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.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Bench Book

I picked up my copy of the new Bench Book this week. This is a compendium of guidance on court procedures that is given to every magistrate. There is (or should be) a copy on every bench and in every retiring room. It is prepared by the Judicial Studies Board which now oversees most of the training of the judiciary. A Very Senior Person once said to me: "Of course, it's really the Judicial Training Board, but the judges were touchy about the idea of being trained, so we called it Studies instead."

The Contents page alone runs to over three sides of A4. There are useful checklists on such things as Human Rights, case management (the new Big Idea for 2005/6. Watch this space!) structured decisions, and how to handle serious contempt. There are guidelines on mode of trial, which cover whether we should deal with a case or pass it up to a higher court, and then the absolutely essential sentencing guidelines. There is an A4 sheet for each of the more common offences giving suggested guidelines for sentence and listing potentially aggravating or mitigating factors. These are not binding (the Chief Magistrate says that they are 'guidelines not tramlines') but they help benches to adopt a standardised approach. There is an extensive section on the legal requirements for particular sentences, and draft pronouncements that the chairman can use if he chooses, although many of us prefer to paraphrase in our own style. Woe betide us if we leave something out though - the sentence might not be lawful.

There are sections covering new legislation (e.g. Section 3 Page 122, Sexual Offences Act Foreign Travel Order). So many new ideas came in with the Criminal Justice Act 2003 that there is probably not a magistrate or legal adviser in the land who fully grasps them all, so we shall be reaching for the book quite often in the months to come.

That just gives a flavour of a book that weighs three or four pounds (Hallelujah! I have just noticed that they have put it in a four-ring binder - the old ones fell apart in weeks).

To be honest, many magistrates get through a day without referring to anything other than the sentencing guidelines, and sometimes not even those when the offence is a common one. Where the book is useful, apart from a bit of quiet mugging-up at home, is when the case is complex, or, nearly as bad, looks like it is completely clear and simple. That's the time to double-check your thought processes and treble-check your decision, because it's on the seemingly obvious cases that it's easy to come unstuck.