Saturday, 4 October 2008

Whether to be a Magistrate

I asked the question earlier as to whether I should be a Magistrate. I was concerned that the fact that I disagreed with such a large proportion of the current approach to criminal justice might make it a futile effort. You all urged me to go for it anyway and be an agent for change from within.

I've decided not to apply, though. Sorry.

I'm just looking at the Courts page of my local rag, reporting the last few weeks at the Mags Court. We have:

16 people done for lack of proper vehicle excise duty. Fines vary up to £350, plus an order to pay back tax of between £10 and £105.

Then we have a bloke who was done for:
  • failed to comply with a community order
  • failed to surrender for bail
  • four (4) separate counts of theft

After a complete day in court devoted to him alone, this bloke was given several prison sentences of six weeks each .... but all were suspended. So, in other words, nothing. Yes, I know that if he does anything else then he should go to prison, but he's already breached a community order and his bail terms and nothing has been done about it. So exactly why should I have any faith that if he breaches the terms of the suspended sentences then anything will happen?? Anyway, a suspended sentence is meant to be for people who are thought unlikely to offend again, but he has been found guilty of four separate burglaries and already has a criminal record!

Others with just one count of theft also get a suspended sentence or a community order which (as seen above) need not be complied with. Threatening behaviour gets you an £85 fine; criminal damage weighs in at £250 plus compensation.

Then we get the drivers; between them they have, it seems, been ignoring closed lanes and driving without a licence. They get fined (between £60 and £230) and required to pay costs. Points are given out. Now the speeders. Various infringements of 30 limits get fines of £295, £120, £330, £100, £130 and £60. Being uninsured gets you a fine of a £525 fine. Finally, a drunk driver gets a £130 fine and an 18 month ban.

Now, there is a clear pattern here. Break a motoring rule, and the law will be applied to you; especially if (horror of horrors) your offence involves denying revenue to the Government. However, ruin people's lives through theft and nothing is done. You walk free, with only an instruction not to do it again.

I want nothing to do with that system. If I felt that the system was merely flawed, then it would be worth working within it to do the best I could. But this is totally topsy-turvy. Motoring offences are subjected to the full weight of the law, and given sentences which are (probably) fair. Anything more serious, though, is just let off.

And that would drive me mad.


  1. I think you may have made the correct decision.

    Magistrates have to uphold the law, this now includes the sentencing guidelines.

    Whilst you are right that crimes against the revenue are treated very seriously, you are definitely wrong about suspended sentences. They are not meant for people who are unlikely to offend again. They are "up tariff" from a community sentence and typically includes 2 community requirements.

    The pronouncement goes something like - "We are satisfied that the offence is so serious that custody is the only suitable sentence. For the offence we are therefore making a suspended sentence order."

    When the court suspends a sentence, it must impose one or more requirements for the offender to undertake in the community. The requirements are identical to those available for community orders.

    If the offender fails to comply with a community requirement or commits a further offence, the court must either activate the suspended sentence in full or in part or amend the order so as to:

    a) extend the period during which the offender is subject to community requirements;
    b) make the community requirements more onerous; or
    c) extend the operational period

    Please note "must". It must either become a prison sentence or more onerous or longer.

    I am not sure what your desired solution is? The prisons are full and the few remaining places not well-used by low-level criminals occupying them briefly.

    Magistrates deal with the realities of life, not the "in an ideal world" scenario.

    I get frustrated, but not enough to give up - someone has got to do it and there is still good to be done. I suppose that makes me a "do-gooder." Is the UK the only place where that is a term of abuse!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Dan.

    Glad to be corrected about suspended sentences; I didn't appreciate that a community order would automatically be part of the sentence. Had I realised, I would have commented further on the fact that he had already been "done" for breach of a community order! So giving him another does seem to be a triumph of hope over experience.

