Sunday, November 22, 2009

Becoming a Magistrate - The Case for the Prosecution

When I ask a salesperson to tell me about their product, they usually give a long list of the advantages. When I ask them about the downsides, in my experience they either tell a joke and change the subject or fib their heads clean off and say that there are none.

My favourite way around this is to ask the question :
"What do you think [[insert name of competitor]] will say about your product when we talk to them?"
This usually prompts a little bit more openness - they start defending the perceived weak points of their product. This is great - because five minutes ago there were no potential weak points that needed defence.

Let's look at the sales job being done to recruit Magistrates. If you read the Government website and the Magistrates' Association public pages, it's all a warm fuzzy glow of public service and personal growth. Sounds as though everyone ought to apply, right ?

But :
"What would a bitter ex-Magistrate say if you asked them if you should apply to be a Magistrate?"
I don't have access to one of those at the moment, but please allow me to speculate:-
Imagine wanting to help your community and improve yourself. Now imagine you can't do it, because you're stuck in a crummy building applying narrowly defined government policy.

You want to help your community ? Great - there are dozens of charities that need people with your brains and energy. Thanks to the legal bureaucracy, you will spend a vanishingly small amount of your time doing anything helpful as a Magistrate. And even then - many of your decisions will help no-one. Your guidelines say you need to fine someone with no money, you fine them. You can't help an addict - you just need to keep fining or jailing them for the crimes they inevitably commit. Yes, once in a while you "win", but it's such an inefficient process - you'd be better off helping to run one or more of the charities in your area.

Want to improve yourself ? Get a better job - the one you're in obviously isn't stretching you. All you'll do by becoming a Magistrate is to make your job more stressful by taking away your free time and holidays. Retired ? See my section above on charities - they need you and you'll learn so much. Want to keep your mind active ? Crossword puzzles are excellent.

Think it'll look good on your CV ? I don't even mention it on mine - it just confuses people - makes me look like a part-time IT guy whereas the clients are looking for commitment. If you think it'll improve your chances of a political career, I suspect stuffing envelopes, making calls and generally being smarmy for a political party would be a better use of your time.

Being a Magistrate gets you little respect. Most people either don't know what you do or suspect your motives. You're tied up in Guidelines and squeezed between the police who dish out fixed penalties and cautions and the higher courts. Your powers are limited, but this doesn't stop the press getting personal when something goes wrong.

In short, what the salespeople tell you might be true - what they don't tell you is that there are more efficient ways of helping people and of improving yourself.

And with that, the Prosecution rests.

If you are considering becoming a Magistrate, please consider carefully both sides of the story. It's not all good and it's not all bad. Consider the alternatives you have, and when you've arrived at a decision, act on it.

In other words, do exactly what a good Magistrate does.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Becoming a Magistrate - The Case for the Defence

Most instruction manuals are written by experts who really can't remember what it was like to be a clueless newbie.

For example, an AA operator once asked me whether my fallen-off-into-the-road-car-exhaust had "snapped forward of the manifold". I almost wept, because despite my extended education, there wasn't anything about the question that I understood.

Similarly, if you try researching a question along the lines of "what's so great about being a Magistrate ?" you tend to get rather unsatisfying answers.

Take the following page from the Magistrates' Association website Why become a Magistrate ?". It answers many questions, but "Why?" is certainly not one of them. I suspect the author of the page takes it totally for granted that everyone in the world knows the many benefits and that it would be a waste of typing to list them all out.

Try the main UK government website here and you get some vague Human Resources jargon and an even vaguer appeal to some kind of patriotic selfless idealism.

What you really need are some practical, tested and selfish reasons why you would benefit from getting involved.

These are my personal reasons and they are in no particular order and there are no money-back guarantees if they don't work out for you :-

  • Really quite a few of your pre-conceptions will not survive direct contact with the reality of the criminal justice system. This is a good thing - it's called "learning".
  • In your outside life you will develop confidence to make and carry out decisions that don't make everybody happy. I sweat and fret a lot less these days before doing the right thing. Look back in your life - have there been times when your attempts to please everyone have pleased nobody ? Have you avoided doing what you knew was right and mentally beat yourself up for years afterwards ? Yeah, try not to do that so much.
  • You'll meet some remarkable people in the retiring room. One or two opinionated bores and space-wasters but there again, too few to mention.
  • Doing something worthwhile that isn't motivated by the need to pay the mortgage feels great.
  • Stepping out of your day-job gives you some real insight into what's important and who you are. You realise that you are not just your job title.
  • Stepping out of your day job allows you to flex some new muscles, and to give the usual overused ones some much-needed rest
  • There will be times when your decisions make a real difference. During your next day at the office, check how many times you make decisions and of those decisions, how many of them resulted in any material change. Unless you're a forward air-controller or a heart surgeon, I suspect the number will be low.
  • By grappling with seriously hard (and often impossible) questions, you'll find that you aren't as clever as you thought you were and that there's plenty more for you to learn. I find it useful to be reminded of this now and again.
There are other minor points, involving biscuits and improved listening and note-taking skills, but the points above are the main reasons why I'm going to continue into a second year.

A bit one-sided ? Surely there are negative issues ?

Coming soon : my top ten reasons why you would be better off not applying.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Name is Stan, and I am ...

... a snob.

Well, a recovering snob. Maybe.

There was a time when I'd turn my nose up at a film unless it was in some exotic language and consisted mostly of an old man smoking cigarettes for three hours and then moodily bouncing off on a spacehopper. Books with plots, dance performances that actually fitted the music, poems that scanned, paintings that looked like anything at all - how on earth could any of them possibly be any good?

