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.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Shortest Ever Programme?

It's late. I am wearily scanning the hundreds of channels on my telly, more in hope than expectation, while Madame Bystander, who is feeling poorly, gets off to sleep.

"The Best of Top Gear" comes up.

Isn't that a bit like "Fifty Fun Moments in The Dentist's Chair?"

Y'a-t-il quelq'un la qui parle Francais?

The excellent blog by Eolas is one that I try to follow regularly (he even has a Droit Etranger bit that mentions this blog) although a mixture of colloquial and legal French often has me struggling, but a point arises from a recent post. Eolas writes of 'blogs' and 'blogues'. Are they the same thing? Aidez-moi, Francophones!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Anger Non-Management

I sat on a trial last week that was quite fascinating as a study of the petty hatreds and paranoia that can be found in neat and expensive suburban streets. Unfortunately I can't say too much about it without running the risk of the case being identifiable, but there were wild allegations of unacceptable conduct involving gardening techniques, and totally unsupported claims of attempted mayhem. Unfortunately we are not allowed to knock parties' heads together. We threw the case out though, since the evidence was desperately thin. I do wish that people would not make criminal allegations in an attempt to settle what is essentially a civil matter.

Sneaking Suspicion

The continuing furore over prisons has led me to suspect, just ever-so-slightly, that one or two of Her Majesty's judges have been playing the game a bit. If you want to excite the tabloids, take a paedophile's sentence down a notch (or just say that's what you are doing) and Fleet Street's finest will rage with kneejerk condemnation - but not of you. The target will be elsewhere.

The judiciary at all levels has suffered almost a decade of criticism, veiled and not-so-veiled threats, and attempts to fetter its discretion. Unsurprisingly quite a few people have had enough and we may well see more carefully worded judgements that have a subtext of making the Home Secretary and his minions look stupid.

The contempt that has been shown to the judiciary means that politicians have taken on a powerful and articulate body who are a great deal harder to sack than any minister. Where I grew up, that's called leading with your chin.

Well, What Would You Give Him?

The Sun report speaks for itself. Assuming that the driver is charged with Dangerous Driving, possibly TWOC, and No Insurance, what would you give him?

(EDITED) Whoever gets to hear the case will turn to his trusty Bench Book (link on sidebar) and head to page 162 of the pdf.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Have Your Say

The Sentencing guidelines Council has a consultation going on about the treatment of drivers who cause death. The consultation is open until April. I shall reply, and I hope that some of you will as well.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


I have just done a live telephone interview on Radio Five Live about the prisons crisis. I was happy to do it, but slightly alarmed to find that the other interviewee was Lord Scott, a Law Lord, no less. The BBC allowed me to call myself John, so perhaps I won't be hunted down!

Another Quote

To all judicial office-holders:

Message sent on behalf of the Lord Chief Justice

"You will have seen reported the proposals to split the Home Office and create a Ministry of Justice, and you may have seen the Lord Chancellor discussing them on the BBC's Sunday AM programme. I have myself discussed this proposal with the Lord Chancellor and with the Home Secretary.

They have explained that there is important work to be done on the detail before any final decision is taken, and there will be need for further discussion with the Cabinet Office and other parts of Government.

The proposal has important implications for the administration of justice and I shall make sure that the impact on, and the views of, the judiciary receive proper consideration, and, to this end, discuss the proposal with representatives of all levels of the judiciary when further details are available."

Phillips CJ

Friday, January 26, 2007

Patronising Sod

There is a patronising sod who was recently quoted thus:-
He said he had written to the judiciary because home secretaries had to remind them of sentencing guidelines "from time to time".

Most judges are appointed in their forties and fifties after at least two decades practising law. The gentleman who made the above comment has held his office for about twelve months. That is why judges spend quite a lot of time trying, and often failing, to remind successive Home Secretaries of the basics of English law.

A Bit of Seasonal Fun Updated

I put this on the blog in December. I have now added the answers from the January edition of Benchmark:-

"In the current issue of Benchmark, a newsletter published for the judiciary, there is a Christmas quiz set by Jim Wood, Regional Chairman of the Social Security and Child Support Appeal Tribunal".

