Tag Archives: crown court

Auto Pilot

The Court of His Honour Judge Parr-Teeline QC in the Crown/Magistrates’/Civil Justice/Family Court sitting at the  Georgraphical Area known as “The North”. It is 8:32 am on day 1,735 of the Flexible Operating Hours pilot scheme. There is the customary knock on the door and all stand for the Judge. All, that is, bar one advocate who has his head on the desk and is snoring loudly. 

HHJ P-T QC: (coughs loudly) Mr Van-Winkle…ahem….(louder) MR VAN-WINKLE

Mr Van-Winkle wakes with a start and leaps to his feet. He pulls his gown tight around his body in a defensive cloak. 

MR V-W: Very sorry Your Honour, I was involved in a sentence in Her Honour Judge Worker’s evening shift court last night and it hardly seemed worth heading home so I got my head down here. Seemed a more efficient way of deploying the Court Estate. 

HHJ P-T QC: No problem, Mr Van-Winkle, but perhaps….just….(the Judge points to his own wig)

Van-Winkle’s hand feels the top of his head where he discovers a Victorian style night cap. He quickly whips it off and replaces it with his wig. The Judge now addresses the Court Clerk.

HHJ P-T QC: Right, can we have the defendants into the dock please. 

The Court Clerk stands and speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear. 

CC: I am sorry Your Honour, they haven’t been produced. Apparently the van bringing them here set off at 5.30 this morning but had to drop off at two other local courts and pick up from the overnight midnight remand court. I am told they won’t be here until 2.30 this afternoon. 

HHJ P-T QC: I am sorry, you said “local courts”. How on earth can it take until 2.30 to get here from two other local courts?

CC: Well, since the FOH pilot has been running, coincidentally one or two buildings have been mothballed. The nearest court to here is 100 miles away. 

HHJ P-T QC: Right, well, we will just have to put this case back to 2.30 and we will deal with it then. 

CC: I am sorry Your Honour, but this afternoon this courtroom is being used by His Honour Judge Tardy for day 12 of a 3 day burglary trial. They lost 8 days due to counsel drafting formal admissions and having conferences. They used to do it over lunch, but of course there isn’t a short adjournment any more. Only long ones. 

HHJ P-T QC: So I can’t sit in this courtroom at a time to accommodate an entirely predictable but unforeseen hiccup?

CC: No

HHJ P-T QC: That’s not very “flexible” is it? (becoming somewhat exasperated) We will just have to sit in Court 2…

CC: Ah. Again, a problem I am afraid. Court 2 is the Parking Dispute Hub between 1.15 and 2.30. Then it is sitting as the Tribunal of All Things between 2.30 and 3.30, is hosting a children’s tea party between 3.30 and 4.15 and then is sitting as a Magistrates’ Court until 7pm. Then it becomes the Wizengamot. Harry Potter is in trouble again. 

HHJ P-T QC: But this is still the Crown Court, right? Where we do Crown Court cases? Criminal cases? That do not always start and finish on time? 

CC: If Your Honour wants to look at it from a purely jurisdictional silo point of view….

HHJ P-T QC: A what?

CC: A jurisdictional silo point of view….

HHJ P-T QC: Yes, yes, yes. I heard what you said. But what does it mean?

CC: I dunno. I read it somewhere. You’re the Judge. You are meant to know what it means. 

HHJ P-T QC: I think you may need to lay off watching those old episodes of The Office…Anyway, let’s see if I can make some progress with just counsel. Who is for the first defendant?

(The Courtroom is in silence, apart from the faint sound of heavy breathing as Mr Van-Winkle has nodded off again)

CC: Now I can help you there. Counsel for the first defendant is Miss Life-Balance. Or it was. We have been informed that she has had to leave the Bar because it became impossible to find child care that fitted around the uncertain hours so it is now Mr Tether.

HHJ P-T QC: And where is Mr Tether?

CC: He emailed the Court this morning. If I can just read the email to Your Honour….

