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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, June 29, 2009

What Can I Say?

About this ?

And They Say Our Sentences Are Never Realistic

Convicted fraudster Bernard Madoff has been sentenced to 150 years in jail for orchestrating the largest fraud America has ever seen.


That's more like it!

Just one thing though - I suspect that he may never do the full term.

Call it a hunch, but I'm pretty shrewd about these things.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Thoughtful Look at G20

In the Times.

Yet More Useless and Unnecessary Claptrap

Still the Government blunders on, passing useless and damaging laws for the sake of a cheap headline. Now, according to the BBC, parents (or more likely the parent) of kids who don't go to school are to be threatened with fines and imprisonment.

Children who skip school are vastly more likely than their peers to end up in trouble, and will face a lifetime stuck on the fringes of society and the economy. They are a social and an educational problem. But they are not a criminal justice problem - at least not yet.

What are we supposed to do, faced with Miss Smith, 30 but looks 40, lives on a crap estate, and is on benefits, as she had been since her son Dwayne was born when she was 16? Dwayne is now heading for six feet tall, like the father he has never seen. He can't read and write and finds school meaningless despite the heroic efforts of his teachers. His social worker can't do a lot more than keep his file up to date. He has been bunking off for years and hanging out with his gormless mates.

Miss S pleads guilty (no choice, really). Under the guidelines her Relevant Weekly Income is deemed to be £100, so we fine her Band A (£50 less a third, so call it £35) plus Surcharge (£15) and costs (cut those back a bit so say £30). We make a Deduction from Benefit Order to take the fine out of her benefits at £5 per week. What the hell will all that achieve?

The truancy problem is important and complex. It needs painstaking, down-and-dirty work at the school, on the estate and in the home. It will be expensive and unglamorous. It may well fail anyway. But it's more use than dragging an inadequate mother into the dock of a criminal court.

Open Your Eyes

The perks and expenses of senior BBC people are coming under scrutiny at the moment. Even after allowing for the fact that Rupert Murdoch has a strategic financial interest in clipping the BBC's wings, there are certainly some questions to be answered.

As we have seen in The City and in Parliament and in big business and elsewhere, when you allow people - any people - to set their own remuneration they will, being human, give themselves the benefit of the doubt. Any sensible system will impose impartial and firm controls to deal with this fundamental trait of human nature.

I have a serious suggestion for the BBC. Let the senior people who control its spending each sit for a day at the back of a magistrates' court that is dealing with TV licensing cases. Let them see the procession of poor, usually female, usually bedraggled people who trudge through court, having, under the new fine guidelines, three-figure fines imposed, plus costs and (!) Victim Surcharge. Of course there is a proportion of people who just don't like paying any bill, but let's put this into perspective. The licence fee is more than two weeks of Jobseeker's Allowance, and about a day-and-a-half's worth of the average wage. The £2000 spent on flying the boss's family back because Sir had to sort out the Ross/Brand fiasco represents more than 33 weeks' worth of JSA for the poorest licence payers. So come and have a look at JPs fining the unlicensed in - note - a criminal court. Then, next time you want to charge up a £200 lunch at the Ivy for two people who are already well-off you will have a better idea of where the money comes from. I'll be happy to arrange it, and I might even come along myself.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Hot From The Press

Here are the very latest sentencing statistics released by the MoJ. Make of them what you will - I would be interested to hear what the informed public thinks about them.

Oh yes, and here's the annual report of the Sentencing Guidelines Council.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sad

The 19 year-old defendant sits behind the armoured glass of the secure dock, flanked by a Serco guard. Tall, mixed-race, he sits in a slumped posture. He has stolen and promptly eaten less than two pounds' worth of food from a supermarket. He has spent the night in custody, for no reason that I can understand. Guilty Plea. The duty solicitor mitigates. Her client stole because he was hungry. He was in care for most of his young life, and turned loose when he became 16. Whatever support he was given has vanished now. He has no family, no friends, no job, no home. The solicitor urges us to impose a fine, deemed served by the time in custody which will allow the young man's immediate release. That's the way we go.
The solicitor tells us that she has directed the client to go straight to the Civic Centre to try to sort out some emergency accommodation. The young man does not look up while this is going on.
Magistrates are not social workers. We just played our small part - the criminal justice system has absolutely nothing to offer this young man, other than a prison cell if, like so very many former in-care young people, he turns to crime.
I have no power to do anything about him, but I can't get him out of my mind.

