Monday, August 31, 2009


They talk about "once in a generation minds", but there are actually few generations lucky enough to see a mind like Alan Turing's. Unfortunately Society's response to his homosexuality was to impose a deadly "cure" and to cut him out.

In the 1950's, his gayness totally eclipsed his accomplishments as it had with Oscar Wilde in the 1890's. Couldn't happen today, right ?

There's a petition on the government's website asking for an apology for the way he was treated. I signed it, not because it would actually help Mr Turing (it won't - he's dead), but because it's a timely warning that we need to cherish all our brilliant minds, irrespective of what they choose to do to get through the night.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Referee's Mistaken

I don't enjoy shouting at football referees as much as I used to before I became a Magistrate. We have too much in common :-

* We do an essential job that is under-valued
* We have to make complex decisions based on little information too quickly
* Everyone thinks they can do the job much better than we can

That said, I did add my my voice to the 20,000 or so Bolton fans to argue with Mr. Wiley whose shocking decision-making cost Bolton the game against Liverpool. On the plus side, it was a remarkable game of football, and Steven Gerrard's winner was an absolute belter.

I also had a bad day on the job recently, and there was one particular case which I was glad wasn't played out in a stadium.

It concerned a man that I can only describe as "a local gangster". Hardly any earnings reported on his means form, but dressed head to toe in designer gear. He walked into court holding hands with his girlfriend, who looked like a model and dressed like one too. Not cheap to run one of those I imagine.

He and some "colleagues" had been out drinking champagne in a local bar. One of them decided to do something really stupid. He went up to the bar and asked them to make "the gayest drink possible". Lots of fruit, little umbrellas, pink glass and a little pink straw. Then he brought it over to our gangster with a big stupid smile on his face.

When the dust had settled, many things had been tipped over, a face had sustained some aesthetic damage - all before Mr Corleone remembered that he was on a suspended sentence for another matter.

I don't want to go into the exact details, but every single person involved in the sentencing decision had a disaster, including this inexperienced winger. The chairman committed us to a decision early, probation took an early lunch break, and the legal advisor neglected to give us the full facts about his previous and the options available to us.

Looking back on it though, justice still ended up being done. Maybe he got a slightly lighter slap than he deserved, but it wasn't a complete disaster.

Although that's where the parallel with the Bolton vs Liverpool game breaks down - Bolton actually deserved to win, and they didn't. Thank you, Mr Wiley.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pour marcher sur un nuage

"Man on Wire" won this year's Oscar for best documentary film and I've only just gotten around to watching it.

It's the story of a French tightrope-dancer (not a mere walker) who limbered up on a wire over Notre Dame de Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge before taking on the newly-built New York Twin Towers in 1973.

It's a pretty cool stunt but the real story is the way his monomania sucked in a circle of friends to make this impossible dream happen. I won't spoil the plot, but there have been wars fought with less preparation and planning than went into this caper.

A highlight for me was the way he described the first step onto the wire - the moment when he shifted his weight from one foot anchored on a building to one on a swinging, dipping, twisting wire over a quarter mile column of air.

Why would anyone do that ?

Like Louis Armstrong said :

"If you have to ask, you'll never know."

Or as he put it :

"I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a 'why?' - and the beauty of it is that I don't have a 'why.'"

The very best Art forces you to change your ideas about what is possible, and by that standard this is great art indeed. A man walking on clouds certainly doesn't need a "Why?".

Speaking of great art, the soundtrack is amazing - Michael Nyman's greatest minimalist hits, including the jaw-droppingly awesome "Memorial". Also his equivalent from the century before - Satie's Gymnopédie and Gnossienne. And Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross" and "A Fifth of Beethoven" as a nod to the era of the stunt and just for laughs.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Out of Court

From "The Guardian"


Magistrates object to on-the-spot driving fines plan

Concern that fixed-penalty fines will make police 'jury and sentencer'


This is the Magistrate Association objecting to a plan to allow police to deal with minor careless driving offences with an on-the-spot fine and three points on the licence.

As I've mentioned before, a lot of the Magistrates Association's output makes me cringe. This is no exception.

If being "jury and sentencer" is a crime, then all magistrates are guilty. We establish guilt and we hand down the sentence and no-one seriously thinks that's an issue when we do it.

And anyway, the police aren't sentencing - they are handing out a fixed penalty notice that the recipient can refuse to accept if they wish to have their day in court.

Personally, I can't see what's wrong with the plan. Traffic offences (with a guilty plea) at the lower end are in any case a question of doing the sums from the guidelines, multiplying by the offender's fictional wage from the means form and swiping the offender's plastic.

I really can't put my finger on what value a court case would add.

And I can definitely see the costs.