So who said this? :-
1. If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it.
Jonathan Aitken
2. A long time ago came a man on a track
Walking thirty miles with a pack on his back/And he put down his load where he thought it was the best/Made a home in the wilderness/He built a cabin and a winter store/And he ploughed up the ground by the cold lake shore/And the other travellers came riding down the track/And they never went further, no, they never went back/Then came the churches then came the schools/Then came the lawyers then came the rules
Dire Straits, Telegraph Road
3. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Magna Carta, clause 40.
4. The law in its majestic equality forbids rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges, from begging in the streets, and from stealing bread.
Anatole France, The Red Lily
5. We shouldn’t have all these campaigns to get the (Birmingham six) released if they’d been hanged. They’d have been forgotten and the whole community would be satisfied.
Lord Denning, writing in the Spectator, August 1990
6. In this country, it is thought well to shoot an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.
Voltaire, Candide
7. I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue,
That prisoners call the sky.
Oscar Wilde, Ballad of Reading Gaol
8. Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?
W. Rees-Mogg, 1st June 1967, on the prosecution of Mick Jagger for the possession of cannabis.
9. If the sons of company directors, and judges’ fine and private daughters, had to go to school in a slum school, dumped by some joker in a damp back alley.../Buttons would be pressed, rules would be broken/ Strings would be pulled /and magic words spoken/Invisible fingers would mould palaces of gold.
Leon Rossellson, Palaces of Gold
10. Put on your high-heel sneakers, child/Wear your wig-hat on your head now/Put on your high-heel sneakers, baby/Wear your wig-hat on your head/Ya know you’re looking mighty good, really/I’m pretty sure you’re gonna knock ‘em dead
Tommy Tucker, High-Heel Sneakers
11. Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.
Otto von Bismarck
12. If this is justice, I am a banana.
Ian Hislop, on an award of £600,000 libel damages to Sonia Sutcliffe, against Private Eye, May 1989.
13. ‘To my mind,’ observed the Chairman of the Bench of Magistrates cheerfully, ‘the only difficulty that presents itself in this otherwise very clear case is, how we can possibly make it sufficiently hot for the incorrigible rogue and hardened ruffian whom we see cowering in the dock before us. Let me see: he has been found guilty, on the clearest evidence, first, of stealing a valuable motor-car; secondly, of driving to the public danger; and, thirdly, of gross impertinence to the rural police. Mr. Clerk, will you tell us, please, what is the very stiffest penalty we can impose for each of these offences? Without, of course, giving the prisoner the benefit of any doubt, because there isn’t any.’
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
14. Judge every dispute fairly whether it concerns only your own people or involves foreigners who live among you. Show no partiality in your decisions, judge everyone on the same basis no matter who he is.
Deuteronomy Chapter 1, v.16
15. No, no! – sentence first, verdict afterwards.
Lewis Carroll, the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland
16. “Ask yourselves the question: would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book. Is it a book that you would have lying around the house? Is it a book you would wish your wife or servant to read?”
Mervyn Griffith-Jones, prosecuting counsel, R v. Penguin Books Ltd (the Lady Chatterley case).

No. 13 is my favourite. they don't make 'em like that any more!


Statement from the Criminal Justice Ministers to the National Criminal Justice Board

23 January 2007

Managing the Impact of Rapid Growth in the Prison Population

The prison population is currently running very close to capacity with prisoners having to be held in police stations and even, on one night, in court cells. Last night around 480 prisoners were locked out in police cells.

The growth in the prison population is a post-war trend which accelerated in the 1990s. A good deal has changed since then. Although the total number of prison places has risen by 19,700 since 1997, changes in legislation, sentencing guidance, improved detection and conviction rates and longer term trends in sentencing practice have combined such that demand for prison places has consistently outpaced supply. In addition, in recent months the trends have become harder to predict – the latest Christmas drop in the prison population was unexpectedly shallower than in previous years.

The growth of the prison population is a problem which affects the whole of the criminal justice system.

The essential sentencing principles are set out in legislation:

Custodial sentences should be reserved for serious, persistent and violent offenders
Where appropriate one or other alternatives to custody should be used
Pre-trial remands in custody should be limited to cases identified in the Bail Act 1976 and, in particular, cases where there is a risk of non-attendance, committing further offences or intimidating witnesses
The Government has taken action to increase capacity. The Home Secretary announced plans for an extra 8,000 prison places last July. These are already starting to come on stream with nearly 1,000 extra places added since May 2006.