"Mainstream" was my favourite four-letter word and damn you for a small-minded individual if you dared point out that it has ten letters.

The first piece of evidence that I'm changing is Miranda Hart's sitcom "Miranda" on BBC2. She is in no way tries to Subvert The Form or make us think and at no point am I tempted to rub my chin and murmur "Interesting ...." or "How True!". The physical humour is rather blatant, the language is simple and the situations far from complex.


She makes me laugh. Out loud and often.

I've applied my analytical brain to the reason why, and all I've got is this:-
She's a funny person doing and saying funny things.
Look also at "Flash Forward" on Channel 5. The acting is wobbly and the dialogue is risible. But, you know what ? I couldn't care less. Because what it does have is a white-hot plot and insane amounts of pace. And sometimes that's enough to get you through an episode to the usually jaw-dropping cliffhanger at the end which makes you want to tune in next time.

In my snobby days, I'd have called it a "popcorn drama" - in fact, I still do, but nowadays I add " ... and could you please pass the popcorn".

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Victim of Crime (but which one ?)

Following on from my blog about assault recently (here) - can anyone tell me what the scumbag in the following incident should be charged with ?
"I was cycling along a main road, very much "in the zone" when a car overtook me and the passenger leaned out of the window and yelled in my ear - hoping to make me fall off and damage myself in a vaguely amusing way."
It seems clear to me that some kind of assault happened, even though no actual damage was done, but I'm not actually the right person to make sense of this because :

(a) I'm a Magistrate and not a legal expert


(b) Because I was that cyclist, and my instinct would be to sentence him to a good kicking by the roadside. This is not a something the Sentencing Guidelines would approve of.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Don't ask me about my day - I might tell you

Up at 05:00 to dig my car out of an ice-block. Mrs. Stan made me a sausage sarnie for the road last night, but I left it by the door thanks to my early-morning head-fog. Drove down the M6 mentally kicking myself and actively considering turning around to pick it up. Figured if I did, I'd likely be tempted to take it upstairs to my still-warm bed and eat it and then go back to sleep and to heck with making a living.

I resisted temptation and pressed on. A stale croissant and weak coffee at Warwick was no substitute for the sandwich which I was starting to hallucinate about. I could taste it, smell it in my mind. Soft sausage, crispy on the outside with plenty sharp English mustard in cotton-wool bread. Six, maybe seven feet long ...

There was some honest-to-goodness fog too, which made driving difficult - and an overturned lorry near Oxford that made driving impossible. The Sat-Nav shrugged her shoulders and took me laboriously through the car-hating centre of Oxford and onto a route that almost, but not quite, converged with my intended destination. For an hour and half my Sat-Nav told me that I was 65 minutes from my destination. If you want a vision of hell, imagine being perpetually 65 minutes away from a destination you're not particularly looking forward to reaching. And more - with every mile, you're a mile further away from the world's finest sausage sandwich.

I arrived at work to find the car-park overflowing - I had to drive around twice until I found a place even to double-park.

And then my working day started.

Next week if you hear of someone doing a handbrake turn and driving the wrong way up the M6, you'll know I've forgotten my sandwich again and this time I've decided to follow my inner voices.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


If you are beastly to one or more of your fellow humans, there is a spectrum of charges that can be laid against you, depending on the degree of your beastliness :-

1) War Crimes - for this you will be flown to the Hague to face a trial lasting years at the International Court of Justice. Although the way things are going, this may become the next offence deemed suitable for disposal by means of Fixed Penalty tickets and police cautions.

2) Murder and Manslaughter - I think we all know about these. Go to the Crown Court and spend a fair chunk of your remaining lifetime inside.

3) Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) - almost as bad as murder if done with intent. The less severe cases (section 20) do occasionally arrive at the Magistrates' Court, but typically these deserve more jail-time than a Magistrate can impose.

4) Actual Bodily Harm (ABH) and Battery - two offences relating to hurting or injurying someone in a way calculated to interfere with the victim's health or comfort. In general this involves the victim sustaining at least some severe bruising. Severe cases can lead to sentences up to 5 years in prison.

5) Common Assault (section 39)- this is the most thumbed part of a Magistrate's guidelines. It includes all manner of "Did You Spill My Pint???!"/"What you lookin' at ??!" after-pub incidents involving minimal injury. At most this is 6 months in prison - but more usually it's a fine/community penalty.

One Common Assault case I dealt with involved a woman throwing a doner kebab at her ex - so we're not talking about hardcore criminal behaviour here.

But ... I saw a serious domestic violence case recently involving a sustained assault on multiple people in front of children. The injuries seemed easily to justify a charge of ABH but I was gobsmacked to see that the charge was only Common Assault.

The accused jumped at the chance to plead guilty - which reduces the maximum sentence to four months, which means in practice that they will spend at the very most 8 weeks in prison.

Pretty well any sentence we came out with under those circumstances was going to look candy-assed and totally unfitting to the crime.

But forgetting the Magistrates and the victims, this strategy would seem to be a winner for quite a number of interested parties:-

Offender : under-punished
Jails : less overcrowded
CPS : successful, quicker, cheaper prosecution
Government : statistics on serious assaults reduced

I've got a sinking feeling that undercharging assault will become increasingly irresistible, and that this won't be the last time I will have to hand down a kebab-thrower sentence for a wife-beater crime.