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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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Professional

I called the police yesterday. An elderly gentleman whom I have been helping with his official paperwork had stopped answering his phone, so I dropped round to see him. There was mail in the letterbox, and no reply to the bell, so I decided to ring his local pub, where he was a daily fixture, to see if they had seen him. When they said that he hadn't been in for a few days I rang the non-999 number for my local police. The operator I spoke to was polite friendly and helpful, and told me, once I had given all the information that I had, that they would send an officer to check up on things.

I had a phone call about 45 minutes later from a very professional PC who told me that he had been to the flat, forced entry, and found the old chap dead in bed. He took a few more details from me, and said that I would be kept in touch with developments.

This was real bread-and-butter local policing, and it was done, in my opinion, about as well as it could have been done. Thanks to those involved.

This Doesn't Feel Right

This programme (available on BBC iPlayer for a limited time) tells the worrying story of two British tourists who ran into big legal trouble when they inadvertently passed forged Euro notes, one in Austria and one in Cyprus. One forged note appears to have come from an unwise deal done in the street with a stranger, the other from Thomas Cook. I know next to nothing about foreign jurisdictions, but if it is the case that you can be convicted and imprisoned for passing a forged note without any proof that you knew it to be forged that seems to be contrary to natural justice. I am no lawyer, but I do know that most offences (apart from strict liability ones such as motoring matters) in this country need to have been committed deliberately.
Can anyone out there clarify this?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Same Old Same Old

The debate about the War on Drugs has settled into a stalemate akin to the World War I trenches. Educated opinion and street-level users all agree that drugs are here to stay. Most sensible politicians feel the same way. But just as happened in 1916 nobody can see any way out of the impasse, so the bloody and pointless struggle goes on.
Here's a good summary from the Independent.

A Tricky Balancing Act

This case, as reported in the Telegraph raises a lot of questions, and has made me think for a bit about the general principle of imprisoning parents (almost always women, but this case proves that it happens to men too).

Of course the heavy-duty indictable offences are so serious that those convicted of them will go to prison, family or no family. The 95% of offences that are dealt with by magistrates are another matter. We send relatively few people to prison, and not for very long (the de facto maximum is a matter of six or eight weeks). I first thought hard about this when we had to sentence a young mother who led a lifestyle of serial drink and drug use, multiple partners, and repeated shoplifting, but no convictions for violence. She had been given, and breached, most community penalties, and was well and truly in the frame for a custodial sentence, even by our latest 'must follow' guidelines. My colleagues and I read the reports, and following the approved structured sentencing exercise decided that she had crossed the custody threshold. But what were we about to do? The woman richly deserved to be punished, but her children didn't. Young children need parents, especially their mother, and the disruption to their lives even with a short absence was something we were anxious to avoid if at all possible. An unstable childhood is so often the precursor to a life of adult crime, and a depressingly high proportion of offenders have a history of fostering or council care.
Plenty of people will say "she should have thought about the kids before she committed the offences". So she should, but she did not.
The judge in the case quoted above has come in for a lot of stick over his decision, and today's 'Mail' has weighed in with some more (by the way, why is the paper publishing full-face unpixellated pictures of the kids? They are innocent parties to the whole business, as much victims as the people burgled by their father).
There isn't an easy answer to this one. Nobody wants to see criminals unpunished, but nor is it in society's interests to carry on with the vicious circle of disruption and crime experienced in so many disorganised and unstable families.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Mistaken Identity

I was a bit shocked to read this about Inspector Gadget:-

one of the most mindless ... you're ever likely to see. Abandoning all plot..... it devotes its energies to beating us senseless with a succession of slapstick .... sequences..... the computerised cop is so bland he barely exists....ineptly structured and solely reliant on Gadget's extendable bits and bobs. After a few scenes, the novelty wears very thin


then I was relieved to find that it was the Radio Times review of the eponymous film on telly tonight rather than a reference to my fellow blogger. Phew!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Something New

