The Magistrate's Blog (2005-2012)

This blog has migrated to www.magistratesblog.blogspot.co.uk This blog is anonymous, and Bystander's views are his and his alone. Where his views differ from the letter of the law, he will enforce the letter of the law because that is what he has sworn to do. If you think that you can identify a particular case from one of the posts you are wrong. Enough facts are changed to preserve the truth of the tale but to disguise its exact source.

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Location: Near London, United Kingdom

The blog is written by a retired JP, with over 30 years' experience on the Bench.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Two Viewpoints on Heroin

The Times has an interesting article giving two contrasting views on heroin addiction. Theodore Dalrymple's view, towards the end of the article, is one that I have read before; it challenges the conventional wisdom about how to deal with the drug and its consequences. His views are worthy of consideration, since he is a psychiatrist and a prison doctor of long experience.

Motoring News Again

Here's a new take on the eternal speeding story, from The Times.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Screw Driver

We had to wait until 2 pm today to deal with an in-custody case because the defendant had been shipped up to Lincoln yesterday on account of the prison strike, and had to be brought back today. Not cheap, that.

Unintended Consequence

A poster on the (private) Magistrates' Association forum has pointed out that if one of the 16 or 17 year-old Community Support Officers has to give evidence in court they will be entitled to the protections afforded to a child witness!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Unashamed Plug

The Great River Race is a gruelling 22 mile row on the Thames and Matt Preston JP, who sits at Kingston court has sent me details of crews drawn from people who are connected with the court (not including defendants of course).
Read all about it here, and send them a few quid for the local Mencap.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

ASBO Doubts

This piece in The Times sets out concerns that I have voiced on this blog on a number of occasions, such as here, here and here.
This needs sorting out. Any chance of having a look at it, Lord Chancellor?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Clerk to the Justices

When I joined the Bench in the 1980s my court, like every other, had a Clerk to the Justices, who held his office under statute and was to all intents and purposes master in his own domain. He was responsible through the Magistrates' Court's Committee, for the administration of the court, and all of the staff knew who was in charge. He trained the magistrates and, to some extent, the staff, and he had his finger on the pulse of the court. The relationship with the Bench Chairman was particularly important, since the Clerk was appointed by the Court's Committee, and Clerk and Chairman managed the court, the staff and the bench. They had statutory independence, which inevitably meant that there were differences of practice between courts across the country. In due course that offended politicians who wanted to see 'consistency' as they put it, and control as I would put it.
So over a few years the courts were reorganised into regions and areas, and instead of a Clerk to each court, one so-called Clerk (whose functions were now mostly administrative) could supervise a number of courts and dozens of lawyers. That was really the end of the Clerk to the Justices, but the title remained, partly because it would have been prohibitively costly to sack them, and we then had the fiction of a Clerk who in reality could have 500 to over 1000 JPs to advise. When I started the Clerk knew all of his staff and magistrates, and, as one of them said, was a cross between a butler and a family solicitor. He was technically employed by the magistrates, but everyone knew where they stood.
Now there are plans to reduce the number of Clerks to about 50 for the whole of England and Wales, which means that few magistrates will be on personal terms with their Clerk, and that the office has in effect been abolished. Since 2005 Clerks have been civil servants, which means that while their independence is guaranteed when they are carrying out judicial functions or advising magistrates as to law, they must otherwise follow Government policy as directed by the Minister.
All this is a shame. Justice and so-called efficiency do not always sit easily together. Given the choice, I would prefer to sacrifice a little efficiency and concentrate on justice.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Time For Some Serious Thinking

The Observer and the Sunday Times agree that we need to have a considered look at the way in which we are using our police resources. Robert Chesshyre too has a thoughtful piece in the First Post. We have a record number of police officers but in many areas the streets have been abandoned to groups of youths, and local police commanders are unwilling or unable to provide the necessary reaction to criminal behaviour. Of course, there are many other demands on police manpower, but maintaining the Queen's Peace on the streets should surely be a priority.
No doubt some of our regular commentators will see this as an attack on the police and will continue to blame society's woes on bleeding-heart softy magistrates and judges, but the issue is too serious for that kind of simplistic nonsense. Front-line officers carry out the policies of their seniors. Those seniors need to take a cool and clear-headed view of where their priorities should lie, and then tell the civil servants who direct them what the real facts of life are.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Against My Better Judgement

Here (grudgingly) is the David Cameron Caption Competition. Make the most of it as it may be the last one for some time.
All farting jokes and crude sexual innuendo will be binned on receipt. Witty sexual innuendo might just be left in.

News From The Fast Lane

This chap appears to have come to grief over his fondness for driving much faster than he is allowed to, and this one also looks set for an unscheduled holiday.

