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 retired JP, with over 30 years' experience on the Bench.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Dawn of a New Era

April 1st 2005 sees the emergence from its chrysalis of Her Majesty's Courts' Service. The Service will manage all of the courts in England and Wales, from Truro County Court to the Old Bailey. Headed by Sir Ron De Witt, a former male nurse with no legal qualifications or experience, HMCS will replace all former local management structures, and will seek to improve the efficiency of the courts system - whatever that means.

On the same day many of the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 will come into force for the first time, including a major revision of the sentencing framework, and changes to the rules of evidence relating to hearsay, following on the recent introduction of new rules regarding Bad Character (telling the court about the defendant or witness's previous convictions).

Judges magistrates and lawyers have all been trained in the new procedures, and some of them understand it fully. Most of us will have to wing it until our legal advisers and the advocates in court have got a grip. Even then there are many grey areas that will urgently need to be clarified by the Court of Appeal. Some of the highest judges in the land have criticised the 2003 Act for sloppy drafting and a confused approach. Most practitioners are convinced that too much has been changed too quickly, and that this will inevitably lead to problems. In the meantime, to my colleagues who will be sitting tomorrow morning - good luck!


In Memoriam

The Greater London Magistrates’ Courts’ Authority slipped away quietly on the 31st of March 2005. A sickly infant, it was nevertheless born with high expectations. During a lengthy gestation period great plans were made for its future, although, sadly, few of them were to reach fruition. On its birth it received a handsome inheritance of a diverse but thriving system of local justice. Sadly much of this was squandered before its fifth and final birthday was to come about. Its ambitious plans to modernise the inherited estate came to naught, as the pre-existing tenantry exercised a resistance that proved to be insurmountable. Many new servants were appointed in the vain hope of improving the inherited system. The servants remain in post, but the improvements remain a chimaera.

The late Authority’s legacy has passed to the new-born Her Majesty’s Courts’ Service. The legatee has been the beneficiary of many such inheritances across the nation, and it is to be hoped that it will prove to be more careful of its heritage than was the newly-deceased Authority.

No flowers by request, but the desperate may send CVs to Sir Ron, c/o Courts ‘R’ Us, London.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

A Bit Close to Home

Shakespeare's take on the Bench:-

Next, the Justice,
In fair round belly, with good capon lined.
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances,
And so he plays his part.

Hmmm- he must have seen me coming.

While we are mentioning the Bard, I liked this from today's Telegraph:

If you provided an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters I doubt they would produce the works of Shakespeare. But they might well come up with the word "Kyrgyzstan".

Friday, March 25, 2005

Another Busy Week

This week,a committee meeting, a sitting at the Crown Court hearing appeals with a judge and another magistrate, and a busy remand day back at my own court.

Unusually the appeals took the whole day. Judges and Counsel don't much like sitting after 4 p.m., but we had to crack on and finish a case because there was no further court time available before July, and that is too long a break for a part-heard case. Lunch in the Judges' Dining Room is always enjoyable and the atmosphere is nothing like the public image of a lot of pompous old stuffed shirts. We even got a glass of wine, as one of the judges was moving on to sit in a different court. We dismissed all of the appeals that we heard. For many judges it is twenty years or more since they last dealt with magistrates-court type of offences so the presence of magistrates adds the necessary level of experience. Decisions are by majority vote, but the judge's ruling as to law is final, which seems fair enough.

We dealt with 52 cases the next day, including bail and custody remands, simple sentencing, and three more serious cases with pre-sentence reports to read. We committed several serious cases to the Crown Court, and we issued arrest warrants for those who had failed to turn up or who had breached community orders. As usual we had to deal robustly with lawyers who wanted adjournments; we refused nearly all of them and sent them outside to sort their clients out and come back in so that the case can move forward. Lawyers tend to focus their minds more sharply when they know that they have to satisfy the court's directions before they can get away to their office. We finished at a quarter past four, and I wished everyone a happy Easter and went to the pub. Hard work, but satisfying.

