Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Bloggery

Annoyingly, I have had to migrate to New Blogger, a process that was accomplished by what I can only describe as bullying. As part of this I had to log in with a gmail account that I had anyway. So the software flagged up that gmail account, hitherto unused, and when I looked by chance I discovered a handful of emails to that account, one of which I have now lost. It told me that the link in this post no longer led to the Times letter referred to, because the Times transfers its archive to a paid-for site after a while. So, whoever you are, I am sorry, but I can't point you to the letter you seek. If anyone out there has corporate-type access to the site, let me know, and I will pass the wise words on.
For the record, the email that I check every day is bystander at hotmail dot co dot uk. I can't do anything about the gmail one at the top of the blog apart from fume.

Card Tricks

There has been a lot of concern in my area about credit-card fraud, with cards being 'skimmed' for their details and the PIN noted by corrupt retail staff - in this case mostly in filling stations. I have dealt with a young man of 20 who was skimming in a Sainsbury's checkout. A trawl of the databases led to his being identified as the culprit. He was only a small part of the gang of course, but his activities alone were, we were told, responsible for over half a million pounds' worth of fraud. One of our court clerks had his bank account emptied a couple of weeks ago, and my own son's card was misused last week. Many people are sloppy about card security (probably because losses fall to the bank) and I have seen customers in my local pub call their PIN number across a crowded bar to save the trouble of walking to the machine. If losses continue to accelerate at this rate the banks are going to need some new technology and some tighter procedures.

Veil of Tears


The Judicial Communications Office has just sent out guidance on the controversial subject of the Islamic veil being worn in court. It's not something that I have so far encountered - in fact I doubt that the issue has come up very often anywhere, but the tabloids will no doubt give it a run in the morning.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies, and - er- Tabloid Reporting


The Daily Mail reports on the introduction of new evidential breath testers that can be used at the roadside, obviating the need for a trip to the police station. It is old news, that I wrote about nearly six months ago in this piece, but just look at the slant on the article. It is inaccurate (Courts convict, police gather evidence. Nearly all police station tests are on the Lion Intoximeter, rather than blood tests. Borderline drivers are not prosecuted if their reading is under 40 in breath. Random testing happens now and has happened for many years. Courts are not being 'told to make use of' powers to order interlocks because they can't be told, and the interlocks don't yet exist).
Inevitably in the gormless comments section someone loses no time in suggesting that the new devices are - you guessed it - about raising revenue.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Lose-Lose

There is an appalling story here about some people who thought it either right or amusing to 'toughen up' their toddlers by encouraging them to fight each other. As a father and a grandfather I found the article hard to take, and I decided that I could not bear to re-read it before writing this.
The offence speaks for itself. Because of my involvement in the system I tried to put myself in the shoes of the judge who had to sentence the case. Anyone with a dash of humanity would feel their hearts go out to the children involved - there can be few more emotional issues than this one - but the judge had to look at the whole case in the round, taking account of the fact that the abused children are now under the surveillance and protection (for all its faults and inadequacies) of the authorities, and that the offences seemed to stem more from callousness and stupidity than anything else. Of course to many people prison is the only proper response to these awful events, but the judge has to factor in the potential harm involved in locking up people who are themselves carers for children. For the future the most important thing is to supervise the upbringing of these children while bearing in mind that a poor family is invariably less harmful than a good institution. Revenge will have to be left to a higher authority than one of Her Majesty's judges.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Rights of Entry

We had a brief hiatus in our business yesterday, and the usher asked if we would mind dealing with an application for a Rights of Entry warrant. Gas and electricity companies can ask a magistrate to grant them the right to enter private premises when no other method of gaining access is practicable. The application has to be made on oath, and backed by full information as to why a warrant is necessary. We routinely ask the applicant to confirm that all relevant Codes of Practice (which cover such things as elderly young or infirm people who might be in the premises)will be followed. The companies have to have this power because gas and electricity are potentially dangerous fuels and they must be able to ensure safety. The grant of a warrant is a judicial decision, and we are careful not to rubber-stamp the applications, but to examine each one on its merits. We don't refuse many, but it does happen. It's a small and unglamorous part of the job, but it's an important protection to the householder or businessman's rights in his property as well as a safeguard to life and limb.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

