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.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Old Soldier

He was in his sixties, I would say, and from the way that he stood up straight in the dock and looked directly at the bench it was pretty obvious that he had been a soldier in his time. Arms at his sides, he gave crisp replies to the Clerk's questions. He wasn't on our list, and it turned out that he was on bail for a petty theft, but being of No Fixed Abode he was living in a bail hostel until his case came to court. He had walked out of the bail hostel that morning, got on a bus and come to court, where he asked to talk to the magistrates. We had a slot free, so in he came, and he told us that he didn't like the bail hostel because he had to share a room, that he wasn't going back, and that he knew that he was breaking his bail so please would we send him to prison? "I've done a lot of time on the Island" he said "I like Wandsworth best; you know where you stand there".

We were nonplussed. We asked probation to see if a single room was available - it was not. No other hostels had any places. We were reduced to trying to coax him into staying out of prison, but he wasn't having it. So we remanded him in custody, and he stepped off happily through the door that leads down to the cells, with a polite "Thank you sir". The items that he had shoplifted were a Mars Bar and two Bic pens, valued at no more than a pound.

I was a new magistrate at the time, and I have often wondered about that old boy over the years. He was obviously institutionalised (Wandsworth is known as a tough no-nonsense prison and lots of old lags prefer it that way). Having No Fixed Abode is usually a valid ground for refusing bail, since there is no address where the court can send documents. Nowadays I am much more experienced and I am pretty sure that I would grant him unconditional bail, NFA or not. Locking somebody up for such a pathetic theft is totally out of proportion - but - if the same thing happened today and I bailed him, would I really be doing him a favour? He would be turned out on to the street from the court, and then what does he do? Inside he gets three meals a day, his life is entirely regulated by others as it has been for most of his life, and he has a roof over his head.

There is no right answer to that one, I am afraid. In the absence of effective social services for someone like the old soldier we end up spending hundreds of pounds a week to keep him in prison. It makes no sense, but what else can we do?