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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.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Phish and Chips

I dealt with my first ever Phishing case recently. The defendant fraudulently transferred a large sum of money into his own account by Internet fraud, and then attempted, using methods that I won't detail, to turn it into cash. He was thwarted by a vigilant counter clerk.

We heard only limited details because he pleaded guilty, but we had no hesitation in sending him to the Crown Court for sentence. A sophisticated fraud, prevalent at the moment, cries out for a deterrent sentence, despite the def's previous clean record. My guess is that the judge will see the offence as being worth about three years, but allow one-third discount for the very early guilty plea.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Worrying

When I sit in court, politics has no place either in the proceedings or in our deliberations. Nevertheless, politicians in Parliament make laws, and so we must all take notice when the Prime Minister speaks.

He said, at Brighton:-


I believe three things work.

First, a radical extension of summary powers to police and local authorities to take on the wrong doers.

We will publish plans to do this by the end of the year. They will tackle specifically binge-drinking, drug-dealing and organised crime; and develop existing laws on ASB.

Second, we need a uniformed presence on the street in every community. Officers on the beat is what the public have wanted for years and they're right. I have seen teams of police and CSOs in action. It works. We want them across the whole of Britain over the next few years.

Third, give our young people places to go so that they're off the street.


Numbers two and three are obviously desirable. Let's have another look at number one:

First, a radical extension of summary powers to police and local authorities to take on the wrong doers.


Now I don't know what that means to you, but to me it seems that "radical extension" and "summary powers" mean giving quasi-judicial power to policemen and to council functionaries to impose criminal sanctions on citizens.

Of course voices such as mine will be dismissed as being a last attempt of the bien-pensant middle classes to defend their right to impose themselves on the lower orders without 'accountability'.

I never criticise politicians for who they are, only for what they do.

Where, in the 2005 manifesto, did it say that the enforcement of justice would be taken away from courts and given to public servants?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Egg On Martyr

The press and various bits of the Interweb have been getting terribly excited about the old lady who has just achieved a highly-publicised martyrdom by refusing to pay part of her Council Tax, and being sent to prison as a result.
It is a depressing insight into the standard of our press and of public debate that nobody so far has set out the choices faced by the magistrates, which were:
  • Send her to prison by implementing the suspended sentence that she had already been given
  • Tell her that she doesn't need to pay the tax because she is an old lady
  • Er - that's it
Every tax needs to be enforced by sanctions if necessary, because otherwise some people won't pay, and if those people get away with it, then nobody at all will pay.

During the Poll Tax years (that, by the way, was a tax that I opposed for its sheer stupidity rather than any ideological reasons) I remember dealing with a refusenik would-be martyr who turned up with a claque to support her from the gallery. She was fully expecting to go to prison in a blaze of glory (or as much glory as the Ealing & District Weekly Advertiser can offer). I announced that she had made prison inevitable, and she visibly puffed up and thrust out her chins. "However" I said, "In a final attempt to see whether sanity might yet prevail even at this late stage we are suspending the committal to prison for a final seven days". She subsided like a badly-made soufflé and I have never seen anyone look so disappointed.

I was on the rota to sit seven days later, and I looked for her on the list. She was not on it, so I had discreet enquiries made, and discovered that some unsporting soul had shot her fox by paying the tax anonymously on her behalf - a procedure that she had no legal right to resist.

I have suspected since that day that some local slush-fund was dipped into to provide the required cash to render her protest futile. I am surprised that nobody in authority in the latest case has thought to have a whip-round and pay off the fifty quid that is all the money needed to keep the silly old bat out of chokey.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Well, That's a New One

We had an Immigration Officer in to apply for a warrant a while back. I checked his ID, had him swear that his information was true, and read the typed Information in support of the application. He wanted to go and search a house where he had reason to believe some illegal immigrants who had overstayed their permission to be in the UK were concealed.
I then asked him, as a matter of routine, why he was asking for a warrant, rather than simply going round to ring the doorbell. "Health and Safety, Sir" he said. "Pardon?" I said. "How is that?" He went on to tell me that during a previous raid on the same house two illegals had leapt from a first-floor window in an attempt to escape, and each of them ended up with broken ankles. So he wanted to bash the front door in and storm in to grab the prey before they had a chance to jump. Health and safety, you see. I gave him a mental ten out of ten for ingenuity and granted the application.

