Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Run Out Of Luck

A man accused of domestic violence comes up into the secure dock - the one with the armoured glass. As the basic formalities take place, I wonder where I have seen him before. Then it clicks; he was in the same seat three weeks ago charged with aggressive and threatening behaviour towards a bus conductor, whom he addressed as a 'Paki cunt'.
He is a solidly built man, with the lowering eyebrows that he has in common with his numerous cousins. On this occasion he has allegedly assaulted his wife. Any magistrate will recognise the weary familiarity of the Crown's case summary. This is the twenty-somethingth time that the police have been called to the home that he shares with his wife and children, but on every single occasion she has withdrawn her complaint, as she is doing now. But enough is enough, and the CPS are going ahead with what they have got, and apply for a witness summons for the wife, together with Special Measures (such as screens) to minimise her stress in court.
We carefully consider his bail application, but we cannot avoid the conclusion that he can't be trusted not to intimidate his wife or reoffend against someone else, so I tell him that we are refusing bail until the trial (he has of course gone not-guilty). I am half expecting a reaction, but instead he sits in the dock snivelling like a child. I tell the usher to pass some tissues into the dock before we dismiss our man downstairs.
As he shuffles off to the steel staircase, one of my colleagues whispers "not so tough now, is he?"

Meaty Subject

For the last month or so we have been receiving an increasing flow of automated comments on the blog, written in strangely stilted English, and attempting to point us to sites advertising all kinds of rubbish. We have already had to introduce pre-moderation of comments, but having to check the blog constantly and then delete up to a couple of dozen fake posts takes too much time, and that means that some kind of verification is going to be needed. That will inconvenience all genuine commenters, but that is, I am afraid, the way of the online world.  Sorry.

Sunday, March 24, 2013


This post from Bystander N

An interesting snippet from the recent Law Commission consultation on contempt of court. One of the points, admittedly the very last one and the only one to use the word magistrate is:-

“If anything, the disparity serves to illustrate that the maximum sentence available to the Magistrates’ is too low, and particularly if Section 12(1)(a) of the Magistrates’ Court Act were amended to include threats”.  A senior member of the judiciary is actually suggesting we have too little sentencing power!

I have never been on a bench that has held anyone in contempt, not just because in fact it happens quite rarely, but also because sadly in, these days of courts with no ushers, security staff who do little more than operate a metal detector at the court entrance, and few if any police around, it is very difficult in practice.  Picture this:-

“The gentleman, or lady, in the public gallery.  I have warned you before about your offensive language and what it might lead to, and we now hold you in contempt of court.  Will you please be so kind as to sit down for a while whilst we try to rustle up someone who can come up and take you to the cells for us?  Hang on a minute.  I see it’s 13.05.  Very sorry but security has just started its lunch break.  Would you mind awfully hanging around until after 14.00 and they can do it then?”

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

More Budget Thoughts

It is perfectly clear from today's budget that the already pared-down criminal justice system is in for further financial trimming. The sheer numbers are too much for me to comprehend, but I have some understanding of how public sector cuts are applied. My working life was spent running small-to-medium businesses, and it was a real eye-opener to me when I became involved as a bench officer in the minutiae of running a court or a group of courts. By far the greatest part of justice system costs is for people, but when the axe has to fall the Civil Service's rules make for a clumsy and protracted process. Thus, the group of courts within which I work has still not finalised its staffing, fifteen months after the merger.

There is still some residual resistance to change among magistrates, although the message that there is no way back is beginning to sink in, even to the diehards who would like to turn the clock back. The bush telegraph tells me that further closures of courtrooms and courthouses are a certainty, and that  the workload will be allowed and encouraged to trickle downwards, allowing for further economies.

Nothing is sacred, nothing is truly ring fenced. At this rate I fear for the future supply of biscuits; if they go, we are all in trouble.

Oh The Excitement!

As I sat down to have a look at the contents of the budget this evening, one thing caught my eye above all:-a whole penny a pint is to come off the price of beer, and one paper says that the average price of a pint is what it calls the 'eye watering' amount of £3.10.