The Court Clerk bends down and begins to read from his computer screen

CC: Yes he emailed to say that the only train he could get that arrived on time for court left his hometown at 4.45 in the morning and involved three changes. He says that if you think he is staying overnight for a mention for which he doesn’t get paid then you’ve got another fuc….well, another thing coming. He then goes on to say that he couldn’t do anything anyway as they only found out that the case was listed at this time late last night because he was in the Mags until 8pm. Then there is some more swearing. A bit more swearing. Then he explains that, having got up at the crack of effing dawn to get the effing train, in fact it was effing-well late and he missed one of the connections so now won’t be here on time, despite having not slept and that if this causes a problem you can go….swing….. yes “swing” probably covers it. May not do justice to his full phrase, but you get the gist. There is then a whole paragraph about why the trains are delayed and swears quite a lot around the name “Chris Grayling” and repeats the phrase “what do you expect if you put him in charge of anything”….

HHJ P-T QC: ….that much the Court can take judicial notice of…..

CC: ….and he finishes with a plea that no matter what, could Your Honour refrain from ordering any more skeleton arguments because he has a 9.30 morning videolink hearing tomorrow, followed by a 4.30 videolink in the afternoon and a floating trial the rest of the week that he thinks may float either in the morning or the afternoon, not that he “effin cares any more” because “it doesn’t make a difference what I think as I am the bottom of the pile and no one listens” before he signs off “Up Yours, Enda Tether”. 

HHJ P-T QC: There is nothing else for it but to adjourn this hearing until next week. I myself am not sitting but…

(The Court Clerk rises to interrupt)

CC: Just one small problem for next week….

HHJ P-T QC: What is it? Is the Star Chamber sitting in this courtroom? Are they judging Crufts in here? Is the court needed to accommodate the Supreme Court? Are we hosting the Salem Witch Trials?

CC: No Your Honour, the courtroom is free to hear Crown Court cases….

HHJ P-T QC: What’s the problem then?

CC: With Your Honour being on holiday we haven’t got any sitting days left in the budget…so although we have plenty of space in the building…we don’t have a Judge…..

HHJ P-T QC: (bellows) OH FOR FUC…..

(At this point the transcript becomes unintelligible as Mr Van-Winkle emitted a loud snore. Mr Tether is believed to still be somewhere on the Rail Network. Miss Life-Balance now has a job where she is treated with respect and consideration. This is a new sensation for her.)

Throw Me A Bone

On Monday I was meant to start a trial. Unfortunately the trial was listed before a Judge who was part heard until Tuesday. Courtrooms and trials are a little like runways and airplanes that are coming in to land – two into one just doesn’t go. 

So we were given a new Judge to start before on Tuesday morning. As it turned out it was Tuesday afternoon as our new Judge also had other cases to deal with. 

This delay is not what this blog is about. But it is important background information. This blog is about Thursday. 

On Thursday I had a PTPH which was very likely to be a guilty plea. That PTPH was listed in the same court building as my trial. It was likely that once the plea had been entered there could be a stand down report and the defendant could have been sentenced there and then. 

The problem was that my jury was not going to be going out until the Friday. The trial took almost exactly three days from opening speech to the jury retiring. Had I even got underway at some point on the Monday I would have been free for my PTPH. 

My clerks and I thought it was a good idea to ask for the PTPH to be moved. Our first port of call was asking for consent from the CPS locally. In this instance it is only polite to ask because we all know it is also pointless. They never agree. 

So we sent a written request to the Court. We thought it polite to ask them. Yet it is also almost as pointless. This Court does not agree either. Even when the reason I cannot do the PTPH is because their listing has caused me the difficulty. All I was asking for was that it be moved from Thursday to the following Monday or Tuesday. 

The Court were prepared to list it at 945. And frankly I took a huge risk and did the case because I was so hacked off that the Court had refused to move it that I was quite prepared to stand my ground when it all went wrong, which, of course, it did. Client arrived at 10 and the case was called on at 1020 with the only thing that saved me from being in a trial and a sentence at the same time was the fact that the lower court had totally cocked up an associated committal for sentence. 