Useless and Unnecessary Claptrap

If you want a perfect example of the way in which this Government legislates in a vacuum, with an eye solely to tomorrow's headlines, it is hard to beat the latest proposal to make expenses cheating by MPs a distinct criminal offence.

Don't they know it's illegal already? That it has been for many many years? That the proposed new law is a waste of paper and of Parliament's time?

I have previously written of offences charged under Victorian laws, bypassing the mass of recent legislation.

Parliament and Government have many more important things to occupy them. This is pathetic.

Later:-

Marcel Berlins feels the same way.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wrong

Leafing through the criminal record of one of today's defendants I realised that I had, as often happens, been handed the full print, from front page with summaries to non-conviction disposals at the back. So far, so routine, but yet again I was infuriated to spot a recorded caution for Assault Causing Actual Bodily Harm. That is a serious crime of violence and should be dealt with by a court, not a hurried and secretive stitch-up in a police station.

Refreshing

From the BBC:-
R&B singer Chris Brown has pleaded guilty in the US to one count of assault on his former girlfriend, pop star Rihanna.

Brown, 19, was sentenced to five years' probation and ordered to do six months of community service.

Brown had faced charges of assaulting Rihanna, 21, during a row in February.

The last-minute plea deal came before a hearing at a Los Angeles court at which Rihanna was due to give evidence. She said the sentence was "fair".


You don't often hear anyone describe a sentence as 'fair' on this side of the pond. Public perception of justice has become so corroded that people feel it expected of them to be 'disgusted' with 'soft sentences' when the defendant 'walks free from court' with 'only' six months of community service.

I had never heard of either of these people before today, but good on you, Rihanna. Your sense does you credit.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Personal Tragedy (2)

The responses to my post are quite revealing; like those on the News of the World site they are mixed, but I am encouraged that quite a few people on both sites have got the message that the judge's conduct was sad rather than wicked.

Of course the judge was unwise. Of course his conduct was reckless. Of course his position on the bench is threatened, not because he did anything illegal, but because he may have caused fatal damage to his dignity. He will pay an awesome price for all of that.

But how many people over the years have destroyed or damaged themselves under the influence, to them irresistible, of love and of lust? I freely admit that I have in my time been foolish and selfish, hurting people I love. So did a million others.

I spoke of this as a tragedy because I pity and sympathise with a man who has brought his world crashing about his ears. That doesn't mean that I somehow condone or minimise his foolish actions - a 60 year-old QC acting like a gormless teenager - but we should all be aware of our physical and emotional frailties, and the disasters they can bring.

As that Nazarene troublemaker said two thousand years ago:- "let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone".

Go on then.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Personal Tragedy

A Circuit Judge has been done over by the News Of The World as only that paper knows how.

This is yet another example of human weakness; bringing disaster upon him and, probably, his family. As ever, Shakespeare knew all about that:-

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.


There but for the grace of God could go any man.

Another One Bites The Dust

I was sorry to see that another police blogger has decided that discretion is the better part of valour and is to take down the blog next week. I have followed PC Bloggs since he was a PCSO and enjoyed reading of his step up to become a sworn Constable. Ave Atque Vale.

There have been many police blogs, and they have had a significant casualty rate. Shift work and unsocial hours leave a fair bit of time to trawl the Web, and to add one's own five penn'orth to the blogosphere. Indeed when I look at one of the site meters I often notice addresses ending in .pol or even .gov, which suggests that a few officers while away dull periods in the office with a bit of surfing. A handful of police blogs have become a significant presence, but they differ, I think, in one significant respect from this one. I grumble; most bloggers grumble, especially those of us who are trying to make some sense of Government policy. But I like to think that I have more in common with Tom Reynolds' Ambulanceman's Blog in trying to inform as well as grumble. The predominant tone of too many police blogs is a chippy negativity that is understandable if not necessarily excusable in men who work closely together and sometimes have to put themselves in harm's way. The soldiers in Wellington's army probably moaned non stop about the officers, the sergeants, the food, and everyone who got in their way too. But the difference is that soldiers fight a common enemy, whereas the police have to protect and support the public by tackling crime. In too many posts police bloggers seem to regard the public as alien and hostile. One refers to a local housing estate as 'the Swamp' and I have read a post about 'The Evil Poor'. It's like reading about British squaddies holed up in Basra, and policing shouldn't be like that.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cause And Effect?