My First Time

Today I imposed my first two Victim Surcharges. The first was on a derelict-looking forty-something man with borderline mental health difficulties, and he was before us having stolen a few pounds' worth of sweets from WH Smith's in the High Street. He had got away from the scene of the crime, but the police had searched him a couple of hours later as he drifted around the bus station, and found the stuff. He did not qualify for legal aid, and so he came up from the cells flanked by two custody officers to plead his own case. "What do you want to tell us?" I enquired. "Nothing, sir, I think I was just hungry. I had no money, you see". I had a whispered confab with my colleagues and I turned back to him. "Mr. McCarthy. You will pay a fine of £50, which we have reduced from £75 to reflect your plea of guilty. We are obliged to impose a victim surcharge of £15. We make no order as to costs because you are of no fixed abode and you only occasionally receive benefits. Because you have been in custody since yesterday afternoon (NFA means no bail) we deem the fine and surcharge to have been served. The officers will take you back downstairs and you will be released". And so it happened.
The second was a bleary red-faced alcoholic. We dealt with him in exactly the same way.
Technically, the surcharge was imposed in both cases, and the stats will show it as paid, because it was served. What a lot of nonsense, and what a waste of everyone's time.

Later:
I must hastily add, having read a few comments, that this wasn't a 'clever' way of getting round the surcharge - these are the disposals we would have used anyway, surcharge or no surcharge. When we are faced with people who have committed low-scale offences and who have, for whatever reason, spent time in custody it is standard practice to impose a fine and deem it served. Justice is done, in a rough old way, and it keeps the books straight.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Decent People Besieged

Not for the first time I have sat on a case in which shopkeepers, most of them Asian, seem to be living in a state close to siege. In the latest, a normal-looking parade of shops in an otherwise respectable suburb of London is beset by an amorphous group of locals, mostly but not exclusively young, who hang around doing nothing much apart from giggling, shuffling, and leering. These people routinely steal from the shops, intimidating and occasionally assaulting the owners. In evidence, the shopkeeper who had been assaulted said that assault contempt and abuse was just part of running the business, and that when people steal goods his only priority is to get them back. Often, a trader confronting a thief is surrounded by a jeering and threatening mob, and retreat to the store is the only safe option. There is an obvious racial subtext here, based on the loathing felt by the underclass for brown people who have the cheek to work hard in crap jobs in order to get on in life. This loathing does not prevent the oppressors from buying their cans of Tennents from the despised shopkeepers, and the fact that the shops take their cash serves in some way to reinforce an unjustified feeling of superiority to the 'Pakis'.
I am depressed by this, but I am angered more. These shopkeepers feel with some justification that nobody in authority is too bothered by their plight. The police attend when called, but where is the prevention? Where are the patrolling officers who will, by their presence, symbolise society's determination not to allow decent and hard working people to be treated like this? I feel ashamed of the system's failure to protect these people, and I feel humbled by the lack of bitterness they show after near-intolerable treatment.

Respectable


I unwrapped my monthly copy of 'Magistrate' magazine (the official organ of the Magistrates' Association) the other day, to find a piece about the explosion of online communities, in which this blog receives a sympathetic mention. There is also a link to here on the MA website. I have heard that we are sometimes recommended to new JPs, and I know that we are on a number of school and college reading lists. That's all very gratifying, but I can't help comparing my new acceptability with the suspicion that greeted my early efforts. I remember one particular meeting where a senior Courts' Service lawyer expressed his indignant fury at the anonymous Bystander, and called for urgent action to identify me, and haul me before the authorities, where I could be stripped of my epaulettes, or dealt with by bell, book, and candle, or whatever it is they do. I was sufficiently alarmed not to smile over the fact that he was ranting away unaware that he was within six feet of the object of his anger.
Still, that's all in the past. One thing though - just how respectable do I want to become?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Mirror, Mirror

