Monday, November 12, 2012

Not Just A River In Egypt

She's a little old lady with grey hair in a bun. Think Miss Marples.

Very much the stereotype of an elderly spinster - pillar of the local community, lynchpin of her church and with decades of faithful service to the poor and needy.

The thing is, she's in my court and she's lying to me.

She took an oath on the Bible, which is a big deal for a devout Christian, but there is no mistaking the fact that she is lying. She's really not very good at it and her account would require the suspension of a couple of physical laws even if it were logically consistent (which it isn't).

So what's going on her mind ? Has she found a way to convince herself that the lies she's telling aren't really lies? Or has she just stopped caring ?

Her problem, it seems to me, is that in short order her mother died, she was forced to retire from her job and her husband went off with another woman. Into that void came alcohol and now she's just like every alcoholic - deep in denial.

Denial means that alcoholics lie. They lie to themselves and to others about the extent of their problem. Telling the truth in court ("I was staggering around drunk and then drove home after necking a bottle of vodka") would have meant admitting to themselves and to their community that they have an alcohol problem. So she would prefer to lie ("My heels were too high and I drank the vodka after I came home from the driving").

I knew that alcoholics lied, but this was a powerful demonstration of the sheer power of alcohol over  even the strongest among us. 

As they say in the First of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous :-

"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable."
I had never fully appreciated the full impact of that phrase "powerless over alcohol" before this trial.

It has been a several months since this woman came into my court and it has been a rare week that I haven't wondered whether her conviction was the "bottom" she needed to hit in order to get better, or whether it hastened her decline.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Radiohead@Manchester MEN Arena

People who know no better think they know all about Radiohead fans. They're a bit too serious, male,  geeky and over forty, right ? A lot like Stan in fact.

I actually found reassuringly few like me at the MEN arena last night - lots of singing and insanely bad dancing among the mostly student-y audience. Although, I did spot one balding guy with a beard and a battered now-undersized "The Bends" t-shirt who could have made a living as a body double for The Comic Book guy in The Simpsons.

While I was out, Stanetta asked Mrs Stan when the heyday of Radiohead was. With most bands you could sensibly answer this question with a date and sometimes even a time. With Radiohead, even though their biggest selling album was released in 1997, you can't actually say that the last 15 years has been any kind of decline.

Because here they are - on a world tour, playing new material to packed out mega venues full of people who were probably being breast-fed in 1997.

It was a good mix of material - the best pieces from the most recent album,  a couple of classic goosebumps numbers and even "Planet Telex" from 1995 to keep The Comic Book Guy happy.

The show was professional, as warm and intimate as you get in a venue the size of the MEN arena (largest indoor arena in the European Union), and moved along at a fair lick. The technology on display was stunning and incorporated a couple of dozen large screens that gave you a variety of quirky close-ups of the band that were performing in the far distance.

One or two too many random B-sides though - I sneaked off for a toilet break during "These Are My Twisted Words" and found almost as many people outside the hall as inside it.   If you don't think it's good enough to make it onto an album, why bother with it in concert ?

That minor issue aside, I had a great time and if you've got tickets for the shows at the O2 next week you'll have a blast. The set list from the Manchester gig is here - I don't imagine they'll stray too far from that.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


If you don't like the verdict you get in a Magistrates Court, you have the right to appeal to the Crown Court. There you will be able to put your case to a "proper" judge who sits with a couple of Magistrates from benches different to the one that so disappointed you last time.

The most recent figures I could find show that in 2010 there were 13,800 appeals against Magistrates’ decisions. This is really quite a small proportion, being less than half an appeal per magistrate per year. Some of these were appeals against the verdict and some about the severity of the sentence, but either way, appeals stand less than a 50:50 chance of succeeding.

You could say that the low proportion of appeals to Magistrates' decisions is down to the crippling legal costs and the average 9 week wait, but I like to think it's because Magistrates are generally pretty good at their jobs.

They don't generally invite new Magistrates to take part in these appeals so it was only recently I got to sit on my first one.

The feeling in court is quite different from that in a Magistrates Court. The judge doesn't have to go back and forth with the legal adviser, so he (yes, more than usually "he")  can move things on, interrupt and change the order in which evidence is presented. There's more of a "flow" and business gets dealt with very efficiently indeed.

The judge I sat with was far from the stereotype - keenly intelligent, funny and eager to hear the views of the two Magistrates. 