By the way, we always write the time next to our signature on the Information. This is a hangover from the Brixton riots, when there was considerable suspicion that a crucial raid took place before the magistrate had granted the warrant.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Speaking of Policemen...

Those of us who frequent the streets of London have noticed that the cars driven by Met officers have taken a leap up market. Now that Ford and Vauxhall have given up on big cars, and now that all tenders for public sector purchasing must go out EU-wide, the Met's finest can be seen in 5-series BMWs,Mercedes and Volvos.

I hope that this has an effect on recruiting - there's a lot more street-cred in a Merc or a Beemer than in some lesser wheels.

Even at the lowest level (the Astras) at least the Met get petrol versions. The Thames Valley coppers have the same cars, but they are diesels. My dear! How outré!

It's An Unfair Cop

(Edited extract from The Daily Telegraph)

Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police has proposed that officers should be allowed to by-pass the courts and confiscate driving licences, seize vehicles and issue anti-social behaviour orders on the spot.

Sir Ian said "modernisation" of the force should be carried forward by introducing "an escalator of powers" for the dispensing of instant justice.

"One idea is to have some police officers - paid more and with more powers - to impose an interim anti-social behaviour order, for instance, or suspend a driving licence," he said. This would have an immediate effect rather than waiting for intervention by the courts, Sir Ian suggested.

He acknowledged that giving police powers currently exercised only by the courts would be controversial.....
Damn right it would, Sir Ian. You are not the first policeman to show frustration at the need to put cases before those irritatingly nitpicking courts, with all their questions and stuffy old procedures, and to back them up with properly gathered evidence that will stand up to scrutiny.

"He's a villain, Sarge". "That's good enough for me. Right, sonny, here's an ASBO - five years inside if you breach it. On your way now."
I've got a better idea for you, Sir Ian. Make sure that your officers gather and record their evidence professionally, and ensure that it gets to the CPS promptly and in proper order. The police officer's training and mindset is focused on deterring and detecting crime and arresting criminals. The judicial mindset is entirely different - that is why courts are independent.

In my home town the old Victorian Police Station still sits next to the Police Court. The two functions were separated a long time ago - let's keep it that way shall we, Commissioner?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Face of Crime

People who work in the criminal justice system often remark on the sheer ordinariness of some of those who come before us charged with serious crime. I saw a young man once who had been brought back to court while on remand for aggravated burglary because the 86 year-old woman he had attacked had died a few days afterwards, and he faced a new charge of murder. He was a podgy, rather bovine-looking man of about 22, blinking as he looked through the armoured glass of the secure dock, flanked by two custody officers. If you saw him in the street you wouldn't give him a second glance - just another slightly gormless looking young man. He had broken into an old lady's house, and when she called out to ask what he was doing there, he attacked her in a sustained assault that culminated in his stamping on the side of her head so hard that the imprint of his size ten boot remained there for the few days until she died. Press photographs, usually released by the police, can make anyone look rather sinister, but, as Shakespeare put it :- "There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face".

Some of the characters that we do see are indeed dodgy-looking. One of our local nuisances, who specialises in low-level disturbances when he is even drunker than usual, is a dead ringer for Abel Magwitch in David Lean's film of Great Expectations, and it must be very nasty to meet him on the proverbial dark night as he makes his way home from a heavy session.

