Monday, April 30, 2012

D'Oh!

This character has come to grief in a rather unusual way. Shocking as his crime was (keep a straight face, now!) his sentence should perhaps be increased for the sheer stupidity of the offence. I am used to sitting in magistrates' courts and also in the Crown Court and it is usually easy to see what is on the clerk's screen (I should say that the Crown Court clerk is a different animal from the JPs' legal adviser as he or she is not a qualified lawyer).
If looking at internet smut is your thing, then it is your thing. Just don't watch it while a Circuit Judge is looking over your shoulder, and while the public are paying your wages.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Yet More Unintended Consequences

I have blogged before about the Law of Unintended Consequences, an iron law with which Home Secretaries over the years have become very familiar.
It is the nature of the Civil Service, as we devotees of Sir Humphrey well know, that every Department has its pet schemes that are stifled by Ministers who smell political trouble, and that these schemes re-emerge every time that Ministers change. One such is the plan to have courts sit for different hours than the customary ten-till-five Monday to Friday. You can see the attraction - better use of expensive real-estate and potentially swifter judgments. The Blair sofa produced the ill-fated and costly experiment with night courts. A long while ago we ran courts in the early evening and on Saturday mornings to deal with volume business such as traffic cases, although the explosion in the use of fixed penalty tickets more or less removed the need, and the experiment fizzled out. Following the recent changes to the courts (Magistrates' Courts handle about 95% of the business) amalgamations and court closures have finally put paid to any idea of local justice, with long distances having to be travelled by all court users as well as judiciary and staff. It's bad enough in London, where distances are not vast but traffic can be really heavy;  out in the sticks, areas such as Wales have few courts, spaced far apart, linked by clogged rural roads. Get yourself nicked in Cornwall, and it's Bodmin or Truro for you, as well as for witnesses, clerks, CPS, probation, and defence lawyers and the rest.
The latest wheeze is to sit courts in Wales from 9 am to 1 pm, then with a different bench from 2 pm to 6 pm. The magistrates will have each four-hour slot counted as two half-day sittings, presumably to allow for travel time, so the minimum 26 half-days' sittings could be achieved by sitting for four hours 13 times a year- they won't get a lot of experience or build up much competence in that time.

The LoUC then kicks in with little problems such as:-
  • Two benches will double mileage and subsistence costs for all court users. 
  • Not every case fits into a four-hour slot
  • Legal advisers and court staff work a fixed week of (I think) 37 hours; there are too few of them to cover the new hours and no cash for any more.
  • Prisons, probation and other agencies work to tight time slots. If their Worships in the Llareggub Magistrates' Court send someone down at ten to six in the afternoon, the contractors are unlikely to get him to the nearest prison in time to avoid the evening lock-out.   
The MoJ is already starting to face the cost of all the travelling around required by the new system. I suspect that there will be second thoughts shortly about how much travel is unavoidably necessary.

Later: Here's an  interesting piece .

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ante Upped

Trenton Oldfield, the Boat Race man, appeared in court this morning. Someone has obviously had another look at the charge he faced (Section5 Public Order Act) and decided that a fine-only offence wouldn't fit the bill; it was bound to lead to widespread tabloid indignation . He is therefore off to the the Crown Court at Isleworth, whether for trial or sentence I do not yet know.
I hope that they can find a judge who didn't go to Oxford or Cambridge.

Later:-  Here is a link to CPS advice on common-law Public Nuisance. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Moving On

I have just looked at my weekly email from the MoJ, and turned immediately, as I usually do, to the judicial appointments and retirements section (I hasten to add that mere JPs are beneath the notice of this bulletin).
Two names stood out: firstly DJ(MC) Cooper, who is better known as 'Custody Cooper'  (this blog post  explains where the sobriquet came from) and secondly, Justin Phillips, a well known youth specialist from the old West London court (now called Hammersmith). I have heard DJ Phillips speak on occasion, and he is an entertaining chap, being, I suspect, rather proud of the fact that he is seen as a 'character'. He engaged personally with young offenders and might conduct a review of a community sentence or a drug programme in his own  room, dressed informally, to show that he was dealing with an individual rather than a paper exercise.
The courts will be the duller for the passing of these two judges, but I do have mixed feelings about members of the District Bench who make idiosyncratic decisions that are out of line with their lay colleagues, constrained as they are by omnipresent guidelines.
Whichever approach is the right one, it ought not to matter to the defendant whether he is dealt with by a DJ or by JPs.

What Are They Supposed To Do Then?

I mentioned the other day that lawyers increasingly need the use of a laptop in court to deal with electronic CPS files, and that not all court administrators are as helpful as they might be in allowing users to keep the battery charged. I went to a meeting at one of the courthouses in our merged bench this week and sat in the well of the court, from which I could see a notice on HMCTS paper taped to the front of the bench forbidding the plugging-in of laptops in the courtroom because the cables might represent a trip hazard.
Making our courts run smoothly should be a team effort between judiciary, court staff, prosecutors, defence, and the rest. This kind of thing doesn't help.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Not Everyone Can Take A Hint

When I chair a court, I try to nudge things along, within the constraints of the law and its procedures. One of my favourite lines is, having read a pre-sentence report that includes an obviously sensible recommendation as to sentence; "Ms Smith; unless you seek to persuade us otherwise we are minded to accept the recommendation in the report". Nine times out of ten the advocate will smile and thank me. Sadly, a few cannot see a helping hand when it is extended to them, Today, during a not-too-serious bit of business, the prosecutor launched into what promised to be an exhaustive, if not exhausting, history of the case. I interrupted her in my best kindly-old-beak manner, and said "Do feel free to summarise, as this turns on a simple issue that we can easily decide upon". She acknowledged me, but ploughed on regardless and I had to stop her again to say that none of the facts that we were hearing could possibly affect our decision on the key point. She sat down and the defence brief, after thanking me for my intervention, started into another entirely superfluous recitation of facts.