As to the nature of the workload, the whole day was taken up with appeals against confiscations of money under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which brings you into a world which (if true) has many strange features :-

 * You can be on Income Support and buy a £20,000 car for cash and still have £10,000 in cash on you later that day (without being involved in crime)

* Some people (again on Income Support) will carry £5,000 in cash with them on a night out. They may give the money to a friend to hold if the pockets on their trousers are too small. It is possible to have four friends in this situation, which is a perfectly acceptable reason for one person in a group to have £20,000 in cash in their jacket pockets when stopped by police.

*  Some men have girlfriends who give them bundles of used ten and twenty pounds notes as tokens of affection.

* You need £5,000 in cash to buy a suit for a wedding. When asked, it is perfectly acceptable not to be able to remember what day the wedding is or who is getting married. The best way to buy these £5,000 wedding suits is by driving around at 3a.m in a council estate with a well known drug problem.

* Some people sell their flats for cash and still haven't got round to putting the money in the bank a month later.

All in all it was kind of a shock when business was done to get into my 10 year old car and drive home, wondering if I had enough cash in my pocket to pay for petrol on the way back.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Internet - Not Pure Evil At All

There's no shortage of stories (mostly in the Daily Mail) about how the Internet is the Devil's Superhighway full of porn and general depravity.

The National Youth Orchestra of Iraq mostly taught themselves to play their instruments by watching YouTube. They got a lot of their music online and auditioned online. I got to hear about them online and you can hear them play online. If there's any hope for that troubled country it's with the kids and the magical mechanism that got them together to play a symphony is probably the same magical mechanism that will help them organise to rebuild their shattered country and its culture.

Meanwhile the boot lock on my 10 year old Seat Toledo didn't lock. I found a posting online that described how it was probably water gunking up the solenoid and all you need is to remove the plastic cover and squirt WD-40 everywhere. I found another posting that described (with pictures) how to remove the plastic cover and I managed to fix a problem in ten minutes with a screwdiver and zero technical skill that had me seriously considering scrapping the car.

I love the way that the Law of Unintended Consequences continues to apply to the Internet. I love the way that people with skills give their time free of charge to post content for the rest of us to enjoy.

The Internet is a tool - very much like a hammer. You can use it to build a house or you can use it to smash someone's head in. Just because there are evil people in the world, it doesn't mean you should remove anything they might possibly misuse. 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Em Eh ?

In the early days of this blog I was quite aggressive about the Magistrates Association. But as time went on, I mellowed somewhat. Their previously shambolic appearances in the media became merely ineffectual and I moved onto other things to be cross about.

Last week, after four years on the bench, I actually met my local Magistrates Association representative and my dander is well and truly in the upright position once more.

He was stirring up opposition to a totally logical merger of two under-utilised benches. I found it hard to understand his argument, but it seemed to boil down to "Scary change ! If we let them change this, what else will they change next, eh ?"

The vast majority of my scheduled sittings this year have been cancelled due to lack of work. This isn't happening as much on larger benches where workload can be spread around, so it seems well worth trying to me. But he (and presumably the MA also) are opposing it on the grounds that inertia has to be the best policy.

He was rather disappointed not to receive my support and asked if I was going to the Association's AGM. I had to further disappoint him by saying that I wasn't a member. He didn't ask me why, which was a shame as it would have been a great opportunity to ask why the Magistrates Association have been quiet, maybe even complicit, in management's attempt to impose arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions on Magistrates' online activities.

Actually, where are the Magistrates' Association on that subject ? I'm not a member so I don't expect a personal briefing but I can't find any comment from them online. Last I heard they were working hard to get us all nice badges.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Radio Free Stan's Dog

I'm Stan's dog and unlike Stan I have lots of opinions.

* Jessie J really can't sing
* Bolton Wanderers still lack a proven goalscorer  and look woeful at the back
* The new series of "Vexed" is better than the critics suggest

Airing these opinions does not make me a bad dog and I don't believe it would make me a bad Magistrate either (assuming they ever allow dogs on the couch bench)

If I could steal (bad dog ! bad !) a phrase from "The West Wing"
"Do (people) want to be governed by people who are animated, or animatronic?"
The big idea behind the Magistracy is that it is a representative sample of a community which metes out justice to those who have offended against that community.

It's the "representative" part of the deal that the current guidance on Magistrate blogging is in conflict with. From now on, to be a Magistrate means that you either need to keep quiet about being a Magistrate (as per the Masons) or to have no opinions (like Stan) or to be so unworldly that you don't do social media at all. Doesn't sound terribly representative of my community.

But hey, I'm a dog - what do I know ?


Thursday, August 09, 2012

Some of Stan's Friends could be Magistrates

There's a persistent rumour that Magistrates are to be banned from saying that they are Magistrates while blogging, tweeting or commenting on videos of cute kittens on Facebook.