The Government announced last summer a range of actions in “Delivering Simple, Speedy, Summary Justice” to speed up the trial process, reduce the number of adjournments, and bring trials on faster. Various pilots are showing it is possible to make a significant reduction in the number of hearings in Magistrates Courts. CJSSS improvements will not only improve timeliness and increase confidence in CJS, they can also reduce the amount of time which defendants spend on remand.

The Government supports alternatives to custody for non-serious, non-violent and non-persistent offenders – criminal justice legislation offers a wide range of tough non-custodial sentences. Through the Judicial Studies Board and Sentencing Guidelines Council sentencers are provided with up to date information about use of non-custodial sentences.

The roll out of video link technology has been an important technical innovation for the CJS. Greater use and availability of video links will reduce the need to transfer prisoners to court and reduce delays in hearings.

The Government is working to increase public confidence in community sentences – the range of punitive and restorative conditions which can be imposed by way of community sentences has increased significantly in recent years. Ministers and the Criminal Justice Agencies have a responsibility to ensure that local communities understand how community penalties can contribute to the delivery of justice.

There will be greater sharing of information about police and other operations which could impact on the prison population. Knowledge of the timing of these operations can help CJS agencies to plan capacity more effectively.

The enforcement and collection of fines has considerably increased, from 69% of fines in 2003 to a current payment rate of 94%. Fear of lack of enforcement should not be a reason for not fining.

Prosecutors are under a duty to ensure that sentencers are fully informed of the relevant statutory provisions.

The National Criminal Justice Board is inviting LCJBs to ask chief officers to advise on the impact locally of trends in prison and non-custodial disposals and report back to their NCJB sponsor ahead of the next NCJB meeting in March.

We note a number of features of recent decisions of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division and welcome the Senior Presiding Judge’s recent letter to the judiciary underlining:

The possible use of tagging on bail as an alternative to remand in custody. Greater use could reduce the numbers that have to be remanded in custody
Use of stand-down reports. Greater use of “stand down” reports enabling the defendant to be dealt with on the day, could avoid unnecessary remands in custody pending the report. Over 40% of defendants remanded in custody for a pre-sentence report do not receive a custodial sentence


There is an application to vacate a trial, due to take place next week. The date was fixed six weeks ago. The principal police witness has broken his leg. I am very sorry for the officer, but since when has a broken leg prevented anyone from speaking in court? We have disabled access, a wheelchair if required, and we can allow the officer to give evidence while seated. I give the prosecutor a hard time, but we are boxed in and we have to vacate the date because it is too late to contact the officer and get him in.
Net result:- three magistrates, a legal adviser, an usher, witness support volunteers, the defendant the victim and the other witnesses are all no longer needed. It's too late to allocate anything else to the vacant slot. An expensive courtroom will stand empty, while other cases are waiting in the queue for trial. It will take weeks or months to rearrange the cancelled trial. Justice is delayed, and the court will probably be blamed. It's unacceptable, and I am very cross.

Modern Times

A number of issues came together this week in the unlovely shape of Robert, a long-time alcoholic who is sometimes to be seen lurching his bleary-eyed way around my patch. He had been arrested for the seventh time for breaching his ASBO, the order forbidding him to be drunk anywhere in the Borough. He is drunk all day, every day so he is effectively under house arrest. Another difficulty that was not considered by those who drafted and those who granted the ASBO is that his home is in the Borough, so technically he is in breach when drunk in his own home. He had been arrested at 9.30 am, since he doesn't subscribe to the nonsense about waiting until the sun is over the yardarm, and was brought before us in the afternoon. We could not deal with the case, since he had no legal aid, and other things had to be sorted out. The CPS, following their rule book rigidly, opposed bail and asked for a remand in custody. The duty solicitor got to his feet and said that Robert could stay in a house in the neighbouring borough, which got round the fear of committing further offences because he was only banned from being drunk in this borough and no other. He pointed out that so far Robert has served almost eighteen months in prison for breaching his ASBO, which is more than some serious offenders get, and he has never done more than succumb to his addiction, although he can admittedly be a nuisance when he starts shouting at people. We bailed him for a week. When he comes back he faces either another prison sentence of up to six months or committal to the Crown Court where a judge can give him up to five years.
So we have a prison crisis (yes, I too have had the letter from senior judges) in which a sex offender was not imprisoned due in part to the lack of prison space, while we incarcerate a hopeless drunk who is no more than a damned nuisance at worst, and spend thousands of pounds to do it.
ASBOs are unsuitable for addicts since the deterrent effect is overwhelmed by the addiction and we end up in a cruel pointless and unjust game of cat and mouse. Locking up non-violent drunks is a waste of prison resources. Of course we need some more prisons, but we also need to look at the many thousands of inmates whose incarceration serves no useful purpose.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Sleeping Dog Wakes Up and Bites