So what are the consequences of intransigent listing policy from both a CPS branch and a Court? Firstly they are financial. The trial that did not get into Court on Monday had already been adjourned through lack of court time previously. So, as I was prosecuting, that equates to one previous mention fee, then a mention fee on the Monday the case wasn’t reached and then a free day on the Wednesday as that was the second day of the trial. 

When the case had previously been adjourned it had been refixed in a slot in my diary. The Court did not like that date so it was relisted and forced in. The nature of the case was such that I had to stick with it so I returned another trial that was listed that Monday. And, as inevitably happens, as I sat around the robing room whilst I had no prospect of getting on, my other trial cracked. 

And, as is also nearly always the way, because my jury only went out on the Friday I had to miss another PTPH in another court centre on the Friday. That was a tad embarrassing because that Court had been accommodating and reasonable and had previously moved my PTPH to a date when I thought I could do it. So someone else had to go along (an appearance which comes out of the fixed fee) and I had to pen an apology. I also had to draft the documents required for the PTPH I was absent from and fill in the form. 

The second consequence is that I ended up almost letting down one solicitor and actually letting down another. I think some Judges believe that work still grows on trees. It does not. Not these days, not in this market. Not being there for things like PTPHs is the sort of thing that can stop solicitors using you, no matter how good they think you are at the job. Gone are the days when I went to court with a fist full of PCMHs. 

The final consequence is that it erodes a little bit more of the goodwill. I know that the CPS will not consent to moving cases of this nature. It is making us all a little less inclined to help when they need it. I know that the Court will not move such cases, even when my non-availability is also their fault. And that makes me more prone to take risks with listings, more likely to keep courts waiting and less likely to add oil to the wheels of the system. 

I have known that the Bar are at the bottom of the pile for a very long time. Our availability should take second place to the efficient running of the judicial system and things like the needs of vulnerable witnesses.  But the efficient running of the system would also, from time to time, benefit from throwing us a bone or two. 

Better case management might benefit from a tiny little bit of sensible management of the players involved. 

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

There is a scene in Les Mis where Marius mourns the death of his comrades in rebellion by singing the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” whilst sitting in the cafe where they used to discuss their lofty ideals. I know this because I am friends with my colleague, Gary Woodhall.

Leaving aside Gary’s predilection for musical theatre, the song is a moving lament. The empty chairs and empty tables around Marius as he warbles away, bring a tear to the eye. You feel the loss of young life, you feel the loss of their aspirations.

In the Crown Courts of this land you may find a misty-eyed Woodhall murmuring the lyrics of a similar refrain. This would be called “Empty Receptions and Empty Cafés.” It would mourn the parlous state of our criminal justice system.

It is sometimes said that you can tell the health of a nation by the state of its roads. Potholes equal poverty. I would venture to suggest you can tell the health of a democracy by the state of its justice system. Ours is scarred with the effects of underfunding.

Most Crown Courts have vacant reception desks because they cannot afford the employee to staff them. Often a cardboard sign redirects the baffled and the late to other areas of the building for them to be assisted.

Now we have the deserted cafeterias. If you think about it, the cafeterias of the Crown Courts should be a gold mine. You have, in some instances literally, a captive audience. Time can be tight at lunchtime. The jury may not be able to go out. The Judiciary need brain food. Witnesses have thirsts to be quenched.

However it would seem that such businesses are so unprofitable that the MoJ cannot be bothered to even outsource the provision of catering. So we have news stories such as this from Plymouth.

Indeed news reached me today of the swearing in of a jury in Birmingham for a five month trial. We expect, we demand, that citizens give of their time to perform this vital civic duty. The twelve selected for this five month stint were informed by the Judge that the facilities available to them amounted to an usher with a kettle. Pot Noodle anyone?

A visit to the fantastic, not-run-by-Globo-Corp, cafe at Bury Mags would show you that these places can be run at a profit whilst serving good food. The MoJ might want to follow the mantra “Build it and they will come.” Provide good catering and the Bar would do their best to be, in terms of waistline at least, fatcats.