A few weeks ago we had finished a trial, and we were asked to help out the remand court that was struggling with overnight custody cases, many of them involving lengthy bail applications. While our CPS prosecutor had a read through some files we dealt with a young man who had been arrested on a warrant for breaching his community order. The Probation prosecutor told us that the breaches of more or less all of the conditions of his order (and half-hearted compliance with the rest) meant that he was unsuitable for it, so would we please revoke the order and re-sentence him. She suggested tentatively that a curfew order might fit the bill. Our suspicions aroused, my colleagues and I asked for full details of the original offence, and we discovered that our man had been convicted of an unprovoked and drink-fuelled assault on a stranger late one night. Injuries were mercifully light, amounting to no more than a few bruises, but there were hints of racial motivation in the background. We firmly squashed any suggestion of a curfew, and informed our man that we were of a mind to impose a custodial sentence since he had shown himself unable or unwilling to comply with a community order. A further report was required and we arranged for it two days later; we remanded him in custody to be sure that it was done. I then lost touch with the case but it will have gone one of two ways:-either a major attitude adjustment once he shaped up to reality, with an increased community order, or a custodial, immediate or suspended. My money is on four months suspended, plus unpaid work plus supervision.
The next matter in was a CPS one, and we were required to sentence a rather unusual case about which I can't say too much for the usual reasons. This chap's solicitor addressed us on the lines of "I realise reports are inevitable, but I hope to persuade you not to send my client up to the Crown Court". After a quick heads-together with my colleagues I asked the solicitor to address us on other types of disposal: the penny dropped immediately, and her submissions convinced us that a hefty fine would be just as well as expedient. We took about £700 off him with costs (payable within 7 days) and I told him that his previous good character (he was 32) and early pleas had allowed us to drop down-tariff to a fine, but that the dishonesty-related conviction he now had would not improve his CV.
So we went well up-tariff on one, and well down-tariff on another. I think we were right in both cases, and that's how the system is supposed to work.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Inevitable

The magistrate who chaired a bench that refused to implement the new Victim Surcharge has resigned. He did so after a meeting with his Bench Chairman and Justices' Clerk.
Had he put his hands up and accepted his Chairman and Clerk's advice he might just have got away with it, but from what I read he is made of stern stuff and decided to fall on his sword.
Many of us are very unhappy with this new surcharge but it is the law and we must enforce it. I would love to know what the clerk in court said and did on the day. If we accept our clerk's advice we cannot be criticised, but we go against it at our peril.

Poignant

I went away for Easter, and Saturday found me wandering the concrete wasteland of a 1980s shopping centre, enjoying a bit of people-watching in the sunshine while Mrs. Bystander and our hostess went about the serious business of Shopping, which looks to my untutored eye like drifting around shops picking things from rails and putting them back again. Occasionally the two actions are separated by an interval during which the items are paid for, taken home and tried on before being taken back to the shop for a refund.
Anyway, I wandered by the local Woolworths, and my mind went back to my youth when Woolies meant an unlimited selection of small electrical accessories such as plugs, those old upright tills with a bell to summon the supervisor, and the forbidding injunction that "Money Must Be Registered Before Goods Are Wrapped" fixed to the front, and those 'Embassy' records that were cheap cover versions of current hits; the sort of thing that a clueless aunt might buy me for my birthday. Today's store seems to have expanded into computers and video-games in a half-hearted sort of way.
This took me back to a case that has stuck in my mind from more than a dozen years ago. A young woman came in to plead guilty to shoplifting from Woolworths in the High Street. She was simply dressed, wore no make-up, and could have been one of my daughter's friends. She had taken her toddler son to the shop in his buggy and tried some new shoes on him. She then tucked his old shoes behind him and went to push him out of the store wearing the new ones, pausing only to pay for a packet of sweets. Of course she was stopped and the police were called. In court she said that she was sorry, and that she had never been in trouble before. The father of her little boy had vanished before the birth, and she was struggling to get by. Then came the bit that hit home to me:- "I was looking around the children's things, and all the clothes looked so nice that I just wanted my baby to have something new". To a comfortably-off magistrate living in a consumption-obsessed society it was humbling to be reminded that there are people out there whose aspiration is a new Woolworths outfit for their little boy.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Bum Steer

