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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, December 29, 2008

Has Sandhurst Anything to Offer the Police?

The following letters in today's 'Times' raise an interesting question. Many police blogs seem to suggest that front-line ranks have little confidence in the top brass, and the chaos in the Met speaks for itself. Can the police learn anything from the military?
Sir, The Police, and the Met in particular, have been subjected to a huge amount of negative criticism recently. By contrast the Army and Royal Marines, who are the nearest equivalent, are held in wide regard. Yet the Army has on a number of occasions killed innocent people in dangerous situations (although never against suicide bombers in Northern Ireland). The press has not clamoured for resignations of senior army officers or made undue fuss. The military is more successful in being detached from the political process yet faces far harder political tasks in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the complex business of procuring new equipment. The Armed Forces appear to be less well paid. They do not earn overtime. So what is different?

Many of us in the military, when involved with the police, used to comment that they did not have an officer corps. The police riposte was always the same: all start from the same position, bobby on the beat and only by merit rise to higher rank. It’s a good argument but is flawed in two ways. First, senior police find it harder to take a detached view. So if a mistake has been made there is a temptation to cover it up or to be unaware that something is wrong. As an officer aged 20 I had independent command miles from my commander and on active service. I had to learn to think for myself from a young age. Police officers have to be much older to get equivalent responsibility. Second, the police do not recruit well from the professional classes. As a result they miss out on a wide area of talent. It also makes them culturally non-representative of the community.

I am not suggesting that the police adopt an officer corps system but a good start would be for the new commissioner of the Met to recruit a high-ranking soldier as one of his deputies. We have senior officers of high calibre. They have immense wisdom gained on long periods of active service. They would help a new commissioner regain the respect that our police deserve. They would help to restore a culture where senior officers do not bicker in public but pull together as a team.

Alastair Grant Lieutentant-Colonel, Royal Marines (Ret’d), London SW14

Sir, When I joined the police service 38 years ago most officers, senior and PCs, had military service by conscription. Each generation of officers is influenced by their time slot in history, and promote people like themselves. Maybe that is why there are now so many graduates in senior positions.

Postwar senior officers had leadership skills either as a leader or as a subordinate who had done well. What will be the next generation of senior officer skills? Focus-group interpreters?

George Wake (Ret’d PC) Swalwell, Newcastle upon Tyne

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Inside View

This is apparently what MoJ insiders are saying:-as reported by The Observer. It rings true to me.
It's odd, isn't it, that many people and very many police officers are convinced that sentencing has become easier, which appears to be the opposite to the truth?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Seasonal Wishes

As I type this I am close to finishing my nightcap; a Scotch in a decent crystal glass that I was given by good friends, some years ago. My darling granddaughters are asleep, and the carrot and mince pie that they left out for Santa and his reindeer are half-eaten on the plate by the fireplace. Santa seems to have drunk his small glass of whisky, too.
My family are lucky people, and I am aware of our good fortune. A sizeable minority of people are anything but fortunate, and I shall spare them a thought over the next few days. The recession has brought real fear to some families, and then there are those whom an accident of birth has condemned to a life without the comforts of family and stability that we so often take for granted. Children who have to be taken into care face a vastly increased likelihood of ending up in prison. Soldiers who leave the colours also form a disproportionately large cohort in our jails. Of course they will have offended, and that is why they are in prison, but there must be a lesson for all of us in the cause-and-effect that makes it scores of times more likely that a child born into the underclass will fall into crime than its counterpart in a safe and comfortable home.
So here's a thought for the on-duty coppers and emergency services, the firemen policemen medics and prison staff. Here's a thought for the 80,000 or so prisoners; some of them greedy stupid or vicious, but some more mentally ill, illiterate, and alone in the world, with no comfort beyond the chemical ones from the poppy, the coca bush, and the bottle.
Merry Christmas to you all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Cheer For Some

The Times reports on the revocation of many speeding tickets, due to an administrative cock-up that made the relevant limits unlawful and unenforceable. Good luck to the drivers concerned, for their unexpected good fortune. And isn't it great that in this country the authorities have to get every detail of the law right before punishing Her Majesty's subjects?
For too long we have been governed by a cabal with a mindset that led them to react to a defeat in the courts with a piqued threat to amend the law so as to get the offenders next time. The hell with that. I am no fan of speeders, but I know justice under the law when I see it. Merry Christmas to all of the - lucky - drivers involved.

Take it easy in future, won't you?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Code Again

Two more bits of code have come into use at my court recently.

