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.

My Photo
Location: Near London, United Kingdom

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Private Process Day

We regularly run a court for non-CPS prosecutions, and these can be a really mixed bunch. Many authorities have powers of prosecution, but true private prosecutions of one citizen by another are rare. Prosecutions can be instigated by the local authority (environmental offences, housing matters including benefit frauds and dodgy landlords, trading standards, school non-attendance and planning) the Environment Agency, VOSA, HM Revenue & Customs, the RSPCA, bus and train companies, the Civil Aviation Authority, TV Licensing and more. Some of these cases are less than riveting and most magistrates regard a half day of fare evasion or TV licences as the judicial equivalent of a spell in the salt mines, but every case needs to be dealt with carefully, taking account of all the circumstances. Other cases are a lot more challenging, because the less common offences have few if any guidelines, so the bench is thrown back on first principles.
The amounts of money involved can be very high. In the magistrates' court an offence such as fly-tipping can attract a fine of up to £50,000 and/or six months' prison. These authorities also claim their full costs, rather than the rough-and-ready CPS scale. Last week a lady who had fraudulently claimed over £30,000 in housing benefit faced a claim for over £5000 costs as well as a suspended prison sentence, unpaid work, and repayment of the overclaimed money. A well-known computer company was fined £40,000 plus costs for failing to make proper arrangements for recycling some of its waste packaging. When an offence results in a gain to the offender and that gain can be quantified, we have an easy guide to the right level of fine:- we make it cheaper to obey the law than not.
A demolition contractor had to remove a diesel tank and pump. Rather than pay an approved specialist he gave the job to an untrained man with a JCB. As a result oil leaked into a nearby river, so in addition to a fine of £7,500 we ordered £5,000 or so to be paid to the Environment Agency to cover their clean-up costs on top of their considerable legal bill.
On the same day that we dealt with three benefit fraudsters who had fiddled nearly £100,000 between them we also dealt with a dim and disorganised single mother who had managed to be prosecuted three times in three years for having no TV licence, piling up a ridiculous heap of fines totalling over £750. "Have you got a licence now?" I asked her. "No" she said. I thought it was paid by the money the court takes from my benefit every fortnight". Speaking slowly and clearly (I would rather run the risk of sounding patronising than take a chance of not being understood) I told her that we were reducing the fines to a manageable level and that she had to go to the Post Office that afternoon and sort out a licence. She said that she hadn't got enough money, as the licence was more than a week's benefit. I explained that there were easy-start plans available, and hammered the point home, stressing that the last thing she needed was a fourth conviction. I give it fifty-fifty at best.
One last point - in cases of theft, the guidelines suggest that thefts of £20,000 or more should go to the Crown Court, but for benefit fraud it is £35,000. Why?