The tracker on the blog sidebar lets me see how some of you found us, and I had a glance at it just now. Somebody searched AOL for 'Ealing Broadway Escorts Female' and got this blog as the second selection out of 695. I do hope he wasn't too disappointed.
Funny things, search engines. Search Google for 'Dodgy Magistrate' and four of the top five returns refer to yours truly.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Patience Wears Thin

The Guardian reports on a worrying development. In common with many magistrates, and a lot of judges too, the JPs concerned are exasperated beyond endurance by the latest interference with their discretion and have refused to implement the nonsensical, illogical, and unjust Victim Surcharge (of which, be it noted, not a penny will go directly to victims). This surcharge was opposed by everyone who knew anything about the courts when first proposed, but the legislation was slipped through as an afterthought clause in a portmanteau Act, and was brought into law a few days ago, two days before coming into force, and following a hasty redraft of the Statutory Instrument.
Nevertheless it is the law, and cool heads are called for. Magistrates should follow the guidance of their legal advisers as to the law, but that does not detract from their duty to keep impositions within the defendant's ability to pay. The guidance issued at the end of last week by the Justices' Clerks' Society, and the Magistrates' Association (which reads as if it was dictated through clenched teeth)confirms that there is still wide discretion available to benches. With good sense and a weather eye on the Ways and Means Act, we can avoid injustice without going beyond our duty to apply the law.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Major Crime Update

Whenever I come across a major crime that has been either averted or brought to justice by an imaginative or leading-edge piece of legislation I shall try to tell you about it.
Here's the first:-
CHESIL BEACH The Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan yesterday replaced pebbles he took from a protected beach, after being threatened with a £2,000 fine. Mr McEwan, oblivious to by-laws, grabbed a handful of shingle from Chesil Beach in Dorset during research for his latest book, On Chesil Beach. Mr McEwan “confessed” on Start The Week on Radio 4, and was asked to return the stones by Weymouth and Portland Borough Council.

Latest! Read All About It!

According to Sky News:-
New powers for police and trading standards officers mean licensees can be fined up to £10,000 if they are caught selling alcohol to underage children three times in a three-month period.
They can also have their their licence suspended for up to three months.

I can confidently predict that not a single licensee will fall foul of this in the next twelve months.
The key words are 'if they are caught' and 'three times'.
There are a few greedy lazy or irresponsible people who sell drink to underage kids (rather than to their mates that is) but just how many are there who will get caught at monthly intervals?

A Sad State of Affairs

Last weekend I was sitting at my keyboard, a glass of refreshing antipodean Shiraz to hand, when it occurred to me that my sophisticated international readership might be amused by something in the nature of an April Fool's prank. What, I mused, might serve to deceive such educated and worldly-wise folk, and then to provide a little amusement as my ploy revealed itself?
Depressingly, I realised that after ten years of remorseless government tinkering with the criminal justice system so much that is absurd confronts us every day that we would be unlikely to spot a joke if we saw one. Loudspeakers on lampposts to rebuke the citzenry for some real or potential misbehaviour, while tens of thousands of trained police officers skulk ineffectively behind the secure walls of the police station, preparing for their latest community outreach conference or another diversity training day? I would have laughed that off a few years ago. National and local government functionaries imposing penalties on people who have no resort to the protection of a proper impartial court? Penalties, penalties, penalties. Sixty quid to jump a traffic light, eighty quid for getting gobby with a copper, another sixty for putting rubbish in the wrong bin (not no bin, just the wrong one). Be nice to your dog, or gerbil, or we will lock you up for two years. There, that will solve the problem.
If someone had spent the last ten years in a coma, he would wake up and think that it must be April Fool's Day - to be faced with the awful truth that it was all for real.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Star is Born

