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, September 29, 2009

His Master's Voice

The Sun has given up on Labour. Cohorts of highly paid, highly trained scribblers have addressed themselves to the issues facing Britain and decided, after due deliberation, to withdraw their support from Labour. Or perhaps not. Rupert Murdoch has become very rich and very powerful by backing winners. He has, like many of us, concluded that the Labour horse has only three legs, and his employees have obediently changed their tune.
Fair dos; they have mortgages and families to support; nevertheless I think that the humblest Bangladeshi shit-shoveller shows more integrity in the pursuit of his métier than the average Murdoch hack.
I too am seriously fed up with the government, but at least it's my opinion, and nobody has paid me to express it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

From The Sharp End

This via a colleague in another part of the country:-
Addressing a gathering of magistrates, the Governor of a prison told them:
If we sentence for 28 days, he will immediately turn them out on licence and with a housing grant. If we sentence them for 21 days however, he can't get rid of them and keeps them. Apparently the Prison Governor can cut 18 days off a short term sentence and send them out on licence irrespective of what the Court has ordered.
He is quoted as saying: "Serco will telephone me and say they have a short term prisoner in the van (ie 1 month = 2 weeks in prison) and I will just tell them not to even bring them to xxxx HMP, let them go. And that is precisely what happens".

Once Jack Straw had steeled himself to bring in Early Release this sort of thing was bound to happen. Can you imagine, particularly in the light of the country's dire financial position, any government rescinding the ER scheme, or taking any steps to rationalise the whole mishmash of prison sentences? Immediate vs. suspended custody, automatic half-time release, 18 days' early release, home detention curfew, IPPs, parole, the lot. I am thoroughly fed up with continual tinkering with the law, but this mess needs sorting out in a logical and rational way. Don't hold your breath.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Off-Topic? Moi?

Kite atop my neighbour's tree

Kite on the wing

I have the good fortune to live in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns where Red Kites, introduced some years ago, are thriving, and an everyday sight. My neighbours put out food for them twice a day (yes, I know that they should not) and from the chair I now sit in I can often see as many as a dozen of these beautiful birds swooping down no more than twenty yards away. I am the cook in our household, and when I trim up meat for the pot I usually toss the bits onto the lawn, since kites are scavengers who play a part in nature's big recycling policy. I now know where the expression Hawkeye comes from, because kites can tell from forty feet up whether they are looking at a tasty bit of chicken skin or a boring old bit of bread.
I spent an hour or so reading outside this afternoon, and I looked up to my neighbour's 60 foot tree, on the top of which sat a kite, emitting the occasional cry. Not eighteen inches from the bird, on an adjacent branch sat a magpie. Lesser birds usually keep out of the way when kites are around, since their sheer size makes them look scary, but this magpie was not in the least bit bothered. In fact kites are big wusses who can't fight. Their beaks and claws are the wrong shape for aerial battles and I have often seen a bird with a four foot plus wingspan seen off the premises by a crow or two. It's a privilege to have them around.

Later: Thanks to Raedwald for this splendid post. I demand to be hauled before the authorities in a blaze of publicity. Should do wonders for blog traffic.

Friday, September 25, 2009


The Magistrates' Association campaign against excessive use of out of court disposals has received welcome support from an unexpected quarter.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Back To the Sixties

I left school and went to University in the 1960s.
We were, at the fag-end of the Macmillan Government, entertained by the Profumo scandal, involving a Minister, alleged spies, tarts, and a group of peripherally-involved odd'uns. Inevitably the little people copped the full force of the law while the posh people got off with a bit of embarrassment and a life of good works (that was bearable since there was enough family cash to ease the pain). Stephen Ward and one of the girls went inside.
That's why I have a sense of deja vu about this. Or am I being cynical?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not So Fast Councillor

The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead is, according to a report:
"to start issuing ASBOs to car clampers amid fears that they are damaging the area's reputation as a tourist destination".

