an assault but disputes the seriousness, there are two options. One is a Newton Hearing, which is a mini-trial, conducted in the same way as a full trial, to decide on a fact of the case that does not amount to a defence but goes to establish seriousness. Mr. Fangio accepts that he was driving at more than 70 mph, but denies that the speed was 115. So the court hears evidence and makes up its mind. Another option is the Agreed Basis of Plea where the defence admit the offence but only on their version of what happened. If the Crown accept this, the court has to sentence on that basis. This can bring the sentence way down. A few weeks ago we heard the prosecution summary of what sounded like a very nasty incident. Had we sentenced on those facts the young man concerned would not have been going home that afternoon, nor for some months to come. In the event we gave him a community penalty of unpaid work, because the agreed plea took the matter well down the scale.

Last year my colleagues dealt with a Very Famous Person who had misbehaved, fuelled by drink and by arrogance. He faced three charges, one either-way that could have led to a few months in prison, one common assault, and one public order offence, known in the trade as a section 5. The gallery was packed with press, with camera crews outside on the pavement. By the time that pleas were entered the either-way charge had been dropped, the assault was agreed on the basis of one open-handed slap, and the Section 5 amounted to a lot of bad language. My colleagues sentenced by the book and gave him a period of unpaid work. The next day the headlines were screaming about dozy out-of-touch magistrates and the lack of deterrence. Most didn't mention the reduction in charges, and none connected that with the sentence. We received a couple of dozen letters at the court, mostly abusive, some just pained at our failure to do our job.

I suspect that the CPS' decision to lower the charges was taken partly to avoid a media circus at the Crown Court (where the case could have taken two or three days) and partly to get the file closed as quickly as possible. That's understandable, I suppose, but the end result was unfairly to decrease public confidence in the system - whether you blame that on the CPS or on sloppy and tendentious press coverage is up to you.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Off-Topic But it's My Blog After All (2)

This blog is one man's personal view from inside the magistracy - it isn't political.

(deep breath, pause) So what the hell is wrong with our newly elected politicians?

Two or three thousand people stood for Parliament. Most lost. Winners and losers spent months and years with little else on their minds but the election. Last Thursday all was resolved.

By Friday morning everyone from the Prime Minister to the bloke who got 14 votes for the Save The Gay Whales coalition was tired. Knackered. Exhausted. Shagged out. Sleep-deprived.

Why, for God's sake, couldn't the silly sods agree on a political break (but they would want to call it a moratorium) for, say, a week in which nobody spoke to the press or indeed did anything energetic? After a few nights' sleep everyone would be feeling better and thinking brighter. So what's the hurry, everyone? You have at least four years to another election.

Take a few days off - you know it makes sense.

(PS: Now you know for sure that I am naive (okay, Pedants 'R' us, naif then)).

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Good Grief

I have just been reading a press report that says children who suffer trauma just before an examination should be given one or two per cent bonus percentage points to compensate them, and to keep the exam fair.

A negative version of the same thinking occurs in court every day of the week. The defence lawyer says that his client chose to drive while disqualified because he was still traumatised by the death of his granny. Two years ago.

Apocrypha (9)

Since courts exercise power on behalf of the Crown, each court building displays the Royal coat-of-arms - you know, the one with the lion and the unicorn, and the motto Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense.

The arms are also placed above the centre of the Bench in all courtrooms. Somewhere, no doubt, there is a dedicated group of artisans producing these symbols of authority to be used in new and refurbished courts throughout the land.

The courthouse in which I sit has a number of courtrooms, and one small detail puzzles me:

In Courts One and Three the unicorn is undoubtedly a stallion. In the other courts he is clearly a gelding. Why should this be? Is this symbolic of something, or merely armigerous artistic licence?

I think that we should be told.

Friday, May 06, 2005

New Government

As a magistrate I have no political opinions. As a citizen I do.

I am committed to playing my small part in improving the criminal justice system, so here is my non-party-political wishlist for the next few years:-

Above all: give us a break from legislation. There has been an avalanche of reforms in the organisation of the courts and in the law. Such a vast edifice as the legal system needs to be reformed gradually, allowing time for changes to be tested and considered before moving on to the next new idea. Senior legal professionals whom I meet on a regular basis are more or less unanimous that much recent law was passed too quickly after inadequate debate, and that time is needed for reflection and amendment where necessary.

The administration of the courts has been in continuous change for most of the last decade. A breathing space is now needed to allow the new arrangements to settle down. Now that all court staff are civil servants the judiciary needs to defend its independence from the tick-the-box mentality of the administrators. Give us time to do that.

The Crown Prosecution Service is led by good people but they are let down every day by stupid administrative errors. Only last week I was asked to issue a witness summons in a domestic violence case. The witness first indicated that she was reluctant to come to court last January, but the CPS only asked for the summons in the first week of May for a trial due to start in the second week of May. There is now almost no chance that the trial will go ahead, which will cause great expense and inconvenience, and there is no justice in that. Get the basic admin. right, and soon.

Save money if you must, but make sure that probation and drug treatment services are properly funded. In the long run that will save a fortune, and reduce the tide of misery that washes through our courts every day.