This plan would :-

* Speed up the application of justice

* Cut financial costs

* Take pressure off the overloaded CPS

* Avoid dragging police off duty to attend court

I'm a Magistrate because I care about the criminal justice system. If I need to lose some of my "turf" to make it better, then I'm not going to whine.

The way I see it, we should be working with the police rather than seeing them as Competition and guarding our powers out of blind jealousy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kick Off

Finally - the football season is under way. Even watching your team capitulate in the rain in the opening game doesn't dampen that good feeling.

All summer long - these so-called sports, these mere pastimes : cricket, tennis, rugby. I ended up pretending to know nothing at all about them in order to stop people trying to discuss them with me.
"Hey, Stan - first Ashes test today !"
"Oh is it ? What teams are playing ?"

"Hey Stan, do you think Murray's going to win"
"Nah - guy can't take a punch. Probably lose by a knockout in Round 8"
There is only one sport - don't even try talking to me about any other. The best contest in any other half-sport is inferior to any football game. Not just any Premiership game - it's inferior to any soccer game, whether played by amateurs, women, children, in wheelchairs, five a side, on a beach or on top of a mountain.

I can't describe just how much better I'm feeling - football is here and this season will run into a World Cup summer, so basically we're at the start of around 20 months of non-stop football.

Life is good - and once Bolton work out how to get to the ball to a striker once in a while, it will get even better.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Florida man blames cat for illegal downloads

I just thought this was a marvellous example of the application of "beyond reasonable doubt" in criminal trials.

Sure, the cat might have done it - but 1000 images ?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Corfu Curfew

Many would see me as a card-carrying member of the Liberal Elite - a Guardian-reading muesli-munching do-gooder.

And most of the time you would be 100% correct.

However, there are occasions when events in court turn me into "Angry of Tunbridge Wells".

Like the case of the woman who missed going to jail by a whisker and ended up with an all-you-can-eat buffet of punishments, one of which was a curfew.

"Curfew ? Like with a tag ?" she said, when she should have been leaving the court backwards expressing her gratitude to us for not banging her up.

"Yes. With a tag." the chairman explained "That's how we know that you are actually at home when you're supposed to be".

In reply she started waving a plastic folder and making crazy eyes at her brief, who suddenly remembered something and stood up.

"Your Worships, I apologise. I should have said something before, but my client has booked a foreign holiday in two weeks time and respectfully asks that the curfew requirement be suspended for the week they are away and for the week to be added to the end of the sentence."

That's the point where my inner Tabloid Editorialist woke up.

"How dare you ! You want to slouch off to Greece for some Sun, Sea and Sex while your victim is barely out of hospital ! You make me sick ! You should thank your lucky stars you're not in prison - and the loss of your holiday should be a blooming lesson to you."

But of course that's not what's happening. The day before the flight, the electronic tag comes off so she can go to the airport without setting off all sorts of alarms. Then she can lie on the beach and not come back with a tag-shaped white splodge on her ankle spoiling her all-over tan.

I guess it was within our powers to insist, but I suspect very rarely do Magistrates object. If we were jailing her, we wouldn't have taken account of her holiday plans, so why should we with a curfew ?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Hand That Signed The Paper

Dylan Thomas' poem tells of the impersonal mighty power of the hand that holds the pen that signs the document that ... etc. etc. ...

My hand hardly "felled a city", but it did have an eventful session in court recently.

First up, a local butcher had fallen well short of the hygiene laws and was in big trouble with Environmental Health. The tainted meat products had been confiscated and it was down to us to order their destruction. We were offered the chance to inspect them, but just looking at the photos were enough to convince us. In fact they were bad enough to turn the three of us vegetarian on the spot.

And so, with the stroke of a pen, meat was declared unfit and sent off for destruction.

Weird - when I heard the clerks talk about "all the pork pies downstairs", I assumed they were using cockney rhyming slang.

Before the next case, a constable needed a search warrant signed. He had some excellent reasons and so the document was signed. In this case, I did it personally. My scrawl with a borrowed biro meant that someone in a neighbouring big city is going to have a bunch of size twelve boots coming their door one early morning soon. It's a strange feeling signing such a document.

There followed a series of complex and rather stressful cases. So complex in fact that we twice had a split decision, the second one of these was my first experience of being outvoted.

That case involved a man suffering with a variety of mental illnesses, who committed crimes on three separate occasions while on a Suspended sentence. The theory with suspended sentence is that it is activated if you mess up even once. I thought three times was plenty, but my colleagues were swayed by his fragile mental state, so we gave him a curfew, which given his reported agoraphobia probably wasn't that much of a punishment.

The day ended around four and I went home with a sledgehammer headache. Some days I feel a toaster could sit in my seat and the outcome would be the same.

That day though, I honestly felt that I made a difference.