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.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

How Not To Do It

It's easy for those of us who have many years of experience on the bench to look back nostalgically to the golden age when we were the new boys and girls. The courts were run by their magistrates court's committee, the police presented their own cases, and at breaktime our ushers would bring us our coffee and - yes - biscuits on a tray. Our Clerk to the Justices was master in his own kingdom and everyone knew who was in charge. We were trained by our own clerk in our own courthouse, and we operated local guidelines for local offences. Training was fairly perfunctory, and we did most of our learning on the job. In some shire towns and cities the Mayor was ex-officio Chairman of the Bench - heaven knows how that used to work.
There was no formal appraisal, and no system of training and approving court chairmen. Simple seniority determined who was to take the chair on the day, and once someone reached the heights of chairing Court One - the remand court - they were unlikely to chair any other; in fact some refused to do so, deeming it beneath them.

By far my worst ever case was heard when I had been sitting for about nine months. I can write about it now, partly because twenty years have passed and partly because my two colleagues have moved on to the great appeal court in the sky.
A man of 24 had pleaded not guity to drink driving. The facts were appalling. A young man of the same age as the defendant,and known to him, had been working on his car in the street. A car allegedly driven by the defendant collided with him, throwing him into the air and causing massive injuries from which he died some weeks later. The driver failed to stop and drove off, despite a blown tyre. He was traced to a friend's house a couple of hours later, where he claimed to have drunk a quantity of vodka. The case was going to be complicated, because an expert would be called on each side to deal with the post-accident consumption and the back-count of the alcohol reading.
We were astonished to learn that the CPS prosecutor had been booked for just half a day, and was due at Crown Court after lunch. So we went part-heard and reassembled ten days later. The CPS sent a different prosecutor, who had never even seen the file, so we re-adjourned. We didn't finish the case on Day 3, so we went part-heard yet again. On Day 4 we finally retired to consider our verdict, although it was late afternoon - we were determined to finish it. We were out for three hours, during which I became so frustrated that I decided to remain silent while pacing up and down the carpet, to give my colleagues a chance to get their thoughts together. They did not. The chairman made no attempt to lead or focus the discussion and my other colleague was pathetically indecisive. To be fair to the chairman, it turned out that she was suffering from a terminal illness, and she died a few weeks later. Our verdict was illogical (guilty on one charge, not on the other) and our sentence was a dog's breakfast of a partly-suspended prison sentence. It was later (rightly) overturned on appeal.
Everything went wrong. Weak chairmanship. Poor decision-making outside. Dreadful CPS case management. An insufficiently assertive clerk. Oh yes, and police evidence that had clearly been given a bit of a nudge in the 'right' direction, nearly blowing the whole thing out of the water (our man did not deny being the driver).

Could it happen again today? No, I don't believe it could. Chairmen are properly trained, and appraised every three years. Wingers too are trained and appraised regularly. Clerks are much better trained. The defendant was under-charged; today he would be before the Crown Court for causing death by careless while over the alcohol limit. On conviction he would face some years in prison. We woefully under-sentenced.
The result was unjust, made worse by the fact that the deceased man's family were in the gallery for much of the time. God knows what they made of it, poor sods.