    You mention prison places being "not well-used by low-level criminals occupying them briefly". I'd disagree; if prison does not have the desired outcome, then the problem lies with prison management, not sentencing policy. And in any case, by the time one has reached 1 breach of bail, 1 breach of a community order, and 4 thefts, I wouldn't class him as a "low-level" criminal!

    As for solutions, you are right to identify the lack of available prison places. Of course, by not making a custodial sentence because there are no prison places, you assist in concealing the failings of Ministers in not providing the places needed. I'm not sure I could do that; again, it is asking Magistrates to take the wrong decision to compensate for the mistakes of others.

    I also don't understand the pronouncement - it says "We are satisfied that the offence is so serious that custody is the only suitable sentence", and then goes on to impose a sentence that is, if complied with, non-custodial. This does seems somewhat Alice-in-Wonderland.

    And, of course, my point was not about the specific level of sentence for any particular offence, merely that the curve rises rapidly in some areas but not in others.

    Oh, and I'm of the point of view that "do-gooder" is a compliment. I'm glad there are people who still want to do good, and would like to offer you my thanks for the work you do. I hope my musings don't result in you doing less good...

  3. "So giving him another does seem to be a triumph of hope over experience."

    Yes. But no-one who has been up before me for breaching a suspended sentence has yet escaped custody and I hope there may be some that have succesfully completed their order and learnt their lesson.

    "And in any case, by the time one has reached 1 breach of bail, 1 breach of a community order, and 4 thefts, I wouldn't class him as a "low-level" criminal!"

    It is all relative!

    "I also don't understand the pronouncement..."

    Yes, it is rubbish!

    If you have not, have a look at the sentencing guidelines,

    If you could work within them then you should still consider becoming a Magistrate, if not, forget it!

  4. Sorry, previous post was not meant to be anonymous!

  5. "I want nothing to do with that system. "

    Can't blame you...

  6. Another thing to remember is that, despite the sentencing guidelines being enshrined in law, they are still only guidelines, and provided a bench can articulate sound reasons for departing from the guidelines, and listen carefully to the legal adviser's input, discretion is still available.
    The worst that can happen is you get appealed, and even then the Crown Court appeal sits with lay magistrates alongside a judge, so common sense can still be applied.
    So don't give up all hope just yet.

  7. And another thing!

    Do not make a decision like this on the basis of reports in the local rag. They only report the out of the ordinary and may not tell the whole story.

    Why not pop in to a local court. It might confirm your decision or?

  8. I think you have made the right decision since you clearly have no understanding whatsoever of how the court system works.

    Also, since magistrates' are the ones handing out suspended sentences etc, I cannot understand your decision not to join them and so prevent incorrect suspensions being granted... maybe though your post was just an excuse for a disgused rant about drivers being punished etctera.

  9. phatboy,the courts are not working,that IS the problem.
    I live on an housing association estate(ex council same thing)but most magistrates come from middle class backgrounds and have no idea what living on one means.You may get the burglaries but you dont get the violence and intimidation. You read about it in the papers, probably say"how terrible"and turn the page and forget,we have to live with it all the time.We see them swaggering about after going to court bragging and showing off after getting yet another laughable sentence.Others see this and think its clever and join in knowing they will get away with it,and so the rot spreads.You only see these people smartly dressed (yes i know some turn up scruffy but for them thats smart)and their council plead about their deprivations etc when most is self inflicted.
    Danjp,round here we think of a do gooder as naive,misguided fool, usually from a"respectable" middle class background who has no idea how the other half live.They are the sort that give flats to very young unmarried mothers(who know how to work the system)and so the circle continues,each generation worse than the one before.Round here decent people think the parents should be made to look after them,and pay for it,no benefits,if they are throw out then put them in hostels.Its draconian but you have to start somewhere to stop the rot.The do gooder would just throw more of our taxes at them then go home to a nice respectable safe neighbourhood,i wish these people would go out with the police or ambulances of a night to open their eyes.