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, July 31, 2007

Chickens En-Route to Roost

This may ring a bell. The hasty and populist legislative mania of the Blair years is producing predictable consequences. I will put my schadenfreude on hold for the moment while feeling grateful that the Brown government's priorities seem to lack Blair's obsession with law'n'order as defined by the Mail/Sun axis.
So far, so could-be-worse.

Here's The Guardian's view.

Monday, July 30, 2007

More About DJs

District Judges (Magistrates' Courts) to give them their full title, are the successors to the old Stipendiary Magistrates. They are qualified lawyers, many of them former court clerks, and sitting alone they can exercise the power of a bench of three magistrates. There are about 150 full-time DJ(MC)s, as opposed to about 30,000 magistrates. Most of them sit in the big cities, but following recent reforms they are now deployed by the Circuits and can be sent where they are needed. The sort of work for which they are best suited is long trials, where it can be difficult to assemble a lay bench, or those involving complex points of law. Westminster court has special jurisdiction to deal with terrorist and extradition cases, and that is where Tim Workman, the Chief Magistrate is based, having been reluctantly ousted from historic Bow Street, which has been sold off. DJs can, as we have seen in the Richards case, sit with JPs but it is rare, and they are usually discouraged from doing so, but they do still sit with legal advisers. There is some talk of them sitting without a qualified clerk in the future, but they would still need a clerical assistant of some sort.
Big city courts may have up to half a dozen DJs backed up by a bench of JPs, but smaller courts such as mine have a share in one or two. Plenty of courts never see a DJ except on special occasions. The work is supposed to be shared equally between lay and professional benches, but one or two old-school DJs in big courts can prove a bit sniffy about low-level no-bus-ticket type cases. High-throughput courts such as youth, drug, and family sometimes have one or two DJs who specialise in that type of work.
Historically some magistrates have been suspicious about the spread of DJs, and I used to be one of them. But the fact that there are only about 150 DJs against 30,000 JPs seems to give the lie to a stealthy conspiracy to get rid of the lay bench.

Jam Today, Jam Tomorrow

I have just heard the usual tales of woe from the BBC traffic news, and thought myself lucky that I don't have to go anywhere outside my home town today. I have the impression, admittedly not backed up by evidence, that post-accident road closures are getting longer and longer. That is a likely consequence of the police policy to treat all fatal accidents as a crime scene, thus requiring painstaking gathering of evidence. That's fine - if we are now going to imprison drivers for a simple mistake that results in a death, then proper analysis of the scene will be required. The downside of course is that drivers will have to fume in jams more frequently, and for longer.
I drive in France quite a lot and the policy there seems to be more robust. The first priority there is to get the traffic moving, and I have often been directed to scrunch over the broken glass and debris to get on my way.
Attitudes to road deaths differ worldwide and in the developing world trnsport is a major public health hazard. A documentary on Mumbai's railways that was shown last night suggested that in that city alone over 3000 people die each year walking on or across railway tracks. When we had an accident in England that killed a handful of people we practically shut down the system.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Wasteful and Callous

There is a man in prison in London as I write. He is severely mentally ill, and speaks no English at all. He is charged with assaulting two people, but his solicitor, even with an interpreter, is unable to communicate with him. He is of course in the hospital wing of the prison where I understand that he is being decently treated. The consensus is that he needs to be transferred to a secure mental health ward. In a grotesque game of pass-the-parcel two mental health trusts are arguing about which one of them will take him (the prison being in one trust's area, the location of the offences in another). We were told that this will take at least two weeks, and more likely four, to sort out, and in the meantime he remains in prison. The public will eventually fund his care but while officials squabble over which pot to take the money from he is being cared for in prison, at a cost that probably far exceeds that of a mental unit. My colleagues and I made full enquiries in open court and we found that there is nothing at all that we can do about it, and that this is a situation that occurs quite often. Frustrated by our inability to achieve anything in the case, we remanded him back into custody.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Who Does He Think He is?

This is an example of a police officer trying to enlarge his job description to include 'judge' and 'jury'.
Get this straight, Constable Brain: (No, I resist the temptation). Sentencing is a judicial matter to be dealt with by the judiciary. If you threaten anyone with a particular sentence you exceed your powers. Your job is to bring offenders before a court. Thereafter it is out of your hands.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Another Slice of Salami, Sir?