Old Spanish Customs (2)

Importation of cannabis resin, street value £300
This might not get to court as Customs might impose a Compounded Penalty of a few hundred pounds and confiscate the drug. Before magistrates either a large fine or a shortish Community Punishment Order (80 hours?)

Importation of herbal cannabis, 1.3 kilos
This is just over the magistrates court limit of 1kg - a really good brief might be able to persuade the lower court to accept it, in which case six months. At Crown Court, nine months.

Importation of Cocaine, swallowed, 500 grams, street value £25,000 Definitely off to the Crown Court, five to eight years.

Importation of Cocaine in baggage, 5kg, street value £250,000 Crown Court of course, ten to twelve years.

Importation of Cocaine by Captain of freight aircraft - 290kg, street value at least £14 million. This one actually happened in 2002, and the pilot was one of the gang. Twenty years, two-thirds to be served before parole considered.

These sentences are all pretty severe, but the fact that street prices are dropping suggests that plenty of drugs are getting through.

Thanks for the comments - as you might expect those with inside knowledge were pretty much spot on!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Old Spanish Customs

I have just watched a BBC 'Panorama' programme about Customs and Excise prosecutions. A good friend of mine sits on a bench outside London that deals with an airport. Airports mean drug importations: so what do you think these are worth?

(All defendants plead not guilty - all have no previous convictions).

Importation of cannabis resin, street value £300

Importation of herbal cannabis, 1.3 kilos

Importation of Cocaine, swallowed, 500 grams, street value £25,000

Importation of Cocaine in baggage, 5kg, street value £250,000

Importation of Cocaine by Captain of freight aircraft - 290kg, street value at least £14 million.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Car Insurance (2)

Jason (Case A)
This case is aggravated by his never having taken a test and the fact that he drove deliberately without insurance.
Fine £100 plus £35 costs, deducted from benefit at £5 per week. Disqualified from driving for two months, licence endorsed. No separate penalty (NSP) for the licence offence, but licence endorsed, NSP for the MOT offence.

Mohammed (B) He had a duty to find out about the insurance laws, but holds a licence (albeit technically invalid). Fine £100, plus £35 costs. Deduction from Benefit may not be available, so £5 per week ordered, £5 to pay today. Licence endorsed 6 penalty points. NSP for licence offence and MOT, this licence offence not endorseable. Told by clerk about obtaining a UK licence and advised not to drive until he does.

Charlene (C)
Expired insurance is less serious than never-held. Fine £75 plus £25 costs, £5 per week deduction from benefit. (low level of fine reflects culpability plus cost of children) . Licence endorsed 6 penalty points, so she now has 9 and needs to be very careful.

Patrick (D) already has 6 points so the minimum 6 for today makes him a 'totter' with 12. Disqualified 6 months. Offence aggravated by previous convictions, but fine reduced slightly as being banned will affect his earning power. Fine £200 plus £35 costs. Pay at £20 per week.

John (E)
There is a statutory defence available to those who drive an employer's vehicle that is uninsured. We reject his plea of guilty, instruct the clerk to enter one of not guilty, and acquit him.

Just a few notes: Most of my examples are poor people, because that's how it is in real life. Although the fines are way below the cost of insurance, and also below the new fixed penalty level, there is an overriding legal requirement to ensure that fines are reasonable and proportionate to the def's income. For someone on benefit it will be cheaper to decline a £200 fixed penalty and go to court, pleading guilty as soon as possible. Someone on the local average take-home pay of about £350 per week would be fined around that much. The sting is in the points of course - get to 12 and you will be banned for six months at least. The fact that Mohammed hasn't got a UK licence will not prevent DVLA from creating a record that will show on the police computer, and when he does get a proper licence the points will be on it.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Cross-Channel Justice

My French opposite number Maitre Eolas in his Journal d'un avocat
has put up a hypothetical drugs case for his readers to sentence. Have a look, if your French is up to it. Once I have sorted out the legal French I shall have a go at sentencing it under English law.

