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.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Damage That One Man Can Do

Sometimes a single crime can have effects, undreamed of at the time, that reverberate down the years.

An obvious example is the horrible Soham murders, in which a man, Huntley, murdered two schoolgirls whom he only knew through their association with his girlfriend. The man was caught and convicted, and is highly unlikely ever to be released from prison. There was a crime, the law took its course, the victims' families mourned, and the press pumped up its circulation on the back of the case.

But none of that represents the real impact of the case. Prior to Soham the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974
laid down the commendable principle that for all but the most serious crimes a period of good behaviour would allow an offender to act as if the conviction had never happened; for many offenders crime is something they grow out of, and they take their place in society when they have done so. But after Soham pressure from the press and from public opinion led to the erection of the whole CRB culture, and the effective collapse of the ROA regime.

The nub of the Act is in this (edited) extract:-
where an individual has been convicted, whether before or after the commencement of this Act, of any offence or offences, and the following conditions are satisfied, that is to say—

(a)he did not have imposed on him in respect of that conviction a sentence which is excluded from rehabilitation under this Act; and

(b)he has not had imposed on him in respect of a subsequent conviction during the rehabilitation period applicable to the first-mentioned conviction in accordance with section 6 below a sentence which is excluded from rehabilitation under this Act;

then, after the end of the rehabilitation period so applicable (including, where appropriate, any extension under section 6(4) below of the period originally applicable to the first-mentioned conviction) or, where that rehabilitation period ended before the commencement of this Act, after the commencement of this Act, that individual shall for the purposes of this Act be treated as a rehabilitated person in respect of the first-mentioned conviction and that conviction shall for those purposes be treated as spent.

Inevitable mission creep over time has led to a CRB check system that allows for an enhanced, full, check in certain circumstances, that will reveal all convictions however ancient. It isn't too difficult for a determined employer to justify the need for a check - for example any company that supplies goods or services to, say, an old people's home or a school can check up on whom it is hiring in direct contradiction of the spirit of the ROA. Many years ago I used to do business with a firm in the hospitality industry, and they checked the police record of every single employee by the simple expedient of paying police officers for the information.
So a young person who, say, steals a bike in a moment of drunken idiocy might find that conviction for theft emerging 25 years later when he is applying for a senior post in a sensitive area.
Without Huntley, it's perfectly possible that none of this would have happened.

The other case that comes to mind is R v Witchelo (1992) 13 Cr.App.R.S. 371. This was the case of a man who elaborately tampered with goods on supermarket shelves in an attempt to blackmail the store owners. He was caught and got a stiff 17 years pour encourager les autres. The long-term effect of that case is the introduction of elaborate tamper proof seals on food packaging, so that every time we buy a jar of jam or some such we pay a few pence towards the cost of the seals, as well as suffering the frustration of trying to open the package. Witchelo has probably cost the UK economy as much as a medium-sized earthquake over time, and the costs will run on and on for ever.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What Cash Shortage?

The other day one of our charmless and amoral regular customers appeared as an 'extra', which means that his case had been put into the list at the last minute. He appeared in custody in the secure dock, flanked by two of Serco's finest. It turned out that he was on bail to our court on a medium-serious matter, due to return in about ten days' time. He was bailed to an address in Kent, thus keeping him away from his usual haunts and his usual cronies.
However, he was also wanted on warrant for a £7.90 shoplifting that happened before Christmas. So the Met saw fit to send two officers in a police vehicle on a nearly 200-mile round trip to pick up a man who was already in the court system, drive him back, lock him in a cell overnight, and produce him before me and my colleagues.
He pleaded guilty to the £7.90 theft,and we inevitably sentenced him to a fine, deemed served by his time in custody. He was released, to make his own way back to his bail address, and so we ordered the court staff to make sure that he was not penalised for missing his sign-on time at the police station in Kent, for one day at least.
What were the Met up to? This must have cost hundreds of pounds, if not more. No possible benefit could have accrued to the justice system nor to the community.

I thought the police were short of funds. If they are not, then we have been misled. If they are, then someone with a bit of rank needs to sort this out, and make sure that use of resources is properly prioritised in the future.

And Another Thing - How Would You Sentence This?

This unpleasant case is in the news. Your sentence would be?

Reference to the guidelines and sentencing principles will give you credibility.

Sentimental ranting will not.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What Do You Make Of It?

