Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Amazing

Here is a list of the sources of our visitors. I have no idea how accurate it is, but as a child of the late 1940s I am deeply impressed that the thoughts of a humble legal functionary in London can have been spread so far.


United Kingdom 73.32%
United States 10.10%
Australia 2587 3.90%
France 1310 1.97%
Canada 1274 1.92%
New Zealand 773 1.17%
Germany 563 0.85%
Hong Kong 444 0.67%
Japan 287 0.43%
Spain 254 0.38%
Thailand 242 0.36%
Ireland 211 0.32%
Sweden 201 0.30%
Norway 192 0.29%
Europe 177 0.27%
South Africa 173 0.26%
Netherlands 162 0.24%
Switzerland 146 0.22%
Belgium 141 0.21%
Singapore 115 0.17%
Austria 113 0.17%
Luxembourg 103 0.16%
Cyprus 98 0.15%
Italy 97 0.15%
Venezuela 96 0.14%
Romania 93 0.14%
Denmark 93 0.14%
Finland 92 0.14%
Taiwan 82 0.12%
Unknown 64 0.10%
UAE 55 0.08%
Sri Lanka 54 0.08%

(list chopped from here - it was too long)

Ton Up

I see that we passed 100,000 visitors today, after almost exactly seven months online. Thank you to those who clicked on and double thanks to those who added comments, which are very comforting - at least somebody is interested enough to chip in.

As a non-techie I am most impressed by the geographical spread of the readers. Special thanks to MB who gave me the idea the inspiration and the practical help that got me up and running.

Nobody's Perfect

I am reminded by one of the comments on the Pissups and Breweries thread below of the time when a tyre fitter came to give evidence in support of a tipper-lorry driver who had been done for a defective tyre.

The fitter was an engaging chap, and he meant well, but his evidence was pretty hopeless. The prosecutor, in cross-examination, pointed out that the witness had completely contradicted something that he had said earlier. "Well, I made a mistake, didn't I?" came the reply. "People make mistakes. That's why they put rubbers on pencils, innit?."

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Apocrypha (12)

A long time ago we had a judge come to talk to a meeting of magistrates. Her Honour Judge Suzanne Norwood was a grey haired lady in her sixties who wore a pork-pie type of hat and smoked cheroots. She used to put the fear of God into the barristers who appeared in front of her.

On one occasion counsel tried to mitigate for a burglar who had made his way to the victim's bedroom, based on the fact that his client had been very drunk indeed. Fixing the hapless lawyer with a terrifying glare, the Judge said "Young man: if a complete stranger is to enter my bedroom at night, I should prefer him to be sober."

Five years it was, then.

Brief Encounters

Lennie Briscoe asks in a comment about the recently published book by a young solicitor in which the author reveals all kinds of shenanigans in a large law firm. Inevitably they include predatory sexual approaches by randy senior lawyers towards their nubile trainees, with promotion being more readily available to the comely and the compliant. The author of the novel has been outed in the Press, and I imagine that he has already had the no-coffee interview with the Senior Partner. Of course, putting hundreds of highly intelligent people together under one roof and subjecting them to intense pressure of work will inevitably cause bonding to occur.

Sex is never too far from the courts either. Many men (Me, Officer?) find the combination of black court robes, a slightly absurd wig, and a pretty face very attractive and I have often seen female Counsel using their charm to try to get what they want out of the judge. It is riskier with a jury though, because it is no good winning over the 35 year old man in the front row if at the same time you are upsetting the 65 year old lady at the back. You see it in magistrates' courts sometimes - it is not unknown for the Bench to be greeted with a dazzling smile from the defence barrister as they file in.

On one occasion we had before us a very attractive lady defendant who had triggered one camera too many and faced a six month ban. She appeared free of makeup or jewellery, her hair simply tied back, and wearing a plain dress. She looked the picture of contrition as she stood with her eyes downcast. Her lawyer told us of the hardship that she would suffer by being unable to drive her children to their private school if she were banned from using her Volvo estate. When we retired one colleague made sympathetic noises, but the other quite properly asked us what we would do if we were dealing with an unprepossessing young man in jeans and T-shirt rather than this fragrant lady. We hardened our hearts and disqualified her for six months.