From Sky News:
Footballer Teddy Sheringham has been cautioned for perverting the course of justice after his arrest for allegedly giving false details about a speeding offence.
The former England striker, who won 51 caps, was one of three footballers arrested in May in connection with the alleged offence, which he later categorically denied.
Scotland Yard would not confirm the footballer's name but said: "A 41-year-old man was cautioned today for perverting the course of justice".
To be cautioned, you have to admit the offence. The going rate for an offence such as this is custody, but Mr. Footballer has got a caution. This was decided administratively, in private, and by public servants without intervention by an impartial and independent judiciary.
But hey, just think of the goals he scored. To those of you who aren't famous and who don't play football, I repeat my advice not to try to lie your way out of a speeding ticket, because you may well go to prison as a result. To the rich sporty and famous, don't bother lads. The Prosecution Team will see you all right.
This is a bloody outrage.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

They Do Things Differently In America (no. 872)

I stumbled across this blog, and it certainly gave me something to think about. Prosecutors in parts of the USA are, it seems, to be allowed to go into court armed (or 'tooled up' as they say on my patch).
The idea of knowingly allowing weapons to be taken into court is stupid enough; but by prosecutors? Most of the CPS I deal with are people I would not trust to feed my goldfish, even if I had any goldfish. If they turn up in my court packing heat - I'm going to look for something - anything - safer to do in my spare time..

Saturday, July 21, 2007

English As She Is Spoke (Revisited)

A couple of years ago I posted this. My good friend Jones has just returned from France, and he kindly brought me a menu from the (apparently excellent) Hostellerie de la Poste in Avallon. Aside from the unlikely name for a posh hotel (can you think of one in England named after the Post Office?) the English descriptions of the dishes on the very tempting menu are exotic to say the least. The Menu Classique looks wonderful, as it should for 50€ a pop, boisson non compris. How do you fancy any of these?

Spotted ham pot "house" radishes crunching with the mustard emulsion, or
Marbled ocean in its frost with grasses of summer and balsamic vinaigrette, or
Eggs poached in red wine with compotée of leeks, plugs and mushrooms, or
Gun of lamb roasted in crust of grass, juice to rosemary and vegetables of provence, or
Choice of refined cheeses with whish, or
Thousand sheet with tepid roast apple and its purée lacté with caramel, or
Tart sanded with the pears vigneronnes and bays of blackcurrant to sweet almonds.
There is more, but I think that I have given you a taste. M.Francois-Xavier Gross is by all accounts a damn good chef, but he would do himself a favour if he hired a young English trainee before going to print on the next menu.
When I was recently in Brittany there were plenty of duff translations on offer, so much so that I would always ask for the French menu if I were offered the Anglais version, but it is only when the cuisine becomes very haute indeed that the heights of absurdity are scaled.

A Nice Day

There's nothing to beat a nice straightforward trial, especially when it gets off to a 10 am start with no complications, and moves to a verdict at 3.45 pm and a sentence twenty minutes later. That's what I was given this week and it was a welcome change from several heavy days in the remand court. It was an allegation of Common Assault, and the issues were mostly factual - who did what, and was he acting reasonably when he did it?
We heard from the (at this stage alleged) victim who gave clear and confident evidence, and who was, unless I am very much mistaken, a former police officer. We heard from six witnesses in all, only one of them truly independent. This lady had been snatching a crafty cigarette outside her place of work, and saw most of the incident. Another lady gave evidence for the defence, but let slip that fact that she knew someone who works with the defendant and that her daughter was a 'friend' of the accused. When she responded to a question with "he was only doing his job" we knew that her evidence should be treated with caution. We then watched five minutes of CCTV that was helpful if not conclusive. We were lucky to be faced by competent advocates - a Crown Prosecutor of much experience and a solid and mature local solicitor.
We retired to consider the case and agreed on a guilty verdict within a few minutes. Best of all, the assault being relatively minor and the defendant being a man of previous good character, there was no need to order reports with a view to a community or custodial sentence, so we got on with it there and then.
A Conditional Discharge and compensation to the victim seemed spot on to us so that's what we did. Unfortunately for the defendant the conviction will have implications for his job, but that was not for us to consider.
As a final bonus I was not the Chairman, because I was sitting in on a Chairman Under Training, so I had plenty of time to absorb the ebb and flow of the evidence, and the nuances of the witnesses' testimony. A good day.