Furthermore, the rumour is that they will be instructed to remove any past material that doesn't comply with the new diktat on blogs that they "maintain".

Rather than writing it every time, could you please note that Stan does not necessarily have any opinions at all and anything you might have read on this blog to suggest otherwise could have been dictated to him by any number of people, cartoon animals and voices in his head, some of whom may have been serving magistrates.

As to who "maintains" this blog - who says that person is a Magistrate ?

One of the Stan contributors (who may or may not be a Magistrate) tells me that he finds the new guidance to be a heavy-handed infringement of a fairly basic human right and puzzling in the light of the focus put on "transparency" in the current White Paper.

The contributor (also called "Stan" - very confusing) states that he can't think of anything more guaranteed to reduce transparency than legislating against the likes of Bystander's excellent blog - he believes that the guy deserves a medal for services of judicial transparency rather than being threatened with the vague and menacing prospect of "disciplinary action".

The text of the alleged guidance is reproduced below (also available on Bystander's blog - enjoy it while you can)

I still hold out hope that it's a prank - I've asked my bench chairman to verify whether it's authentic - until then I'm not going anywhere.


This guidance is issued on behalf of the Senior Presiding Judge and the Senior President of Tribunals. It applies to all courts and tribunal judicial office holders in England and Wales, and is effective immediately.

A “blog” (derived from the term “web log”) is a personal journal published on the internet. “Blogging” describes the maintaining of, or adding content to, a blog. Blogs tend to be interactive, allowing visitors to leave comments. They may also contain links to other blogs and websites. For the purpose of this guidance blogging includes publishing material on micro-blogging sites such as Twitter.

Judicial office holders should be acutely aware of the need to conduct themselves, both in and out of court, in such a way as to maintain public confidence in the impartiality of the judiciary.

Blogging by members of the judiciary is not prohibited. However, officer holders who blog (or who post comments on other people’s blogs) must not identify themselves as members of the judiciary. They must also avoid expressing opinions which, were it to become known that they hold judicial office, could damage public confidence in their own impartiality or in the judiciary in general.

The above guidance also applies to blogs which purport to be anonymous. This is because it is impossible for somebody who blogs anonymously to guarantee that his or her identity cannot be discovered.

Judicial office holders who maintain blogs must adhere to this guidance and should remove any existing content which conflicts with it forthwith. Failure to do so could ultimately result in disciplinary action. It is also recommended that all judicial office holders familiarise themselves with the new IT and Information Security Guidance which will be available shortly.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Suspended Suspended

I've described before that it took a while to wrap my head around the idea of a suspended prison sentence - I really did not understand why someone who deserves prison shouldn't go to prison.
I learned though that it's in Society's best interest sometimes that people are punished in the community while they get cured of addiction or take care of their dependents.

So what happens when someone on a suspended sentence messes up again - straight forward, no ? They go to prison, right ?

Well actually, it's not totally inevitable. They may be doing well on the substance treatment program and their families may still not be able to survive without them. There is the option to simply add on some extra punishment and give them a last-last chance to sort themselves out.

I'm definitely not convinced about this one. I'm all for giving people a chance but when you've given someone a last chance and they don't take advantage of it then I think that prison is all you've got left. Otherwise what are the chances of anyone taking a suspended sentence seriously?

I had a chance to test this opinion recently - young man with a baby with his partner who also acts as father to her toddler. Was lucky to get a suspended sentence last time for multiple burglaries, now in front of us for trying the doors of parked cars at 3 a.m miles from his house.

Defence solicitor told us in some detail that his partner had a broken leg and she couldn't look after the children properly without him. The children may have to go into the care system for the duration of the father's sentence.

Sounds pretty grim, but its the defence's job to  make it easy for us to keep their clients out of prison and they often lay it on thick. In reality a broken leg wouldn't stop me looking after my children and there are such things as grandparents and aunts and uncles.

So we sent him away - the family and friends didn't believe it at first and then were extremely cross. One of them even gave us a Nazi salute which I suppose we should have done something about.

This brought us to lunchtime - I walked the chairman out to his car in case they were waiting for us out the back and then went for to the sandwich shop.

I returned to find my fellow winger in tears "What have we done to those children !"

First time I've had to comfort a magistrate, but I managed it. Basically I pointed out that we've done nothing to these children - what kind of a father was he at 3 a.m in the town-centre knowing that he was risking jail? Our job is to enforce the law and the children will, one way or another, be taken care of.

That night I slept fine, by the way. It's not pleasant but someone has to make these hard decisions or else thieves will continue to thieve. And if that means some kids have to lose their criminal daddy for a few months then I'm afraid that's the way it has to be. 

