Tuesday, October 20, 2009

HIghs and Lows

You get to see the best and the worst of human behaviour as a Magistrate.

Take today for example.

"The best" was an experienced Magistrate who glossed over his high-flying career, his charity work and his twenty years on the bench. What he really wanted to talk about was his severely disabled foster-child who is about to start semi-independent living after years of struggling against multiple disabilities and bone-headed bureaucracy. He was so proud of her, and wouldn't hear of it that he and his wife had done something phenomenal to get her to this stage.

"It's just what you do", he said.

Then we left the retiring room and we met his polar opposite.

Slack-jawed and slouching, she had never held down a job in her forty-something years. She had, however, seemingly made a career of accumulating just about every variety of fine, from TV licence evasion via drunk and disorderly to a mediumly-shocking driving offence which also required that she pay compensation to her victim. There were probably a few overdue library books too.

She had been allowed to pay off her dues at £10 per week and in the last eight years she had paid a massive total of £20 out of £2,000. When she was pursued by the Fines Office, she had dropped off the radar and moved house and binned her mobile. She probably thought that that was that, but eventually she was picked up by police on another matter, all these outstanding warrants against her came to light, and she was bundled unwillingly into our courtroom.

You and I, if we were ever in the situation of being unable to pay a fine would have made contact with the court, told them what was happening and would have tried to negotiate some alternative. We would certainly have given up drinking, smoking, partying until we were quits. And the Fines Office and the Courts do fall over themselves to be flexible in cases of genuine hardship and where honest attempts are being made to discharge the debt.

However, going on the run while sticking your fingers in your ears singing la-la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you is a completely different matter. In my pre-magistrate days, I was convinced that short prison sentences were useless and that only violent offenders should go into custody. But you tell me what else you're supposed to do with someone unsuitable for a community sentence who has persistently defaulted on fines. Fine them again ?? Yeah, right.

She was led away, crying exaggerated tears of self-pity. In my previous life this would have affected me, but not now. My overwhelming emotion in her case was of relief that an eight-year overdue debt to society had finally been settled.

Like I say, it was an eye-opener for me to see such a contrast. To be reminded one minute that there are still heights of humanity to which I can aspire and then to see how far it is possible for someone to fall.

P.S Please note that I do try to avoid the above analysis when it comes to sentencing. The oath I took was to deal with everyone in a consistent manner, "without fear or favour, affection or ill-will." So, everyone gets the same treatment, regardless of my (imperfect) judgement of a particular individual's moral fibre.

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