Later: Eolas has added an English version of the case. We operate in two very different jurisdictions, so this might produce differences of approach - or then again it might not.

Car Insurance

Every court has to deal with uninsured drivers. It is probably the commonest single offence that we see, and it is not always simple to deal with. Young people are often fascinated by cars and will do almost anything to get their hands on one. Unfortunately premiums for even the most basic cover can easily amount to £2000 per year for a new young driver, and for those who cannot persuade their parents to help it may not be possible to raise the money. So they take a chance and drive, and end up in front of a bench of magistrates. There are degrees of seriousness - here are a few everyday scenarios:-

A: Jason is 21. He has a provisional licence and has never taken a test. He is stopped while driving his mate's G-registered Nova. He appears on summons for no insurance, no licence, and no MOT certificate. A separate summons will be issued over the car's lack of a tax disc. The police have seized the car. He lives with his mother and gets £43 per week benefits. He pleads guilty.

B: Mohammed is 22 and holds an Afghan driving licence, which he has been using for the eighteen months that he has been in the UK. His asylum claim is in the system. He is stopped while driving what seems to be a communal car owned with friends. They use it to get to the casual farm and labouring jobs that they are doing to supplement their £38 per week benefits. He did not know that insurance was required, and he also did not know that his entitlement to use the Afghan licence has run out and he needs to take a test for a UK licence. He is summonsed for no insurance, not driving in accordance with the terms of a licence, and no MOT. He pleads guilty.

C: Charlene is a 31 year old single mother. She works a couple of shifts in a pub, and receives various benefits to support her children. Her income from all sources is about £170 per week. Her 13 year old Cavalier used to be insured by her boyfriend but he has moved on and the insurance ran out six weeks ago. She can't afford to renew it. She has a full licence with three points for a speed camera offence, and the MOT fortunately has three weeks left to run. She needs the car to run the kids about, to get to work, and for shopping at the cheap Aldi shop that is three miles away. She pleads guilty to driving without insurance.

D: Patrick has a six year old van that he uses to carry his tools around for his work as a builder's odd-job man. He has no insurance, has a similar conviction from eighteen months ago, and another from four years ago. His licence is a full one. He earns about £250 per week and lives with his girlfriend in a rented flat.

E: John was doing a part time driving job for a local off-licence when he was stopped in a routine check. When he went to get the insurance certificate from his employer he discovered that it had expired three months before. He is summonsed for no insurance, and writes in to plead guilty, but comes to court to tell us what has happened. He can't afford a solicitor.

The Guidelines:

Entry point is a discharge or fine. Guideline fine is one week's take-home pay. Must endorse licence with 6-8 points or may disqualify. Disqualification should be considered where there are aggravating factors such as deliberate failure to obtain insurance, a defective vehicle, no test ever passed, no reference to ever having had a policy. Mitigation might include accidental oversight, genuine mistake.

Anyone fancy sentencing that lot? Cases just like them will be before every court in the land next week.

Just to muddy the water for you, a new Fixed Penalty has been introduced for no insurance. It is for £200 plus six penalty points, but for today, none of our offenders have been offered the FPN. Oh yes, and you have just paid your car insurance, that cost you £550.

Justices of the Peace Act 1361

Here is the Act. It is still in use in our courts every day.

