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.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Cheap Cigs and ASBOs

I am always grateful to those who take the time to add comments to the blog, preventing it from being a one-man band. I also get quite a few e-mails and one I received a few days ago included the following:-

Around these parts, Islington, both politicians and police are in a state of rebellion about your colleagues at Highbury Magistrates’ Court who just will not grant Asbos. Indeed, the leader of the council is in the local rag this week urging magistrates to get involved in combating crime. It's coded criticism after a recent police application to ASBO rogue contraband cigarette sellers was thrown out. While the magistrates' insistence on proof "beyond reasonable doubt" is laudable, this translates to the creation of gangs of virtually untouchable youth. This has been my particular point of experience and concern for the best part of three years.

At my request the writer was kind enough to send me a copy of a report in the local paper, headlined “Court urged to join drive to clear illegal fag sellers”
In the report Superintendent Mark Terry and Councillor Steve Hitchins are quoted as being frustrated by the lack of ‘partnership’ shown by the courts. Magistrates and the Lord Chancellor are to be invited to visit the area.

With respect gentlemen, you are betraying a total lack of understanding of what an independent judiciary means. Magistrates and District Judges consider impartially evidence that is put before them. It is no part of their job to be in partnership with anyone. If prosecuting authorities or individuals put forward a good case within the law the court will make an appropriate finding. What the court is not there to do is to cuddle up to the police and the council, and rubber-stamp ASBOs on demand. If the cigarette sellers are breaking the law, and I suspect that they might be, they should be arrested and brought before the court using existing laws. Perhaps the council could orchestrate a consumer boycott of the half-price cigarettes on sale. I wonder how they would get on?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Professional Conundrum

One day, something like ten years ago, we were dealing with a drink-drive case involving a local businesswoman. She was defended by a respected local solicitor, known for fierce loyalty to his clients but also for a meticulous approach to his professional duty. He announced that he had an unusual application to make.

"Quite exceptionally, sir, I am asking for an adjournment for six weeks." The bench looked sceptical. "A professional issue has arisen, and despite making considerable efforts I have not so far resolved it. I have consulted my partners and the Law Society but we are no further forward. Even more exceptionally, I may not, for professional reasons, tell you what the problem is. I have to ask you to accept my word as an officer of the court". Which is what we did, bailing his client and putting things off for the requested six weeks.

We saw no more of the case, and it was some time before the dust settled and I found out on the grapevine what had happened. The defendant had been noticed by police who saw her driving erratically at night, and they had tailed her. They followed her for quite a distance before they stopped her, breath tested and arrested her and took her to the police station, where she blew 55 as opposed to the limit of 35, and was charged. She took legal advice, and when the defence went through the paperwork it transpired that the police had followed her so far that they had crossed the border into the neighbouring county force area, and it was there that the arrest had taken place. This rendered the court proceedings invalid, the offence being summary-only.

The solicitor's problem was that he has a duty to the court as well as a duty to the client. If he had pointed out the error then the county force could have issued a summons, to the detriment of the client. If he had strung matters out for six months it would be too late to issue a new summons, to the detriment of justice. So what was he to do?

Sensibly, the CPS asked an independent lawyer to review the case, and dropped it. The businesswoman was very lucky indeed but rules are rules, and police must follow them.


As an experiment I put a simple poll on the sidebar. This is how it finished up:-

How would you feel about becoming a JP?

No, it's not my thing at all 16% 69
I'm interested but job or family mean I couldn't do it 42% 178
I wouldn't do it because there's no pay 5% 20
I am thinking about finding out some more 32% 136
Yes, I am going to apply 5% 22

425 votes total

Saturday, February 25, 2006


When there are concerns about someone's suitability for unconditional bail the next step, before a remand in custody, is to impose bail conditions. These might be a curfew, a residence condition or one not to contact a witness or victim, and so on. Sometimes, usually in serious cases, the fear that the defendant might abscond is met by a surety or a security. A security is simply a cash deposit that stands to be forfeited if the defendant fails to appear. More usually we are offered a surety from a friend or relative.