If the custody officers are required in a courtroom and it is undesirable to alert the defendant or his fan club the usher will tannoy "Please can we have Volume 4 of Stones to Court X as soon as possible?" **

At lunchtime magistrates and occasionally local solicitors may refer to Court Seven. That's the pub up the road of course, since we have fewer than seven courtrooms.

(**Stones Justices' Manual has of course just three volumes)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Food For Thought

'David Copperfield', only begetter of the Policeman's Blog (one of the first, and still the best, in my opinion) has put on a thoughtful post from the frozen wastes of Canada, where he now works. I shared a BBC Radio 4 discussion with him a few months ago, and he comes across as a balanced and decent bloke.
It's a shame that not every police blogger who has followed him has taken a balanced view; Copperfield has made a real contribution to the public's understanding of the front-line copper's problems wrestling with paperwork ordered by a control-freak government. That has done far more real good than all of the others' intemperate rants about the courts put together.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Seek and You May Find

May I just remind you of the existence of the search box at the top of the blog? I get asked a lot of questions, by email and in the comments, that I have dealt with before. I am always happy to do my best to help, but in nearly four years of blogging I have covered a lot of ground. Give it a try.
If you want a lot of returns, just try 'bail' as an example.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cautionary Tale (3)

This horrible tale is a word of caution against jumpimg to what may appear to be the obvious conclusion.
I hope that it is pinned to the noticeboard in certain tabloid newsrooms.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wiping Out a Debt

There's something a bit odd about this tale, although there is nothing new about, shall we say, innovative judgments from DJ Cooper.
I'm not sure I would have handled things quite the way he did.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Police Injured in Demo Horror


FOI request reveals magnitude of problem.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Roughing It

The Ministry of Justice has reportedly spent a hundred and thirty million smackers on tarting up its new offices. Meanwhile down at the sharp end, it was so cold in my court the other day that I allowed advocates to address the court wearing their outdoor clothing, and one senior magistrate emailed the admin (now known as Mission Control) to threaten that he would call in the Council if matters did not improve rapidly. Unofficially, I have been told that orders have come down to turn down heating across the estate. I'm not sure how they managed that in my courthouse, since the only man who understands the antiquated and temperamental heating and air-con systems was early-retired a year ago, to be replaced by contractors who send along a different team every time.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Not Fair

This news report criticises a member of the public, who happens to be an MP, for calling 999 for a domestic incident.
Of course the lady could have tried to sort the problem herself, at which point some pompous opinionated idiot from the emergency services or from the Council would have slagged her off for her foolishness in not doing the nines earlier. "She put herself and her family at needless risk, our advice to the public is to dial 999 straight away"
She can't win, can she?

I Wish They Wouldn't Do It

We recently had a man in on a charge of drive disqualified, plus the usual no insurance. The problem was that he had been disqualified as a totter just three days before he was stopped, and claimed to have no knowledge of it because the court concerned had disqualified him in his absence. Given the vagaries of the postal system, there was no way we could be sure that he had received the letter of notification. We adjourned the case, but the clerk later said that he had no defence to the charge, merely mitigation.
Being disqualified has serious consequences, including the immediate invalidation of the insurance on any vehicle, and if he was legitimately driving someone else's vehicle its owner's interests would be seriously prejudiced, as would those of any third party he might injure.
Some clerks and many administrators want disqual. in absence to become routine, mainly because it is quicker and cheaper than adjourning to get the defendant in, on a warrant if needs be. I won't do it, because it is unfair and potentially unjust, especially as the machinery exists to get the defendant before the court where he can be properly warned about his ban.
To be fair, this fellow had previous for drive disqual, and he may well have known about the latest ban, but we have to be more certain than that before applying such a serious sanction.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Numbers Game

The Government has been accused of unprofessional and misleading use of statistics.
Now who would have thought that possible?

Just a Thought

I have never concealed my irritation at the use by some police bloggers, who should know better, of the phrase 'liberal élite', that describes an entirely mythical coterie of bien-pensant posh people who do so much to impede or criticise the work of the police.

Does anyone want to suggest that the De Menezes jury were also members of that élite?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Guest Blogger 2

This is a contribution from Jennie, a regular commenter, who is a JP as well as a Solicitor. It's hers entirely, but her views are welcome, of course.

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Having been kindly invited by Bystander to pen a little piece for his esteemed blog (a task for which I am entirely unworthy!!) I thought I might use the opportunity to raise an issue that is becoming close to my heart. It is an issue common to many in the public (and indeed private) sector but as this is ostensibly a blog about the magistracy, I thought I’d limit myself to this.

I refer of course to the way the criminal justice system is being starved of cash and resources to such an extent that justice – that nebulous but vital element of any state that would dare call itself a democracy,- is suffering.