1. FIRST, that in every county of England shall be assigned for the keeping of the peace, one lord, and with him three or four of the most worthy in the county, with some learned in the law, and they shall have power to restrain the offenders, rioters, and all other barrators, and to pursue, arrest, take, and chastise them according their trespass or offence; and to cause them to be imprisoned and duly punished according to the law and customs of the realm, and according to that which to them shall seem best to do by their discretions and good advisement; and also to inform them, and to inquire of all those that have been pillors and robbers in the parts beyond the sea, and be now come again, and go wandering, and will not labor as they were wont in times past: and to take and arrest all those that they may find by indictment, or by suspicion, and to put them in prison; and to take of all them that be not of good fame, where they shall be found, sufficient surety and mainprise of their good behavior towards the king and his people, and the other duly to punish; to the intent that the people be not by such rioters or rebels troubled nor endamaged, nor the peace blemished, nor merchants nor other passing by the highways of the realm disturbed, nor put in fear by peril which might happen of such offenders; and also to hear and determine at the king’s suit all manner of felonies and trespasses done in the same county according to the laws and customs aforesaid; and that writs of oyer and determiner be granted according to the statutes thereof made, and that the justices which shall be thereto assigned be named by the court, and not by the party. And the king will, that all general inquiries before this time granted within any seignories, for the mischiefs and oppressions which have been done to the people by such inquiries, shall cease utterly and be repealed and that fines, which are to be made before justices for a trespass done by any person, be reasonable and just, having regard to the quantity of the trespass, and the causes for which they may be made.

And here is the Judicial Oath:-

I, (name), do swear by Almighty God that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth the Second in the office of Justice of the Peace, and I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.

The oath for judges is similar, and those of other religions or of none may take a slightly different oath.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Apocrypha (8)

From the indispensible Chase me ladies one of those stories that just might be true...

A Glaswegian thief was apprehended by 'ra polis' on Sauchiehall St and dragged painfully by the head all the way round the corner into Bath St before the bobby formally arrested him. "Whit ye dae that for??" the mystified crook asked.
"Coz I cannae spell 'Sauchiehall', ya thievin' c*nt"


Perhaps more reliable is a story that I was told by a doctor friend of mine. A woman in her late teens went to see him, and announced "Doctor, I fink I'm pregnant". He examined her and concluded that she was likely to be correct. He started to fill in the usual forms. After a while he got to:- "When do you think this happened?" "Not sure." "Who is the father?" "I dunno". "Well, what colour was he?"

My friend was floored by the reply.

"Nah- I dunno. He never took his crash helmet off, see?"

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Judicial Approach Required

If you cannot take an objective view of a situation you should not be a magistrate. Your job is to apply the law, as the Oath says, "Without fear or favour, affection or ill-will".

It can be very hard sometimes. We tried a case yesterday (and I can't go into any detail here that would not make it obvious to a few people who the protagonists were) in which we found the defendant to be guilty of a certain offence against a certain victim. The defendant had clearly lost his cool, and his behaviour crossed the line that made his behaviour an offence. We were quite certain that the verdict had to be one of guilty.

The tough part of the job was personal to the people on the Bench, because the victim was so personally obnoxious and arrogant. His demeanour in the witness box and the evidence that we heard put our backs up. Furthermore, his behaviour leading up to the offence would have made almost any normal person furious. Any provocation fell well short of a defence in law, however.

It took us little time to find the defendant guilty, but once we had done that we agreed between ourselves that we all understood the offender's behaviour, while accepting that it went past the threshold of acceptability and that a guilty verdict was the only one we could enter.

So we convicted and we sentenced, after we had set our minds to a rational assessment of the seriousness of the crime. The system worked as it should and I believe that what we did was right. I didn't enjoy it though.

The offence was summary-only (i.e. magistrates court with no option of a jury) but I am pretty sure that any jury would have acquitted in the teeth of the evidence. That is both the main strength and the main weakness of juries.

Shakespeare Again

In "The Winter's Tale" Shakespeare says:-

I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting.

Some modern academic research suggests that 23 is still the age by which most
offenders pack it in and settle down. Clever old chap, wasn't he?

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Not According To Plan

I was due to hear an all-day trial today. Half a dozen police witnesses were out in the lobby , it was all systems go for a trial. The defendant spoiled the party by pleading guilty at ten past ten.

While we had coffee the court staff reorganised things and we dealt with a number of sentences and issued a few warrants. We then sentenced our hero from the abortive all-day trial. That took us to lunchtime.