Later....here's another two.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Sense of Proportion

The Times reports trouble in East Anglia, as a mob attacks a police station. Apparently the trigger for the incident was the arrest of three people for having sound equipment in their van. An 'unlicensed' musical event was due to take place in an industrial estate, and police officers were drafted in from other areas to deal with this major threat to the Queen's Peace.
Now come on, lads:- of course I don't want an impromptu pop concert at the end of my road (even though I don't share the tabloids' horror at the idea that some youngish people might dare to have fun) but was seizing sound equipment really the best use you could make of all those PCs? Across the land youths are increasingly carrying knives and other weapons. In some areas residents are intimidated when they go out of doors; vandalism is rife. 16 year-olds are being sent on the streets as PCSOs while proper grown up officers are wasted on nonsense like this. Perhaps it is indeed time to consider electing local police chiefs, to assist them in focusing their minds on the type of policing that the public wants and needs.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Court Painting

David Williams is a magistrate who has created a series of cards which draw wry attention to some of the things that JPs have to put up with. This one struck a chord with me since I have just heard a trial in which the defence solicitor was dreadfully slow and ponderous and we were in serious danger of nodding off, especially during the 2 pm 'graveyard shift'.

There are some more on his website here.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Apply Within

Some time ago I posted this about recruiting new magistrates, I was chatting the other day to someone who is involved in appointing JPs and he told me that there is a particular need for more people to serve in North and West London, due in part to current reorganisation, and the opening of a brand-new courthouse at Hendon next month. There is no intention to compromise standards, and the interview and screening process remains a searching one, but any candidate who can satisfy the criteria is likely to be recommended for appointment. If you feel like having a go, now could be a good time.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Bad Character

It is becoming increasingly common to see applications to admit a defendant's bad character, in particular where his record suggests a propensity to commit offences similar to the one before the court. I have seen a couple of these recently, and in both cases the defendant had nearly 200 previous convictions, so it is hardly surprising that the CPS wanted them in.
The Crown has to make an application to adduce bad character, and that is often done at a preliminary hearing. This is not always the case though, and the law provides that a bench may hear the application, decide not to allow it, and then proceed to trial having read through the defendant's previous convictions, which we are then expected to put out of our minds. Well, we do our best, but it is a challenging feat of mental gymnastics. If little Billy has nine previous convictions for driving while disqualified, but is fighting this one because he claims only to have been a passenger, one does tend to draw certain conclusions - which is what Parliament intended, of course.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Will Britain Go This Way?

There is an interesting piece in The Independent about the extraordinary American prison system.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Apocrypha (23)

One of the District Judges based at City of Westminster Magistrates' Court is a member of the Magic Circle. I have seen him performing his magic stuff and he is very good.

Monday, August 13, 2007

A Wrong and Dangerous Trend

The Times is concerned about the enormous increase in the number of Penalty Notices for Disorder (PNDs). This is the Government's entirely bogus strategy for increasing the number of Offences Brought to Justice (OBTJs). Here is the news item.
Together with Conditional Cautions and other non-court disposals the police and CPS will increasingly take on the task of imposing sanctions on the populace. At the moment they rely on the fact that many people put £80 down to experience, reasoning that it is cheaper than taking a day off to go to court, and is not a conviction (but it does go on their PNC record and will be shown to any bench they appear before in the future).
Now watch for mission creep, as increasingly serious offences are dealt with behind closed doors.
It isn't justice.

Friday, August 10, 2007


The victim was a public-service worker, in a fairly ordinary capacity. Going about her duties she was confronted by a man who was rude to her, and who added some crude and threatening sexual innuendo. There were members of the public nearby, but the victim prudently retreated into a nearby office and locked herself in.
The man who had confronted her was arrested and charged, and then pleaded not guilty, so the victim had to give evidence in court. I chaired the trial.
She spoke from behind a screen, so we could see her, as could the clerk and the lawyers, but the accused could not. She was provided with Witness Support, something that is very well done in my court, mostly by trained volunteers.
She was clearly in a state of severe anxiety, and her body language suggested that she was not at all happy. Nevertheless she gave a clear account of the incident, and when it was the (unrepresented) defendant's turn to cross-examine her I was determined not to allow any intimidation - but there was no need as he only asked a couple of questions. We convicted him. In the prosecution's opening address we had heard that the victim had been on light duties in the six months since the incident, and we could understand why.
As these things go, the case was relatively down-scale: no blow was struck, but the impact on the victim was clearly long-term and serious. Sometimes even the calmest of us can be thrown off our life's track by a threatening incident such as this one.
We put the case off to be sentenced by another bench, our reasons form indicating that we felt it was in the custody band.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

The side effects of the last decade's Press panics about crime and criminals have not just been to scare old ladies to cower under their duvets, but to invest the criminal classes with an almost supernatural power to offend and to get away with it. In fact most of the run-of-the-mill defendants who pass in front of my bench fall into the categories of: Drug addicts, mentally ill, socially crippled (eg the appalling number of offenders coming from so-called Council Care) ill-educated unemployables, the terminally attitude-challenged, and the unlucky. The simply vicious and psychopathic are there all right, but in relatively small numbers.
The common thread that runs through most of the cases I deal with is good old fashioned stupidity, such as:-
Man parks car. Traffic warden approaches to issue ticket. "Don't do that" orders man. "Sorry, have to do it" says warden. Man threatens then attacks warden with weapon. Warden retreats and calls police. Police are updated in real time by operators of high resolution state-of-the-art CCTV. Man arrested. Man's car turns out to contain dealer-type amounts of Class A. Man's house searched. Lots more drugs, scales and other paraphenalia present. And a sawn-off shotgun.
Bottom line:- a £60 parking ticket turns into a potential eight year prison sentence. Clever? I don't think so.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Caption Competition

The picture above seems to cry out for a speech bubble or two. What are the two at the front saying to make the one at the back close his eyes? Any takers?