More usual though, is the quiet dull-looking type who looks unlikely to say boo to a goose, but who faces charges of appalling seriousness. I have another chap in mind who was alleged to have raped his 12 year-old daughter and to have indecently assaulted her and her 8 year-old sister. Some years ago in committal proceedings it was common to call witnesses, and both little girls had to give evidence from a screened area to allow us to decide whether there was a case to answer before sending the matter to the Crown Court. Hearing the girls' childish descriptions of how they felt and of what happened when Daddy came into their room when Mummy was out at work was very trying, but glancing at the quiet, serious, smartly-dressed man in the dock it was hard to make the connection between offfence and offender.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Top Tip

If you are being chased by a police dog, don't try to get away by crawling through a tunnel, going onto a little see-saw, and jumping through a hoop of fire.

They are trained for that, you see.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Not For Me, Thanks

We heard a case a week or two ago in which the facts were depressingly familiar. One-thirty in the morning, milling crowds of young men; much drink taken. The young men concerned repaired to the local minicab office, all buses and trains having finished service for the day, and there was then a violent incident or two. No serious injury was inflicted, but tension and fear reigned. The facts and result of the trial don't really matter, but what I find depressing is the fact that the bad-tempered and drunken squabble happened in a place that I used to haunt as a teenager when I was a pupil at the local school.

Now that I am in comfortable middle age, living in a quiet and pleasant area, I have, like so many people, arranged my life to avoid places like this one unless I am passing through at 30 mph in a car with the doors securely locked. The local residents bar their doors and windows, and the richer of them arrange for electric gates to seal them off from the disaffected and the inebriated.

The scene of the crime was in the middle of an area where the entry price of a three-bed house is about £300,000. The protagonists in the case that I tried were employed, and of previous good character.

No social class has a monopoly on drunken and yobbish behaviour. One of today's witnesses admitted to drinking seven to nine pints of strong lager, but said that he was not drunk. Questioned, he defined not drunk as being able to remain on his feet for long enough to speak to a police officer. Whom he then called a cunt.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Effing CPS

I'm sorry to get back to the CPS again, but today we were buggered about time and again, once or twice due to stubborn and inflexible policy, but mostly due to simple incompetence and sloppiness.

I can't be too detailed, but to give you a flavour:-

Defendant in court in custody. Bail application. CPS has no papers so can't make any representations. Two hours to sort it out - fortunately we have other work to get on with.

CPS prosecutor turns up two hours late, leaving bench, clerk and staff twiddling their thumbs.

CPS ordered last month to review 18-month old case that is as full of holes as a Swiss cheese. Court direction ignored, no review, case put off yet again (Thirteenth listing!!). We wanted to kick it into touch but for legal reasons we could not.

Prosecutor entirely misses vital (and well-known) piece of case law that says that we have to send a certain case up to Crown Court, and looks shocked when we do so.

Defence asked for Police Incident Record Books (IRBs) in respect of old matters as they have a bearing on the defence case. Request made last May. No books, no idea where they are. Case stalled.

The CPS talk a good story at the top level, but day to day admin, such as getting files to court, warning witnesses, and filtering out hopeless cases are a shambles.

There, I feel better now. Where's the gin bottle, darling?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Juries

Since the rules on jury service were tightened a while ago it has become almost impossible to get out of it, and the most that one can hope for these days is a deferment. At the same time the rule preventing judges lawyers and magistrates sitting on the jury was abolished. and quite a few from these groups have now served on juries. Of course the proceedings in the jury room are sacrosanct, but there is some anecdotal evidence that those with experience of the courts are often, but not invariably, elected as foreman. The head of the criminal department in our largest local firm of solicitors was called and spent exactly one half-day in the jury box in a fortnight.

I was strongly in favour of the rule change because under the old system the busy middle classes usually got themselves excused, leaving juries stuffed with the retired and the unemployed. One ironic definition of a juror was 'someone who is too stupid to get out of jury service'.