She appealed to the Crown Court a month later, and they fell for it, of course.

There is great camaraderie on the bench, but I have never personally seen any relationship that started to look a bit too close for comfort. A colleague from another court did tell me of a married lady newly appointed to the Bench who was assigned a male mentor to whom she became very attached indeed. Unfortunately, following a Bench meeting, they were caught in flagrante on the CCTV in the car park as they entwined in his car. The Clerk to the Justices told the Bench Chairman what had happened, and said: "It's all yours, Sir, a pastoral issue if ever I saw one".

The lady was assigned a new mentor, and the matter was left there.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Pissups and Breweries (3)

We were down to hear a few trials today, and one of them involved a man with an allegedly illegal tyre on his car. This sort of case is not very taxing on the intellect, as all that we have to do is make a simple finding of fact and acquit or convict accordingly. The defendant had refused a fixed penalty of £60 plus 3 points and pleaded not guilty. He had come from Gloucester, and brought a solicitor with him, so he was having a potentially expensive day out.

The prosecutor stood up apologetically and told us that she could not find the case papers, and that the policeman who had come to give evidence did not have any papers either. She asked for an adjournment and I gave her a sceptical glance and asked for comments from the defence. This seemed to take the solicitor by surprise and he mumbled and faffed about the distance that his client had travelled. "Are you opposing the application to adjourn?" I asked him. The penny dropped and he said that he was. My colleagues' agreement took a few seconds to check, and we said that we refused to adjourn and that the Crown must proceed. At that point she bowed to the inevitable and offered no evidence, whereupon we dismissed the case.

We looked at the defence brief expecting an application for costs, but it took a pointed question from the clerk to jolt him into it. We made an order that his client's costs be reimbursed out of central funds.

We wasted an hour or so of court time, plus the defendant's costs. A police officer wasted most of a morning. A man who might have been guilty was acquitted because of a prosecution foul-up that a ten year-old should have been able to prevent - how hard is it to keep hold of an A4 folder?

Why did our man refuse a fixed penalty and lay out money on legal costs and travel? My guess was that he already had a few points on his licence and was desperate to avoid another three, but I shall never know if I was right.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Quiz Part 2

These are the guideline starting points for the offences that I listed. They are not a tariff, and it is quite usual to go up or down one step on the scale.

1) Affray
Custody
2) Assault - Actual Bodily Harm
Custody
3) Assault Police Officer
Custody
4) Common Assault
Community Penalty (but consider circs. carefully and remember compensation to victim)
5) Disorderly Behaviour ('Section 5')
Discharge or Fine
6) Disorderly Behaviour With Intent to Cause Harassment Alarm or Distress ('Section 4A')
Community penalty
7) Drunk and Disorderly
Discharge or Fine (Easy!)
8) Harassment (conduct causing fear of violence)
Custody
9) Harassment
Community Penalty
10) Possession of a Bladed Instrument /Offensive Weapon (separate offence, but similar penalties)
Custody
11) Threatening Behaviour ('section 4')
Community Penalty
12) Violent Disorder
Commit to Crown Court
13) Wounding - GBH ('section 20')
Commit to Crown Court

This gives the flavour, but of course real disposals vary widely in response to the seriousness of the offence as assessed by the court.

Oops!

A colleague was undergoing her appraisal in the chair. The appraiser was sitting in the well of the court, and one of her colleagues ('wingers') was on her second-ever sitting.

Midway through the morning the winger's phone started to ring loudly in her handbag. She turned scarlet, and fumbled unsuccessfully to turn it off. The chairman coolly paused the court's proceedings and announced that the bench would retire for just a couple of minutes. They returned with the phone firmly switched off.

During the debrief at the end of the session, the appraiser mentioned the incident and said that the chairman had handled matters with dignity and that the court had been disrupted to a minimal extent. "So that was okay then?" she enquired. "Well, replied the appraiser, "There was one small problem. When the phone rang your colleague said 'shit!' so loudly that we heard it right at the back of the court".

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Violence - Quiz

I have had another look at my new Bench Book, and following my earlier quiz on theft-type offences, here is another on violence.

