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.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The (Metaphorical) Jury's Still Out On This One

John Thornhill, the MA chairman, is quoted in today's 'Times' (paywalled, I'm afraid) as defending magistrates against allegations of 'conveyor-belt justice' and over-harsh sentencing in riot cases. Once again, he did not go out of his way to stress that magistrates had little to do with it, as almost all of these cases have been handled by District Judges, a decision taken, we are told, by the Senior Presiding Judge (Goldring LJ). The seriously heavy sentences, measured in years, were all passed in the Crown Court.

One thought occurs to me - why should I pay the MA £34.50 per year to defend the actions of the professional judiciary? Can't they look out for themselves?

The raw facts are that 64% of riot cases were heard in London, almost all of them by DJs. Night courts were exclusively DJ led. 46% of offenders were given a custodial sentence as against 12.3% for similar offences last year.

Now I can live with the decision to use DJs as they are easier to deploy than JPs and I can also live with the concept that it can be proper to sentence in the context of widespread disorder damage and theft, although it is a bit of a coincidence that so many judges had the same idea at the same time by some mysterious osmosis.

What continues to puzzle me are the bail figures - 70% of those arrested were remanded in custody against a norm of around 10%. What led to this near-unanimous decision by DJs to put the Bail Act on ice? The Act criteria are well known (especially to regular readers of this blog) there must be 'substantial grounds' to fear a failure to surrender, further offences, or interference with justice. While the riots were raging in the streets there was certainly good cause to fear further offences, but as soon as the Met put enough officers on the street the trouble ceased. Defendants with previous convictions for failing to surrender or ignoring court orders might give cause for concern but what about people who handed themselves in? Are they an absconding risk? Did the number of people giving 'serious grounds' really jump from 10% to 70%?

A few people are rubbing their hands at the possible return of swift, if rough, justice. This idea appeals to politicians at regular intervals. Margaret Thatcher wanted striking miners dealt with by hastily convened tribunals - cooler judicial heads squashed that one. Tony Blair was seduced by the idea of night courts, an experiment that threw away several million pounds and achieved nothing before it was dropped. The 'Times' says that one Chief Constable wants to see why this 'rapid, robust' approach cannot be used all the time.

I'll tell you why officer: it's because justice is too important to do in haste. If, heaven forbid, you should find yourself facing allegations, as the occasional senior copper seems to do nowadays, I bet you would want enough time to give full instructions to your lawyer, to prepare your defence, and to gather evidence or examine the other side's evidence. If that's good enough for you, it's good enough for for a hoodie-clad youth from the streets of Tottenham.