When you offer yourself as a surety (and having seen the system I am not sure that I would, other than for my immediate family) you have to come to court with ID and with proof of your financial position. You are then put on oath and taken through a probing questionnaire about your personal affairs, your job, whether you have a criminal record, how well you know the defendant, and so on. Your financial documents will be examined and you may be questioned about them. You are solemnly warned that if the defendant does abscond, and you are ordered to pay but do not, you yourself might be imprisoned. You are then reminded about the law of perjury, and told that if you wish to withdraw as surety you have to bring the defendant to court to do so. You then sign the form, and it is countersigned by the presiding magistrate or judge.

We have to be cautious about evidence of cash assets. I have seen instances of accounts that show substantial cash deposits made just a few days before the proceedings, which might be a sign of organised criminals prepared effectively to buy their man's freedom. We might send people along the High Street to print off a temporary statement from the hole-in-the-wall machine. On one occasion counsel proudly handed up two slips each bearing a sum around £2,500, and was nonplussed when I pointed out the small minus sign in front of each figure.

I have seen a man who imprudently stood surety to a man he hardly knew and who lost his house and business as a result - the system depends on the court enforcing sureties when they go wrong. That was the time that I decided that I wouldn't even stand surety for my granny.

Retiring-Room Gossip

And it is written that where two or more magistrates are gathered together......they will drink coffee and grumble.

The top grumbles at the moment where I sit (the list will differ across the country but the underlying principles are the same) are:

1) The amount of time that JPs have to spend sitting out the back drinking coffee and grumbling because something has gone wrong in the courtroom.
2) The CPS. Need I say more? We are continually being told that they will get better, and they don't. Anger has given way to resignation.
3) The ever-changing legal landscape that will require many more hours of training later this year.
4) The fact that in a neighbouring court magistrates get free biscuits and we don't.
5) The dead hand of Civil Service bureaucracy since we bacame part of Her Majesty's Courts' Service. Minor repairs to the building that a man with a Black and Decker and a screwdriver could do in 15 minutes are stuck in the pipeline for months waiting for approval from anonymous pen-pushers. When we ran ourselves, the local management could arrange for things to be done quickly and cheaply. Now they hardly dare buy a paperclip.
6) The number of glossy publications that lie unread in the retiring room, sent to us by any one of a dozen public authorities. A casual glance reveals them to be full of turgid self-congratulatory and patronising propaganda.
7) The traffic on the way to court.
8) The number of well-paid public officials who come to the court and get in our way for a day or so, then disappear for ever. What are they for? Who is paying them? Why?

Having said this, the camaraderie among magistrates and their legal advisers is superb. It's just that sitting cooling your heels gives you too much grumbling time.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Magistrate's Blog

I have changed the name at the top of the blog from 'The Law West of Ealing Broadway' to the 'Magistrate's Blog'. The URL, the author and everything else is unchanged.

I have done this because I have heard on the grapevine that some of my colleagues who sit at Ealing court (with which I have no connection) have been offended by being suspected of being, well, me. Unfortunately the joke implicit in the name went over the heads of a few, and I can't carry on putting in health warnings about it.

I have no wish to offend anybody** so I have altered the header, but left everything else unchanged.

**Excluding the following groups that I wish to offend as often as possible:- The Crown Prosecution Service, Her Majesty's Courts' Service (especially senior managers) each and every Minister of the Crown who deals with law and order legislation, all tabloid journalists (and especially editors) and policemen who want to combine my job with theirs (thus avoiding the inconvenience and uncertainty of a trial in which the defendant might just be found not guilty).

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Spreading The Word

According to one of the trackers that I have on the blog only about 75% of its readers are from the United Kingdom. I think that is amazing, considering that I only deal with and blog about English malefactors under English law.

"Willkommen, Bienvenue, Come On In" as Lilli Von Schtupp says in 'Blazing Saddles'.

Could This Have Been Put Better?