A few points first. All guidelines are for a first time offender pleading not guilty (so no discount on sentence). Aggravating and mitigating circumstances are looked at before passing sentence, but see if you can work out the starting point.

Available sentences are:-

A) Conditional Discharge or Fine
B) Community Sentence
C) Custody
D) Commit to Crown Court for sentence

Looking at the common violent offences, what is the starting point for:

1) Affray
2) Assault - Actual Bodily Harm
3) Assault Police Officer
4) Common Assault
5) Disorderly Behaviour ('Section 5')
6) Disorderly Behaviour With Intent to Cause Harassment Alarm or Distress ('Section 4A')
7) Drunk and Disorderly
8) Harassment (conduct causing fear of violence)
9) Harassment
10) Possession of a Bladed Instrument /Offensive Weapon (separate offence, but similar penalties)
11) Threatening Behaviour ('section 4')
12) Violent Disorder
13) Wounding - GBH ('section 20')

Available sentences are
A) Fine or Discharge
B) Community Penalty
C) Custody
D) Commit to Crown Court (as magistrates' powers insufficient)

Community Penalties now cover a broad spectrum, based on a pick'n'mix approach, so that we may combine unpaid work with a treatment or other programme.

Don't forget that these are starting points - courts commonly go up or down the tariff depending on the circumstances.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Crown Court

Appeals from magistrates' courts are usually heard in the Crown Court (apart from those where a higher court is asked to rule on points of law) and the Judge sits with two magistrates, and without a jury. The judge has the final say on points of law, but otherwise it is one-man-one-vote when we come to decide. We may be sitting with a Circuit Judge or with a Recorder and the reason for having us there is that most judges and recorders have more or less lost touch with the lower echelons of crime and need our input. I sat with a Recorder a few months ago who cheerfully admitted that the last time he had dealt with motoring offences in a court was twenty years ago.

Appeals against sentence are straightforward, but can stretch out a bit when the defendant is unrepresented. Appeals against conviction and sentence are by way of a re-hearing with the witnesses giving their evidence afresh.

Recorders are barristers or, less usually, solicitors who sit in court for a few weeks each year. Some are building up their judicial experience prior to applying to become a full-time judge, but a significant number are those barristers who can't afford to go on the Bench full-time because they are doing very nicely indeed at the Bar. This was neatly pointed up the last time that I was at the Crown Court; I parked my car in the secure car park that is reserved for judges, and among the usual Golfs and Volvos was a gleaming new Jaguar XK8 parked with the hood down, giving a view of the creamy leather seats. "Recorder?" I asked the security man. "Yes, Mr. Recorder XXX QC. He's here for three weeks". Recorders can be identified by the fact that they wear the black barrister's gown with wig and bands rather than the Circuit Judge's purple robe and red sash. Some of the gowns robes and wigs that we see are remarkably scruffy and threadbare - I have no idea whether this is schoolboyish pride in having a uniform that shows your seniority or a reflection of the cost of buying a new outfit.

I am often surprised by the casual way in which some defendants treat their appearance in the Crown Court, and a few seem to go out of their way to give an unhelpful impression. One fellow who was charged with an assault turned up in a cutaway singlet that was calculated to show off his gym-honed muscles and his exotic tattoos. He further helped us decide what sort of man he was when he was accused of punching someone as he was struggling to his feet. "Never" he declared. "If I had punched him he wouldn't have got up again."

At one we lunch in the Judges' Dining Room, and there is an opportunity to catch up with a bit of criminal justice gossip, and to swap information about the cases that we regularly pass up to the higher court.

I enjoy these sittings, because on top of the work there is the human interest of watching the interplay of judges and counsel and comparing the different styles of the judges. The downside is that cases collapse just as often in the Crown Court as they do in the Mags' so a day's work may be over by half past eleven or we might still be there at ten to six in the evening.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

For His Own Good?

Sending someone to prison for his own good seems to be a contradiction in terms, but last month I did it twice in one day.

The first man came into the dock looking terrible - dirty, bleary, shambling, snot coming from his nose. He was 26. He had been picked up on a warrant following his failure to appear in court a month ago. His girlfriend sat in the gallery looking nearly as awful as him, albeit rather more sober. The offences were borderline custody ones, but we couldn't sentence him because he hadn't turned up to Probation to be interviewed for the reports.