Finally, trust the courts. The tabloids will never be satisfied but there are at least four years before the next election. Don't legislate every time that the Daily Mail gets into a panic; judges magistrates and staff in the system are citizens who have real lives too, and they will be better employed fine tuning the law than in struggling to understand some half-cocked reform.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Home Improvements

Some while ago the occupiers of a pair of semi-detached houses fell out. Mr. Singh, the chap in no. 32, was a keen do-it-yourselfer, while Mr. Lawrence in no. 34 was of a less energetic disposition. Mr. Singh was in the habit of working late into the night as well as most of Saturday and Sunday too. The resulting racket from hammering, sawing, sanding and drilling made it hard for the neigbours to watch TV in peace, or to get a proper night's sleep. Complaints had no effect, so Mr. Lawrence finally went to the council who took the case to court where my colleagues granted an order restricting the hours when Mr. Singh could pursue his hobby.

An uneasy peace reigned for a while, until one early evening when Mr. Lawrence and his wife were sitting watching Coronation Street while Mr. Singh was banging away in his living room on the other side of the party wall. Suddenly there was a loud crash, and a hole appeared in the wall and a few bricks fell onto the carpet in a shower of plaster. The head of a sledgehammer appeared, and was withdrawn. Visible through the hole was Mr. Singh's face wearing an expression of surprise.

Pausing only to pick up two of the bricks Mr, Lawrence stormed out of his house and into the Singh front garden. He hurled the first brick through the double-glazed front door, and the second through the front room window, with the words "Here's your fu***ng bricks back, you wanker", followed by an invitation to come out and fight.

Fortunately there was no fight, but Mr. Lawrence did receive a conditional discharge and an order to pay for the damage. Because the damage done by Mr. Singh was accidental the court had no power to order any compensation so it was left for insurers to sort out. I was told some time later that one of the families had moved house, but I never did find out which.

Grumble

I have just finished filling out my expenses claim for last month, the first under the new regime of Her Majesty's Courts Service, for which the civil servants have devised a brand new form. This form covers four sides of A4, as opposed to the previous single side, it contains logical inconsistencies that make it a matter of guesswork to fill it in properly. The instructions for completing the form run to six sides of A4! In addition it cannot be filed electronically, as many of us have been doing for years. Claims have to be made each month, whereas many magistrates who do not sit too often only claim every few months.

Result: thirty thousand magistrates whose reactions range from furious through irritated to a shrug.

Before anyone asks, the expenses I can claim are travel (car mileage or train fares) and a small subsistence allowance of about £6.50 per day.

Monday, May 02, 2005

What's a Petty Crime?

A few months ago I was walking near the courthouse early in the evening. I had just passed McDonald's when a young man strode past me. He was holding a large cardboard McDonald's drink carton, and I was amazed to see him stop and hurl it across the road. Parked on the other side of the road was a bus and the carton slammed into the side of the cab, spraying what appeared to be milk everywhere. The driver's window was partly open and some of the milk sprayed her. I looked round and the man was sprinting up the road as fast as his Reeboks would carry him.

The driver shouted from her window for someone to tell her who had thrown the carton, so I walked across and told her what had happened, that the defendant had immediately sprinted off, and that I thought that there was no chance of catching him. I knew that the brief glimpse I had would never be enough for an identification. The driver was on her emergency radio by this time, asking her controller to call the police. "This bus is going nowhere" she announced and asked the dozen or so passengers she had aboard to get off as the service was cancelled.

There was nothing further that I could do, so I went on my way. Thinking it over on my way home, I was firstly baffled by the motivation of the man, who had presumably paid a pound or two for his carton of milk. The driver must have been frightened, because the missile landed with a loud thud, and for a brief moment she can have had no idea what it was, nor what the liquid consisted of. The group of passengers who were waiting for the bus to depart to an outlying part of the borough were forced to wait for at least 45 minutes for the next bus. The police and the bus company will have incurred expense.

Then I thought what if he had been caught and arrested? What could he be charged with - if he were indeed charged rather than cautioned? Criminal damage? Drunk and disorderly, if drink is involved? A Public Order offence of causing harassment alarm and distress? One of the myriad archaic offences that custody Sergeants like to dig out of the book when they have nothing much else to do?

I thought of the court appearance. Man pleads guilty, duty solicitor mitigates. His client is very sorry, he had had a row with his girlfriend, and had quite a lot to drink. The offence was trivial, after all it was only a cardboard carton of milk, not a brick or a bottle. No permanent harm was done. Client wants to apologise to the bus driver (nobody has mentioned the poor passengers!). Client has no previous. In all the circumstances, respectfully suggests a conditional discharge. In all likelihood that's what would happen. Otherwise a small fine, perhaps.

The Bench has only heard a part of the story, and has to sentence on what is before it. If I miraculously had the power to deal with the oaf, having seen exactly what happened and how many people were inconvenienced, and then being able to sentence him (out of the question because I am a witness) I would give him a 60-hour community punishment to make reparation to society, order £50 compensation to the driver and £15 to each passenger, and £50 to the bus company for cleaning costs. £50 prosecution costs.

There in a nutshell is one of the reasons why the public often feel that the courts under-sentence. The bench can only take account of factors that it knows about, and there is always more to a case that the prosecutor's summary will reveal.

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