A press report of a young man who was given an £80 fixed penalty (that he now plans to take to a court hearing) for using the F-word in conversation with a friend, comes up with this:-
A Kent Police spokesman confirmed: "He didn't swear at the police, he was talking to his mates [but] it was close enough to the police officer.

"It's an offence under the Public Order Act. It's quite reasonable to give someone a fixed penalty notice and if someone doesn't want to pay it they can go to court.

"Some people think it [the fine] is over the top, some people think it's perfectly reasonable.

"It's one of those things that divides people, like Marmite."

Kurt's case is due to be heard at Ashford Magistrates' Court on March 31.
That spokesman may live to regret the Marmite reference if I am any judge of these things. Dishing out a ticket for something this trivial is the kind of thing that makes the police look silly and vindictive. Bringing Marmite into it is sillier still. What was really needed was a quiet word from a wise and experienced old Sergeant, but we don't see many of those nowadays.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

If You Aren't Sure - Ask!

Aggravated Vehicle Taking is a common enough offence. The aggravated bit is when damage is caused to the vehicle or to something else. The case in front of us looked straightforward, and we had a guilty plea from a nervous-looking man in his early twenties. The prosecutor opened with the brief facts that our man had taken a Volvo motor vehicle and... I stopped him. "What sort of Volvo?" "Er - excuse me sir, I shall just look at the file....yes, here it is. A Volvo commercial vehicle". He went to carry on. "Does your file give the gross weight of this vehicle?" Another lengthy pause with scrabbling in the depths of the file. Triumph. "15,750 kilos, sir." "That's more than fifteen tons, isn't it?" Panic while he recalls his GCSE maths. "Yes, sir, that's right". Now that we know it's a proper truck, the taking and the subsequent collision all drop into context. Prosecutors are often overworked and under-supported, but in this case we could easily have sentenced on the basis of the defendant nicking a car and bending it rather than the real one of a potentially lethal scenario.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Apocrypha 15

It is a human characteristic going back to our simian relatives that a common reaction to fear or surprise is an uncontrollably silly grin. For that reason those involved in training new JPs caution against misinterpreting a smirk as some kind of disrespect, rather than of nervousness in the intimidating setting of a courtroom. "What are you grinning at? Do you find this funny?" is now a complete no-no, although when I first joined the bench there were a couple of nearly-retired magistrates who might just have gone in that direction.

Every now and again a friend or family member might come to court in anticipation of my buying them lunch, and when I catch their eye a grin is inevitable. Best of all is when a police officer whom I might have met in a different context comes into the courtroom and looks up to see me. What he is thinking is "Oh Bugger". What I get is a daft grin.

Of course I maintain the dignity of the bench, and the officer will go on to do his business. But he knows the score, and so do I.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A Step in the Right Direction

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that my opinion of the management of Her Majesty's Courts Service stops well short of adulation. Putting the Government's endless and damaging legal tinkerings on one side, the amalgamation of the courts under HMCS is throwing up all kinds of problems that will inevitably take time to fix. One bit of good news, in my area at least, is that a concerted effort by managers lawyers and magistrates has cut the delay in bringing cases to trial by something like two months, and that is something to be proud of.

There is an old saying that justice delayed is justice denied. As time passes witnesses' memories fade, or they lose interest in coming to court. There are scores of things that can delay a trial, including police and CPS failures, absence of defendants or of witnesses (for either side). Courts now insist on both sides taking ownership of the management of their case, and the paperwork makes it clear where the problems have arisen. We have a case progression officer, and we sit a case progression court (run by a clerk under delegated powers) every week. Defendants are warned when a case is set down for trial that if they fail to attend the case may go ahead in their absence - and they do. Magistrates are being much more robust that we used to be about applications for adjournments. The old comfy three-week delays while prosecution and defence shuffled paper in a leisurely manner has gone, and in my court they have to argue hard to get so much as a week.