However the CJS is so far down the food chain that we no longer even get fed. No help at the front desk, no food at the cafe. All of which leaves me with no hope.

Pass the Cup-a-Soup.

Mr Whippy

Amidst the frenzy of the “Deal or No Deal” dilemma for the Criminal Bar I confess I lost sight of just how much of a mess the criminal justice system is in. Issues concerning remuneration are undoubtedly having a massive impact. Standards are plummeting in the advocacy skills on display in the Crown Court. Virtually every advocate you speak to has a plan B, an escape route. The uncertain future, where the only certainty is insufficient remuneration, is decreasing the numbers applying for pupillage to undertake criminal work. I see many advocates undertaking cases beyond their experience (a vital ally to latent ability) due to commercial pressures. That should not be read as a criticism of solicitor advocates, I detect similar problems at the Bar as well.

However the mess I speak of is not to do with fees, advocacy skills or talent drain. The whole system is in meltdown. Let us first of all take the courts themselves. Take a walk around your local Crown Court. Look at the Xhibit screens. Count how many do not work. They hang on the walls like a blank portrait of poverty. In recent times I conducted a trial where we moved between four courtrooms in a building of ten trying to find videolink and playback equipment that would work. The court estate is like Pompeii after the volcano. Preserved intact but not a living, vibrant environment.

One of my local court centres is like a deserted city. It has fifteen courtrooms available to hear criminal cases. Often less than ten them are being utilised for this purpose. Sometimes they are occupied by a coroners case, more often than not they are big, empty hangars of nothing. The truly bizarre thing is that this court centre found money in its budget in recent years to expand the number of courtrooms it had and refurbish others. One of the refurbished courts has never, yes that is correct, NEVER hosted a case of any kind. The last time I stepped inside it the Royal Coat of Arms stared out over a pile of moribund computer monitors.

All of this has an impact on the administration of justice. Whilst courtrooms sit empty the list of unheard cases piles ever higher. Want to fix a sex case of more than four days? That will be next year. A custody time limit case? Squeezed in to a single potential date irrespective of availability. Happen to be charged with an offence not involving a vulnerable witness and you are on bail? Well just take a seat and we will get to you eventually.

In one of my regular haunts I have had the misfortune of having three consecutive trials pulled the day before due to lack of court time. Each time there has been an empty courtroom on the day my trial was fixed. I am told that the court are simply not allowed to deploy a Recorder to hear the case due to cuts in the number of sitting days. In other words, there is not the money to provide for the efficient and proper disposal of cases.

Now pulling those cases has a personal impact on me. No court, no fees. Sadly I do not even hold the record with my three consecutive trials. One of my colleagues has had four consecutive trials pulled at the last moment in the same court. As an aside, just imagine I was employed by the state to conduct the advocacy in those cases. I would have spent days being a very expensive, bewigged executive desk toy. As it was I spent the days at home, walking the dog or doing bits and pieces of work.

However, I complain not about the fact my colleague and I have been stranded on an island of mention and fixes. Each of those cases had a defendant awaiting their fate. Each of those cases had a victim seeking justice. Each had witnesses ready to perform their civic duty. Each of them approached the anniversary of the offence. Each of them has gone into the long grass being kept company by the cuts to the AGFS.

And then you have days when the ability to confer with your client in the cells is severely curtailed by staffing issues in the custody area. That is if they have brought the defendant. Or even the right defendant. The problems with interpreters are well known, well documented and routinely ignored.

It is not just the courts. The service of papers regularly takes place two weeks after the date ordered. That means you are lucky to get a conference prior to PCMH. Judges used to raise hell if there was not a defence statement by PCMH. Now they just shrug their shoulders, accepting of the fact that the papers have only just arrived. It seems most of the time these days that I do not have any time to fight for justice in the cases I conduct, I am too busy fighting fires.