One of our regular local solicitors, a rather striking lady (and a good advocate) who has appeared before us for some years, prompted a bit of gossip a while ago when she had certain 'enhancements' carried out. She is now pregnant.

A Fine Line

The decision to hold a major trial without a jury raises great questions of principle and of justice. Jury trial, for all its occasional frailties, remains at the core of our justice system and is a powerful protection for the citizen. It is an awesome decision to do away with it, even in exceptional cases. This is an exceptional case. There is, we are told, evidence of persistent attempts to interfere with the jury (and three out of twelve would be enough). My preferred option would be to use whatever resources we have to in order to protect and reassure the jury, but we have to be realistic about the practicalities of this. I am pretty certain that I would not be personally intimidated but if there were a threat to one of my family, how would I react to that?
Jury trial should be sacrosanct - but if intimidation succeeds in allowing violent professional criminals to escape justice, then that is an outrage. So we have to strike a balance. For myself, I am finally persuaded by the fact that Lord Judge approves the idea. He is a man whom I have met briefly and heard speak on a number of occasions. He is a thoughtful man with a powerful intellect and cast-iron integrity. In the last analysis, if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Truly Alarming - updated

This was originally posted about a month ago. I have brought it back up because of the latest development.

I am grateful to Jerym Eedy for sending me the link to this PA report, via Yahoo. The Sun runs it here.
If the Chief Constable is correctly quoted (and the Press Association is a highly respected source of news) then he is considering whether or not to defy an order of the High Court. From what is reported he either intends to appeal to the 'court of public opinion' pace Harriet Harman, or he considers that the rank of Chief Constable gives him powers equal or superior to a High Court judge.
If either case is true he would be out of place as a traffic warden, let alone as a Chief Constable.
I hope to see some urgent 'clarification' from him at an early opportunity. The thought that he might carry out his threat raises many issues about the relationship between the police and the judiciary.

Much later - here's the outcome.

Jack it in?

This report is a sad epitaph on the blogging career of 'Nightjack'. We exchanged views at times, and on the whole I disagreed with his take on the justice system, but it's a shame that things have come to this. Nobody can blame him for putting his mortgage and career before the ephemeral world of blogging, but it's a particular shame that the Orwell prize appears to have been his undoing.

Monday, June 15, 2009

One For The Gradgrinds*

Most misconceptions about the criminal justice system are not susceptible to factual correction, since those holding them are usually set in their views for one reason or another. But for those of you interested in the hows and whys of the prison population, here is a fascinating document (it's a pdf) that a fellow magistrate unearthed recently: MoJ Prison Document

Unfortunately, if you flooded the country with posters pointing out that average sentence lengths have increased considerably in recent years, nobody would believe you.


* "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them" - Hard Times (Dickens)

Power

The spectacle of Gordon Brown and David Cameron turning up to celebrate the wedding of 'Sun' editrix Rebekah Wade among cohorts of the rich and influential was a timely reminder of where real power lies in this country. You can be sure that both party leaders were granted an audience with Rupert Murdoch, since it is probably impossible to win an election if you displease him (just look what happened to Kinnock). The Sun has, in my view, done a great deal to coarsen and demean our public life, and it is ironic that the paper's strident and yobbish schtick is a million miles from the grand country-house lifestyle led by Ms. Wade.
Much of the damaging populist tinkering of the Blair years was a direct response to the Sun's urgings.
If you have the stomach for it there is a report here and a bit about her social milieu here.

I'm off to get out my old anthology, and re-read Kipling's 'The Sergeant's Wedding'.

Friday, June 12, 2009

From The Moribund Ward - More on Legal Aid

This article speaks for itself.

What was that about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

False Economy

The more observant among you will have noticed that I recently posted about part-heard cases. As if to exact revenge the gods allocated me today to a case that - yes - went part-heard.
Enough of that, but what made me cross was another money-driven idiocy.
Recently the police have ceased to provide typed records of post-arrest interviews (aka ROTIs) and content themselves with giving a copy of the tape to the defence (or to the poor sap who can't afford a lawyer). Today we were presented with a a tape that runs for more than an hour, and that the defence required to be played in full. So that was it, we adjourned and booked another day. Without the ROTI problem we would probably have finished the trial. Instead, to save the police a possible fifty quid in transcription costs,we set a new day in court that is likely to cost many times that amount.
As my late Auntie Shirley used to say:- "But is it cheaper in the long run?"
no, Shirley, it isn't.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Probation Again

Probation is again in the spotlight after the appalling Sonnex case. This most overloaded and under-appreciated service really deserves our support as it attempts to cope with society's dirty work.
Here's the excellent Marcel Berlins.

