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, February 14, 2011

Dramatis Personae (4)

The opportunity to study my fellow man is one of the perks of being on the bench. A court is a high-stress environment for most people, and my aim is to deal humanely but efficiently with the business before us; an orderly court allows us the space to consider our decisions carefully and within the bounds of the law and our guidelines, while exercising our discretion whenever appropriate.
For most of my time on the bench the wheels have been oiled by the omnipresent local defence solicitors. Contrary to saloon-bar and tabloid prejudice one of the most important functions of the criminal solicitor is to confront his client with the unpalatable truth, and to persuade him to plead guilty when the evidence against him looks solid. The defendant gets a third off his sentence and the court can move on to the next case. The idea that lawyers encourage not-guilty pleas to increase their fees is almost complete nonsense.
Legal aid at the lower level is on the way out, and courts are seeing more and more unrepresented defendants. As a consequence we are seeing an increase in the number of hopeless not-guilty pleas. In addition, where cases do come to trial, they take an age to get through because the man in the dock has to have everything explained to him s-l-o-w-l-y. There is no shame in that: law is a specialised subject.
Legal aid restrictions have now come to the Crown Court too. Judges are accustomed to speaking to other lawyers in the elaborate argot of their calling, thus finding it hard to get across to Tony, a truck driver, that his case was as healthy as the Monty Python parrot.
I felt sorry for Tony and for the judge, at a recent appeal hearing. Tony was guilty of a technical offence regarding his HGV driving hours, and had in fact pleaded guilty down in the mags' court. But he was honestly confused, and he couldn't see why the law hadn't been explained to him before he broke it. The judge's kindly explanation of the principle that ignorance of the law is no excuse went straight over Tony's head. Similarly, telling the bewildered trucker that his offence was one of strict liability might as well have been expressed in Swahili for all the good it did. Hizonner explained that there appeared to be no germ of a defence, but that Tony's unhappy expostulations might amount to mitigation - all fell on deaf, or rather uncomprehending, ears. He simply did not understand that the kind of case that you make to your friends at work or in the pub is utterly foreign to a court. He was given various options, in deference to his lay status, and unerringly plumped for the wrong one. His body language started to express his frustration, and at the inconclusive end of the hearing he gathered his papers, muttering "I think I'll top myself" in his heavy West Midlands accent.
A local brief could have taken him on one side, explained the facts of life, and pointed him in the direction that was in his best interest. There will now be at least two more court hearings, with Tony travelling south each time. Tony is not a wicked man, nor a stupid one; he was simply out of any environment he could understand. A brief would have been hundreds of pounds cheaper than what is going to happen now.