I am afraid I have no answers. I am depressed that the decrepit state of the criminal justice system seems to be passing everyone by. Google design a car without a driver and it is all over the news yet the rule of law being driven over a cliff passes by with barely a mention. VHCCs, dual contracts, cuts, Jeffrey, Leveson, judicial review – all of them mean nothing when we sit back and allow the system to crumble.

This is a recipe that contains cream. We have two choices. Whip it or it will go sour. I know which I choose.

The Weakest Link

A dark TV studio. Contestants stand behind oval shaped podia, each of them fanned out at an equal distance from each other, the line of them curved around a central figure. A female dressed all in black. A smart trouser suit with a three quarter length jacket. A look of disdain on an unsmiling face.

The camera focuses on each contestant in turn. The man behind the first mini lectern smiles weakly for the camera, the make-up girl has not managed to entirely stop the studio light reflecting off his bald head. He speaks, “Hi Maura, my names Chris and I am the first non-lawyer to be Lord Chancellor.”

The camera immediately swoops to the next face. Another male. Older this time. More hair but not by much and silvery white. “I’m Tom. I am in the Lords and work in Justice. I have been at the heart of Government pretty much forever.”

The first female contestant is introduced. Smartly turned out in a business suit and a smile that says she is to be taken seriously. She looks directly in to the lens of the camera and says “My name is Helen, I used to be a Legal Aid solicitor but don’t let that put you off me.” The audience, quiet until now, titters at this little quip.

Fourth in the male dominated quintet introduces himself, “My name is Damian. I live in Ashford. I am married to a barrister but don’t let that put you off me.” The smile on his lips remains fixed as his joke passes in stony silence. The camera lingers for a moment, just long enough to make his discomfort palpable before focussing on the final contestant.

“My name is Harry, journalist, author and, before you go mentioning it Maura, member of the Bullingdon Club and distant relo to the PM himself.” Harry allows himself a smile, content that he has already taken the sting out the quizmaster’s infamous barbs.

The camera fixes on the host. “So, the contestants for the Weakest Link MoJ special are here. Who will last less time than Applied Language Solutions? Who has less brain cells than second homes? Who will tip the balance for the scales of justice? Lets see as we play……The Weakest Link.”

The studio lights dim further as Maura turns to face the contestants, dramatic music heightening the tension. The questions begin.

“Chris, who failed to deliver on the terms of their £284 million contract to provide security to the London Olympics?”

“Errr…. The army??” replies Chris.

“No, G4S. Tom, who lost the contract to run Wolds prison in the same year that an inspectorate report found ‘concerns about a number of issues, including the availability of drugs, a lack of staff confidence in confronting poor behaviour, weaknesses in the promotion of diversity and limited work and training provision’?”

Tom thinks for a moment. “The Prison Service.”

“No, G4S. Helen, who had to drop out of the contract process for tagging offenders when it was revealed they had been massively over-charging the public for services that had not been provided?”

“The answer must be the Prison Service.”

“Wrong. It’s G4S. Damian, which company is still being paid £1.2 billion to run HMP Altcourse, £1.5 billion to run HMP Parc and also pockets £175 million to provide facility services to the Court Service amongst many such contracts?”

A pained expression crosses Damian’s face, he shakes his head, “Sorry Maura. The answer is there but my minds gone blank.” He looks down at his little desk before him and sighs. “Pass.”

“Not surprisingly, G4S is the answer. Harry…..” Before the question can be started Harry enthusiastically shouts “Bank”. You can almost hear a weary tone in Maura’s voice as she continues, “Harry, which operatic vocal quartet came to prominence on the X-Factor?”

Quick as a flash Harry answers “G4S”. Just as he does the dramatic music returns to signal the end of the round. Maura tilts her head to one side, “Close Harry,” she says, “very close. The correct answer was G4.” She pivots once again to take in all five contestants. “Well team, that wasn’t very impressive. Not a single correct answer and, unlike G4S, not a single pound banked. So, who is more Judge Judy than Baroness Hale? Who is more Marshmallow than Marshall-Hall? It is time to find out as you vote off…..The Weakest Link.”

