My first sitting as a Magistrate was sometime last week. I don't apologise for the delay in blogging it, because a knee-jerk “twitter”-style response the minute I had left the building would have been less than satisfactory. I'd also like not to be too specific about what day it was to protect the innocent and guilty alike.
In fact, if I had commented immediately, it's likely that it wouldn't have made an ounce of sense – just ask Mrs Stan who had to sit through an hour or so of my giddy ramblings that afternoon before I calmed down.
I was nervous beforehand. You could tell from the way I forgot to take my car keys out of the ignition before I walked with dignity through the Magistrates-only door and had to come running back out with absolutely no dignity at all before the car doors self-locked and left me stranded in the carpark.
My mentor was there early so that we could chat before the chairman arrived. Nothing I hadn't heard before, but it was reassuring to be reminded of what we were going to do. I had also observed four sessions from the other side of the bench and had received three days of training. All I physically had to do was sit, look involved and not let the door slam on the chairman on the way to the retiring room. Mentally, of course, it was rather more complicated than that.
Based on absolutely no evidence, I had assumed that it would be a few months, even years before anything I did or said would make a big difference. I was certain that the other two more experienced hands would be in almost total agreement and my role as newbie would be to round-up or round-down the sentence.
This unsafe assumption survived until our second case of the day.
The accused had allegedly done some violent and objectionable things to his girlfriend – way too violent and objectionable to be handled by mere Magistrates, and so his case was passing through on its way to the Crown Court. The question at hand was whether he'd spend the next two months waiting at his mum's place in the next county with lots of banning orders and curfews or whether he'd be a guest at one of Her Majesty's overcrowded and expensive remand prisons.
My mentor voted for the non-custodial remand and I nearly choked on my bourbon biscuit, because it seemed as clear as could be from the accused's “previous” that there was no way he could be trusted to comply. The chairman disagreed also, and when it came to it, the accused didn't seem at all surprised when he was led back to the prison van he had arrived in that morning.
We all disagreed on very little for the rest of the morning and justice was dispensed efficiently. I felt myself relax and even lean back a little in the chair. Just how far forward had I been leaning at the start? I dread to think.
There was a real mix of caseload – a couple of administrative motoring issues, but also one case we ruled to be so serious that it should go to the Crown Court. That defendant got unconditional bail : just to prove that I haven't become a “Daily Mail”-reading “bang 'em up” enthusiast overnight.
We ran out of baddies at lunchtime and so I had time for a decent post-match analysis with my mentor, who bore no ill-will at all about my disagreement with him on the remand case. He even fixed it for me to get a quick tour of the cells before I met up with Mrs Stan to talk absolute nonsense and eat too much. Although some would say that is pretty typical behaviour for me.
So : what did I make of my first session.
In a word “overwhelming”. The questions you are faced with are impossible and your capacity for messing up people's lives is frightening. For example, if you ban a HGV driver from driving, they lose their job and sometimes their house, their family and often their mental health. However, if you don't ban them, next time they might go on to kill someone when they take liberties.
Equally, as in our remand case, you need to balance the protection of the public with the rights of the individual. This is a difficult and deep enough subject for a PhD dissertation, but as a Magistrate you get a few minutes to come to a decision.
But it's the very fact that it's difficult that attracts me. Think you've got a brain because you do cryptic crosswords and Sudoku in your head ? Ha! Try some real problems and then I'll listen to you.
But that's just a side-issue. Barrack Obama is today taking on the biggest set of problems anyone in history has ever faced. Anyone think he's doing it for the intellectual challenge? No, he's doing it because he cares, because he feels capable and because he'd never forgive himself if he just left it to “someone else”.
But I'm no Barrack Obama – for starters, do you think he'll be so nervous he forgets his car keys on his first day on the job ?