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.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nodding Acquaintances

Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, has a deserved reputation for a powerful intellect that is combined with earthy common sense. Nobody who has heard him speak, as I have, could possibly believe in the myth of dozy and out of touch senior judges. He has now spoken of the real and increasing danger of juries being unable to absorb information in the form in which it is currently put before them. I think that he is right, and that a similar danger faces magistrates who deal with 95% of all criminal cases.
In a trial it is not unusual for one witness to be in the box for an hour or two. As chairman I always keep a close eye on the witness and try to allow a five minute break for a cup of tea after perhaps an hour or so. If the witness is old, or young, or otherwise liable to become tired I may break more often than that. There is also the question of the magistrates. Listening to dense evidence from 10am to 1pm then from 2pm until 4.30pm can be surprisingly tiring and it is essential in the interests of justice that those charged with making a decision are alert. Hence, I will often call a break in the middle of a morning or afternoon, and take a lot of persuading to sit on after 4.30. The so-called graveyard shift from 2pm till 3pm is particularly tricky and magistrates (no, never me) have been known to nod off, or, as has been said, 'concentrate with their eyes closed'. The average magistrate is something like 56, so it is as well to keep an eye on your colleagues - just in case - and for them to keep an eye on you.
Lots of things conspire to deaden the wits and droop the eyelids; some advocates who may be fine lawyers have a dull and flat delivery that conjures up the delights of Morpheus. This summer the air conditioning in court was often left switched off to save money, and the resulting stuffiness led advocates bench and staff to droop. Of course a real advocate will hold everyone's attention, cajole, persuade, and soothe as only a proper brief can, but he is a sadly rare creature these days.
So following Lord Judge's timely lead we all need to think how evidence may better be presented, both for young members of the Internet generation (some of whom may be magistrates as we recruit more young people) and for those of mature years whose attention spans are shrinking.
Even I can think of many ways to improve presentation of evidence, but I can't think of any that do not cost money. So don't hold your breath. We may have to rely on black coffee and timely digs in the ribs for a few years yet.