His solicitor told us that he is an alcoholic and that he is usually so out of it by mid-morning that he is not likely to know where he is supposed to be. We decided to ensure that the reports were done by remanding him in custody for three weeks, and in our minds was the unspoken presumption that three weeks off the sauce could only be good for him.

The second one looked tidy, hair brushed, clean clothes. He said "Good Morning Sir" when he walked into the bail dock (that's the open one, without the armoured glass)carrying a holdall. His solicitor, a regular in our court, explained that her client has been a heroin addict since the age of 19 and that he is now 32. She said that he had tried all kinds of rehab without success and wanted to try cold turkey. That would only be possible in prison. So please would we send him down today.

We retired, aware that this was a tricky one. Prison is not a health facility nor a social service. The law only permits us to imprison someone if the offence is so serious that only custody can be justified. This offence wasn't. On the other hand, he had a load of previous convictions, and we are permitted to take those into account. So in a slightly shabby compromise we went back in and said that we certainly would not lock him up to address his drug problem, but that his offence, aggravated by his previous, justified custody. He happily picked up his holdall, packed in anticipation of going inside, and stepped off down the stairs, to make a start on tackling his demon in his own way.

I wish him luck.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Gardeners' World

The neighbours started it by complaining about the odd smell. The Police had a look and a sniff and knew right away that it was cannabis. Armed with a search warrant and a seven-pound doorkey in case they needed it, they paid a call on the nondescript suburban semi. Inside on each floor and in the loft were scores of cannabis plants being grown hydroponically under heat lamps. The electricity meter had been bypassed to disguise the very heavy power consumption of the lamps. One room had dried leaves packed in plastic bags, scales, and other paraphenalia. The only part of the house that was not full of drug-related stuff was a six-foot square bit of the kitchen, which was the living space occupied by a 28 year-old Somali.

He appeared in custody, aided by an interpreter, and we heard that he had never met the tenants of the house, having been introduced by a Somali friend. He received £40 per week pocket money and free, if cramped, accommodation in return for feeding and watering the plants.

What a waste!

A few weeks ago I was chatting to colleagues over the lunch break and one bench was clearly far from gruntled. They had spent a totally frustrating half-day and achieved nothing, and the problems that they suffered were so typical that I made a note of them.

10 a.m. Case 1: (Common Assault x 2, Criminal Damage).

Victim withdrew evidence. Police and CPS spent 1 hour in discussion - offered no evidence. Case dismissed.

11 a.m. Case 2: CPS couldn't find their file. Finally located it at 12 noon, defendant hasn't turned up, case proved in absence.

12 noon. Case 3: Defence lawyer (counsel) had not turned up. Case adjourned to join up with co-defendant, trial set for September.

12 noon. Case 4: No police witnesses, because they had been warned to attend on a different date. Defendant failed to turn up - phoned to say he is unwell, told to get medical certificate. Case put off for 7 days to set new trial date.

1 p.m. Bench drink coffee, eat sandwiches, grumble, and go home.

It's a great waste of time and money when this happens, but every magistrate will recognise the situation.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Serious Business

Occasionally a case jumps off the page at you as you look down the list. In among the common assaults, drug cases, and shoplifters there is occasionally a real heavyweight bit of business - as there was a few weeks ago.

Making (or possessing) indecent photographs or pseudo-photographs of a child under sixteen.

That's the sort of case that comes with a lot of emotional baggage, so we settled down to look calmly at the facts. Clive is an ordinary-looking 40 year-old man who kept his head bowed below the dock rail once he had given his name and date of birth. Pure chance led a third party to discover that Clive had used their computer to access internet child porn, and a dozen photos of naked young boys were left on the computer's disk. A warrant was obtained and Clive's house was raided one cold dawn. He knew, once the sleepy daze wore off, what the police were after and he cooperated with the officers. He was arrested and his PC seized, and after interview he was bailed for some weeks while the overworked computer forensic people checked out his machine. He was bailed to his mother's address because his wife had thrown him out after his arrest, and his voluntary work at the local school was summarily cancelled.