When I was appointed to the bench in 1993 (eek, was it that long ago?) we had a full complement of legal advisers (6) plus our own Justices Clerk. Our courthouse was relatively small (2 ‘secure’ courtrooms, 2 ‘ordinary’ courtrooms for more minor offences plus in a separate block a courtroom for ‘juvenile’ courts as it then was. We usually ran 3 sometimes 4 courts morning and afternoon. We had an efficient in house administrative staff who ensured that files were available for court, results were recorded the same day, adjournment, summonses and trial notices were despatched in good time for the next hearing and our very own Magistrates Court Committee ensured a smooth running of the administration and training requirements. Our relations with the Police, CPS, Probation and Defence solicitors worked well – not always perfect of course, but the lines of communication ensured that any minor problems didn’t escalate into major hassles.

The rot set in with the removal of local MCC’s and (in London at least) the establishment of the Greater London Magistrates Court Committee. Control was centralised and budgets slashed. It’s main concern seemed to be the wholesale closure of courts and selling off the land for development. After a long and hard fought battle we won the fight to retain local justice in our court. This ‘experiment’ lasted barely 3 years before the GLMCA too was abolished and Her Majesty’s Court Service set up (but not before the inevitable reorganisation and consolidation of Justices Clerks to a regional rather than local basis and let’s not forget the less than successful Libra IT project which seems to have taken an inordinate amount of time to get right and it’s still doesn’t have all the functionality as promised).

My court now operates on a ‘clustered’ basis whereby our admin is done by a far bigger court 4 miles away. We have only 2 full time and 2 part time clerks. If lucky, we run 3 courts in the morning (but its more often 2) and 2 in the afternoon. Our JC is based 12 miles away and visits from time to time (thank goodness for e mail). Files are often missing as they have to be shuttled between court houses for various purposes. Resulting gets done when someone is free to do it – it takes a very low priority (as we are not the court where the admin is based) and everyone is just trying to keep their heads above water with other tasks as support staff leave and are not replaced. It is not unheard of for clerks to have to ring our ‘cluster centre’ in order to book a trial in the middle of a busy remand court session only to be told that no one is available to help – ring back later. So much for speedy summary justice. We have even heard of trials being cancelled by the cluster centre without bothering to tell us.

Training of magistrates, while in theory under the auspices of the Bench Training and Development Committee (of which I am Deputy Chair) is again administered by a central office 12 miles away and time and again, our colleagues have tried to book courses, only for them to slip through a very large crack as applications are lost or not actioned .It is a system creaking at the seams as staff and (unpaid volunteer) magistrates do the very best they can under worsening circumstances.

The Ministry of Justice has announced a further round of cuts to fill a £1.3 BILLION black hole and a further 10.000 job cuts. Goodness only knows where these cuts are to be found – the frontline is barely functioning as it is – I have not even started on cuts to Legal Aid, the Police, the Probation and Prison services etc etc. No wonder Justice has her eyes covered – it is not that she is blind, she is simply weeping for what is to come…

http://www.pcs.org.uk/en/news_and_events/news_centre/index.cfm/id/9A115731-63F4-47A6-92176A32551BADAF

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article5163076.ece

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/10/15/moj_spending_cuts/

Elementary Error

There is a certain type of person that we sometimes see in the dock or in the witness box who speaks and behaves as if participating in a pub argument about football, and has no idea of the measured and structured ebb and flow of questions that we expect to see in court. Questions elicit rhetorical questions in reply, leaving the chairman to interject and explain that the witness is there to answer questions, not ask them. When challenged, we sometimes hear them offer to get on to their mate and get him down to the court, when he will put matters straight. No chance; he has been on bail for weeks awaiting trial, and he had plenty of time to get in all the witnesses he wanted - in his arrogance he thinks he can bluster his way through the trial as he blusters his way through life. We dealt with one such a few weeks ago; he was being cross examined in connection with an alleged assault, and it soon came out that he did not like being challenged on anything. He wasn't much of a listener either, as his defence solicitor had already tried to tell him just to answer the questions. The prosecutor could see that he was getting wound up, and that she was getting on top of him. In response to one question he said: "Look, It's all right for you, I'm not used to all this, being here in court". The prosecutor stopped, and I was already halfway to my feet to lead the bench out, when she asked for time to speak to the clerk.
At that moment I had realised that he had previous, and that the prosecutor was going to apply to put it in, since he had claimed to be unaccustomed to court (as it happened she did not use it, because it was quite old, but we saw it all after convicting him anyway). If you claim to be of good character when you are not, or if you attack the other side's character you 'lose your shield' and have to be ready to see your own record put before the court. As I have said before, cross examination in the hands of a skilful lawyer is a very powerful tool, and sometimes the light just snaps on and the bench or jury can clearly discern the truth.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