The Open University has an interesting you-be-the-judge/jury programme here. I, and no doubt the OU too, would love to know what you think of it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Another One Bites The Dust

As the news of Alan Johnson's family troubles and subsequent withdrawal from the opposition front bench hits the headlines, I cannot help pointing out that my post some months ago about the curse of the Home Office was even more prescient than I thought at the time.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Big Questions - And Lots Of Them

The MoJ has issued a consultation document. It isn't only exalted people such as magistrates who can reply - even ordinary people like you can chip in. If it makes you feel better, they won't take any notice of my response either. The MoJ dictionary defines 'consultation' as 'letting the little people waste their time commenting on what we are going to do anyway'.

If you can't face composing a reply to each of the dozens of open questions,comment on any one question, or as many as you like. I bet that more MoJ staffers will read this blog than the official replies that arrive.

Small Storm In Teacup - Not Many Dead

There is enough huffing and puffing going on to disturb the calm of quite a large mug of PG Tips over the issue of whether prisoners should be allowed to vote in elections. In reality there is more or less no practical issue involved; the objections come from those indignant at 'murderers and rapists' getting a vote, and more importantly from the purely political motives of those who want to use the issue to have a poke at the ECHR, and by proxy the EU, despite these two bodies having no formal connection.
What the Germans call "Der Bottom-Line" is that the electorate numbers about 45,000,000, so the 80,000 or so prisoners would have a negligible effect even in the unlikely event that they all voted; it amounts to an average of about 120 per constituency, or less than 0.2% of the electorate.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Milestone Passed

I have done it at last, on a day when I neither planned nor expected to do it.

I have used the word 'unconscionable' in open court - that is a word that I have never, to the best of my knowledge, spoken aloud in my life, in court or elsewhere. It's the sort of word that you might just write down once in a blue moon, but one that remains absent from everyday speech.

Unless, that is. Unless you are an MP or a lawyer, or a member of the judiciary.

I told a colleague in the retiring room that I had done it (to be honest I had rather surprised myself) and he said "I bet the next word was 'delay'"

He was right of course. We had just refused to vacate a trial because the CPS had let a month pass before notifying a key witness of the trial date, and during that month the witness had committed herself to go abroad; something for which she cannot be criticised. I announced our decision and the prosecutor caught me on the hop just as I was looking down my list for the next case by looking up and saying "May I have your reasons. sir?". So I did it on the fly, and out came 'unconscionable'.

I don't suppose I'll ever use it again, or perhaps I might just do so next time the scoundrel of a landlord at my local puts up the price of beer.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mule Strain

Alured Darlington is an experienced defence solicitor who is well known in the courts of West London. He has held office in his local Law Society, and his views are widely respected. He often deals with cases involving foreigners who bring Class A drugs into the UK through different ports airports and rail termini. As I have said before, the sentences for this kind of offence are enormous, in an attempt, so far fruitless, to deter the importing of hard drugs. In a letter to The Times (sorry no link - it's paywalled) he says that the sentences for “drug mules” from the developing world ought to be reduced.

(edited) the suggestion that if ministers want to reduce the prison population they should start by drastically reducing the number of foreign offenders held in British jails, echoes a proposal made by the Sentencing Advisory Panel before it was disbanded last year. The panel proposed that sentences for “drug mules” should be reduced and its rationale was that the prison sentence tariff of ten years plus, was out of step with sentencing for serious cases of violence and dishonesty.

He goes on to point out the sometimes devastating effect that such sentences have on the families of the so-called "mules". I understand that the serious traffickers (who rarely appear in a court) assure their foot soldiers that if they are caught they will simply be deported.

I am well aware of the potentially appalling consequences of drug abuse and of its destabilising influence at the lower end of our society. Communities and individuals can be reduced to near barbarism in some cases - but the penalties, however serious they are, certainly don't seem to be acting as a deterrent.