Not long ago we were faced with an application for a three week adjournment. "Why do you need so long?" I asked. "Well, sir, we need to view the CCTV evidence, which we do not yet have in our possession and I need to apply for legal aid." "Where is the tape?" (CPS)"At the police station sir." "How long is it?" "Ten minutes sir." "Right. It is now twenty past ten. The police station is a short step away. We will put this case back while you walk across and view the tape. Our police liaison officer will make a phone call now." I glance at the usher who doesn't need to be asked to fetch the PLO. "As for Legal Aid, hand it in to the office now and it will be dealt with before you get back from the police station." Lawyer looks set to argue, but thinks better of it.

Result:- tape clearly shows the crime, defendant and lawyer come back at 12.30 and a guilty plea is entered. We have a probation officer available, so we bail the defendant over the lunch break to allow a pre-sentence report to be prepared. Report placed before the court at 3.15, defence mitigates, sentence (community penalty) passed at about 3.35. Job done.

To be fair, we were a bit lucky, because plenty could have gone wrong, but it didn't, and we concluded the case in less than a single court day. That, we hope, is the way it's going to be in future, more often than not.

Customs Exercise

A while ago HM Customs was merged with the Inland Revenue, partly as a consequence of the bungling of a major investigation by the former that resulted in a large loss to the taxpayer. Before that Customs had a pretty fearsome reputation for not doing things by halves. Governments have traditionally ensured that their revenue collectors are well resourced and have adequate powers.

Way back when I was new to the Bench I sat on a prosecution of a married couple. The husband had a modestly-paid job with an organisation that had depots across London and the Home Counties, and despatched many vehicles from those depots each day. This provided a ready-made network to distribute goods of dubious provenance. One day the husband brought home some cigars in boxes of 25 that he said were available from a man in the depot for £10 per box. The duty-paid price was nearer £45. Everyone in the organisation knew about these cheap cigars that had come from Holland by the back door, and a lot of people were buying them for their own use or to sell on. The wife sold the cigars to friends for £15 per box, and asked her husband to get some more. Finances were tight and the odd tenner here and there helped with the shopping, so she carried on selling a few boxes every now and then.

At this point she made a misjudgement. She placed a small advertisement in the local free newspaper, offering cigars at £15 per box.

Ten days later the couple were awoken at 6 a.m. as their front door was battered in, and they were arrested and handcuffed while their house and car were searched by a posse of twenty Customs officers. About forty boxes of smokes were found in the car, and off they all went to Customs HQ for an interview. In interviews lasting, believe it or not, nine hours, the by now thoroughly frightened couple confessed everything. In court the prosecutor asked us to send the matter to the Crown Court, because six months' prison would be unlikely to be enough, and they gave notice of their intention to seize and forfeit the cigars and the car. The Clerk advised us that case law suggested that we should indeed send the case upstairs, so that is what we did. After that I lost touch with the case.

Now I am no sexist, in fact I am strongly in favour of equal treatment for women, but I think that I could forgive the husband in this case if his dominant thought had been "Silly Cow!"

These days the Sentencing Guidelines Council has set new tariffs for these kind of offences and the couple would probably have faced a community penalty at most, or possibly a fine. Duty evaded will have to be £10,000 or more before custody becomes likely.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Egg on Face

Michael O'Connor (previous post) was arrested yesterday, held overnight, and dealt with by a neighbouring court. This time he was pissed as usual, but driving a car and defying a driving ban, as he has done a few times before. We were not told about all this last week, so we treated him as a run-of-the mill drunk.

He was, I am told, given five months in prison and banned from driving yet again, which seems to be something of an academic exercise with Mr. O'Connor.

I am owning up to this in a spirit of humility, since it makes the previous post look a bit silly. Sorry, everyone, nobody's perfect.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Am I Serious?

The other day Michael O'Connor reminded me of what the job is all about - to me at least. Drunk and Disorderly was the charge, guilty was the plea. He is a slightly scruffy-looking man of forty or thereabouts and his body language is apologetic to the point of being submissive. Only one previous offence in the last five years.

"Mr. O'Connor" I said. "You have pleaded guilty to behaving badly when you were drunk and you used a lot of bad language to the police. What do you want to tell us about this?"