Friday, July 20, 2007

All-Time Great Legal Jokes No. 229

"You have been found Not Guilty by a Limerick jury, and leave this court with no other stain on your character."

(Irish juries did not always take kindly to circuit-court judges coming into their counties to try local people).

What's In A Name?

Witness gives his name address and date of birth, after taking the oath.
Prosecutor:- "You are a car clamper, are you not?"
Witness:- (clearly affronted) "No. I am a Vehicle Immobiliser".

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Speaking of the CPS....

The Daily Mail is predictably unimpressed.

Would You Run That By Me Again Please?

There is much to be learned from the just-published annual report of the CPS Inspectorate. We shall return to it, but how about this wonderful example of Whitehall-speak in the introduction?

The Inspectorate was successful in maintaining a proactive and innovative momentum, seeking to strengthen its holistic approach to the criminal justice system while continuing to drive improvement in the Crown Prosecution Service and other prosecuting authorities which it inspected. This was achieved despite the extensive planning for and uncertainty flowing from the proposed merger into a single criminal system inspectorate – which did not in the event happen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Downfall of a Master Criminal (3)

Jimmy suffers from chronic back trouble - he just can't get off it in the mornings. He was due in court two weeks ago to face community sentence breach proceedings but had his hearing adjourned when he sent in a doctor's letter saying that he was unfit to attend court. He didn't turn up on the new date either, so we issued a warrant for his arrest. Later in the day his solicitor, in court for another client, asked us to withdraw the warrant because a medical certificate had been handed in to his office, and faxed to the court. The prosecutor had a look at the fax and handed it up to the bench without comment. As we were looking at the document, the prosecutor retrieved its predecessor from his file and handed it up. They were strikingly similar, except for the date, and that was the giveaway. When you type a date in Word, it is usual for the day of the month to be followed by a small superscript such as 'st' on the 1st, 'nd' on the 2nd and so on. Someone had altered the date, but left the superscript, so we were supposed to believe that a doctor would have certified his patient unfit to attend court on the '16nd' of the month.
We refused to withdraw the warrant, and the prosecutor undertook to refer the forgery to the police for investigation. If the document proved to be forged, Jimmy will have been in a lot more bother than he would have had for a simple fail to surrender.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Not a Fan

The Sunday Times wasn't impressed by my Channel 4 Radio piece. Here's the review

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Back to Work

I did my first sitting for several weeks yesterday, and it was in at the deep end. Instead of a nice gentle trial, perhaps with a bit of law to ponder, it was straight back into the remand court, with about 50 people listed to appear before us, charged with more than 80 separate offences. I had a nicely balanced bench, with one colleague on her fourth sitting, and the other with about four years' experience, giving a good mix of experience (me) and up to date training (new colleague). There were 17 bodies in the cells when we started, and more arrived through the day as the custody sergeant in the police station cleared out his cells only to fill up ours. It was the usual mix of business, small time thefts, a bit of drink driving, and several domestic assaults, including one particularly nasty one. The police photographs of the victim's bruising were very nasty and indicative of a sustained battering. It was charged as ABH, and we had no hesitation in sending the man up to the Crown Court in custody. All three of us on the bench are parents, and it was particularly upsetting to be told that a young child had called the police to ask them to "come and stop daddy hitting mummy". Then there was a couple picked up with £150,000 worth of cocaine - they are probably looking at a sentence in double figures.
Unusually, we sentenced another man right at the top of our powers, which is two consecutive six-month sentences, with the plea discount reflected in the fact that we kept the case in the lower court. He has been a prolific thief for many years, had just been picked up for two more thefts, and he showed no surprise at all when we exercised our discretion to do without reports and put him straight inside.
We didn't get done until after 5.30, so the sight of a pint on the bar when I got into the pub was even more welcome than usual.

Second Thoughts on IPPs?

The Daily Telegraph reports that Jack Straw is admitting that indeterminate sentences are a large and growing cause of the prison overcrowding crisis. The new law was not properly thought through, as with so much late-period Blair legislation, and senior judges had to wrestle with the concept of 'dangerousness' in order to make sense of it. What a mess.