As the contestants begin to scribble with a plastic stylus on a screen a voice-over, with a hint of ashtray about the voice, chimes in, “Statistically in that round Harry was the weakest link as he tried to bank when there was no money. And as no one else got a single question right the others all tied as the strongest link in that round.”

“Right, time to reveal who you think is the weakest link” Maura tells them with that clipped manner of the school teacher.

In the next 30 seconds each of the first four contestant press a button to reveal a single name written as by a child on an Etch-a-Sketch. Simultaneously each of them declare “Harry”. At the end of the crescent a somewhat forlorn looking Harry reveals Helen as his weakest link.

Maura addresses Damian, “So Damian, clearly nobody leaked the questions to you did they?” Again Damian looks uncomfortable, “No Maura.”

“It can’t have been the pressure of TV, what with you having been a journalist before entering politics, so what made your brain freeze?”

“Well, you see, there are just so many big corporations these days running different aspects of the criminal justice system sometimes it is a bit difficult to keep up with who is doing what,” Damian splutters.

“I see. Not difficult to see how they get away with ripping the public off then is it?”. Not one of the contestants will meet Maura’s eye as she speaks.

“Harry….”

Harry clears his throat, “Yes, Maura.”

“Why did you vote for Helen?”

“Well, Maura, she gave an obvious wrong answer. Anyone in the know would realise we don’t sell…..errr….outsource the running of the prisons to the prison service because that would be insourcing and no one as ever heard of that so…she….was clearly a weak…..I mean….the weakest link.”

“I know Harry, but you got your question wrong as well as shouting ‘bank’ when there was nothing to bank…..” Maura says with a touch of something bordering pity in her voice.

“That was force of habit. The boys in the Bullingdon are forever playing bank when there’s no money to be had so it just popped out,” laments Harry.

“Harry, you are the weakest link…..goodbye“. And with that icy send off, Harry departs the scene, head bowed. Maura turns to the remaining four, “you survive. Well let’s see who is about to be moved to Fisheries? Let us learn who is destined for higher office and who is packing their bags for Northern Ireland as we play……The Weakest Link!”

“As none of you managed a single correct answer in the last round we will start with Chris again…..Chris if the Ministry want a Legal Aid budget of less than £1billion by 2014 how much does it have to save from Criminal Legal Aid?”

A look of confidence flashes across Chris’s face, “20%” he declares in what he believes is an authoritative way.

“Wrong,” replies the host, “the correct answer is ‘not one penny’. Tom, beginning with ‘U’ what describes a proposal that removes the rights of prisoners to bring actions against the State, bars people from receiving funding because of where they were born and simultaneously makes the whole process of Judicial Review harder and more expensive?”

“Hang on a minute, it wasn’t me that this began with,” Tom complains, “it was all Chris’s idea. He was the one….” Maura inerrupts, “Steady on Tom, I didn’t say ‘you’, I said ‘U’…..as in the letter, which word beginning with the letter ‘U’ describes the proposal to limit the individual’s ability to challenge the Government?”

“Oh I see, gotcha, right…Which word…” Tom mumbles to himself, “beginning with ‘U’…..stops Judicial Review….. Got it Maura,” Tom beams as he speaks clearly now, “Useful. Such a proposal is ‘useful’!”

“The answer I was looking for was ‘unconstitutional’.” Maura turns to Helen, “Helen, which South London firm of solicitors was paid £200,000 in Legal Aid after your appointment to the Ministry?”

“Mine!” Helen immediately answers. “Or rather my husband’s….”

“It’s not the answer we have here, that says Grants Solicitors…..but I am being told in my ear we can accept that. Damian, your question, who decides whether the Prosecution should appeal a sentence as unduly lenient?”

“The P-prrrime-Minister,” stammers Damian, “no, wait, the press….nope, hang on….both.”

“Wrong. Again. It’s the Attorney-General,” Maura is interrupted by the dramatic music, “and that’s your lot for this round. So who is the Cambodian defendant with a Mandarin interpreter? Who is a level 1 advocate “acting up” in a level 3 trial of issue? Who is more My Lacklustre than My Learned Friend?”