"Well, sir, I am very sorry. I was very drunk, and I was out of order. I would like to say sorry now. I said sorry to the Sergeant when he gave me bail, and I said sorry to the officer who arrested me".

"May we see the means form please?" This reveals that he is a manual worker making the local average of £250 per week after tax. We retire, and my colleagues feel exactly the same as I do. We go back.

"Mr. O'Connor. You don't need any lectures from us because you know as well as we do that you made a real nuisance of yourself last night. We have allowed for the fact that you have spent a night in a cell, even though you brought it on yourself. The proper fine for your offence is £150, but to allow for your guilty plea we have reduced it to £100. You must pay £43 towards the costs of this case. That is due now - will you pay it today?" "I can pay it tomorrow sir, when I get me wages." "Can you get the money here to the court before four o'clock when the office closes?" "Yes, sir, I'll get it here in time."

"Mr. O'Connor. You get paid out at lunchtime don't you?" "Yes sir" "There are a lot of pubs between work and the courthouse aren't there?" "Yes, sir" "You will come to the courthouse first, won't you?" "Definitely, sir" "Right. Off you go, the usher will give you a note and a leaflet about the fine" "Thank you, sir. You've been very fair".

Sometimes I feel like the headmaster of a school that caters for the less cerebral children. I love it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Oh No! Not More About Bail!

This chap brings up the old bail question: why was so-and-so granted or refused bail?

I never comment on cases where I do not know all of the facts, so here goes, in a general sort of way:-

The Bail Act provides for a presumption of the right to bail unless there are substantial grounds to fear that the defendant will fail to appear at court, commit further offences, or interfere with witnesses. That, for about 95% of cases, is that. There are other grounds but they are few. Very many people who are remanded in custody go on to receive a non-custodial sentence (e.g. Pete Docherty, last week).

All tabloid journalists, most police officers and many prosecutors dislike the very concept of bail. That's understandable. They see all that trouble to catch some varmint and then a silly old fool of a magistrate gives him bail.

The magistrate will follow the Bail Act. All bail is a calculated risk, and the failures hit the headlines. Get away from the media scrum and you are faced with arguments that are both moral and practical:- To incarcerate someone unconvicted is an awesome intrusion into his liberty that should only happen if absolutely unavoidable. To leave people in prison for months when about half of them go on either to be acquitted or receive lesser sentences than custody is unjust.

As I have often said, a bail decision is a lonely one, even for a bench of three magistrates. Get it wrong and the pack is snapping at your heels. Get it right and nobody ever says thanks; apart, that is, from the occasional terrified wife who has been sitting at the back of the court waiting to find out whether her man will be coming home that day, and who mouths her thanks through the armoured glass.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Is He Serious?

From the Right Honourable Charles Clarke MP:-

"Unpaid work is the core of it all," he said. "If you have to work rather than hang around in a prison cell I think that is tougher. Work is virtuous in this sense. It will be a frightening thing."

Yeah, right. The sad thing is that he doesn't even believe it himself. If unpaid work is tougher than prison, why not swap them around in the sentencing guidelines? And as for offenders working on the Olympic project, words fail me. Do you really see offenders from the 30-odd London boroughs being bussed over to the East to do their unpaid work?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Back Again

Jason is back - again.

This time, he has done it properly. Instead of his usual drive disqualified/drive like a prat charges, he has got himself done for Dangerous Driving. Nasty that - often goes to Crown Court. Judges don't like it, y'know. He's in custody, and his brief doesn't even try to apply for bail, knowing that kamikazes have gone out of fashion these days.

A serious question arises here:- what's wrong with him?

He's not over-bright and his reading and writing are unlikely to gain him admission to Balliol, but he is streetwise, and could easily earn a living wage with the help of his many uncles and cousins. He has been locked up time after time, usually for utterly stupid driving offences. When stopped during his latest insane tyre-smoking hurtle through the residential streets of his own housing estate he came up, word for word, with the same story that he had tried to tell me well over a year ago, involving an urgent illness to his pregnant girlfriend, and what the Sun would call a 'mercy dash' to the hospital. The fact that the girlfriend was not just absent from the car but also, when interviewed by police, evidently svelte, diminished the credibility of his tale.