After lunch, things looked up. Quite by chance we had a list of good old-fashioned summary offences, mostly overnight in custody. Drunk and Disorderly (37 previous convictions). Refusing to leave licensed premises. Assault police officers. Disorder at a family party, most of whose guests are well known to our court already. Mitigation on this one was 'that's what parties are like in our family'. Criminal damage to a police cell, involving the smearing of certain faecal substances on to the walls (at this point our probation officer left the room clutching her hanky).

The book is no help. Guidelines are irrelevant to these offences so we are thrown back on to Mark One common sense. So we gave out a fine here, 28 days inside there, a compensation order when appropriate.

It is such a nice change to be back down among everyday petty crime.

To me, it's the best part of being a magistrate.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Tomorrow and Tomorrow

I shall be sitting tomorrow, and again on Friday. I would not normally sit more than once a week, but I am filling in for a sick colleague tomorrow and I have swapped sittings with another on Friday.

One of the great things about the job is that I have absolutely no idea what I shall be doing over the next two days. It could be a trial, or two. It could be Videolink remands, it could be sentencing cases, it could be traffic, it could be fishing licences. It could be murder or (more likely) shoplifting. Something for everyone.

If I am unlucky we shall spend quite a lot of time cooling our heels while the lawyers sort things out, or the prison van extracts itself from a pile-up on the M25. On the other hand we might snatch a cup of tea at a quarter past five in the afternoon and find that there are still three custodies downstairs, but they all have the same lawyer so he needs the best part of an hour to talk to them all. Custody cases take priority because after 24 hours from charge they will be illegally detained, and that is a Bad Thing.

So, we shall see.

Special Reasons and the Demon Drink

Now and again we see a defendant who has pleaded guilty to a driving offence, but who wants to persuade us that there are Special Reasons not to endorse his licence or to disqualify him. This is quite different from the Exceptional Hardship argument that I have written about earlier - Special Reasons must relate to the offence and not to the offender. They must not be capable of amounting to a defence to the charge.

Although they can apply to any endorsable offence, nearly all SR arguments are about drink-driving. The consequences of such a conviction can be far-reaching, and some defendants will make every effort to avoid a ban.

The classic one is laced drinks. If a driver can satisfy the court that his drink was interfered with, and that it was only the extra alcohol that pushed him over the limit, then he may be spared a ban. On the other hand, if someone admits to slipping him a double Scotch in his pint, but his reading when arrested is double the limit, then his argument will fail, because he would have been over the top anyway, even without the extra shot of spirits. He will certainly need an expert witness and a lawyer to represent him, because there is a great deal of case law involved, so it will not be cheap. One difficulty is finding anyone who will admit to spiking your drink, because doing so is an offence, leaving the perpetrator liable to prosecution.

Other Special Reasons may be based on the short distance driven (I was just moving the car to a safer place before I walked home) a medical emergency (what was wrong with calling an ambulance? Once you had taken the person to hospital did you drive back again, when the emergency had passed?)

It is for the defendant to prove on the civil standard of the Balance of Probabilities that Special Reasons exist, which reverses the normal burden of proof. In my experience Benches tend to be pretty sceptical in these cases, and cross-examination often reveals that the defendant's case is paper thin.

It is also an offence to be Drunk in Charge of a vehicle. Sleeping off a skinful in your car is not a good idea, but there is a defence available, of having no intention to drive. You will need to come up with some convincing proof though, such as leaving your keys with the barman. It is not unusual for someone to be arrested after being found asleep in their car, halfway between pub and home, with the lights on and the engine running. There's not much point in fighting that one.