I found myself chairing a licensing appeal the other day. It is more than a decade since I last dealt with a licensing matter, and in that time the rules have changed completely. It used to be the case that magistrates dealt with licensing, and most benches elected a specialist panel to do the work. There were one-off applications of one sort or another, single-justice directions to deal with, and regular licensing ('Brewster') Sessions, which saw our local publicans turning up looking unnaturally smart in their jackets and ties, before adjourning to a nearby public house to swap gossip and sink a few pints. Now the function has been delegated to the Local Authority's Licensing Committee (that was supposed to cut down on drunkenness and disorder - the results are now evident). Magistrates act as an appeal court to the Council's decisions, and that's where we found ourselves. Neither I nor my colleagues nor the clerk had ever done one of these, so we all had a bit of reading and learning to do - about 250 pages of law and legal submissions for a start. We couldn't finish the case, and will go back to do so, but two points struck me; firstly that a great deal of money is at stake if we uphold the Council's decision, and secondly that one of the cases we shall have to have regard to is Hope & Glory Public House Ltd v City of Westminster Magistrates' Court. What a splendid title for a case! There are pages and pages of transcript, so I shall know a lot more about licensing in a few weeks than I do now.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Inside Information

A normally reliable informant tells me that the Magistrates' Association garden at the Chelsea Flower Show was designed in 'consultation' with a committee of civil servants, working to criteria laid down by the Ministry of Justice. The brief included:-

Magistrates to be 'consulted' but thereafter ignored.
Ministers briefed to say nice words about magistrates, but allowed to keep fingers crossed.
Displays arranged to show benefits of heavy pruning.
Weeds to be disposed of simply speedily and summarily. Docks to be heavily cut back.
Advocatus vulgaris to be severely restricted, and above all, not overfed or otherwise encouraged.
Garden laid out to be under the influence of the Sun at all times.
Louise Casey to label displays, using word 'community' in every second sentence. Dead and wilted plants to be labelled as victims, then ignored as before.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Critical Mess of Porridge

If there is any truth in this (and I have no idea and no comment) it will be interesting to hear about the quality of the food served at Ford Open prison.

Walking The Walk

Here is an American view on the notorious 'perp walk' that we see on our televisions, usually when some high-profile suspect is marched off in handcuffs or sometimes the chained-hand-and-foot kit that some US officers seem to prefer.

In so many cases the shackles are completely unnecessary, but the press and the authorities are eager to collude in providing good TV pictures. But as the article points out, these people are innocent until proved guilty. It's a contrast to the traditional sight here of an arrested person being placed into a car under a blanket. In cases of non violent crime, much the simplest method is to have the suspect attend the police station by appointment to be arrested, and then to be bailed to an early court appearance.

I also hate to see, as we do in so many countries, accused people literally caged for their trial, which they attend dressed in prison overalls. In my time on the bench I have only ever seen one defendant in handcuffs, and that was because he had kicked off ten minutes into his trial and tried to walk away down the cell steps. He apologised once he had calmed down, and the cuffs came off.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Beyond Our Ken

It's been another good week for judge-bashing, not to mention another chance for the Right to have a pop at Ken Clarke. The Telegraph has an excellent piece about Lord Bingham and cooler heads are starting to bring some balance to the Clarke-bashing fiesta. These comments are from letters to The Times (I hope that I may be forgiven for quoting from behind the paywall)


Sir, Unlike politicians, government ministers and most Lords Chancellor, judges are not put into the ring without some form of training. A judge who tries rape cases must have what is called a “rape ticket” and before he achieves this will have undergone training in the conduct of all sex cases, and this training is a continuing process. The process includes sentencing, and it stands to reason that though a serious criminal offence, the sentence must vary with the nature of the evidence.

There must be some difference between an 18-year-old male and a 15-year-old girl who is willing, but who because of her age cannot legally consent, and an intruder who rapes an elderly or indeed any occupant.

What has caused the “disarray” is the interference by politicians in the sentencing process through loose comment or opportunist castigation.

Parliament sets the limits, but it should be entirely a matter for the judges to set the parameters in accordance with each individual case, and indeed without the added confusion of a Sentencing Council.

His Hon Barrington Black
London NW3

Sir, There is a world of difference between saying that not all rape is serious, and saying that not all rapes are as serious as each other. Ed Miliband surely cannot consider that every rape is precisely as serious a crime as every other rape. If he did, then he would be calling for a fixed sentence to be handed down to every convicted rapist, however different the circumstances of the individual crime. He has never called for this in the past, and I do not hear him calling for it now. So either he was incapable of understanding what the Justice Secretary had actually said or, in disingenuously calling for his resignation, he is expressing an outrage that is wholly synthetic.

Mark Sefton
London EC4

Sir, Our jurisprudence has long recognised that there are degrees of culpability in the committing of a given crime. That is why a range of punishments is often available, to reflect the relative seriousness of the offence in question. Is the punishment of rape really to be excluded from such consideration? Or has rape become one of the increasing number of topics that no one is permitted to discuss honestly in public?