Later: Here's an opinion that it would be hard to disagree with.

Thursday, July 12, 2007


While I was away there was an incident in which a magistrate who was unhappy to see a lady in a full veil before the court walked off the bench. Thereafter the media picked up the case.
The veil is a sensitive issue, and one that needs to be treated with thought and care, and with due regard to judicial obligations. The magistrate concerned is entitled to be concerned about the veil, but in my view he was quite wrong to walk out as he did. Magistrates' training ephasises that any concern felt by a magistrate in court should be referred discreetly to the chairman, and, if necessary, discussed outside with the legal adviser. Grandiose public gestures are not compatible with the office of Justice of the Peace.

Standards R Us

The latest issue of The Magistrate has just thudded (okay, flopped) onto the doormat at Bystander Towers. Virginia Burton JP has written about her chairmanship training, and she writes, sensibly:
There needs to be a debate...on accepted standards in respect of:
Hands in Pockets
Wearing Baseball Caps
Mobile Phones
Wearing Sunglasses
Bare Midriffs
Bare Shoulders
Deep Cleavages
Shirts or trousers showing thongs/bottom cleavages or very short skirts
Clothes or head coverings allowable in court for people of various faiths

Well asked, Virginia, but surely that's enough about the lawyers? What about their clients?
Seriously though...I know exactly what my court chairman view is on all of that lot. For what it's worth it's
only on women,
really depends,
and finally, I have already blogged that one

I am sorry for the cheap gibe about lawyers, but I had to pre-empt Rogerborg.

Now That's Real Community Justice

As I sat watching the rain lashing down on my recent break, a pile of books and a glass of wine to hand, I had a sudden flash of inspiration about the forthcoming 'roll-out' (ugh!) of Community Justice and CJSSS (Criminal Justice Simple Speedy and Summary) two ideas that carry a powerful whiff of the Downing Street sofa.
I had been reading a little history, and I suddenly made the connection between age-old tradition and practice and what we are trying to achieve in the courts, egged on by MoJ.

Simple. Speedy. Summary. Involvement of the community in deciding and carrying out justice. How to 'deliver' these objectives? Of course - it's a lynching!

If offenders were seized by the mob and strung up or beaten to death there and then, there would be strong and visible deterrence, a huge saving on court and prison costs, and a fabulous opportunity to flog our camera-phone footage to low-rent TV channels.

I'm in court tomorrow. I shall put the suggestion to my Bench chairman if I see him.

I could be famous if this catches on.

Prison Crisis Not Cured -Only Postponed

Jack Straw has acknowledged that the early-release programme announced a few weeks ago is no more than a temporary respite. There will be more trouble to come.

The Dog That Didn't Bark In The Night

Don't tell anyone that I told you, but I was quietly encouraged by Gordon Brown's 'Not The Queen's Speech' yesterday. It wasn't what he said, but rather the fact that he showcased his housing proposals and left the latest Criminal Justice proposals buried in the middle of his speech. Under Blair the Government's determination not to be outflanked on law'n'order was always apparent, and resulted in a lot of reforms that were at best useless and at worst damaging.
However, the loss of the Suspended Sentence for summary offences will greatly hamper our efforts to deal with offences such as high-level and repeated drink driving, Common Assault (and that's what nearly all domestic violence is charged as) Driving While Disqualified (and that's an offence that is often repeated) Taking a Vehicle (again an offence that is often repeated, thus making a deterrent very useful) Vehicle Interference and others. So while Government policy will continue to lock up thousands of offenders on indeterminate sentences, sometimes for lack of staff to assess them for release, magistrates will lose one of their most useful tools to enforce orders and deter reoffending.
I hope that Brown will not inherit his predecessor's love of the headline-grabbing quick fix. If the courts are given a rest from new legislation for a year or two we may get a chance to make some sense of CJSSS and Community Justice, two worthwhile ideas that will take a lot of hard work and a bit of luck if they are not to fail.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Apocrypha (21)

Many years ago I had a good friend, now sadly deceased, who was a senior Met detective. Standing at the bar, as we were wont to do, I spotted the head of a pin peeping from behind the lapel of his jacket. "That's not like you, Harry" I said. "I don't see you as the kind of bloke who saves a pin in his lapel". Wordlessly, Harry turned over his lapels, each of which had a dozen or so pins threaded into the fabric. "If some hero wants to give me a Glasgow kiss" he said, "He will grab my lapels and pull. If he gets two handfuls of pins he will pause for long enough for me to knee him in the balls". There's no substitute for experience is there?