Now just a minute: in my local, and elsewhere in the Thames Valley a pint of bitter is around £3.70 and most lagers are £4.10. What is the chance of my landlord knocking off that penny, as the Chancellor says he must? When he puts the beer up (a depressingly frequent occurrence) it is usually by 10 or 20 pence. So while we shall have a bit of fun winding up the landlord, I hold out no great hopes of getting an extra penny change. The penny coin is anyway quite useless and most of us put anything less than a 10p coin into the collecting box.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Utterly Predictable

Bang on cue, today's 'Sun'  has weighed in with a story about Vicky Price  being swiftly moved to a 'soft' prison, with the clear inference that she is getting special treatment. As I wrote the other day, it is standard procedure to move low-risk short-sentence prisoners out of the crammed London prisons as soon as practicable, because of the demand on their accommodation. When she and Huhne come out on tag or on half-time release, watch out for reports that they have been released having served 'just' half (or whatever) of their sentence as if that does not apply to everyone.
This is a typical piece of suppressio veri suggestio falsi straight out of the Sun's style book. In the event that any of the people involved in the hacking and other scandals end up inside,it will be interesting to see the paper's take on their treatment.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bunkum

The Inspector Gadget Blog seems to have been taken down. Since everything that has ever gone on to the Interweb still sits on a disk somewhere, it will still exist, albeit without contributions from IG himself.

I did not always see eye to eye with IG, and I was disappointed when he tossed around casual insults to the judiciary and showed open loathing for some of his charmless customers. I would expect that from the canteen culture, but not from an Inspector.

I have a ranking officer in my family, and I cannot see him coming out with some of the intemperate remarks that IG has blessed us with. Still, let us see what turns out.

In this authoritarian world, I would not be in the least bit surprised to hear that the officer has been leant on. That happened to JP bloggers last year, but being unpaid we had a lot less to lose than IG.

La Commedia è Finita!

Unsurprisingly I have been asked about l'affaire Huhne by a lot of friends and acquaintances in recent weeks, but I decided to leave any more blog comment until the cases reached their conclusion.
I suspected, right up to Huhne's surprise plea, that some procedural matter might prove fatal to the prosecution, and my suspicions were reinforced when a number of gagging orders were imposed, but I was wrong. When Huhne and his counsel realised that the game was up, a late plea was the obvious way to go.

I have blogged previously about the lengths people are prepared to go to in order to escape a driving ban. Huhne is by no means the first  to come to grief in this way, so when it came to the potential sentence I saw the likely outcome as a starting point of 12 to 18 months based on earlier cases. Despite some excitable press comment pointing out the potential life sentence His Lordship's sentences fell comfortably within the guidelines that bind him as tightly as they do a humble JP.

So what do the prison sentences mean in reality? Eight months become four after automatic release. For relatively low-level and non-violent offenders like these two, a release on tag is likely after no more than a couple of months. The prison authorities will have been assessing their new charges and are likely to get them out of secure  (and expensive) central London prisons into open (and cheaper) alternatives as soon as they can.  Prison staff like a quiet life as much as any of us, and high profile inmates can require a disproportionate level of management, so shipping them out is a tempting option.

The truly nasty bit is likely to be the early days, when the loss of autonomy and the harsh surroundings would intimidate anyone. I have been taken through the induction process at Brixton and Wandsworth and these are calculated to make sure that you understand just who is in charge. First-night receptions are given special attention, as that is when self-harm can occur with unstable inmates. An experienced old officer once told me that even the cocky young heroes who like to have a bit of a swagger usually cry after lights out, and want their mum.

What will the sentences achieve? In terms of Huhne and Pryce, nothing at all. They do not need any of the treatment that the prisons can offer, so it is a case of sit it out until  HDC (Home Detention Curfew) day. For society it is just a waste of resources; except for the fact that these highly publicised cases might just deter others from emulating them. And that, in the last analysis, is why prison was inevitable.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Taking The Rough With The Smooth

Some days in court can be non-stop, with a constant stream of defendants coming before us for decisions on bail, mode of trial, sentencing and the rest. There might be a trial, perhaps a short one-hour job, or a two or three day case. All are interesting and potentially challenging in their own way, but just occasionally the daily list offers only tedium.  Non-CPS work such as unpaid council tax, bus fares, fishing licences can be formulaic and repetitive, especially as the overwhelming majority of defendants do not turn up. The only challenge used to be finding a realistic fine for someone with next to no money. Nowadays, we just look up a printed matrix that often gives an excessive and unfair result on to which we add the new and inflexible surcharge. Not many of us like that.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

One of the team went to Brighton and snapped this cosy looking café. Must drop in for a cup of tea, or whatever they drink in that rainbow town these days.