There are a few problems though. For one thing, an employer who allows one of his staff 15 or 20 days off a year to sit as a JP is going to be pretty fed up if they then take another 14 days to sit as a juror. If the judge in a case is junior to the one who is on the jury, the latter will presumably have to keep quiet about it to his jury colleagues. In a tight-knit profession like the Bar there is a strong likelihood that the juror will know one or more of judge, prosecution or defence counsel. And what should I do when the defendant is giving evidence and his counsel fails to ask him if he has any convictions? That is a sure-fire pointer to the fact that he has: should I tell my fellow jurors about it?

Nevertheless, juries should be as balanced as is reasonably practicable. The common folk of the jury are a safeguard that any of us might need one day.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Just Another Day In Paradise

A few bits and pieces from today, suitably sanitised:-

Forged Insurance Certificate
Drink Drive
Criminal Damage (domestic dispute that got out of hand)
Theft (handbag nicked from counter of chip shop)
Theft by employee (elected for Crown Court)
Possess offensive weapon (knife)
Fraud with bus pass
Credit-card skimmer (use of)
Handling of stolen goods (£1500)
Drive without licence and insurance
Drive Disqualified
Threats to Kill
Shoplifting
Drink drive
Exposing genitals (male def)
Assault
Possess offensive weapon plus bladed article.
Drink drive
Burglary dwelling
Drink drive
Drink drive again
Drink drive (refuse test)
Drunk in Charge (not-guilty plea)
Deception (on CV in job application)
Seize proceeds of crime x 3
Drink drive
Drink drive
TWOC
Shoplifting

Then the extra cases, about as many as above.

Then an application for legal aid.
Then a ditto.

A couple of late arrests, bail applications to decide.

The above is a mixture of remands, pleas, sentences, and all sorts.

Finished 4.40 p.m. In pub by 5 p.m.

Tired.

Lawyers Again

Rollonfriday.com is the numero uno website among young solicitors, and the word on the street is that the site owners are doing a deal better than they did (or do) in the law. They have just offered free beer if and when England win the Ashes. Just look at these for exclusion clauses:-

"Just print out this email and take it along to RollOnFriday Towers, 9 Carmelite Street, London, EC4Y 0DR to claim your can. We're about 50 yards down the road from Freshfields. We'll get a couple of crates in, and when it's gone it's gone. Only one bevvie per person, so don't send your trainee down for a dozen. This invitation only applies whilst stocks last and may be withdrawn without notice. Officers and employees of RollOnFriday Limited and their families and pets are not eligible. Subject to terms and conditions. Terms subject to conditions and conditions subject to terms. Additional terms may be applied to conditions, in which event conditional terms may apply. Applicable conditions may terminate. Terminable terms may apply. For the avoidance of doubt, terminable conditions and applicable terms may apply or terminate without notice. Your house is probably not at risk."

Careful lads! Speaking with your tongue so firmly in your cheek can lead to inadvertent lingual trauma.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Naughty But Nice

Sometimes I am overwhelmingly tempted to tease a lawyer who is appearing in front of me. I tend to stick to those I know, although I have occasionally picked on complete strangers.

The other day I was dealing with a couple of hopeless rheumy-eyed shambling drunks. They had made a nuisance of themselves yet again, and had been charged with a handful of public order offences between them. They were obviously pissed in the dock, as they are for most of most days, and occasional burblings and giggles emanated from their direction. We dealt swiftly with the offences on the sheet, imposing fines that we deemed served by their detention in the police station. It is hopeless to expect fines on these people to be paid, and community penalties are out of the question.

Then the big one - we made an ASBO, after pruning the requested conditions down to a reasonable and lawful level. I didn't suppose for a moment that they understood what I was on about, so on concluding my required pronouncement I said :- "Mr. Cxxxxxxx, your lawyer, will be delighted to explain what this order means. In fact if you have any queries at all you should ask him, as he has plenty of time to answer your questions".