As the competitors turn their attentions to scribbling their betrayals the voiceover reminds us that Helen, being the only person to answer a question correctly all evening is the strongest link, whilst the three men are equally weak as each other.

Maura looks at the players with increasing disdain, “Who is going getting the go direct to jail card? Who is having their licence revoked? Lets reveal, the Weakest Link.”

Moments later the three male contestants are stood behind their electronic scrawl nominating Helen whilst Helen herself glowers behind her vote for Damian.

“Chris, you haven’t answered a single question correctly all night. It’s almost as if you would be better avoiding the questions if you have no answers. Why Helen?” asks Maura.

“If you have a team of people working at the same level sometimes you just have to say ‘Sorry Guys, this has been a difficult conversation but we are all in it together, it’s just that one of you guys has now gotta be on the outside in the cold, in it with us, in here.’ And that person has to be Helen. Which I am sure she understands.”

The look on Maura’s face tells us she barely understands a word and Helen certainly seems scarcely comforted as she departs the studio floor.

“And then there were three. Is it three wise men or three men in a boat without a paddle and without a clue? Does MoJ stand for Ministry of Justice or Ministry of Jokers? Starting with you Chris…. which member of the cabinet takes an oath to ‘respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and discharge my duty to ensure the provision of resources for the efficient and effective support of the courts for which I am responsible.’?”

For a moment Chris looks stunned, “Me. That’s me!”

CORRECT. Now Tom, which politician, who has not succeeded in an election since 1979, is doing everything he can to make sure the Lord Chancellor does not fulfil his oath?”

“That’ll be me,” cries Tom.

“A miracle. Yes, that’s correct. Now Damian, which is more expensive, the Crown Court or the magistrates?”

“Easy,” claims Damian, “the Crown Court.”

“Right again. Lets keep moving. Chris, statistically which type of sentence is more likely to cut re-offending? A short custodial sentence or supervision by the Probation Service?

“Don’t tell anyone but its Probation,” Chris says, wistfully.

“Wonders never cease, that’s correct. Tom, how often do magistrates commit cases to the Crown Court where the Judge then imposes a sentence less than the maximum available in the Mags?”

“40% of the time,” answers a now cocky Tom.

“What a run. Correct. Now Damian, where should the more complex and serious criminal cases be heard?”

“Too easy, the Mags,” crows Damian.

The dramatic music cues the end of the round. Maura looks visibly drained as she tells Damian, “With that wrong answer you ended the round with no money banked. So which of you is destined for the woolsack and which of you is getting the sack?” And now Maura pauses and looks at her cue cards of acerbic wit. She looks back at the three most senior people in the Ministry. “You know, none of you are the weakest link. Because you are all a shower of shite,” she begins to remove her earpiece and turns to walk away. She glances back at the stunned contestants and continues, “Not one of you has a clue what you are talking about. Not a clue.” As she walks off stage she can be heard saying “Get my agent on the phone. Hook me up with Ant and Dec. If these three are in charge I am beginning to think I am ready for I’m A Barrister, Get Me Out Of Here. Eating a kangaroo testicle has to be better than this…..”

Dear Damian

Dear Damian,

August is traditionally seen as the silly season in the news cycle so it was a perfect time for you to launch your policy concerning magistrates and making the criminal justice system more efficient. By that I mean such a vital policy should not be lost under the morass of other policy announcements, rather than it fitting nicely alongside stories concerning Katie Price or that nice chap with the hair in One Direction.

So my friend, you have identified one of essential problems at the heart of the criminal justice. It is important that magistrates “are routinely dealing with serious and complex cases, within their powers, rather than committing them to the Crown Court for sentencing” and that you find a way of “unclogging magistrates’ courts, for example, by dealing with the 500,000 or so simple road traffic offences out of the traditional process, freeing-up time for magistrates in courtrooms to deal with more serious offences”. Serious and complex cases are exactly what the magistrates is for, not for dealing with cases where someone is prosecuted by the state for driving matters – I mean that is virtually just an exercise in revenue raising by administrative act so should not have that whole “burden and standard of proof” thing anyway. You speak of these hearings being dealt with by a single magistrate in an office. Too right. No need for decisions that can lead to fines, points on driving licences, economic impacts on the individual’s ability to get jobs and insurance and decisions that may ultimately lead to a driving ban to be taken under public scrutiny in open court at the heart of the community. That’s not what the lay bench are for at all.