The Court of Appeal has laid down a scale of seriousness for child pornography, running from one, the relatively innocuous, up to five, that requires a very strong stomach to contemplate. Clive was charged with possession of four scale one photos and two scale twos, all of boys aged between eight and thirteen. At level one we are talking about children who may be naked but who are not in any erotic pose, but level two might involve some visible sexual arousal.

We put the case off for a week for legal reasons, and a week later my colleagues had to decide whether magistrates' powers were adequate or whether to send Clive to the Crown Court. They will have been thoroughly advised as to the law by prosecution and defence lawyers and by their legal adviser. This particular case was on the borderline, so I shall be interested to find out which way they went.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Parking Rage

Criminal Damage was the allegation, Not Guilty the plea.

We heard that Mrs. Pearson, a 43 year old married lady, was on her way to work at a local bank and had been parking her car in the public car park. Coming to a crossing point of the car park’s roadways she had paused, and waved on a car coming from the other direction. Misinterpreting her well-meant gesture, the defendant Mr. Lee had leapt from his car, and rushed over to remonstrate with the by now thoroughly alarmed Mrs. Pearson. He then kicked the door of her car, causing the criminal damage that was the subject of the charge. Mrs. Pearson went into work, but her manager, seeing how upset she was, called the police.

We heard first from the lady, and she described her alarm as Lee had rushed over and waved a clenched fist at her through the open window of her car. He had sworn at her. “What did he say?” enquired the prosecutor. “I can’t say that word” she replied “I have never ever used it”. The chairman leant forward “Mrs. Pearson, this is not a court of morals, it is a court of law, and what you say the defendant said is important evidence. My colleagues and I have heard it all before, I assure you”. The witness burst noisily into tears. The usher scurried over with the tissues and a cup of water, and the chairman offered to withdraw if she needed a moment, but she said that she would be all right.

She braced herself and said “He called me a fucking bitch, and said that if I couldn’t drive I should stay off the fucking road and that if I waved at him again he would smash me, and did I think that he was some sort of cunt. He then kicked the car door”.

Well, she had broken her taboo, the floodgates were open, and by the end of her evidence and cross-examination she was effing and blinding wherever required.

We convicted the oaf, and fined him £250 plus £120 costs and £225 compensation to repair the car door. We then added £50 personal compensation to Mrs. P. for the distress she had suffered. Although no physical contact occurred she was very frightened indeed, so we thought that the cost of a modest dinner in a restaurant might make her feel a little better. We couldn’t add anything on for making her use the f-word though.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Existential Conundrum

I was approached by an old friend with a request to sign a document for him. I was taken aback to find that the document was headed 'Certificate of Existence'.

It turned out that he is in receipt of certain benefits from a trust and that audit requirements sensibly require annual corroboration of his continued presence in the land of the living.

So I signed it, but for some time I was plagued with memories of late-night undergraduate debates about whether we truly existed and suchlike philosphical detritus.

My friend has one advantage over me now: although I am pretty sure that I exist, he has a certificate signed by a JP to prove that he does.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Bother!

I did a remand court the other day, and I had a thoroughly satisfying morning. The business flowed nicely, and by taking a robust approach to requests to adjourn we got several cases moving, rather than leaving them bogged down for another week or two. In the old days, when faced with a request for an adjournment we almost invariably agreed, but nowadays we are determined to reduce delay, and any advocate who wants an adjournment had better come up with a convincing reason for it. A little probing can often reveal that simply putting the case back for a couple of hours in the list will allow time to sort things out so that we can go on to the next stage.

Mid-morning was enlivened when three odoriferous men came into the gallery and plonked themselves down. A few minutes later I noticed that they were talking among themselves, and from their red faces and general demeanour I guessed that they had made an early start on the Tennents or the cider. I gave them a firm warning to be quiet, but they were at it again a few minutes later, so I took the bench out while security and a passing policeman removed them. The usher duly sprayed the gallery with the can of air freshener that is kept handy on the same shelf as the Kleenex.