The Times reports that the Magistrates' Association has finally lost patience with the Government's cynical and unworkable policy of taking vast amounts of crime out of the courts and 'bringing offences to justice' with the issue of a fixed penalty ticket, or a caution of some sort. It's money driven and has nothing to do with justice, and it's nice to hear the MA speaking out for once. The MA does a lot of valuable work for magistrates but there has been a feeling for some time that it is just a little too cosy with the Government. A symptom of that is the fact that last year a great majority of Bench Chairmen voted to separate the National Bench Chairmen's Forum from the MA, to give chairmen, who know their benches better than anyone, a voice at the top table. Even Rumpole's creator is getting fed up with it.
In response to the Times story the best that the Minister could do was to parrot the Whitehall mantra 'Criminal Justice, Simple, Speedy, and Summary'. We all want to see that. What he missed off was 'cheap' and 'unfair'.

The MA website has a lot about this, and it's well worth a read

A Matter of Conscience

The BBC reports that a Roman Catholic magistrate has resigned to avoid having to be involved in placing children for adoption by same-sex couples. Of course if a magistrate finds his conscience in conflict with the law he must either enforce the law of the land or resign: there is a principled case to be made for either course of action, but two things puzzle me about this case:- firstly why did the JP not simply withdraw from Family Panel work (the BBC article is not quite clear, but I am assuming that he has resigned from the Bench) and secondly why is an Industrial Tribunal getting involved? Being a magistrate is not employment, and we are appointed by the Lord Chancellor on behalf of the Crown. What is he asking the Tribunal to order? What power does it have anyway? Surely it cannot be right that a Tribunal would insist that Parliament can only pass laws that do not impinge on the conscience of the judiciary?
This is a mystery, and I shall be interested to see how things turn out.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Ministry of the Interior - Part 2

The Lord Chief Justice released this statement today:-
You will have seen reported the proposals to split the Home Office and create a Ministry of Justice, and you may have seen the Lord Chancellor discussing them on the BBC's Sunday AM programme. I have myself discussed this proposal with the Lord Chancellor and with the Home Secretary.

They have explained that there is important work to be done on the detail before any final decision is taken, and there will be need for further discussion with the Cabinet Office and other parts of Government.

The proposal has important implications for the administration of justice and I shall make sure that the impact on, and the views of, the judiciary receive proper consideration, and, to this end, discuss the proposal with representatives of all levels of the judiciary when further details are available.

Does anyone else detect that this may have been dictated through clenched teeth?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Ministry of the Interior

According to the BBC the Home Office may soon be split into two parts, a Ministry of Justice and a Ministry of Security.
I am reminded of the story of a diplomatic reception many years ago at which a Soviet Commissar found himself in conversation with a gorgeously uniformed Swiss, resplendent in the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet: gold braid on sleeve and hat, sword, the lot. "Tell me, Comrade" said the Commissar "You appear to be an Admiral of the Fleet, but Switzerland is a landlocked country, and you have no coast, no navy, and no ships. How do you account for this?"
"Well, Comrade" replied the Admiral "We thought that if your country has a Minister of Justice........."

By the Way

I was disturbed to read that police were preparing to involve themselves in the goings-on in an exploitative television programme that has been causing a lot of controversy recently. Please, please, if there is any officer out there who combines quite a bit of rank with solid common sense - tell Hertfordshire's finest to get back to something important, even if it will deprive some Inspector of his moment of glory in front of the cameras. De minimis non curat lex - and you can't get much more minimal than this rubbish.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


I have no view of the cash-for-peerages row, other than being certain that it has been going on in one form or another for very many years, but can I just question if it was really necessary to arrest a Downing Street apparatchik at 6.30 a.m., and to send no fewer than four officers to do it? Were the police afraid that she would attack just a single officer? Were they afraid that she would flee to a country with no extradition arrangements with the UK? What was wrong with asking her to attend the police station by appointment?
I am afraid that this is yet another example of the police carrying out their duty with one eye on the media to see how it will play. Unprofessional, lads. You can do better than that.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Back To The Drawing Board, Hoskins