This is why your policy announcement rises above the normal silly season fare. You are restructuring the whole criminal justice system as we know it. You envisage a magistrates’ court that “routinely deals with serious and complex cases”. The Consolidated Criminal Procedure Rules currently advise magistrates “where cases involve complex questions of fact or difficult questions of laws….. the court should consider committal for trial”. So your policy signifies changes to be made that are far reaching and fundamental. No wonder you would want them to knock Simon Cowell’s love life off the front page. This is not something to try to sneak in under the radar.

In your press release announcing your brave new world you draw the attention of the press to the comparative costs of dealing with a case in the magistrates and the Crown Court. Can I suggest a simple way forward? Get some of those vans. You know, the “immigrant go home” vans? They have proved a bit controversial so get them repainted with the slogan “your worship, accept jurisdiction” and drive them in the vicinity of all magistrate courts. Magistrates have to realise they are volunteers, unlike those expensive Circuit Judge types. They are the very definition of the Big Society. And that means not committing people for sentence is cheap. Bloody cheap. I know that the Consolidated Criminal Procedure Rules state “the court should never make its decision [whether to commit] on the grounds of convenience or expedition” but it doesn’t hurt if we hammer it home to the bench that it is cheaper. The CCPR doesn’t say they can’t base the decision on costs. They probably should not say in open court but no harm giving them a nudge in the right direction is it?

One of the things that you point out is that in 4 out of 10 cases that are committed to the Crown Court for sentence the defendant receives a sentence that is less than the maximum available to the magistrates who committed him/her for sentence. So only 6 in every 10 get more than 6 months in custody when they have been committed save for pursuant to section 6 of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. This is what I like to call the 666 factor (it’s an omen, Damian, an omen).

So we have the situation where a magistrate will often take the decision that they would have passed a higher sentence than is ultimately imposed by the troublesome full time, legally qualified judiciary. Not just an isolated incident but in just under half of all the cases committed. I even understand that, not infrequently, the Crown Court judge will impose a community order in cases where the Magistrates thought their powers insufficient. There are only two answers. One is to up the maximum sentence available to the magistrates. I see in your speech you dangle that tantalisingly before them. But what is much better is just to get them to rein it in a little bit. Have them think “well I would hammer them, but if I just knock a few weeks off I can squeeze it under our maximum and keep him away from that namby-pamby bleeding heart liberal soft arsed Judge and save loads of money in the process”. So we save costs and probably get a nice jump in the prison numbers. Lots of lovely short term prisoners who have little access to rehabilitative work in custody just banged up for hours on end playing Playstation. Get them in custody and get them out again to get them back in again. It is devilishly good.

Admittedly most of those defendants will probably elect to use their automatic right to appeal that sentence to the Crown Court. So the cost saving may be subsumed in to another part of the budget. But I am sure you have a plan for that. Like take away the automatic right to appeal (the devil is in the detail, Damian). It may not be justice but (to quote Franklin Sinclair) it’s not your job to care about justice. Well technically it is, but let’s not quibble over job titles.

Keep up the good work. Perhaps with all the money you are looking to save in streamlining the system you could put some money back in to fees?….. Only joking!!

Yours admiringly,

The Gardener

PS my favourite Kylie song was always “Better the Devil You Know”.

PPS it may interest you to know that if you Google “Damian Green” one of Google’s suggested search terms is “Damian Green Fiddle”. Was a little worried it was going to be one of those tricky expenses misunderstandings like your boss Chris “Split the Bill” Grayling but turns out there is a violinist called Damian Green. Funny.