Just a minute matey. I have strong views on clampers, as regular readers will know, but get one thing straight - the Council cannot 'issue' ASBOs to anyone. They may however apply (that's a legal word that means 'ask nicely') to a court, backing up the application with some evidence. The Council asks, and the court decides. Simples.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Scotland 0, Home Office 5000

The furore about Baroness Scotland who employed a foreign cleaner who did not have clearance to work leaves me feeling uncomfortable for several reasons:-
We are told that the Attorney General has been 'fined' £5000 for her failure to photocopy the unfortunate cleaner's documents. No court was involved, this is just an administrative penalty imposed by civil servants. I don't like that. If the State is going to fine the Queen's subjects, let that be a judicial process, carrried out in public. This was decided behind closed doors, then leaked to the BBC in advance, which is a disgrace.
If the law on employing foreigners is so complex that an intelligent senior lawyer can get it wrong, how is Joe Public supposed to manage?
The law on immigration and who may and may not work is hopelessly confused, and the situation is a shambles. Our economy is now substantially dependent on cheap foreign labour (despite there being between 3 and 5 million non-active Brits living on benefits). There is a vast no-questions-asked cash-in-hand economy out there, and no politician seems to have a clue what to do about it. And the Government has no idea how many people are in the country. Brilliant.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Big Boy Made Me Do It , Miss

I refreshed my memory on the defence of duress the other day - it's not something you see every week, or even every year.
Our man was bang to rights for theft, as the CCTV showed the act in full detail, and he had no choice but to admit it. His story was that some nasty men had agreed not to duff him up for a drug debt if he popped into Tescos and nicked a few bottles of premium quality spirits to the tune of about £100. It was his lucky day, as he had a nice big holdall with him, and by pure chance he also had some kitchen foil that was just perfect to wrap round the security tags so as not to set off the alarms at the exit.
I can't say too much, but the CPS prosecutor dismantled his story clinically, and we found him guilty. That's when we were shown his 23 previous convictions.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

How Did We Come To This?

Two different but equally horrible cases have rather depressed me in recent days. The first was the sadistic torture and, by some accounts, attempted murder carried out by two small boys on two other small boys, and the second was the appalling bullying and torment suffered by the mother of a girl who was a bit 'different'. In her despair the mother killed herself and her daughter. In both cases there are questions to ask of the authorities; the two out of control boys were clearly not handled properly by the system, and the besieged mother was badly let down by the police whose duty it was to protect her. But that isn't what struck me most forcibly; social workers and police are fallible human beings and systems will sometimes fail, even though they should not. What I find hard to come to terms with is the way in which the perpetrators, adult and youthful, have become so horribly brutalised, often in a short space of years.
As a father and grandfather I am well aware of the existence of the old Adam in every child, and I read 'Lord of the Flies' many years ago, but I know that with nurture and education and love children will grow, little by little, into civilised adults, themselves capable of giving love to and caring for others. How and why have we created a minority of children and young adults who glory in cruelty, and treat their victims with sadistic brutality?
As a magistrate I see all too many people who are sociopathic and sometimes psychopathic. I also see young men for whom violence is a recreation, the post-pub mayhem acting as an outlet for the testosterone-fuelled aggression that is of decreasing use to society. But I am also fortunate to come across many members of the large majority who have received love and have grown up to be able to give it to others. But I still can't get those two tortured little boys or that desperate mother and daughter out of my mind.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

It's Not Only Here Then

California has a prisons crisis - 150,000 inside in the state, as against 82-odd thousand in the UK.

Friday, September 18, 2009

More About Clamping

I have been banging on about the licenced extortion practised by many private clamping firms; with the election coming up next year there may be some movement from the politicians: Here is the story.

I Don't Think I would Get Away With This

An Irish Dimension.

Don't fancy this either.

If Only....

This letter in the Times will strike a chord with many magistrates and court users. Sadly, we are almost certainly too far down the road of change to turn back, but it is depressing to recall what has been lost in the rush to standardise the courts and to bring them under Civil Service, hence Government, control.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mile High Club

The Daily Mail has done a good job today in reporting the acquittal of a woman charged with drunken and indecent behaviour on an aircraft. Unlike other papers the Mail goes into the legal reasons for the acquittal; the location of the aircraft was critical, since the illegal acts had to happen over the UK for an English court to have jurisdiction. My understanding is that if the aircraft is registered in the UK then British courts have jurisdiction wherever it may be, but foreign-flagged aircraft have to be in our airspace.
There was a case a decade or more ago when a drunken American kicked off on a Pan Am flight from the Middle East to the USA. The captain landed in the UK to offload the idiot, who was arrested and held in custody. He was, if I recall aright, fined a lot of money that had to be returned to him when it was realised that with an aircraft travelling at about 600 mph nobody could be sure where it was when the trouble started. Pan Am had the last laugh though, because they sued in the American courts for the very high cost of diverting the aircraft, together with the hotel bills of the other 300 passengers.