From the Daily Telegraph:- (thanks to Chase Me Ladies for the link)

The Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) - which the Serious Crime Bill abolishes - also tried to take money and assets in the civil courts from alleged criminals who could not be brought before the criminal courts and, after four years, had failed to complete any cases in the courts in England and Wales.
So another bright idea founders, as millions of pounds slip quietly down the drain. So it was, is now, and ever more shall be.
RIP Intermittent Custody, Custody Plus, Child Support Agency, Night Courts, Unit Fines, and the rest. The depressing thing is that most of these failed wheezes will resurface in a few years time, as soon as ministers move on and civil servants have gone home to Camberley to draw their pensions.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Another Loophole Shuts

The advent of high quality colour copiers made low-level forgery a lot easier, and there is a thriving black market in such things as certificates of motor insurance. Now that ANPR number-plate readers are widely deployed, those forgeries are not just pointless but risky too. The Insurance Database will flag up the car as uninsured, which is bad enough, but if the driver is unwise enough to produce the certificate to the police, they will know that it is probably forged from the outset. We saw a driver at the end of last year who was stopped twice in five days, and produced a dodgy certificate both times. As a result he faced two no-insurance charges, which makes a ban of at least six months inevitable, and two much more serious forgery and deception charges for which prison was a distinct possibility.
While we are on the subject of motoring, if you left the pub after a session and found a PC in the car park who advised you not to drive and to call a cab because you seemed to be drunk, would you, ten minutes later, not just drive off, but drive off in the same direction that the police car had taken? I saw someone who did just that last month. He gets his licence back in December 2009.

New Top Man

There has been a new Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales since the 1st of January. Lord Justice Leveson, formerly Brian Leveson QC, is a highly experienced barrister who prosecuted Rose West at Winchester Crown Court and went on to become a High Court judge, spending quite a lot of time in the North of England. The Lord Chief Justice has delegated the legal overview of the magistrates' courts to Leveson LJ, so we shall see what changes he has in mind once he has settled in. He is fiercely defensive of judicial independence, and highly scornful of those who accuse judges of being out of touch. "I go to Tesco's" he says, "and I have teenage children who keep my feet on the ground. I don't live on a rough estate, but otherwise I lead a normal life".

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Busy Boy

After a lull over Christmas and New Year, with a cancelled sitting and a couple of short days caused by a lack of business, I am back to work this week with a couple of committee meetings and two court sittings, one to help out a colleague who has a last-minute family problem to cope with. On my scheduled sitting day I have a note in my diary to remind myself that a defendant whom we dealt with in November is coming in so that we can review how he is getting on with paying his fine and compensation. There was some doubt about his motivation so we ordered him to attend for a review on a day when I was sitting, and I told him that I was making notes (that are now in his court file) and that we would hold him to what he promised to do. We left him in no doubt about what could happen if he failed to pay.
Today's Sunday Times has a piece that confirms something that this blog and the many police blogs have been saying for a while: the so-called improvement in Offences Brought To Justice is based entirely on the issuing of thousands of fixed penalty tickets and many more thousands of cautions for cannabis possession. Convictions in court have actually fallen. Most of the trials that we are seeing nowadays are for Common Assault, almost all in a domestic context, a direct consequence of current CPS policy. Let's see how we get on.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

What's Going On In America?

The New York Times reports:-
WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 — The senior Pentagon official in charge of military detainees suspected of terrorism said in an interview this week that he was dismayed that lawyers at many of the nation’s top firms were representing prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and that the firms’ corporate clients should consider ending their business ties.

Can anyone from over there even begin to justify this?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Okay, So I'm A Cynic

According to today's 'Times':
Metal grilles are to be placed over prison cell windows to prevent convicts using catapults to get drugs. Inmates at Liverpool jail were using rubber gloves tied to cell window bars to form crude catapults. They shot a weight, with string attached, over the fence, to which accomplices attached drugs for reeling in.

If the quantity of illicit drugs taken into prison by that route is equal to one percent of the amount taken in by corrupt staff, I should be very surprised indeed. Just think about it. Where do they get the rubber gloves from? Just how elastic are they? How far away is the fence? How does the accomplice know where to be and when to be there? I don't believe a word of it, and if the grilles are really being installed someone has been conned.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

What About The Cat Then?