Mr. Cxxxxxxx gave me a look that combined the rueful and the venomous, and went outside to await the arrival of his clients.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Straight From The Horse's Mouth

Anyone who wants to know more about the court process can have a look at the Judicial Studies Board's website where they will find the current Bench Book. Every magistrate has a copy, and there is always one on the bench in every courtroom. It is a hefty document (a 381 page pdf file) and from about page 95 you will find the current sentencing guidelines. These will enable you to score 100% in any future quizzes that I put in the blog.

I have put a link to it in the sidebar here. I would be very interested to hear your views, but in view of the size of the document, I appreciate that they may take some time to appear.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Family Business

Not everyone is aware that magistrates play a key part in family law, dealing with matters of child care and custody, finance, and other things. I have never been involved in this, but I do know that to sit in the family court one has to do lots of extra training and submit to a selection and appraisal process.

The family courts are being rearranged under Her Majesty's Courts' Service and the idea is to have centres for each area where magistrates, District Judges and, very rarely, Circuit Judges sit. Cases will be allocated to the appropriate level depending on their complexity.

I finished my court early the other day, and I found a colleague sitting in the corner of our pleasant retiring room just staring out of the window. He looked drained, so after I had fetched him a coffee I asked him about his morning's work. He told me that he had just finished chairing a four day child care case, at the end of which the court ordered that the two small children of a heroin and alcohol addicted couple should be taken from then and placed for adoption with no further parental contact. This couple had been through similar proceedings five years ago, and had two earlier offspring taken away.

The law provides that the child's interests are paramount, and to that end a posse of lawyers attended, each representing one of the parties involved, including local authority, parents, child, and so on.

My colleague was so emotionally drained after his case that he just needed a quiet sit down and a bit of space.

These cases are hugely important to parents family and above all the children involved, and I have the greatest respect for my colleagues who take this work on.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A Personal Note

One of my dearest friends picked up his new car today, resplendent in its new '55' number plate. It cost him the best part of £40,000 and is an exquisite piece of machinery.

Unfortunately, it is so laden with technology that it will take him sometime between a long time and never to get to grips with it. He has grown old earning the kind of money that he needed to buy this toy. The SatNav alone should confuse him for a month or two, and I sternly advised him not to touch it while driving.

Youth is wasted on the young, is it not?

Si la jeunesse savait, si la vieillesse pouvait!

Emotional Claptrap


Harriet Harman, the Department forConstitutional Affairs minister, is launching a consultation paper today on plans to allow relatives of homicide victims to address the court, either in person or through a representative, post-conviction but before sentence.

Well, if she cares to consult me, I shall tell her that this is nauseating tabloid-driven claptrap. What a field day the Sun will have as tear-stained relatives (especially if they are from Liverpool) sob out their grief, and call for the heaviest punishment for the defendant. The interviews on the court steps are bad enough as it is - "How do you feel about the sentence?" "Oh great, it was about spot on and the judge took account of the Sentencing Guidelines Council's latest circular". Why does no one ever answer "What a stupid question?"

What is the judge supposed to do, faced with this appalling freakshow? Is he meant to ratchet up the sentence in response to emotional pressure? Do we want a legal system where the killer of a wide-eyed moppet goes down for longer than if he had offed Billy No-Mates? Perhaps after the relatives' contribution the trial could adjourn for a few days while a TV phone-in poll decides the sentence - at premium rates of course.

Harriet Harman is a lawyer and she used to be a liberal (NCCL and all that). Surely she knows in her heart of hearts that this proposal is wrong, disgusting, and counter to all of the principles of impartial justice.

And next time I hear someone say:- "He'll come out of prison one day - it's us that are serving a life sentence", I shall throw up.
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Later: I found this from the editorial on the Sun's website:-

A New law will be unveiled today that could result in killers getting the sentences they deserve.
Relatives of victims are to be allowed to address courts once a guilty verdict is returned.
For the first time the full emotional damage of the crime of murder will be laid bare.
Too often in the past, courts have heard only a sob-story cooked up on behalf of the defendant.
Justice will be better for this law.

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I rest my case.

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