Gerald Gouriet, QC
London EC4

Sir, I applaud Ken Clarke. I would be rather concerned if the Justice Minister was unable or unwilling to draw a distinction between the gradations in seriousness that apply to every criminal offence and which are reflected in the sentences handed down by the courts. If rape was subject to a “one size fits all” sentencing policy then inevitably the perpetrators of the most appalling rapes would be woefully under-punished. Gradations in seriousness are necessary to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.

Peter Newman
London EC4

Sir, A resignation is certainly required, but it is not Kenneth Clarke’s; it is Ed Miliband who should resign. Whether or not he had bothehttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifred to listen to the radio interview first, Mr Miliband appears to have no appreciation of the law and is therefore ill-equipped to be involved in its creation. Mr Clarke was absolutely correct in what he said and left no room for interpretation. The media storm over this issue brings shame to this country.

Hamish Hossick
Dundee


What do you think?

Later - here is more sense.

A Different Kind of Judgement

If I had known about this I wouldn't have bothered to pay off my credit card last month.

Then there is this.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Carry On Sergeant

The Police Federation are meeting. A delegate, who represents sergeants, is reported thus:-

A senior police official has told officers that government ministers "hate the police service".

John Giblin also said the government wanted to "destroy" the service "in order to rebuild it again, but in their image".


What a stupid and juvenile remark. If you want to be taken seriously, Sergeant, you need to do better than this. Okay, you got your headline, and your name in the papers, but you will have embarrassed many grown-up officers.

Just have another think officer - do you really, in whatever passes for your brain, believe that ministers "hate the police"?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Classic

I am often irritated by downmarket papers' use of the word 'just' in front of the length of any sentence, implying that the 'out-of-touch' softies on the bench, with or without wigs, have got it wrong again.

Today's Mail has:
Just five years for being an accessory to 28,000 murders: Retired U.S. car worker John Demjanjuk convicted of Nazi death camp crimes


Only five years, eh? He is 91 though. What do you suggest lads - perhaps another 50 years?

A Shot Across Tabloids' Bows?

This report suggests, as I pointed out at the time, that some tabloids' reporting of the Joanna Yeates murder case was appalling even by their debased standards. The vilified 'weirdo' teacher will wreak his revenge in the libel courts (although I suspect that the papers will quietly, if expensively, settle the matter). Let's see how it goes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Hot News! A Crackdown!


In a move of which Alastair Campbell would be proud, the Government has announced a crackdown on careless driving, in which the emphasis will move away from allegedly unpopular speed cameras.

Some crackdown. At present, on the rare occasions that a Due Care case gets to court, the offender faces a fine of up to £5000 and between 3 and 9 penalty points. Magistrates assess the seriousness of the offence and the nature of the driving to put the conduct on the correct point of the scale. There is also discretion to disqualify, as there is with all endorsable offences. Under the supposedly draconian new regime, there will be a fixed penalty of £100 or less, plus three points and no court costs.

This will be introduced just as spending cuts reduce the number of police patrols from their already skimpy level.

It's not just dodgy drivers who go out for a spin. Ministers do it too.

Monday, May 09, 2011

On The Inside Looking Out


ITV1 tonight showed the first of three parts of a documentary series about Strangeways Prison in Manchester. Try to catch up on the ITV Player if you get the chance, as it was very interesting.
The public knows very little about the reality of prison life, and majority opinion is probably that the whole business is too soft, and like the proverbial holiday camp. Of course it's silly to generalise about prisons and prisoners. At one end of the spectrum you have the revolving-door losers that magistrates see on a regular basis, often mentally ill, or addicted. They do their few weeks or months, perhaps in Cat C or even an open prison, emerging to a meaningless life and an almost inevitable reconviction. The prison service has a point when it says that short sentences allow for little more than warehousing since there is not enough time for any useful rehabilitative programmes. At the other end are the Cat A hard men for whom escape must be made out of the question, because of the menace they present to the public. Their life inside is often one of continual violence and bullying, even for the real tough guys, because one day someone even bigger and even harder will arrive on their landing.
The programme shows a man going off to be sentenced for his part in a drug conspiracy, receiving 15 years, double what he had expected. I have been in quite a few prisons, most recently a heavy-duty Cat A establishment in London, and I seriously wonder how I would cope with the thought of such a large chunk of the prime of my life being taken away irrevocably.
I am perfectly comfortable with the need to keep violent men locked up for as long as necessary to protect society; I am no bleeding heart in that respect, but I sometimes can't help wondering just how some of those men feel during the long dark nights after bang-up.
It was probably no coincidence that The Shawshank Redemption was on later.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Missing The Point(s)