Friday, April 06, 2012


This week a Magistrate was alleged to have fallen asleep during a trial. Worse, it seems he was caught bang-to-rights by the defence solicitor. Poor guy - suddenly his years of service count for nought and this is what he'll likely be remembered for.

Leaving aside the innocent-until-proven-guilty assumption that seems to have been suspended here, it's a tragedy that a momentary lack of concentration should end up with a good man being pilloried across the Mail, the Telegraph and all his local papers.

I've never come close to falling asleep in court. Sure, my mind has wandered a little. We're only human : we have no special abilities or training which allows us to keep a Zen-like focus for hours on end in an airless courthouse, no matter how enthralling the solicitors might be. And boy, some of those solicitor are far from enthralling.

You hear quite often in reports of football games that a player or a team "lost concentration" during a game. For example Jose Mourinho recently said that "(Real Madrid) ... lost a bit of concentration in the second-half ". If one of the best teams in the world can drift off collectively in the heat of battle then it's something that can happen to anyone.

So to summarise : we Magistrates take on a difficult job for no money or thanks and if we mess up even slightly then we can expect public ridicule. Put like that, you wonder why anyone would want to become a Magistrate. Or a football referee. 
My top tip : when my focus drifts, I start taking detailed notes. It's impossible as far as I know to fall asleep while writing. Not sure what football referees do,

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fabrice Muamba

In case you went to Neptune for the weekend and missed this story, Bolton Wanderers' midfielder Fabrice Muamba is currently unconscious in hospital after a sudden cardiac arrest on the pitch during a cup game against Spurs.

You don't have to be a Bolton Wanderers fan to feel for him, but my goodness it helps. 

Only Bolton fans have seen how much he has developed since he arrived three seasons ago and will have speculated how good he'll be in another three seasons. Only Bolton fans will have regularly seen just how much work he puts even into games that everyone else seems to have abandoned.

Only Bolton fans will be aware of just how fit the guy was. In better teams, the defensive midfielders are often spectators - Yaya Toure at Manchester City could get his iphone out and check his email during some of their one-sided games, so little are his skills needed. It's a different matter when you're in a relegation dogfight and your job is to stop the likes of David Silva from doing what he does well. For a full 90 minutes. Running over 7 miles in the process. In other words, Fabrice was properly fit.

Much has written about his role as a defensive rock, but my favourite Fabrice moments are when he goes on the attack.

You see, the opposing players recognise him as a big defensive midfield "enforcer" and he runs like a big man in a hurry -  so they don't expect him to rush forward. When he takes advantage of the element of surprise and barrels past them, I love to see the look of panic on their faces and maybe the thought going through their heads : "Oh. Er. Is he actually allowed to do that ??" There have been quite a few poor Bolton performance rendered watchable by Fabrice-moments such as these.

But you don't need to be a Bolton fan to be stunned close to tears by what has happened to him. Just think that he's 23 -  talented, literate, funny and professional in a sense that isn't common in "professional" footballers. Think that he's a new father with an enormous amount to give to the world and his young family.

I'm not a believer in jinxes, but I couldn't bear to write any of this piece in the past tense. Here's hoping that I'll have a lot more to write about him in the present and future tenses real soon.

Meanwhile, I hope that he and the people close to him realise just how many people who have been touched by his work are now cheering him on.

Friday, March 16, 2012

New Year's Resolution Update

Gym : decided against it after really not enjoying their free taster session. Maybe I'm getting old, but the music's too loud, there's not enough air and it smells bad. Decided instead that I would get my exercise walking everywhere - which has been a massive success. On a good day I'll walk the four miles from Waterloo to Marylebone with my two laptops in my rucksack and then walk back at night. On a very good day I'll do that and also walk the three miles up Primrose Hill and back in my lunchhour. Costs me nothing and calms me down. Result.

French : coming to the end of the set of classes I started in January and I've enjoyed clearing the tumbleweed from my mind and I am now nearly as fluent in the language as I was at school, which isn't saying a great deal. In fact, in some ways I'm better off because for one thing I actually understand the difference between the imperfect and perfect past tenses now. The teacher is excellent, the teaching materials are perfect and the fellow students are an entertaining bunch that includes a legendary journalist, a South American diplomat, a satellite TV sports presenter and such a varied range of others that you would accuse me of having made them up if I told you.

