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, March 31, 2009

A Leap Forward

I have been shown a confidential internal document from the MoJ that sets out some truly original thinking; blue-sky, outside-the-box stuff.
The document states the obvious fact that the public has little confidence in the justice system. Courts are seen as out of touch, and punishments are seen as half-hearted and soft.
This needs to be addressed, so Jack Straw has decided to give the editors of The Sun and the Daily Mail seats ex-officio on the Sentencing Guidelines Council as People's Tribunes. They will also sit as lay assessors in the Court of Appeal when it considers sentences that have been referred to it as unduly lenient.
This is expected to have a two-way beneficial effect. The voice of the man in the street will be heard at the point where sentencing policy is decided, and the readers of two popular tabloids will get up to date stories about how the system is clamping down on thugs yobs lags terrorists and the like.
It could work. Anyone who saw tonight's documentary about Holloway will understand the awesome power of the tabloids - a single rant about a Halloween 'party' in the prison prompted Straw to intervene and forbid any more events like it. The prison's staff had to spend the best part of a day away from their real jobs in a damage-limitation exercise. So let's see how it goes. An announcement in Parliament is expected before 12 noon tomorrow.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

There But For The Grace Of God.........

This JP appears to have given the impression that he had nodded off (whether or not he had done so) so it is quite right that the trial will have to start again.
We all have to watch ourselves, especially during the graveyard shift straight after lunch, and even more especially when we are confronted with a tedious advocate. I do hope that Kent courts' withdrawal of tea and coffee, that caused a bit of teasing in the press, doesn't result in more drowsy Men of Kent and Kentish Men.

Straw to Clamp Down On Bribing Foreigners

Offering bribes to foreign public officials will be made illegal under long-awaited reforms to the UK’s bribery laws published today.
or so says The Times.

Just one thing though - will that include foreigners from sandy places who buy aeroplanes and such?
How did anyone keep a straight face when drafting this lot?

What's The Matter With These People?

The Times reports today that the Council of Circuit Judges have, like the Magistrates' Association, condemned the Government's latest salami-slicing tactic to limit judicial discretion in the search for an illusory ideal of 'consistency'. The Sentencing Guidelines Council, which is barely into its stride, may be locked into a new rigid framework that will allow ministers to exert indirect pressure.
That's the problem you see: it's all done by a ministerial and Civil Service carve-up, and slipped through Parliament in one of the portmanteau 'justice' bills that have been such a feature of this Administration. If Straw came clean, and went to Parliament with a White Paper then a Bill to limit judicial discretion and to increase ministers' power to influence the courts (and so please the tabloids) he would have a hard time, and probably lose his Bill.
So once again we may have to rely on the Lords to save us from these measures that are plain wrong, and can only lead to injustice.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Bit of Inside Track

I was chatting to a couple of senior-ish HMCS people the other day (no names, no P45s) and I asked for an unofficial steer as to how the London spending review was going. After a conspiratorial glance round the room, they told me that the 'hold' button has been discreetly pressed, given the approach of a General Election and the desperate need to avoid upsetting the punters. So I look forward to a few helpings of fudge, then a bit of 'consultation' (that will be ignored) then who knows what. With a bit of luck, that will take me at least halfway to my retirement from the Bench.

It's The Rich What Gets The Pleasure

I am not easily shocked, but the sheer scale and effrontery of so many MPs' plundering of the public purse is more than a disgrace - it's a bloody outrage. Some of our representatives are trousering up to a third of a million a year of our money, and then have the cheek to charge us for their household expenses and, for all I know, their bog-rolls. "It's all within the rules" the smug bastards claim. Well, it damn well shouldn't be. And by the way, who made those rules? Oh I see - it was MPs.
So what am I supposed to feel as I survey the steady stream of pathetic poor that passes before the bench? In recent months I have seen half a dozen nursing students prosecuted for failing to declare the bursary paid to them by the NHS, and continuing to claim the benefits they were getting before deciding to take up nursing training. I have seen a young single mother, abandoned by the father of her child, who stole a pair of shoes from Woolworths because she wanted her little boy to "have something nice". She finished up in court, with a criminal record for theft that will do nothing for her CV when she looks for a job in the future. You wouldn't have caught an MP in Woolies (RIP) or Primark would you? John Lewis is the least they would settle for - with our money. People drive tatty and uninsured old bangers because that's the only way to get to the site of the minimum-wage job they were eager to take. Wrong, wrong, and wrong, of course. I dealt with them all according to the law and within the Guidelines, but as I order a £5 per week deduction from benefit or any of the other tools at our disposal, I won't be able to stop myself comparing these offenders with the MPs who stay the right side of the rules that they wrote for themselves but who haven't even got the excuse of poverty for their behaviour.
Defoe has Moll Flanders refer to the wise man's prayer: 'Give me not poverty, lest I steal.' Well our MPs aren't poor, but many of them, while not exactly stealing, are certainly taking money that they should not, on any decent man's view be taking.
As ever, Shakespeare had it spot on:

A dog's obeyed in office.
..........Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Workload Drops - No Surprise

Magistrates across the country are reporting a big drop in the number of cases coming through the courts. I took our remand court the other day and we were done at 1 p.m., something that was unheard of a few years back. This probably suits the MoJ agenda to reduce the number of courts, and is likely to be caused by the huge increase in behind-closed-doors 'justice' doled out by police and CPS.
We issued a warrant the other day for a man who had not complied fully with his Conditional Caution. The offence was ABH, and the conditions were to pay a small amount of compensation, to write a letter of apology (for God's sake!) and to attend a single alcohol counselling session. ABH is an either-way offence that carries up to six months inside or a £5000 fine before a magistrates' court, or a lot more in front of a judge and jury. That's not justice, it's a travesty.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Brief History of Times

As I expected, when I wrote this a few posts ago:-
it became clear that we would not be able to finish it, even if we pushed the end time beyond the ideal of 4.30 to 5 p.m.
a few people chipped in to suggest that courts are prone to skiving off early whenever they get a chance.
Of course it isn't that simple, as the Government will shortly find out if the daft idea of sitting courts from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ever gets a trial. The official advice, from the Lord Chief Justice a few years ago is that courts should not 'normally' sit after 4.30 pm. Here are a few reasons for that advice:-
Defendants are entitled to have their case heard by a bench or a jury that is alert, rather than nodding off or daydreaming. Listening to hours of evidence is pretty tiring, believe me, and even though I always give everyone a break for a cup of tea and a wee every couple of hours, by late afternoon everyone has had enough. Witnesses have to be considered, and they may have child care or other commitments. Court staff such as the clerks and ushers need to finish at a sensible time, and where someone is in custody the officers in the cells have to get their charges on to the prison vans and away into London's traffic.
In heavyweight trials in the higher courts it is quite usual for the judge to go very easy on the jury, and sit from say 10.30 a.m. to 2 p.m. to allow its members time to absorb the mass of detail they will have heard. It's easy to mock this, but a court isn't a business, and when you are holding someone's future in your hands it is vital to be fair, even at the expense of 'efficiency' as the Government sees it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Judge Judged

This case will stay with the Judge for some time.

I Owe You For That, Mr. M!

We had to sentence a first-offender shoplifter, a rather sad young man who had relieved a downmarket store of a pair of downmarket trainers. He was unrepresented, and pleaded guilty in a hangdog manner. "What do you want to tell us about this?" I asked. "Nothing" was the reply. "Are you working?" "No." "Are you claiming benefits?" "No." "What are you living on, then?"
I heard a loud mutter from the Clerk's bench :- "Stealing trainers".
I can cope with a lot of in-court surprises but this one left me and my colleagues in giggles for a few moments, before we imposed the inevitable Conditional Discharge.
I shall take my revenge when the opportunity arises. That Clerk needs to be afraid - very afraid.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

High-Tech Shambles

I am grateful to Jeremy Lowe for pointing me towards this article about the costly fiasco of C-NOMIS, the computer system that was supposed to make prison and probation services work seamlessly together. Like so many other Government computer projects it didn't quite work out as planned.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lord Ahmed Out On Appeal

The Appeal Court has today substituted a Suspended Sentence Order for the 12 week sentence imposed for Dangerous Driving involving the sending of texts from his cellphone. I have nothing to say about that sentence as the case had a few complexities.
He has already served 16 days. In reality, in the crazy world of shortish prison sentences his 84 day sentence would be cut to 42 days by automatic release, then he should get the 18 days early release brought in as a panic measure when the jails finally overflowed, so 42 minus 18 is 24, less 16 served leaving eight days that he now won't have to do. So even if the Governor didn't use his power to turf him out, he would have been out next week anyway. Hardly worth bothering the Appeal Court, was it?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Things Will Never Be The Same Again