We were talking about this case before Christmas,in which a woman cruelly killed her boyfriend's cat by putting it in a washing machine. I have had a go at doing a sentencing exercise from basic principles, but an awful lot is going to depend on the pre-sentence report that is due to be put before the court on the 10th January. I have had a look in Stones (Justices' Manual) and as I suspected there is no guidance at all as to sentence.
So what will the bench do? They will assess how serious the offence was 'of its type'. They will agree the right point on the scale, the lowest being perhaps a kick or blow, the highest being deliberate and ingenious cruelty. Given the limited information we have from the press reports, this offence seems pretty well up the scale being deliberate and involving a high level of suffering for the cat. Next they will consider what sentences are available, in this case a maximum of a £5000 fine, six months in prison, or a community order of some kind. A reduction of one third for a guilty plea is mandatory. Fine or discharge? No, too serious. Serious enough for a community penalty? Certainly. So serious that only custody is appropriate? That's the tough one - nasty offence, but this isn't a human, it's a cat. It's borderline in my view. The report may well throw up mental or other problems that need to be addressed and probation may recommend an order for supervision plus specific programmes. That deals with reform and rehabilitation, and the bench can always add on unpaid work as an element of straightforward punishment -in this case, perhaps 200 hours (it would be nice to order it to be done at the RSPCA but we can't do that). A suspended sentence is an option but it would be wrong to approach that as the next point up the scale. The offence has to justify custody, full stop. If it does, only then does the bench ask itself whether it is possible to suspend it.
As I have said a lot will depend on the report on this one. My hunch is a community order including unpaid work and rehabilitation, but I would not be too surprised to see custody, either suspended or immediate.
My colleagues will have to sentence this from basic principles, but they can rely on their training and their clerk's advice.

The case has been adjourned for a psychiatric report, which is no surprise. In these cases it is usual for the writer of the first report to ask for the further reports, and we would invariably go along with that.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Which Visitor to London Wrote This?

On Saturday nights, a half-million workers, male and female, together with their children, flood the city like a sea, flocking especially in certain sections and celebrate the Sabbath all night until five in the morning," he notes. "They stuff themselves and drink like animals ... They all race against time to drink themselves insensate. The wives do not lag behind their husbands but get drunk with them; the children run and crawl among them. It is like a biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the Apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes."
The year was 1862 and the visitor was Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.

Thumbs-Down From The Judges

Last Autumn the Home Office issued a consultation document called Making Sentencing Clearer. I have a copy of it on my desk.

The consultation has nearly finished and the Council of Circuit Judges have blown a judicial raspberry (that's a Bronx Cheer to our American readers) to most of the proposals.

The Times has a leader and this and this in today's paper.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Probation, Community Orders, and Fines

I think that I know what Ministers want, which is to offload work from court-based probation officers (and that will mean restricting community penalties) to free up people to improve parole supervision and, as a bonus, to increase the number of offences dealt with by way of a fine, dovetailing neatly with the enormous and continuing rise in the number of fixed penalty tickets as mentioned in the Sunday Telegraph. The Lord Chief Justice extolled the virtues of the fine at the Magistrates' Association conference last November. What he didn't mention was how to impose realistic fines when the vast majority of our defendants are on benefit.

By the way - and you read it here first - there is every chance that the Suspended Sentence Order will be taken out of JPs' armoury fairly soon. It is such a useful sentence, because we can combine it with community requirements as well, that we are making about 3000 of them every month according to His Lordship. That costs money to administer, and worse, there are two ways of breaching an SSO, either by reoffending or by breaching the community requirements. When we were stopped from imposing 'benders' a few years ago it was because too many were being breached through reoffending and thus implemented. I think that will happen again, even though I really hope it will not.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Back to the Drawing Board

The Intermittent Custody (weekend jail) scheme that has been on trial for a couple of years has now been abandoned. The official line is: "The high prison population and the need to divert attention energies and resources to protect the public from the most and more serious offenders". Yeah, right.
In practice, the scheme was a shambles. I have heard from a defence solicitor about clients who would go to the locality of the(open) prison where they were to serve their IC sentence leaving enough time for an afternoon in the pub with fellow miscreants, reporting half-cut to the prison gates just before the deadline. In practice there was little or no effective sanction that could be applied, so the scheme has bitten the dust.