In other news, I've been snapping up the cheapest possible tickets for whatever's on at the theatres in London. Highlight of this would be the £10 I spent on a side-on bench in the Gods at the Old Vic to see "Noises Off". Even with a restricted view (and the kind of stress-position popular with interrogators) it had me literally doubled up with laughter (and I'm a stickler for using "literally" correctly). I'm not usually a fan of farce or any kind of physical comedy, but this play just hit me right on the funny bone. Worth splashing out on a full-price ticket when it transfers to the West End.

Life is good - enjoying my time in court, learning to love London, and Mrs Stan and Stanetta are doing well. The only thing that would improve my quality of life would be for BBC4 to screen some more of those uncannily brilliant Danish drama series - I'm utterly hooked. Længe leve Birgitte Nyborg! Længe leve Sarah Lund!

Monday, February 06, 2012

Your Word Against Mine

In an ideal world, there are no crimes.

In a slightly less ideal world, every crime would be witnessed by at least one sober, independent witness with perfect eyesight and a photographic memory. 

In our don't-get-me-started-just-how-not ideal world, we often only have the victim's word to go on.

This makes it difficult to establish the truth beyond reasonable doubt.

It's a particular problem with Domestic Violence cases where almost by definition the offence is committed out of the public glare.

In the bad old days there would be no chance of a conviction - "it's just your word against his" - which is why historically so many abuse, domestic violence and rape cases never even made it to court.

Nowadays things do seem to have improved. More such cases are coming to court and convictions are possible without in any way diluting the absolute commitment to "proof beyond reasonable doubt".

This can only happen though when the accused's story is so full of holes and so internally inconsistent that there's no way that anything they say can be believed.

It also helps the prosecutor make the case when the accused is arrogant and hostile. It's hard to be an angry smart-alec while keeping your pack of lies consistent under expert questioning. In one recent case, the prosecutor said that if you were to believe his story, the accused must have "the reflexes of Spiderman". The accused nodded and said yeah - twelve years in the army - reflexes of Spiderman. Hmmm.

Today was a strange day - I gave Spiderman a community penalty.

Sunday, January 08, 2012


Schools live and die these days on league tables and Ofsted rankings. It's widely reported that many boost their exam results by teaching to the test and concentrating effort on kids with borderline grades. I suspect though that the increase in cases I'm seeing in Magistrate court involving truancy may be an attempt by schools and local authorities to boost the attendance scores.

We had four cases this particular afternoon - as opposed to one every few months previously.

(a) single mum with difficult child - she has tried everything and produced a file of her increasingly desperate attempts to get support from the school and the local authority. Their response was to send her a fixed penalty notice and then to hire an expensive barrister to hassle her in our court.

(b) family who took a particularly troubled kid on holiday during the last week of term - nothing timetabled for the last week of term and permission had been granted for all the other kids in the family. So it was a bit naughty when they went anyway, but the local authorities response seems like overkill. Their response was to send them a fixed penalty notice and then to hire an expensive barrister to hassle them in our court.

(c) foster family who have taken on a number of highly difficult kids - I personally would have recommended them for the New Years Honours list for the miracles they've worked with their other kids. But even their skills and energy weren't enough to ensure attendance of one particularly troubled child. Guess what ? The local authority gave them the support they needed and then were sympathic and patient ? Nope - their response was to send a fixed penalty notice and then to hire an expensive barrister to hassle them in our court.

Makes me cross - the expense of these actions are monstrous and would be better spent on helping the families involved. OK, they fell short of their responsibilities, but in all three cases we found that this was deserving of a tiny fine or an absolute discharge.

(d) was a bit different - the accused father had turned up drunk first time, had been sent away, failed to appear for the next hearing, which had led to a new charge. When he failed to appear this time, we issued a warrant to bring him in. He finally showed up two hours late, too drunk to participate. The ushers pointed him in the direction of the police station.

Personally, I've got no problems dealing with (d) - you have to worry about the child involved - but why the other three prosecutions ? The local media were in attendance and scribbling away - could it really be all about publicity and getting a message out to parents ? 

Thursday, January 05, 2012


I'm signing up for French lessons and joining a gym.

Shut up - I am acutely aware of how badly this reeks of New Year, New Start and how the chances are against my new enthusiasms surviving into February and beyond.

But surely it is better to have a possibly doomed attempt at something rather than not even trying?

In this vein, I thought it wrong of the British Liver Trust to describe January detoxes as "medically futile". I can understand their contention that it gives a false sense of security, but I can't imagine anyone criticising a heroin addict who decided to stay clean through January because as far as I can see, the only way that people ever get off drugs is 1. Stay clean for a day 2. Repeat step 1.

I'd say go for it - enjoy the feeling of making some changes during January and if it turns out not to be permanent then so what - nothing is really permanent and there will be another January along real soon.