What happens to him now is out of my hands (either he goes to crown court, or, if he stays with the mags, I shall decline to sit because I have seen him so many times). His sentence is more or less certain, apart from the length.

But why do it, Jason? What is there in your head that makes you do something that gives you a few minutes' exhilaration at most while you must know from experience that jail time will follow? You're no spotty kid, in fact you are in your mid-twenties. I am typing this at home, and you are in your cell in the Scrubs, getting ready for bang-up.

I can't help you, Jason, and if you pulled your strokes where I live I would probably want to shoot you, but I would really like to have an insight into the mindset that leads someone of real, albeit marginal, potential usefulness to society and yourself to, as they say on my patch (which is also your patch) piss it all up against the wall?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

My Oh My!

Browsing through the web I found that this site had achieved a hit on an MSN search for, wait for it.....
london ladies that fuck
The search engine picked up on the f-word here and off it went.

So to anyone looking for the above ladies, sorry to disappoint you. I am sure that they are around somewhere, but on this blog they aren't.

Deja Vu Again

From The Times:-
Charles Clarke today unveiled plans for more convicted criminals to serve their sentences in the community.

The Home Secretary was today launching the National Offender Management Scheme (Noms), a five-year strategy which will promote community penalties over imprisonment as punishment for non-violent crime.

The most eye-catching proposal is to force offenders to wear matching T-shirts - reportedly emblazoned with the words "Community Payback" - while carrying out unpaid labour, such as unpaid litter-picking and graffiti clearance.
Point One: there has been a plan to toughen up community punishment every year that I have been on the bench. It is always motivated by a panic about prison numbers. Point Two: If the T-shirts are introduced (which they almost certainly won't be - human rights anyone?) they will become a red-hot fashion item within a very short time. I might even buy one myself.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Doherty Again

The singer Pete Doherty has been sentenced today at Ealing Magistrates' Court (no connection to this blog, as you know). Tomorrow's press will presumably go to town on the story, and I have no doubt that the phrase 'walked free from court' will be used, as the consensus among journos is that it's either jail or a let-off.

Just two points: the guideline entry point for Class A possession is a Community Penalty, (see page 118 here)which he was given, and he was remanded in custody pending today's hearing although he went on to receive a non-custodial sentence, as happens in so many cases.

Both the Bail Act and community penalties are wilfully misrepresented by the tabloids, so we shall see what tomorrow brings.

In response to a question in the comments, details of available community sentence options are in the Bench Book here at page 264 of the pdf file. It's a kind of pick'n'mix but due to shortage of resources not all options are available all of the time.


The BBC website has a piece about a magistrates' court today (mercifully not mine).
Have a look here for a refreshingly fair view of what we do, from the public side of the bench. Thanks to the commenters who pointed me to the piece.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A Fool For a Client

There is an old lawyers' saying that a man who represents himself will have a fool for a client. Other than in the most simple cases most magistrates and court clerks find that unrepresented defendants can be a right royal pain in the whatsit. For one thing, the procedure takes at least twice as long without a lawyer. In a simple, let's say Driving Without Due Care, trial the Legal Aid criteria are unlikely to be fulfilled as there is no danger of prison, but there is nevertheless a trial to run and witnesses to deal with. Lay people tend to introduce vast amounts of irrelevant material, and it is hard for them to appreciate that cross-examination involves questioning the other side's witness, not making your own dramatic statement of your defence case. Of course we are patient, and clerk and chairman will try to steer matters along, but we have to be careful not to run his defence for him. I have a line of reassuring patter for these occasions: ("Of course you are not a lawyer, Mr. Smith, and nobody expects you to be one. But there are a few rules that we have to insist upon......").