Friday, January 05, 2007

All-Time Great Legal Jokes No. 277

A man was arrested for having sex with a chicken on a London Underground train.

His brief got him off the bestiality, but he was fined £200 for the post-coital cigarette.

It's Quiet Out There, Hoskins - Too Quiet

There isn't a lot going on at the moment. There was the holiday break of course, and a lull in police activity on 'routine' crime. Quite a few courts were cancelled over the last two weeks (including one of mine) because there wasn't enough work to go around. A number of new laws are coming into effect, and the lawyers are trying to find time to get a grip before they are faced with a live case. Our legal advisers are on a work-to-contract so out of hours and Saturday work are having to be concentrated in a few courts. They are understandably fed up with a below-inflation pay increase, and are apprehensive about a massive pay and grading review scheduled for mid-2007. This will impose a consistent structure across the government's legal services, and as in all such exercises there will be winners and losers. At least it should end the anomaly whereby one of my legal advisers can improve his salary by £5000 or more by moving to the CPS - it cannot make sense for government departments to compete with each other for broadly similar posts.
I spent a bit of time chatting to two local PCs this week as they were in the road outside my house waiting for someone to turn up. I asked them how their Sanction Detection figures were going, and I heard the usual tale of targets being met by a blizzard of fixed penalty tickets for (mostly) Section 5 Public Order Act and cannabis posession offences. As ever, crime statistics are being shamelessly massaged, which is a regular theme on the Policeman's Blog. Burglary figures a bit high? Easy - charge all the little ones as Criminal Damage. Violent offences making the town look bad? Nick 'em for Drunk and Disorderly. Job done.
There are several consultations going on at the moment on changes to management of the courts and on 'Making Sentencing Clearer' so I shall have to get together with colleagues to formulate our responses. My modest study is crammed with paperwork from HMCS and all the other arms of Government that feel the need to write to me. A ruthless weeding-out session is on the cards, I think. I hope they are planting lots of trees in Norway. The English legal system is going to need them.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Bit Odd?

I am grateful to alsojp for pointing me to this in today's 'Times':
Detectives in Nottinghamshire are dismayed by the plans of Deputy Chief Constable Howard Roberts to make them wear uniforms and fluorescent jackets to improve police visibility. The county has the highest crime rate in England and Wales, with 134 victims of crime per 1,000 people, statistics indicate.

Isn't that a bit like giving them baseball caps with 'Undercover Detective' on the front?

Happy New Year

It will be two years tomorrow since I made the first tentative posts on this blog. Since then we have had a gratifyingly large number of visitors, and a steady stream of comments ranging from the congratulatory to the abusive. I have left alone abuse directed at me, but tidied or deleted that directed at other posters. As an aside, I am fascinated to see how a minority of people can infer from some remark of mine that appears to them to be over-liberal (or - less often - over-strict) an entirely fictional picture of Bystander the man and Bystander the JP. If I suggest that the behaviour of some police officers or prosecutors is less than perfect, then I am immediately branded as being the thugs' friend, smiling indulgently as old ladies are battered for their pathetic belongings, and then sentencing with a light hand to a discharge here and an small fine there. If I suggest that the Mr. Toad lobby are misguided and selfish in their opposition to speed enforcement, then I become an out-of-touch old duffer.

2007 is going to be yet another challenging year. The Government has not lost its appetite for legislating, and there is as yet no sign that they have taken on board the lessons of previous ill-considered and over-complex law that has in some cases had to be abandoned after Royal Assent but before being put into practice. The Courts' Service is still in upheaval, as the introduction of HMCS less than two years ago was swiftly followed by drastic financial stringency. As a result we now have a confused and sometimes demoralised staff who are taking limited industrial action. Many of them do not know if they will have a job in six months' time, or where that job will be located if they do have one. So-called Community Courts are being trialled in a number of areas, but based on the cheaper Salford model rather than the gold-plated Liverpool set-up which proved, to no-one's surprise, that if you throw enough money at a project it can work fairly well.

Whatever happens, today and tomorrow and for the rest of the year crimes will be committed and people will be brought before the courts. My colleagues and I will deal with them without fear or favour, affection or ill-will, and in accordance with the law, rather than the nudge-nudge of politicians or the ranting of the tabloid mob.

Happy New Year.