Told You So

A couple of years ago I mentioned the impending problem of there being insufficient resources to assess prisoners on Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs). The situation was explained to me by a Circuit Judge who sits on a Parole Board; he said that only about a third of prisons had the resources needed to decide whether a prisoner was safe to release, and that prisoners who had passed the fixed part of their sentence would be pretty fed up if bureaucratic delays left them lingering in prison. Here's the story from the Independent.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pass The Port Seamus

Magistrates are well used to countersigning documents and witnessing signatures; it's part of the job, and a lot of people don't realise that a JP will often do for free (outside the courthouse, naturally) something that a professional will charge for. I was asked to assist with a couple of applications for children's passports at the weekend - so far, so normal, but these were Irish passports, the father being a Cork man. The forms were a nightmare, asking for the same information to be re-entered time and again, and the accompanying instructions had the feel of having been translated from Gaelic into Serbo-Croat, then back into English by a Mongolian. The whole job took ages, and at the last we read that official stamps were required from the countersignatory, so I shall have to take the forms to court with me on my next sitting and get someone to stamp them. I remember from my youthful reading of the Colditz books as well as the other POW yarns that officialdom in most countries bows down before a really impressive rubber stamp. Sadly my court's stamps are desperately unimpressive - no royal ciphers, no fancy bits. It's a bit of a let down really.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lucky Dip

I am due to sit tomorrow; it is not a day on my normal rota, but I have offered to to replace a colleague who is unavoidably absent. What will I see? Not a clue, guv. All I know is that I shall have the middle chair and that it is a criminal court. Traffic? unlikely, as we don't do a lot of that. A trial? Possible, and if so it may well be alleged domestic violence, since we do see a lot of those. Remands? Also possible, and if so a non-stop series of bail apps, adjournments, and all sorts. But as ever there may be a joker in the pack; a cash forfeiture, a bit of Health and Safety, a neighbour dispute, or whatever. I shall report for duty at 9.30 tomorrow, grab a coffee, and join my colleagues to see who is doing what.

Sam and Boris

Boris Johnson, politician and classical scholar, writes today of his namesake Samuel. It is an affectionate piece, and rightly so.

One quotation struck me particularly:-

"How small of all that human hearts endure
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure."

That gets to the nub of so many of the complaints that I and others have about this Government's legislative legacy. Many of Her Majesty's subjects while living, on the whole, a better life than anyone who has occupied this island in the past, suffer upsetting and sometimes devastating problems, most of which cannot be cured by the passing of a law or the promulgation of a Statutory Instrument. Parliament could not pass any law that would come close to improving the lot of those at the bottom of the social heap because their problems arise mostly from an internal, moral and spiritual vacuum.
It's a big subject, and there is no easy answer, but the good Doctor spotted many of the questions for us.
I am often accused by those who imagine themselves to be of the of the retributive tendency of being a 'bleeding-heart liberal'. Of course they do not know me at all; I have long subscribed to Dr. Johnson's view that
If a madman were to come into this room with a stick in his hand, no doubt we should pity the state of his mind; but our primary consideration would be to take care of ourselves. We should knock him down first, and pity him afterwards

Friday, September 11, 2009

Now That's Dedication

A pal of mine who sits on a nearby bench surprised us in the pub the other week by ordering, in addition to his usual pint, a glass of Guinness with a shot of pastis in it. He asked for our opinion of the odd cocktail, and we all agreed that it tasted horrible.
It turned out that he had recently heard a drink-drive case in which the driver ran the laced drinks argument, and produced someone who claimed to have put several large Pernods in his pal's Guinness (risky - he might be charged himself). The driver said that he hadn't noticed the funny taste, but the bench didn't believe him. Having tasted the doctored drink, we agreed that it would be impossible to miss the adulteration.

For the record, I have pinched this from JWP Solicitors' website:-
The defendant must show that his drinks were laced, that he did not suspect his drinks had been laced and that had the lacing not taken place then he would not have been over the limit. In our experience a laced drinks argument is rarely successful without the lacer attending court to give evidence to confirm that the drinks were laced and it is usual for an expert biochemist to provide a report on behalf of the defence to confirm the mathematics of the defendant's argument.

Yes - But Why?