Region by region HM Courts' Service is carrying out a Comprehensive Spending Review, following enormous cuts in the Ministry of Justice's budget announced late last year. In my region we have heard no more than a sketchy outline of ideas that may or may not be tried. The only thing that is certain is that the Government is skint, and knows it, and that the measures needed to get the justice budget into some kind of order will be radical and, hitherto, unthinkable.
I spoke to a sitting Bench Chairman from a Home Counties court today, and he told me that his court will be required to cut courtroom hours by about 30%. That is simply too much to soak up by redistributing work and tinkering with listings (even now if you plead not guilty in my court the trial is likely to take place in June; that can only get worse) which leads to the conclusion that the dramatic drop that is currently taking place in Mags' Court business due to increased out of court disposals is part of a plan to shrink the courts. Further, the introduction of ideas such as Virtual Courts (a video link from the police stations to JPs or a DJ sitting in a studio) will almost eliminate the need for Remand Courts, with the added advantage that a lot of defendants will succumb to the pressure of a quick guilty plea.
I have no idea of the detailed proposals for my Region (nor, so far, has HMCS, I suspect) but the financial shortfall is so massive that only really big cuts in basic services will be enough. Many courts will close (I have heard rumours of London being cut down from about 30 courts to 8) and benches will have to be merged. Local justice is a goner, I am afraid (it's moribund already) and more desperate measures to empty the prisons will be brought in, as there is no chance of any money to build new ones.
The joker in the pack is of course the election in the next year-and-a-bit, because far-reaching changes can't be pushed through all that quickly. Even if the Conservatives get in, they will be just as skint as the present lot.
It's hard to be optimistic, even for someone with my normally sunny disposition. Watch this space.

Down on the Pharm (2)

The BBC report today on the home-grown cannabis industry. Regular readers of this blog will not find this a great surprise, since I wrote about it at least two years ago.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Unfinished Business

Along with two colleagues I am due to sit on the second day of a part-heard case next week. The case was originally listed for one day, but by the middle of the afternoon on the first day it became clear that we would not be able to finish it, even if we pushed the end time beyond the ideal of 4.30 to 5 p.m. I can't say anything about the case, but I can say that the court's admin staff find part-heard trials disruptive of their listing process. Once a trial goes part-heard the court has to find a date when the bench can re-assemble (not always easy with a lay bench, especially in the holiday season, or if, as happened recently, one of its members is eight months pregnant, or if one or more has a full-time job). They then have to find a courtroom, and that will involve cancelling the bench who are down to sit that day, and then go through the palaver of rearranging the cancelled trial - not always easy when there are multiple witnesses, especially if some of them have travel and family commitments scheduled, or if they are police officers who have training or other duties planned.
So I hope we shall be able to knock off the case this week, and to that end I may have to crack the whip over the somewhat prolix (and privately instructed) defence counsel. He may say what he likes, but I shall have to insist that he only says it once. There are a lot of things to consider when deciding to adjourn part-heard, not least the stress and inconvenience caused to witnesses.
Wish us all luck.

(Tuesday - it went wrong and has been adjourned. Bugger.)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

QC or not QC; That Is The Question

Anyone who is wondering how Harriet Harman, a solicitor who is a full-time politician, should be a Queens Counsel will be relieved to hear that she is only an honorary one. This is a courtesy granted to lawyers who are MPs, however eminent or otherwise they are in the legal profession.

I am told that in the trade they are referred to as 'art silks'.

I couldn't resist this bit from Wikipedia:-
Despite a generally similar appearance, genuine silk has unique features that are distinguishable from artificial silk. However, in some cases art silk can be passed off as real silk to unwary buyers.

Bluff, Bluster, Bullying and, yes, Bullshit

From the Derby Evening Telegraph:
LANDLORDS could face prosecution if their rented properties are being used by tenants to grow drugs.

The warning comes after police discovered 120 cannabis plants in three rooms of a house in Slack Lane, Derby, on Saturday.

Sergeant Dave Simmonds said it was the responsibility of landlords to carry out regular checks on their properties and ensure they were not being misused. And he warned that owners could face prosecution under the Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971.

Sgt Simmonds, from Derbyshire police's city centre unit, said: "There is legislation and powers available to the police whereby landlords can be prosecuted if their properties are being used as a drugs house.