Today was one of those days - any magistrate will have seen something similar.
I battled through the traffic, but I was relaxed because I had allowed an extra ten minutes for the journey; it was only just enough though. I walked in to the freezing courthouse (the heating hadn't come back on after the weekend, but an engineer was en route. He knows the way well because the heating and air con is clapped out (TJNML).
An usher came in with a piece of paper. There had been a crash on one of the main routes to the court, and three magistrates, one prosecutor, one defence lawyer, several witnesses and one Crown Prosecutor were all caught in the jams. Ten o'clock came, and one court went in to deal with the usual morning task of applications for search warrants, Rights of Entry warrants, Statutory Declarations and the like. The rest of us fetched more coffee and got on with grumbling, as magistrates do when stuck out the back with nothing to occupy them. Court Three made a start at about 10.20 but the rest of us didn't get under way until nearer 10.40.
A couple of clerks and the chief usher then gathered at the back of the court, and we were asked to retire while the day's workload was rearranged, because another court's trial had collapsed as they do, despite half a dozen witnesses having turned up. We decided to close one court and to divvy up the remand work between two courtrooms that have secure docks. That meant three magistrates weren't needed, so I and two colleagues volunteered to go, allowing others who don't sit all that often to stay on. I set off for home, popped into the pub on the dot of 12, endured some coarse and tasteless gibes about my being in a suit and tie from Roger the barman (he knows nothing - he's a Millwall supporter for heaven's sake) and was indoors by half past one. These things happen, and they happen too often, but most of the foul-ups were beyond the court's control.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Diary Check

Glancing at next week's diary, I find that I am due to sit on Monday, and that I have a committee meeting at 5 pm, so I hope that my sitting is neither an early finish nor a late one - although at the moment early finishes are much the more common, due to the drop in our caseload.
On Tuesday I am going to one of the big London prisons for a routine visit. That means an early start. I would rather overdo the timing than run late; there is no hardship in parking up and finding a good London caff for breakfast, a mug of tea, and a look through the paper. Turning up late at a prison is a pain, as the others in the party will have done security and the briefing and moved off into the visit. We have to be escorted for obvious reasons so it is a Bad Thing to be late.
I am going to a big prison that didn't exist when I started on the bench, and it's new to me. I would be a fool if I believed that we see everything, warts-and-all, but you can get a feel for the culture and the atmosphere. It's all right to talk to inmates (I must ask what they think of the unlovely Sun's habit of calling them 'lags') but it is important to be sensitive to your surroundings. The officers are happy to explain what they do and why they do it; my impression is usually one of relentless form filling and bureaucracy. Prisoners complete a form for a visit or to see their solicitor, or to order stuff from the canteen, or to make any one of dozens of applications. The dominant colours are cream walls and grey baggy tracksuits that are issued to the prisoners. And it's gates and keys, keys and gates everywhere you go.
That reminds me of a JP friend of mine who regularly attends Broadmoor. He has had basic self-defence training, and is issued with keys when he is in the hospital. He was firmly told when he started that if he ever lost a set of keys the cost of changing locks throughout the hospital would exceed a million pounds- so please don't do it, Sir.
At the end of the visit we have a meeting with a Governor, and there is usually a lively question and answer session, accompanied by a cup of tea that is made in front of us (for this reason). I will let you know how I get on.


Here are three nasty and unexpected ways to die:-

a) A car accident
b) A mother giving birth
c) Murder

Here are three rates per 100,000 of the population:-

i) 1.3
ii) 8.2
iii) 5.4

Which fits which?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Was, Is Now, And Evermore Shall Be

I have quoted this before, but it is just as compelling today:-

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.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sentence Construction

If you ever doubted that sentencing is as much an art as it is a science, just run your mind over two recent sentences that have hit the news. A teenage schoolboy protester, high on adrenalin and low on common sense, dropped an empty fire extinguisher from a tall building. Reckless, stupid, dangerous; the act was rightly described as a moment of madness, conceived and executed in a brief few seconds.

A member of Parliament systematically and cynically cheated the taxpayer out of £20,000 or so, taking months if not years to do it.

Both were of previous good character, both pleaded guilty. The student handed himself in, the MP was exposed by a newspaper.

The former was jailed for 32 months, the latter for 18 months.

Judges are no fools and construct sentences with great care. There are arguments in both cases for a sentence to deter others, just as it could be argued that custody is useless and, in the case of the young man, damaging.

18 months or 32 months; if it had been the other way round, would it have been fairer? Or should both have had 18, or both 32?

Not easy, is it?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Spot On?

This sentence looks to be about right. Despite previous good character and guilty plea custody was unavoidable, the term long enough to make the point without being excessive.

(by the way - this is what commenters made of it. Hats off to those who were there or thereabouts, smelly bananas to the others).