Another useful tip I received via the Met CID is that a bar stool is an ideal tool with which to fend off a man with a knife, since its legs will be longer than his arms. Mind how you go now.

Monday, July 09, 2007

An Alien Speaks

Channel 4 Radio is a newly licenced digital channel. I recorded a piece for them last year, and it is now on their site here. It's Programme 6, entitled A Magistrate. To protect my anonymity they have distorted my voice so I sound like one of the nasties out of an old episode of Dr Who. The piece by a barrister is interesting too- give it a go if you have time.

(edit - 15th July)
Roland White in the Sunday Times is not a fan:
The first show I clicked on was Secret Confessions of a Magistrate, which was like a Justice of the Peace’s after-dinner talk with music playing in the background. It sounded like the soundtrack of a recruiting video for the Magistrates’ Association. There were a couple of courtroom jokes – how the bench got the better of an expensive QC and the amusing local drunk who described the court as “a tabernacle of mercy”. It was interesting in its way, but hardly at the cutting edge of broadcasting, which is where Channel 4 (home of Bus Pass Boob Jobs) likes to see itself.

The whole piece is here.

A Knotty Problem

Jeremy Paxman has been wondering aloud about the future of the tie (necktie to you in the USA) on the telly. It seems to me that there has been a rapid and accelerating decline in the wearing of ties, both on the television and in a business setting. I sometimes take the train to London and it is not unusual for me to be one of the few men in business dress to be wearing a scrap of gaily-coloured silk at my throat. Police officers rarely wear ties these days, which is understandable when they are wearing anti-stab vests but otherwise, in my view, unprofessional-looking. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis as the man said, but what will happen in court? Robed judges and counsel wear bands, DJs and magistrates of the male persuasion wear jacket and tie, as do solicitors and court staff. In a few years' time, as Paxo suggests, the tie may well appear to be an anachronism, as strange in its way as the barrister's wig is now. For myself I shall continue to wear a tie on the bench and on official business whatever happens in the world of fashion, because I believe strongly that formality of dress and behaviour is essential to maintain respect, and thus order, in the courtroom. One of my younger colleagues was grumbling about the jacket-and-tie rule recently, but he had no answer when I asked him if his confidence in the flight crew taking him on holiday would be improved by the Captain and First Officer wearing jeans T-shirts and trainers on the flight deck. In any emergency a uniform gives us someone to turn to for help and advice, as most of us will have experienced.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

From The Inbox

The Balanced Scorecard is the principle planning tool used by HMCS. It aims to ensure that business objectives address four key quadrants and achieve a balanced focus across different aspects of its business.
The ..... Regional Plan uses this approach to ensure that all its business activities are aligned to contribute to one or more of the key dimensions. Many initiatives and activities will contribute to achieving the objectives within more than one quadrant but have been placed in the quadrant for which successful implementation will deliver most benefits.

Does anyone have a clue what this stuff, written by highly paid professional managers in Her Majesty's Courts' Service means?
(And shouldn't that 'principle' be 'principal'?)

Now Where Was I?

I have just fired up the PC to find the thick end of a thousand emails, blog comments, and suchlike. It will be a few days before I get near to dealing with that lot, but I have indulged myself with a ten-minute frenzy of deleting spam emails.
What a time to choose for a break. Like an idiot I chose Glastonbury and Wimbledon time - what better guarantee could there be of rain? That's what we got all right - every single day. And what about the news? New PM, new (well, retreaded) Ministers, bombs, floods, a new justice Act (Oh goody!) and as I predicted, the end of suspended sentences for summary offences such as drink driving, drive disqualified and the rest.
Just a thought before I go and do something important:- I have complained time and again over the Government's habit of passing new (and usually useless) laws every time that something alarms the tabloids. Now we have a serious, albeit bungled, attempt to blow up a lot of people and what do we read? The first man to be charged has been charged under the 1883 Explosive Substances Act. I rest my case.