An acquaintance of mine approached me in the pub and told me that he had been charged with DIC. He had been drinking with friends and he told them that he was just going to get his briefcase out of his car and then walk the mile or so home. He got into the car to get his case and take some things out of the glove box, and a passing police patrol breath tested him and he was arrested. I asked him if his friends would be prepared to give evidence - he thought they would. Did anyone else hear him say that he was going to get his case? Yes, the barmaid. So I sent him off to a reliable solicitor, and he pleaded not guilty. A couple of months later he turned up grinning from ear to ear and gave me a bottle of champagne, having been acquitted, and with his £900 legal costs refunded to him. It's nice to see a happy ending sometimes.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Downfall of a Master Criminal (2)

When the daily court list shows an offence as 'non-standard' it means that the allegation is sufficiently unusual not to have been entered into the database. That's what it said when Ronnie Michael appeared before us in Court 3 one morning.

The offence boiled down to one of attempted deception. Young Ronnie enjoys a varied and full sex life, consummating his seductions in bus shelters, parks, shop doorways and suchlike unromantic but convenient and inexpensive locations. Unfortunately he has impregnated one of the ladies concerned, and he is doubly unfortunate because she has named him as the father to the Child Support Agency. The CSA have ordered him to take a DNA test to establish paternity. Ronnie decided that he might avoid expense and bother if he sent a 'ringer' to take the test for him. Which is what he decided to do.

He sent his brother, blissfully unaware that siblings have rather similar DNA.

So not only did he receive a short prison sentence, pour encourager les autres, the CSA will be attempting to attach his earnings for the next sixteen years. I wish them luck.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

A Job We Should Not Be Doing At All

Every so often on our private prosecutions day we deal with a pile of summonses for having no Television Licence. Since something like 98% of properties have a TV installed the authorities simply check on any postcode where there is no licence. The vast majority of the defendants do not turn up, so the prosecutor will usually apply to prove his case in their absence. So long as the evidential statements are in order and have been properly served we will almost certainly convict the offender and fine them. A licence costs a little over £100 so a standard fine will be in that region plus costs in the region of £40. It is not popular work with magistrates, having a nasty taste of rubber-stamp justice to it. Those who plead guilty by post are rewarded with a credit of about a third off the fine, with a possible further reduction still if they give us details of a very low income (usually state benefits). Just a handful of defendants will turn up at court - nearly all of them women, nearly all of them poor. When you are living on about £120 a week and trying to bring up a child the cost of a licence can look enormous. What many of us would routinely spend on a dinner out for four can be impossible for a single mother to find. Of course there are a lot of instalment-type arrangements that can be made, but many harassed people do not get round to it. In such cases a sympathetic bench will push the fine as low as they dare, and trim the costs as well.

We are told that the BBC will continue to get its licence fee for the next ten years. I think that enforcement should be taken out of the criminal courts and enforced by civil means, just like gas and electricity bills, parking tickets, and other debts.

And whenever I read that the BBC (which I admire in many ways) has just sent hordes of well-paid and expensed people to cover some trivial event, or has spent a third of a million quid on a management weekend to 'motivate' its people I want to yell at the screen: "Don't you realise where that money has come from?" The BBC spends a disproportionate amount of its cash on minority channels such as Radio 3, BBC 3 and 4, that predominantly benefit the better off classes, but are paid for by rich and poor alike.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Well, That Was Different

I closed down a takeaway food shop the other day. I have done some odd things in my judicial capacity, but never shut a chippy before.

The local Council's Environmental Health Officers had carried out a routine check on a local takeaway and found appalling breaches of the hygiene rules. By way of evidence they produced about twenty digital colour photos printed A4 size on a laser printer. These showed an overall coating of grime, live and dead cockroaches all over the place, with cracked and filthy walls floors and preparation surfaces. The red tiled floor was overall dark grey except for a lighter track where staff walked through regularly, and it was black where the floor met the walls. The store room was liberally sprinkled with mouse droppings. It was lucky that the case came on in the afternoon, after I had eaten my lunch, because the photographs were literally nauseating. The Council had used its power to slap a closure order on the shop, but they then have three days to persuade a bench of magistrates that they have acted correctly. If the magistrates refuse to approve the action then the council will have to pay compensation for loss of business to the shopkeeper.