Worse than Legal Aid Refused is the bloke with a bit of previous who has a germ of wit buried deep in his brain, and who decides, either through a gross over-estimate of his own legal prowess or sheer cussedness (that is sometimes brought on by the solicitor's refusal to supply him with cigarettes or money) to sack his brief and go it alone. This can have real consequences sometimes. Committal to the Crown Court usually takes place under Section 6(2) whereby the defence accepts that there is a case to answer and a so-called paper committal takes place.This takes about five minutes, but can only happen when the defendant is represented, so if he decides to fly solo at the point of committal everything grinds to a halt and matters are put off for a 6(1) committal, in which the evidence is read through and the magistrates are technically sitting as examining justices. Of course Mr. Unrepresented has no idea what is going on, and we end up delaying his committal by many weeks and wasting a whole day on the eventual hearing. He gains nothing.

So when this happened a few months ago (twice in one day, for heaven's sake) there was a sharp intake of breath on the bench, and the clerk's shoulders slumped visibly. I looked at the defendant, safe behind the armoured glass dock screen, and he said: "It's no good, I ain't changing me mind on this one". I had him returned to the cells on the grounds that we had to make some legal arrangements, and once he was safely out of the way I looked firmly at his counsel. "Miss Watkins" I said. "Your client appears to have dispensed with your services". "Yes, sir. I shall withdraw of course". "Miss Watkins. It is only a few minutes before the court takes a lunch break. This case cannot possibly come back before then. We will resume the sitting at 2 p.m. If you were able to have a word with the gentleman in the meantime, just to make sure that he understands all of the implications of his decision, we would be most grateful". Was that a hint of a wink from the bench? You may well think that. I could not possibly comment.

2 p.m. "Miss Watkins?" "Sir, I am pleased to say that I have had a word with my client and he wishes me to represent him and for committal to take place today".

Committal took place - in custody. Client returned down the stairs. "Thank you Miss Watkins. We are most grateful for the efforts that you have made. You have been a great help to the court and to your client." "Thank you sir".

A first class professional job, ending with another almost imperceptible judicial wink. Forgive me. She's about the same age as my daughter.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Oh Tempora! Oh Mores!

I had yet another 'phishing' email today, purporting to come from my bank. Before popping it into my cyber-dustbin, I was amused to read the following:-
Please note that your xxxx Online Account is about to expire. In order for it to remain active and avoid a temporal hold on your funds, we need you to update your personal information, this is also a new security statment to give our customers a better, fast and secure online banking service.
Please follow the link below and proceed to update your information

Those temporal holds are the worst you know - so much more, well, worldly, than the spiritual ones.

These try-ons can be unintentionally funny, especially when the writer's poor spelling and limited grasp of idiomatic English shines through, but there must be enough people who fall for it to make the scammers' time well spent. I describe dealing with one that nearly worked here.

Sunday, February 05, 2006


Today's News Of The World online edition perfectly encapsulates the tabloids' gloating and sadistic approach to crime and punishment:-

EXCLUSIVE: YOU pay for Broadmoor fiends' visits


By Dan Evans

FAMILIES of depraved killers such as Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe are getting wads of public money to visit the monsters.

Refunds are made for rail tickets and petrol costs to relatives and pals who drop in on Britain's most vile inmates.

While ordinary folk get no help visiting family in hospitals miles from home, bosses at Britain's top secure hospitals are handing over huge sums of taxpayers' cash to pay for trips to see the beasts.

Broadmoor, Ashworth and Rampton all offer the funding. Last year Broadmoor—where Sutcliffe is held—spent £29,000 on the scheme.

It pays 11p for each mile driven to the hospital in Crowthorne, Berks. And half train and bus fares. (my bold type)

A relative said: "The families of victims won't be happy."

Sutcliffe, 59, right—who butchered 13 women—gets frequent visits from his ex-wife Sonia, who could claim £50 a visit.

Broadmoor defended the payouts, saying: "It's not good for inmates to be left alone."

But Tory MP Andrew Mitchell said: "Someone who visits a sick relative in hospital gets no help-—so why are we paying this?"

Broadmoor is a hospital, not a prison. Those locked in there are patients. Many of them have committed horrible crimes, but they are not 'beasts'. To refer to a disturbed human being in that way demeans us all.