"Property owners or occupiers who allow their premises to be used for drug dealing, terrorism or prostitution can also face prosecution.

"Landlords need to be aware of what is going on inside their properties."

Police raided the house in Slack Lane at about 7pm. It follows a number of similar raids that have taken place in Derbyshire in recent weeks.

What are you going to stick them on for, Dave? The 'Renting to a Dodgy Oriental Geezer (Prohibition) Act'? The 'Letting A Property And Not Popping Round Every Week Act'? Nice to see you drop in a bit of terrorism and prostitution to spice up your mix and put the fear of god into landlords - let to a wrong 'un and you could wind up in Guantanamo or Algeria with 240 volts going through your wedding tackle to jog your memory.

I hope that someone in Derbyshire's finest has a word with someone with a bit of rank who can take Sergeant Dave into a quiet corner and give him a mighty bollocking along with a bit of advice not to make up the law as he goes along.

The whole article's here if you have the stomach for it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Asbo, Asbas, Asbat, Asbamus, Asbatis, Asbant

I Asbo, you Asbo, he/she Asbos.....aw heck, you know the rest.

As I have often said I have considerable reservations about many of the Anti-Social Behaviour Orders that have been handed out in recent years, in particular where the offender has deep-rooted behavioural problems, mental illness, or an intractable addiction. In most of these cases breach is highly likely, and prison sentences inevitably follow. I know of several local drunks who have committed multiple breaches of Asbos forbidding them to be drunk in the street, and who have served up to half a dozen custodial sentences, of increasing length, for behaviour that, when charged as simple drunkenness, is punishable only with a fine on the lowest scale (and in practice that is very frequently deemed served by the time spent in custody).
Having said that, I sometimes find the order to be a useful addition to a sentence, when it is made post-conviction and of the court's own motion.
Last year I sat on an odd little trial of a local man who was intelligent and articulate, but who was plagued with obsessions about a vast range of issues ranging from sport to the geopolitical. He had deluged scores of strangers with letters and phone calls bewailing the appalling state of the world as he saw it, and unfortunately those messages frequently contained the most foul racial and ethnic abuse, liberally sprinkled with the fruitiest obscenities offered by the English language. He pretty much admitted the lot in his evidence, so we eventually convicted him, and were then faced with the problem of what to do with him. We came up with an appropriate sentence, plus costs, and we added a rider that we would put the case back for an hour because we had it in mind to make an Asbo. We told him what we intended to forbid him from doing (Asbos can only be prohibitive) and invited the lawyers to get their heads together to draft the wording. When we came back our man said that he did not object to the Asbo, so we made the order forbidding in some detail any repetition of the offensive communications, and I spelt out the consequences of a breach , which could be as much a a five year sentence. I hope and expect that will do the trick; he had been punished, and given a strong incentive to desist from his behaviour.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Here's An Informed View About Prisons

Her job is a hard and thankless one, especially as the Yahoos in the popular press have conditioned public opinion away from the rehabilitative towards the punitive approach. All the same, she has much to say that is worth considering. Anne Owers.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Lips are Smacking in the Temple

If Harriet is serious about this then a goodly number of senior silks will have no worries about where the cash for their next cruise is coming from.
Hattie will lose (and we shall all pay for it).

Unpaid What?

A few weeks ago I spent a few hours at the local offices of a well-known charity. During a break in the meeting I asked the manager if she had ever considered applying for people on Unpaid Work orders to come and do tasks around the place. She pulled a face, and said: "We tried it a couple of years ago, but after the second day we gave up. We won't have them back". "Why?" I enquired. "Well, they were all young lads, and they had a poor attitude. Some of them treated it as a bit of a laugh, and there were always a group of them hanging about in the kitchen or the toilets. I found them intimidating, and several female staff complained of harassing remarks. I felt uncomfortable myself. The supervisor seemed to have no real control over them, so they spent most of the day hanging around with their hands in their pockets". I have no reason to doubt the lady, and I find this worrying. It is a truism that sentencers will not use community sentences unless they can be confident that they are properly managed, which was not the case here.
Despite repeated requests I have not been able to visit a work project since the early Nineties, so if any friendly probation officer out there wants to ask me along one Saturday, I shall be delighted to come.

Later: The issue is, by coincidence, in today's news.

Almost Incredible

Is this report from Reuters.