Today's news includes allegations against a Cabinet Minister that he persuaded someone else to accept penalty points that should have gone on his own driving licence, thus avoiding the inconvenience of a totting-up disqualification. I have no comment to make on that particular story (other than to say that it looks a bit like the hell-hath-no-fury syndrome).
I suspect that this practice, amounting to Perverting the Course of Justice, is pretty widespread. One of my neighbours proudly claims that his wife has put her hands up to two of his speed camera offences, and I recall, among others, that a Premiership footballer was outrageously cautioned by the police for the same thing. I have heard tales of students prepared to accept points for a fee, too. My own son lives and works abroad while holding a UK licence and I could, were I so minded, name him as the driver were I to be offered a fixed penalty.
It isn't risk-free though. In the case of my son, the Border Agency has records of when he is in the country, and you need to make sure that your insurance covers whomever you choose to nominate, as otherwise you could be charged with Permit No Insurance.
Judges take an exceedingly dim view of this sort of thing, and if your subterfuge goes wrong you face a strong likelihood of a prison sentence. There was a case a few years ago of a businessman who put his car in a ditch while over the drink limit, and got his wife to say she had been driving. It all fell apart and they both went inside. The wife, who was a solicitor, was also struck off.
I don't suppose that the police follow up many of these cases, although forward-facing cameras make it easier. Nevertheless, if it all goes pear-shaped, Hizonner can be expected to dish out condign punishment.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Rank Blogs

Here is a listing of blogs about law.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Copper Kettle

There's an odd post by Inspector Gadget, whose blog enjoys an enormous readership these days.
He appears to be claiming the Royal Wedding as a vindication of the Met's controversial and possibly illegal 'kettling' tactics, by pointing to the sensible police crowd management that let revellers along the Mall in a controlled manner, averting the possibility of a dangerous stampede.
What the Inspector has failed to observe is that Friday's operation only controlled the crowd in one direction - towards the Palace. Anyone who wished to go home, or to the toilet, or to seek medical advice if they felt poorly could do so unhindered. In the earlier applications of the tactic hundreds of innocent people were corralled for hours without access to water or toilet facilities, and no allowances were made for the elderly or the unwell.

Gadget's comments on the Ian Tomlinson inquest appear a bit odd too.

Just one last point - has any police officer, of any rank, been disciplined for covering up their shoulder numbers like the officer who hit Tomlinson?

Sunday, May 01, 2011

He Ought To Know Better

Simon Douglas, director of AA Insurance, called for harsher penalties for those caught who are actually driving without (insurance) cover.

He said: "The maximum fine available to the courts is £5,000, yet the average meted out is only £200, considerably less than the cost of insuring a vehicle in the first place.

"Such small fines are ludicrous if you compare them with the £1,000 fine for not having a television licence, for example."


This cost-of-insurance-vs-amount-of-fine issue is one that pops up on a regular basis, including in my local pub. Here are a few useful facts for Mr. Douglas to cut out and keep:-

There is no offence of not having an insurance policy. The offence is to drive without insurance (or security) at a particular date and time. Comparison with a year's premium is meaningless.

The maximum fine for any offence is for the worst possible case, with all of the possible aggravating features and none of the mitigating ones, for an offender of means, who pleads not guilty and is convicted. In reality such fines are rarely, if ever, imposed. The maximum fine for a simple drink-drive is £5000. Ever hear of it being imposed? No, neither have I.

The Guidelines suggest a fine in Band C of the scale. For a straightforward no insurance case, and someone earning the average wage of about £350 per week, that would mean a fine of £350 after deducting one-third as credit for the plea, plus costs, surcharge, and 6+ points or a ban. But most of our defendants are not on £350 per week, but rather on benefits, in which case the fine might well be £100, plus the costs surcharge and points.

It is now police practice to seize uninsured cars and to scrap or sell them unless the owner can get insurance within (I think) 14 days. There is also a fee to pay. In practice most of the old bangers are simply surrendered, as insurance would far exceed the value of the car.

All of the above applies equally to Mr.Douglas' ridiculous example of a £1000 fine for having no TV licence. That's what the Licensing people want you to think, but in reality most fines are around the £100 mark.

Heavier penalties are not the answer to uninsured driving. If young Wayne decided to risk driving uninsured, it would make no difference to him whether the fine was £50 or £5000. To be deterred, you have to be capable of a certain level of thought process. The Waynes of this world mostly lack that capability.

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