We confirmed the order and awarded the council £1000 costs. The shop owner must have cleaned up his act within a week or so, because when I drove by the shop ten days later it was open, with a queue of customers waiting for their delicious suppers.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

High-Tech Policing

I have just driven back from Tescos, and on the way I passed through a large Police checkpoint. There was the van with the Automatic Number Plate Recognition, a lift truck to remove any really dodgy vehicles, three traffic cars, six motorbikes and a couple of vans. Officers were busily interviewing the first crop of drivers whose vehicles showed no tax or insurance on the database. Lots of other crime gets picked up by these checks, and I am quite happy with that.

I was struck by the contrast between the hundreds of thousands of poundsworth of high technology kit that was deployed and my humble courthouse, where we are not provided with a computer link to the DVLA, so if a defendant turns up without bringing his driving licence we have to adjourn the case for three weeks while we send off for a paper printout of the driver's record.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

All Change!

I have spent this evening going through piles of documents trying to put them in some kind of order. I shall have to go shopping for some files tomorrow, and I need to clear a bookshelf to make room for them. There are those that I need to study further and there are those that I need to have near to hand. I am struggling to keep up with these piles of stuff.

There has been a blizzard of legislation and a frenzy of reorganisation in recent years, and things are about to reach a critical stage.

Much of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 is about to be implemented. This makes far-reaching changes to the rules of evidence, introduces a new case-management structure and allows the bad character of defendants and witnesses to be put to the court It also introduces a whole new sentencing framework. The stated aim is to 'rebalance' the system. What that means is to reduce the inconvenient number of not guilty verdicts that juries and magistrates persist in finding. Judges and magistrates have been trained in the new procedures, many of which will go live on April 1st. Prosecution defence and police have all had to be trained too.

The National Offender Management Service has been set up to put prison and probation services into the same organisation, driving the final nail into the coffin of the traditional Probation Officer's role of being a kind of social worker. Now it's all about control and supervision.

In London the Authority that was set up five years ago to run the capital's magistrates' courts will die unlamented at the end of March and Her Majesty's Courts Service will take over London's courts, along with all of the other courts in the country, be they Magistrates' County or Crown Courts.

Every region will now have a plethora of new bodies with varying degrees of power, giving rise to an enormous number of new and impenetrable acronyms. The Chairman of my Bench now has well over fifty meetings to attend each year in addition to training, pastoral duty, and of course sitting in court.

The only certainty is that there will be crimes committed on the 31st of March, and that magistrates will have to deal with them on the 1st of April. Fingers crossed!


I have had advice from the Magistrates' Association on the subject of hunting with dogs. Magistrates who own land over which the hunt may pass will have no difficulty if the hunt has stated that it will operate within the law. If, however, the hunt has announced its intention to break the law then we must not permit them to use our land for that purpose. So that's all right then. This assumes of course that a hunt which is prepared to defy the law against hunting will meticulously avoid trespassing.

Personally, I am agnostic on hunting. I have no wish to take part myself, but I would not prevent others from doing so. It is going to be very difficult for police to gather evidence - their horses and motorcycles are unsuitable for jumping gates, and the hunt would quickly lose them. Taxpayers might have something to say if a £600 per hour helicopter spends all day following the hunt. Judicially, it will be a nightmare for magistrates in hunting areas. The prosecution will have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused was hunting a mammal with dogs, and that he meant to do so. Evidence of identification will be needed - a notoriously tricky area of law and one that every magistrate will be very wary about. How do we differentiate between exercising dogs that happen upon a fox and a hunt? No doubt anti-hunters will try to video proceedings, but even professional high-resolution cameras in towns often fail to produce footage that is good enough to use in evidence. What chance is there for a breathless amateur using a domestic camcorder? Hunters will brief top quality advocates who will pounce on every flaw in the prosecution case.

Ealing, with its large houses and generous gardens is home to many foxes but no hunts have sprung up to control them so far as I am aware, so I am most unlikely ever to see such a case. I very much doubt whether there will be a single conviction in 2005.