We then had to sentence a case in which there were pre-sentence reports to read. We retired, and in view of the potential gravity of the matter we carried out a full structured sentencing exercise, considering seriousness, aggravation, and mitigation. We decided that the offence passed the custody threshhold, but then went on to consider whether to suspend it. We were all treading on new ground here, and we had to rely on the training that we received last February. Along with the power to suspend we now have the power to impose other requirements that can cover drug treatment, prohibitions on certain activities, and many other things including - aha! - unpaid work. So we decided to add a further 100 hours work on top of a YOI sentence, reduced to reflect the guilty plea, and suspended for twelve months. That way we felt that we had a suitable mixture of punishment and deterrence. We called the clerk out to run our decision past her and she confessed that she had never done one of these either, but she said that it all looked legal.

We agreed that I would lay it on very heavily that the young man was now only a hiccup away from going inside. Any failure to complete the work assignments properly or any further offence could only have one outcome.

All agreed, we trooped back in to tell him. I picked up my notes and was just into my preliminary remarks when I saw the defence solicitor getting to his feet. Damn! I hadn't asked him if he had any mitigation to add to the report, and the clerk and my colleagues had missed it too. The fact that he had already suggested a suspended sentence had ticked that box in our minds. I apologised, he mitigated, and we sentenced his man. His mother burst into tears when she heard that we had suspended the sentence.

No harm done by the slip-up of course, but I was cross with myself for spoiling what was otherwise a smoothly-conducted morning.

Later one of my colleagues noticed that there were seven unrelated defendants on our list with the name Mohammed. One of them pleaded guilty to drink driving, and we mused, as we fined and banned him, that his punishment would have been rather heavier before a court in Tehran or Jeddah.

Apocrypha (11)

Magistrates are often called upon to witness a Statutory Declaration. Most of the time we hear them in court, but we can do them at home, and I have done them in the pub before now.

The formal declaration goes:-

'I (name) do solemnly and sincerely declare that the contents of this my declaration are true. And I make this declaration conscientiously believing the same to be true and by virtue of the provisions of the Statutory Declarations Act 1835.'

The person making the declaration then signs it, and the magistrate does the same. It is usual before putting pen to paper to warn that a wilfully false declaration may lead to a charge of perjury. I like to say 'I am not signing this to say that it's true, but to say that you say it is true'

I have done countless numbers of these over the years, but they have one thing in common: at least ninety per cent of declarants stumble over the word 'conscientiously'.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Announcement

In a statement issued last night the London magistrate who calls himself Bystander on his widely-acclaimed blog announced an indefinite moratorium on use of any simile involving radar. Suicide bombers 'were not on our radar' or something 'disappeared from the radar' - tired old clich├ęs, all of them. Every newspaper uses the R word several times a day, and it must stop. Now.

The only permissible use of the R word in future will be in connection with aviation, speed traps and weather forecasts.

Blog readers are asked to note any further occurrences and to post them on the comments section, in order to shame the perpetrators.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Emotions

The news is of five (alleged) failed bombers captured, and numbers of other arrests for questioning.

Feelings:- Admiration for the police work involved, and anxiety about what and who else is out there to threaten us.

Tabloid and saloon-bar emotions run high, as fear, relief, and anger coalesce into a confused search for blame - of a group, a race, a religion, a state, or a cave-dwelling millionaire fanatic. Conspiracy theories are abroad, and some people have already floated the idea that what happened is Britain's own fault. Simplistic solutions will be the tabloids' meat and drink for a week or two, or until some further sexual shenanigans draw the papers' attention back to Big Brother.

For those of us who care for the rule of law this is the time to counsel calm and patience, neither of which offer good headline material.

Thus far the police seem to have made an excellent start, but they are faced with mountains of evidence, thousands of witnesses, and unknown numbers of threats to come. They must have time to carry out their biggest-ever investigation free from political and media pressure for quick results. We have seen before, in an Irish context, where that presure can lead. Those found guilty must be convicted by verdicts based on untainted evidence put before a level-headed jury. If those now in custody are charged with offences relating to the recent real and failed bombings no trial is likely to begin much before the end of 2006 or early 2007, if for no other reason than the sheer weight of material to be considered.

For myself, I feel relieved that the investigation is under way with some very promising arrests and potentially excellent forensic and other evidence. I just hope that for the July outrages legislators and citizens will resist any rush to judgement and stand back patiently while the police do their job.