One of my colleagues whispered "Are these people paid by the yard?"

No they are not, but they do it anyway.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Ominous Start

I have previously mentioned the CPS grand plan to use electronic files 'as far as the door of the court' . Now I am no mindless cynic, and I like to give new ideas a chance to work, but this is, after all, a government IT system, a phrase that strikes fear and trepidation into a taxpayer's heart.

Today, in one case,  the prosecutor not only lacked any kind of a file but also lacked any idea of where it might be, since the system either had no document trail or alternatively had no users with any idea how to find it.

I made the customary remarks deploring delay, but in the interests of justice we decided to grant just seven days' adjournment, with a warning endorsed on the court file that on the next occasion the case should either go ahead or be binned..

Fingers crossed.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Welcome News

There is good news for magistrates in a letter that has been released over the signatures of the Senior Presiding Judge, the Chairmen of the MA and the Bench Chairmen's Forum, and Shaun McNally of HMCTS. The review of magistrates' out of pocket expenses has concluded and rates are to be left as they are. Although there are some particular problems that Bench Chairmen will have to sort out, the average claimed by JPs is only about £13 per week, which seems reasonable to me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Farewell to a Gentleman

I went a couple of weeks ago to the funeral of a former colleague, John. I was surprised to hear that he had died, because he was a familiar sight in our court until early this year, having, typically, worked as a volunteer with Witness Support following his retirement from the Bench at the set age of 70.
As so often happens, I discovered during the service just how wide was his circle of friends, and  how diverse were his activities in the community.

He was quite frankly one of the nicest men I have ever met. Quiet of speech and manner, he was always ready to take on any task that was put before him, and he joined my bench a few years after I did. He never commented on his luck when he drew the short straw of  a day dealing with TV licences, nor was he awed by the odd heavyweight case that came our way. At our occasional social evenings he was a tireless and cheerful barman, who just seemed to become part of the furniture.

I had the awkward task of telling him, many years ago, that he had failed to be selected as a court chairman and I decided to adopt the directest and safest course of telling the truth. I had appraised his performance from the well of the court, and while his understanding of the law and procedure was fine, his manner was hopeless. He reminded me of John Le Mesurier in 'Dad's Army' in the way that he wouldn't give an order, but rather make a kindly suggestion that the defendant might care to take a certain course of action.  I told him that his competence was undoubted, but that he was, as I put it, 'just too nice'.

To my relief he readily agreed, and the question of his taking the chair was discreetly shelved.

I shall miss him.


Saturday, April 07, 2012

Smug Git


I haven't heard whether the smugly grinning fun-revolutionary who was arrested for wrecking the Boat Race has been charged with an offence. On the face of it, a Public Order Act Section 4 might be a runner (he has  cheerfully admitted planning and the intention of causing harassment alarm and distress). If he is a first offender he might be a candidate for a caution, but we shall see. If not, a fine or community order beckons, with prison as an unlikely possibility.  (Update: It's a Section 5, so fine or discharge only).
He is yet another in the tiresome succession of privileged people (Charlie Gilmour, any number of Redgraves, Tariq Ali and a thousand more) who decide to indulge themselves by buggering innocent people about in the interests of their gesture politics. The Guardian   reproduces some of his self-indulgent self-congratulatory ramblings so he has achieved what he set out to do. On the way to his aim of pissing off the '√©lite' that he so despises, despite being part of it, he has also broken the hearts of the Oxford crew and taken the shine off Cambridge's win. 

This summer London will be host to the over-hyped circus of the Olympics. Police and organisers must be quaking in their boots at the potential for disruption not just by  terrorists, but by old-fashioned fruitcakes.
(Another Update: The Telegraph quotes our man as being prepared to go to jail. If the charge remains as S5 POA, he can't because it is Level 3 fine maximum)

Friday, April 06, 2012

Comment Is Free But Facts Are Flexible

I have often complained about the Mail's deliberate distortion of news relating to courts and the law. Suppressio veri, suggestio falsi is probably emblazoned on the newsroom wall - if not it is certainly embedded in the mind of many Mail staffers.
Today the paper features a piece demonising Karen Matthews who has been released at the usual halfway point in her prison sentence,  the headline using CAPITALS for the word 'half'.

Any prison term is preceded by the word 'just' and if it isn't a prison sentence the phrase 'walked free from court' is bound to feature.

The brightest and best young graduates are hired by Fleet Street, and are then trained in the ignoble art of deliberate distortion. It isn't a very honourable way to earn a living.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Eat Your Heart Out

Those of us who toil in shabby and ancient courthouses with peeling paint, fading decor, dodgy heating, unreliable or non existent air con, rickety furniture and stained floor coverings will be delighted to read this press release from the MoJ.

Congratulations to the lucky JPs and, no doubt, DJs who will adjudicate in newly built splendour.

I bet the buggers even get biscuits as well.