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.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Simple But Very Important

It's been a really busy week, much of it sadly too fresh to blog. There was a day with media people - fascinating, but no, I can't tell you about it. There was a day in the remand court, dealing with about fifty varied cases, and there was a day of appraising a trainee chairman.
In amongst that lot was a simple little trial that turned out to encapsulate a lot of the basic principles of how a trial should work.

A bit of vandalism occurred in the early hours of the morning. A neighbour of the victim heard something and looked out. He saw someone whom he recognised walking away from the scene. He phoned the neighbour whom he suspected to be the victim (as he was) and they went downstairs to investigate. Police were called, but as happens with such a low-level crime, they did not attend until the next day, when they arrested a suspect, took him in for a taped interview, and took statements from the victim and the witness.
The independent witness was one of the best I have ever seen. He had been a neighbour of the suspect for ten years and more and he gave his evidence clearly and confidently. Under cross-examination he was unshaken, and courteously dealt with each challenge put to him by the young blonde defence barrister.
When the defendant came to give his evidence it came down to a flat denial that he was there or had done the damage. He was unshaken in cross-examination.
So we had a very credible independent witness who knew the accused by sight, and a flat denial from that accused.
The defence summed up:- yes,the witness seemed sure. But it had been dark (although she accepted the witness' evidence that the lights were good). The damage happened, but the witness had not seen it happen - the evidence was circumstantial even though some debris was found close to the defendant's only available route home.
As I expected she then raised the Turnbull guidelines that come up in every case involving identity issues. The nub of Turnbull is that an honest and sincere witness can be mistaken. She then, very properly, drew our attention to the fact that our man had no previous convictions, which means in law that we must have regard to his good character. The legal adviser popped up on her feet to confirn this to be correct.
Out in the retiring room we soon agreed that the defendant was more likely than not to have done it, but that the lack of direct evidence of his actions, plus the Turnbull caveat, plus the good character rule meant that we could not be sure beyond reasonable doubt. We decided to say something to reassure the witness (who was still in court) that we did not doubt him, but rather that he had not seen enough for long enough.
So we trooped back in and I read out our reasons, finishing with the words "Not Guilty" .

We did the right thing, I am sure. I don't suppose that the victim or the helpful neighbour feel that way, and I expect that the local coppers put this one in the 'silly old magistrates' box.

But we were right, and I want people to know what we did and why we did it.

That is after all why I started this blog 1600 posts ago.