ECHR

The media frenzy over the Matthews 'abduction' case has unfortunately pushed the very important ECHR decision on the DNA database on to page 2.
What seems important to me is not the usefulness of DNA evidence (for which I should be grateful if it served to catch someone who had wronged me or mine) but rather the Government's deceitful and furtive approach to gathering information. There is an arguable case, although I disagree with it, for a DNA database of the whole population. There is a more or less accepted case for a database of convicted offenders. So if the Government believes in option one, let them have the guts to put it in the manifesto, so it can be properly debated, and then legislate. What is now happening is the weaselly half-measure of taking and keeping DNA from all those arrested, even if they are swiftly released or subsequently cleared. That's unfair and arbitrary, and I am cheered to see the ECHR giving the government a well-deserved poke in the eye.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Bugger!

Nick Robinson on the BBC has just told me that in future any warrant to search within the Palace of Westminster will have to be issued by a High Court Judge.
Damn! I was looking forward to doing one of those.
I know a few High Court judges, on a professional basis. Nice enough chaps, of course, but I bet I have more practice in doing search warrants than they have.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Guest Blogger

As promised, here is Peter Hargreaves' unedited post:-

Search Warrants

Am I alone in thinking that powers to search our homes and offices are now far too extensive and are rather too often being applied in an extremely heavy-handed and brutish manner?

In Semayne’s case (1604) 5 Co Rep at 91b – it was stated that “The house of everyone is to him as his castle and fortress.” In 1767, William Pitt stated that - “The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown.”

A couple of years ago, Henry Porter writing in the Guardian had this to say – How the Englishman’s home ceased to be his castle . Porter began by reminding us of the 250 officers used in a raid on the home of two Muslim brothers in Forest Gate, London. He also drew attention to the massive extension of powers of entry and search which Parliament has placed on the statute book and he highlighted the very subtle ways in which this has been done - (I call it “legislative legerdemain”) - so as to avoid any real debate in Parliament.

A year ago, in the Redknapp case, the Police searched the property of Harry Redknapp at 6am with the Press in attendance – (a “tip-off” or “leak”). They searched under the authority of a warrant which turned out to be unlawful – see Redknapp v City of London Police Unfortunately, the Redknapp case suggests that the warrant was granted far too readily by the court which surely ought to be a rather more robust “guardian of the gates” in these matters.

Then we have the arrest of Mr Damian Green MP in connection with a Police investigation into leaks from within the Home Office. Of course, Mr Green has been a political thorn in the side of the government over immigration policy. However, both the arrest and the search of Mr Green’s home and offices (including the one in the House of Commons) seem to be particularly heavy-handed and this shows, yet again, the heavy manner used by the Police – a “sledgehammer approach” – which is disproportionate to the situation they are investigating. Mr Green would have had his fingerprints taken and DNA sampled and these will be retained indefinitely. Even worse, Mr Green’s daughter may find herself on the Merlin database since she was at home when the Police search took place.

It remains a fundamental principle that the authorities require legal authority to enter property. That is often a warrant issued by a J.P. Just what processes do J.P.s use – what questions are asked and what records are kept or are warrants just granted (as many people appear to think) on the nod.

(fixed to restore the hyperlinks in the original - ed)

Let's See How This Pans Out

I commented on this wheeze some time ago, in this post. I remain sceptical about its usefulness except as a sop to the tabloids.
As it happens I had a short chat the other day with a young man who told me that he had just finished 180 hours of unpaid work, to which he had been sentenced for a second, and high-level, drink-drive. I asked him how he had found the experience, and he said that it had had a major impact on his free time (180 hours is about six months of Saturdays). He had been placed in a local charity shop, and had helped with various tasks such as sorting stock, cleaning, a bit of painting, and serving customers. He said that he had found it worthwhile, and that he had felt that he was doing a job that needed to be done. I was very interested in this, because we get next to no feedback on community orders - I have not been able to fix a visit to a project for over ten years, which is quite wrong. Just one thing though - would it really have helped if this man had been forced to wear a fluorescent tabard while working in the shop? Would the shop have accepted that? Would it help his rehabilitation?

Le Vice Anglais - Updated

Those who, like me, enjoy the writings of Theodore Dalrymple (the nom-de-plume of Dr. Anthony Daniels, a retired prison doctor) will find food for thought in this article.

http://parkingattendant.blogspot.com/http://www.crimeline.info/