I hope that Dan Evans is proud of his handiwork as he sits down for Sunday lunch with his family. I hope for their sake that none of them ever suffers from mental illness. But that would be different, Dan, wouldn't it?

More Code

These coded phrases, which I have accompanied with translations, will be uttered in a court near you next week, in all probability, and for many weeks to come:-

“I would be grateful if the Bench would agree to retire for a short while, as there are representations that I would like to make the Crown. I may then be in a position to shorten matters”. = I first met the client ten minutes ago. The brief that was biked over from Chambers last night gave me no real feel for the case, but I can now see that he’s a goner. If I can get the CPS to ease off on a couple of details, I’ll get my man to put his hands up and take a bit of credit for a late plea.

“Unfortunately, on this occasion, my client let his frustration get the better of him” = He is a violent thug.

“My client is eager to put his life in order, and has a job to start on Monday” = He last worked in 2001 for four days, overslept, and never went back.

“I never got no letter from the court and nobody phoned me.” = I threw my bail sheet in the bin after the last hearing.

“I only bought the car that day” = I have been driving untaxed and uninsured for six months.

“I found the credit card in the street” = I stole it

“I found the car unlocked and with the keys in the ignition” = I stole it

“I paid for the bag of carrots, but I absent-mindedly put the whisky in my other bag” = I stole it.

“The drugs were for my personal use” = I like to keep forty wraps on me in case my brother steals them from my bedroom. The scales? I’m looking after them for a friend.

“I thought my ban had expired” = It was raining. I don’t walk anywhere in the rain.

“My client is willing to comply with any bail conditions that the bench sees fit to apply” = unlike on the four previous occasions when he was bailed.

“I saw that the window had been broken so I went into the house to see that everything was all right. That’s when I must have dropped my cigarette end” = Bloody DNA!

But however many times you have heard it before, you give each one careful consideration, and never ever dismiss it out of hand - once in a while it may just turn out to be true

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Wrong Impression

In my private life I make no attempt to hide the fact that I am a magistrate. The very existence of this blog is a testament to my ambition to disperse some of the fog of ignorance and misunderstanding that envelops our courts. Many of my colleagues take a different view, and tell me that no one, other than close family and friends has any idea that they are judicially engaged.

Because I make no secret of what I do, I am often approached, usually for my opinion, but occasionally for advice. I won’t do advice, other than in terms of “Don’t sue, whatever you do” or, almost invariably, “Go and see a solicitor”.
Opinions are different. Nearly everyone has some experience of a brush with the law, be it divorce, speed cameras, nasty neighbours or whatever. At parties, people home in on me. Speeding bores (“It’s all about revenue isn’t it? I’ve got 9 points, but my Porsche is perfectly safe at 110, especially as I am such a good driver”) get short shrift, but sometimes people’s tales make me aware of ways in which the system might do better.

The other weekend someone who had been assaulted (a long time ago, and with no long-term injury) was telling me how aggrieved he felt that his assailant had been acquitted. “They didn’t believe me” he said. Well of course that isn’t right. A perfectly credible witness may give evidence, but in the absence of any corroboration such as an independent witness or a bit of forensic, the bench may be obliged to acquit because the case has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt – that’s not the same as not believing him.
These days we hope to do better. All witnesses are now offered witness support either from a professional or a trained volunteer, so these sort of misunderstandings shouldn’t happen any more.
The current buzz-phrase in the system is “No witness- no justice”. Seems okay to me.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

I Told You So

The High Court has overturned the acquittal by a district judge of a policeman who drove very fast indeed while 'testing' a new car. A lay magistrate of this parish blogged this at the time.

There are probably a few unpaid and unqualified lay magistrates who are unable to suppress a small sigh of satisfaction at this news.

The question whether 159 mph on a motorway is dangerous is one to look at on a case by case basis, but I can see no excuse for doing 90 in a 30, whatever the time of day or night.

I wonder if they will give the case to another DJ or to a lay bench this time? Whoever gets it will have to face a full press bench!