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Seriously Bad Idea

The Bristol murder enquiry that we have blogged about recently has taken a new twist: the police have banned a major news organisation from their press conferences because they do not like the questions they have been asking. (I understand that the police have now backed down, but no matter - the principle remains).
This investigation has not, so far, shown the press in a good light, as the (admittedly vague) rules on pre-charge reporting have been trampled in the dust, but for a police force to ban a specific news-gatherer because it doesn't like the questions they have asked is an outrageous step that overshadows the press misconduct that I have already criticised. This is England. We have a free if imperfect press. Anyone with the tiniest grasp of history will know that a free press is a vital part of a democratic state, and that the police are there to serve that state and that democracy. If Teresa May knows her job the Chief Constable of the force concerned should be standing in the next few days before her in her splendid office receiving the all-time tongue-lashing, and a sharp reminder of his duty and the limitations of his powers.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Not As Expected

Today was my first sitting of the New Year. I was in the remand court, and as it was the first day after a long holiday we were expecting the usual crammed list, with a finish well into the late afternoon. Instead, we had a light list, plus numbers of extras that trickled in over the morning, leading to an early-afternoon finish with a last-minute Mental Health warrant to pick up a patient who was causing worries by not taking his medication as he should and refusing to answer the door to health workers. The police declined to attend without a court order, so that is what we were asked for.
We were constantly surprised. A man charged with drunken misbehaviour in the bus station who went on to abuse police officers until he was finally arrested looked pretty unhappy.His body language suggested that he found the whole court process beneath him, and we kept a careful eye on his behaviour. When it came to entering his plea he was polite and compliant, pleaded guilty and said sorry. Then we saw a multi-handed street robbery case combined with Section 18 GBH, ABH and a bit of drug possession. This was all well above our pay grade, and had to be sent to the Crown Court, a so-called Section 51. We sat back to await a string of bail applications, and were surprised to find that they were all on unconditional police bail and the CPS were happy to leave it that way. An alleged Fail To Provide slipped down-tariff when the CPS accepted that the woman in the dock was in charge rather than driving. That made disqualification discretionary rather than mandatory. Not for the first time we saw the legal aftermath of a Christmas office party grope that went wrong. It didn't happen today, but sometimes a drunken fumble lands the groper on the Sex Offenders' Register, and that's not a very good addition to your CV.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Open-Says Me

The entirely predictable orgy of vandalism at Ford open prison has spurred the yahoos who comment on tabloid websites and some who write for the papers to question the raison d'etre of the open prison system. Let's leave aside the issues around plentiful booze and a relaxed regime and look at the system. The 80-odd thousand prisoners who are currently inside range from seriously dangerous psychopaths to clever violent and cynical professional criminals, to pathetic addicts and losers, and to the bank clerk who couldn't resist diverting a few quid into his own account, or a bent councillor. They are all different and they all need a different approach.
The top-end nasties need to be kept away from society. Open prisons are unlikely to see many of them. Long-sentence prisoners (say five or more years inside) should, in any sensible system, be eased back into society; that means a gradual relaxation of the regime, and, as in the best open prisons, placement in paid or voluntary work on the outside. The tabloids sneer at the 'soft' conditions, choosing to ignore the basic facts that:-
Nasty prisoners have to be constrained in high security - as humane as practicable, but above all, secure.
Long-stretch prisoners have either learned their lesson or they have not. The law prescribes their release date, so it makes sense to try to coax them back into society.
Open prisons are open because 85 per cent of inmates realise how much they have to lose by playing up. 15 percent are immune to reason.
The proverbial dodgy bank clerk is no danger to anyone in open conditions.
TJNML - there's just no money left. Thus, some unsuitable and intractable inmates are put into open nicks where they take the piss.
POA - Whatever happens in a prison the POA say it's due to shortage of staff. Read 'not enough overtime'.
Why waste lots of money in a secure nick banging up the likes of Jonathan Aitken?

What happened at Ford was the result of bored and mostly antisocial men getting pissed up for New Year and doing a bit of recreational criminal damage. It is probably true that too many Cat D men are cynically down-classified, to free beds and save cash. It was pretty stupid not to anticipate trouble on New Year's Eve, knowing that plenty of booze was on offer.
I am not trying to justify what happened, but neither do I think that it calls the open regime into question.

Here is a piece by someone who knows what she is talking about.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


The Sun has more background on dodgy blue-haired possibly gay well theres no smoke without fire is there suspect in the Bristol murder case.

Er - hang on, he's been released on police bail.

Ford Runs Out Of Escorts

Do you think that this has anything to do with this?

Happy New Year

Last year was full of surprises, 2011 is full of challenges.

Here's the best of luck all players in the justice system.