This report is about charges arising from the awful death of a little girl at the New Year, when she was savaged to death by a dog. Like most people, I found the original reports really upsetting, especially as I have two granddaughters of my own.
What you will see from the report is that the CPS prosecutor is now taking ownership of the case as far as the media are concerned, and there is quite a lot of the first person singular when he refers to decisions taken.
CPS has a new policy of becoming visible to the media, and you can expect to see hitherto-anonymous CPS types sitting up there in the glare of the TV lights when some newsworthy case gets to the time of charge.
My only worry (and if I didn't believe in the criminal justice system explaining itself this blog would not exist) is that the media spotlight tends to corrupt everything that it shines on, and the last thing we need is celebrity prosecutors.
We must never lose sight of the need to bring the jury to the case with fresh minds unbiased by speculation and rumour. I am not, to be honest, optimistic about this development.

Later:
Here's what I meant :-
At a press conference Paul Whittaker, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Merseyside, said that the tragic case highlighted the "very real dangers these dogs present".

The announcement follows a long and deliberate assessment by prosecutors. In order to win a conviction for gross negligence manslaughter they need to prove that Mrs Simpson breached a duty of care towards her grandchild and that the breach caused her death.

The jury will be asked finally to consider whether that breach constituted a gross negligence.

Colin Davies, head of Merseyside's organised and complex crime section, and effectively the leading lawyer involved in the case, said he had been briefed at an early stage by the police. He said: "We have been working with officers from Merseyside Police on a number of preliminary legal issues both before and after the interviews of Kiel Simpson and Jackie Simpson.

"As this case has developed we have been carefully examining and assessing the evidence in order to come to a charging decision at the earliest posible opportunity.

"Having carefully considered all the material supplied by Merseyside Police, I made the decision that there was sufficient evidence and authorised that Kiel Simpson should be charged with the possession of a dangerous dog, namely a pit bull terrier, and Jackie Simpson with the manslaughter of Ellie Lawrenson and possession of a controlled drig, diamorphine.

"We will continue to keep this case under constant review as it develops".

Sunday, April 01, 2007

House Full

This weekend the prisons really are full, with several hundred people detained in police cells, and a handful in Magistrates' Court cells, which are even less suitable for the purpose than the police ones, being furnished with bare wooden benches, and having no toilet facilities, the latter meaning that the security officers have to unlock and escort the prisoner every time that he needs to relieve himself. Since they are on overtime, I don't suppose that the officers mind too much though.
If my colleagues and I had made different bail decisions on Friday the figures could have been higher by two or lower by one, depending which way we had gone. We were a seasoned bench with over sixty years' experience between us, and we made three bail decisions in the afternoon. The first was a man of about forty, a regular customer, who had breached his community order last Autumn and hadn't been seen since. He has mental health issues as well as drink and drug habits, and is a serial, if incompetent, shoplifter. We were asked to remand him in custody and to order fresh pre-sentence reports. One colleague wanted to lock him up on the justifiable basis that he had shown himself unwilling to obey a court order, but the final decision was to bail him with a tag to keep him indoors for twelve hours a day. The second was a desperate-looking woman who had failed to turn up for her Probation interview for a pre-sentence report, and whose lifestyle was predictably chaotic. We re-bailed her for three weeks. The third was a man, on bail for a domestic violence offence, who had breached his bail conditions not to go to the road in which the victim, his ex-partner, lives, and not to contact her in any way. He had turned up hammering on her door and shouting incoherently, his diction being impaired by the alcohol and cocaine that he had taken. His solicitor made a plea for us to bail him again, saying that it was only the drink and drugs that had made him break the order, and that he hadn't actually gone inside the house. That did not impress us one bit, and we felt that our priority was to protect the victim, so we remanded him to the Scrubs. For low-level offending where there is no real risk to the public it makes sense to bail people wherever possible, but where violence, either real or potential, is involved the only proper course is a remand in custody, irrespective of the state of the prisons.