There might even be a prize if anyone is funny enough and if I don't go all Catherine Tate.

My effort: Left Judge: "Sammy's ecstatic" Right Judge: "Why so?" LJ: He's been invited on to the Queens' Bench".

Monday, August 06, 2007

What's The Matter With These People?

I did a quick Google image search for 'pit bull terrier' to illustrate the previous post and I stumbled across some horrifying images such as these:-

There are lots of sites stressing how sweet and loveable these dogs are, and how, when they maul a child, as they do from time to time, it is not the dog's fault. Let's get this straight:- these dogs are bred for one purpose only, and they are innately vicious. Any pitbull (and, to a lesser extent, any dog) can revert to its ancestral nature in a flash. The people who allow a pitbull to curl up with a baby are irresponsible sentimental idiots.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

They Are Still About

The infamous Dangerous Dogs Act was passed in 1991 in a Parliamentary panic about a number of vicious attacks that had taken place. Among other things it required the neutering of pit-bull and other fighting types, so by now the breed should more or less have died out. It didn't work though: there were recently arrests in respect of ownership of fighting-type dogs in, I seem to recall, Liverpool, and quite recently a man was arrested in West London after more than twenty pit-bulls were found in his one-bedroom maisonette in tiny cages. Some were young puppies, some were adult dogs, many bearing scars or even fresh wounds from fighting.
The man got six months, and the court ordered the destruction of the dogs, but no doubt there will be more in the future.
Can you imagine what the smell must have been like in that maisonette?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bail or No Bail

The actor Chris Langham, who was yesterday convicted of offences involving child pornography, has been remanded in custody while pre-sentence reports are prepared. He will be sentenced next month. The judge said:
“In my judgment, and I’ve thought long and hard about this, it would be a misplaced kindness to give you bail at this stage.”
I know exactly what he meant. It is often more humane to send someone to start serving their sentence straight away than it is to leave them on bail for a few weeks knowing what will happen later. We are sometimes asked for bail pending appeal, and lawyers can be relied upon to stress that if the appeal succeeds their client will have been unfairly treated. The senior judge at the Crown Court to which we commit has asked us not to grant bail pending appeal because that puts a bit of pressure on the judges who don't want to see a cat-and-mouse situation. I did raise my eyebrows last month though, when we hardened our hearts and refused bail to someone we had just sent to prison, quoting the Resident Judge's advice, only for that selfsame judge to bail him a few days later.
Sometimes, too, there is rough justice in an offender serving a week or two inside, giving him a taste of prison life, but without leaving him there for long enough to start adapting to it.
If Langham gets a suspended sentence (possible, especially combined with compulsory treatment) this would apply to him. I have just looked up the latest guidelines and while I didn't hear the evidence, they seem to suggest about 12 months as a tariff, so it could go either way for him.
The guideline is here at page 116.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Wasteful & Callous (2)

I wrote this a few days ago. I have now had an email suggesting that we have the power to issue a witness summons to the chief executive of the NHS Trust on the grounds that he could give evidence about the problem. If he refuses to turn up he could be in contempt. Interesting.

Apocrypha (22)

We dealt with a Lithuanian drink-driver the other day. Eastern Europeans seem to be living up to their stereotype as hard drinkers, and this was no exception. We had a Russian interpreter for him, and when she was sworn and she repeated, as is the procedure, the oath in Russian, I heard the word 'Pravda' three times. That reminded me of the old Russian joke: Pravda means truth, and Izvestia means news: it was said that there is no Pravda in Izvestia, and no Izvestia in Pravda.
The holiday season is known for good reason as the Silly Season, when newspapers are run by second-line staff and the search for a story will often plumb the depths. I do hope that this is not one such: it surely cannot be serious. Can it?
I was at the Crown Court a while ago, and at lunchtime the judges were forced to make hurried changes to their lists as several trials were taking longer than expected. As they huddled with the administrator, one asked another: "You've got a sex ticket, haven't you?". Judges have to be 'ticketed' for certain serious and complex cases, rape being one of them. I rather like the idea of a sex ticket.
Apart from drink-drive I haven't sat on a motoring trial for many months. Traffic now goes through 'gateway' courts which are administratively convenient, but inconvenient for defendants and mind-numbing for magistrates. I heard of one such court having 320 cases listed for a single day!