Those of us who have been magistrates for a couple of decades or more have seen far-reaching changes to the law and to the management and organisation of the courts. Quite often changes are sprung on us (and on our legal advisers) at short notice, but we listen, learn, and get on with the job.
When I was sworn in I was appointed to HM Commission of the Peace for Middlesex. I was shown the Commission document, with the Royal seal and signature on it, and told that this gave me authority to act in the Queen's name. Eventually all these old Commissions were swept away and replaced with a single Commission for England and Wales. We all thought that this would simplify things and make it easier for JPs to move between courts as needed, while still being allocated to a 'home' court. In particular it facilitated the practice of cross-bench appraisals, whereby a proportion of regular appraisals would be carried out by a suitably trained colleague from another court, giving a perspective untainted by familiarity. But something has gone wrong. In the unending stream of new law it seems that changes have been made to the rules, and that cross-bench sittings may not be okay unless authorised by the Lord Chief Justice or some other grandee. Now the LCJ is a busy man, so I can't see him getting involved with whether or not I should appraise a colleague at a nearby court. Urgent talks are under way to sort things out, and the Justices' Clerks Society has recently issued guidance that amounts to leaving things be for the moment until the situation is clarified. The problem is in the operation of Section 10 of the Courts Act 2003 (below, in italics). It is clear, however, say the JCS, that the issue potentially goes beyond appraisals.
The Act says:-
10 (1) Lay justices are to be appointed for England and Wales by the Lord Chancellor by instrument on behalf and in the name of Her Majesty.
(2) The Lord Chief Justice
(a) must assign each lay justice to one or more local justice areas, and
(b) may change an assignment so as to assign the lay justice to a different local justice area or to different local justice areas.
(2A) The Lord Chancellor must ensure that arrangements for the exercise, so far as affecting any local justice area, of functions under subsections (1) and (2) include arrangements for consulting persons appearing to him to have special knowledge of matters relevant to the exercise of those functions in relation to that area.
(3) Every lay justice is, by virtue of his office, capable of acting as such in any local justice area (whether or not he is assigned to it); but he may do so only in accordance with arrangements made by or on behalf of the Lord Chief Justice.
(4) Rules may make provision about the training courses to be completed before a person may exercise functions as a lay justice in any proceedings or class of proceedings specified in the rules.
(5) Subsection (3) is subject to section 12 (the supplemental list).
(6) The functions conferred on the Lord Chief Justice by subsections (2) and (3) may be exercised only after consulting the Lord Chancellor.
(7) The Lord Chief Justice may nominate a judicial office holder (as defined in section 109(4) of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005) to exercise his functions under subsection (2) or (3).
[Courts Act 2003, s 10 as amended by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, Sch 4.]

No doubt this will all be sorted out, after a great expenditure of time and effort. Mercifully, it won't be my job. But why all this tinkering? What has been gained? What is the strategy? It's hardly as if the Daily Mail or the Sun have been on about the subject, and they are the main drivers of criminal justice reform these days.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Another Sackful of Issues

This story is one with which I have only the most passing acquaintance, but a cursory reading seems to invite a question or two.

Why do the headlines speak of 'Straw Pardons...'? I thought that was the Queen's job.
Why now? The case seems to have a bit of a history, and the 'Justice' secretary has previously refused to let the man out.
We all understand the rationale behind prisoner exchanges that allow those convicted to serve out their sentences in their home country's prisons. It is humane, especially for the convict's family. Does the agreement between Governments transfer judicial as well as custodial power? If not, will any country in future trust the UK to keep its prisoners locked up until the original sentence expires?
When the Lord Chancellor and Minister of Justice refers to this man as "morally and technically innocent" how does that fit with English law? Morally? Technically? What would a jury make of that?
In the wake of the Biggs and Megrahi cases, was this decision taken on its own merits?
Will the Labour vote in Liverpool be affected at next year's election?
Truly, we live in interesting times.

Friday, September 04, 2009

One For The Memoirs

I have recently finished a fascinating trial that is unfortunately impossible to blog, as it had enough unique features to make the case instantly recognisable. The prosecuting counsel was of a very high calibre, as the case was considered important enough by the prosecution to get in a top man, and to pay his hefty fees. All of the preparatory work was carefully done, and the thick folder of exhibits was carefully paginated and indexed. The defence case was desperately weak, and the two defendants were ill-advised to take things to trial in my view. Watch this space, and I may be able to tell you about it in a few years' time, or, as hinted above, I will save it for my explosive memoirs.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

No Surprise There Then

The Daily Mail has come out with one of those stunning apercus that it does so well. Apparently talking to a pretty lady can turn a man's brain to mush.

I could have told them that a very long time ago.