Part Heard

I have chaired the second day of a part-heard case in each of the last two weeks, and I have another in my diary for next month. None of these cases was originally expected to last for more than a day, but it can become apparent as a trial proceeds that time is running out. There may be a late start, perhaps due to human error, or problems with transport. There may be slow advocacy, which can see a simple cross-examination stretch out for a couple of hours. Multiple defendants each require their own lawyer, and anything involving an interpreter takes at least half as long again as it would with a native English speaker. Unrepresented defendants, of whom we see more and more as legal aid budgets are cut, are always slow, because they do not understand the procedure, and everything has to be gone through point by point to ensure fairness.
I usually review matters after the lunch break, and ask the parties for time estimates, because now that our admin has been relocated to another courthouse we cannot arrange the next sitting unless we call them before about 4 p.m. Then we have to get our diaries out. With a bench of three, a clerk, two advocates, and witnesses and defendants this is not always easy, and it is quite usual to have to resume some weeks ahead. In extreme cases it can be months, because the decision to start again ('de novo' as the lawyers like to say) is to be avoided if at all possible because of inconvenience to witnesses, and the possibility that one or more of them will have had enough, and refuse to come back. This last possibility can be used by an unscrupulous defence brief; delay things long enough, get the trial abandoned, and see the CPS drop it when the witnesses say they won't come back.
Once we do sort out a date the bench usually lodge their notes in the court file, and we review them before the resumed sitting. Sometimes I come back without the slightest recollection of a case, but it all drops into place when I go through my notes and clear up salient points with my colleagues. The court then has to cancel the bench that is down to sit on the rearranged date to make room for us (not a popular move) and all being well, we are in business.
These complications are the reason why I tend to lean on advocates at 2 p.m., to see if certain witnesses can be agreed and read 'section 9' and whether the defence can put in 'section 10' admissions to avoid raking over the bleeding obvious. I don't always get away with it, but it's worth a try.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

No Clampdown on Clampers (2)

I posted a few days ago about the disgraceful extortion practised by some private clamping firms. Here's a bit more about it.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Euphemisms

The reaction to the previous thread reminds me of the link between euphemistic speech and callousness to human suffering. Orwell made the point in his essay 'Politics and the English Language' written in 1946. It's worth re-reading every few years, and here is a core passage, slightly edited:

political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so."

People are 'terminated with extreme prejudice' - a straight lift from Hollywood. They are 'slotted' or 'wasted' or 'blown away' or 'stopped' or 'dropped' - there are scores more euphemisms for the act of killing someone. The polarisation of views on police tactics is depressingly predictable, and I would suggest that the bowdlerisation of the language serves to numb proper human sensitivity. It is easy to write on a Web discussion such as this and to express crude and brutal acceptance, and sometimes relish, at a killing. I venture to suggest that very few of those who express acceptance or even satisfaction at the shooting of someone (and I stress again that I am not talking about the current case - it's a general point) would be so callous or indifferent if the person hit with seven bullets were their brother or son or lover. So I repeat my earlier point; sometimes the police have no choice but to shoot, but that must always be a last resort. The police have all the time and resources they need, as they showed in previous confrontations. They are a trained and disciplined force. That is why we expect a lot of them. I hope that today's managers are of the same quality as those who did such a fine job a generation ago.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tragic? Certainly. Necessary? Perhaps Not

I commented last year on the tragic case of a barrister who was shot by police after discharging a shotgun from his London flat. Investigations are proceeding, and according to this report, criminal proceedings are a possibility. I have nothing to say about this particular case, but I would like to ask what happened to the Metropolitan Police's once world-wide leadership in the art and science of managing armed sieges so that the culprits could be arrested and as few people as possible hurt. After incidents such as the Spaghetti House and Balcombe Street sieges police came from all over the world to learn the tactics of containment and negotiation from the Met. The sight of the IRA 'heroes' filing out of their hostages' flat with their hands up, under the muzzles of police weapons went round the world and denied the IRA the propaganda coup of a bloody shoot-out.
In the last analysis force must be met with force, and the police sometimes have to be prepared to shoot to kill, but given the proportion of mentally ill or confused people they have to deal with, I feel more comfortable with the idea of the police using time and patience as their main tactic, resorting to shooting only when unavoidable.

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