Friday, September 30, 2005

Busy, Busy, Busy...

I went to my local Magistrates Court yesterday to act as Court Duty Solicitor. Recently the Court Duty sessions have been very quiet where there are only three or four people asking for the services of the Court Duty Solicitor. Yesterday was really busy.

After suffering travel delays I arrived at Court twenty minutes later than I had planned to arrive. I rushed in through the doors and was immediately confronted by a queue of twelve people who wanted to see me and a demanding own Client who was also demanding to see me.

I worked through the morning, lunch and was still going at 4.45pm. I dealt with many drink drive and failing to provide cases and a handful of other imprisonable offences. All in all it was a fairly productive day. As a result of the cases adjourned from today I have lodged six legal aid applications and if they all result in guilty pleas and standard fees then the firm I worked for has coined in more than £1,350 plus VAT, plustravelingg, plus waiting. Also there is the money that they earn as a result of me being Court Duty Solicitor, and that would have been close to £400 plus VAT. Not bad money for the cases and work generated from one day.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Waiting Again

The joy of waiting at Court is starting to wear me down. Today I arrived promptly at Court for a pre-trial review for a case where my Clients attendance had been excused. As I arrived at Court on time I anticipated that I had chance of getting on early and away from Court early.

Despite my prompt arrival my case could not be dealt with early as the Prosecutor had some enquiries to conduct in my case before they could be ready.

I then looked around the waiting area and saw seven other solicitors sitting around waiting. From time to time they would take instructions but generally they were waiting like me. So for a period of time there were seven people all sitting waiting at legal aid rates of £26.30 per hour.

The Magistrates and Youth Court system (apart from trials and other specially scheduled hearings) work on a first come first served basis. The Court will schedule 20 or so cases in the list and when both the Defendants and legal representatives are ready they will go on the usher's list as being a ready case. Then each case on the ready list is called in to Court.

Success of getting a case dealt with early at Court is so random, and is sodependentt on factors outside of my control that I find the whole waiting situation so frustrating. The factors that can spoil a case being ready are things such as:

1. The prosecution not having the file or case papers.
2. The Defendant arriving at Court late.
3. If the Defendant is in custody Securicor/Premier bringing the Defendant late.
4. The usher taking cases out of order and giving preference to their 'preferred solicitor'.
5. The Court being really slow to deal with other cases.
6. A Co-defendant or Co-defendant's solicitor arriving at Court late.
7. The Court not having a file for the Defendant.

There is of course the possibility that the Defendant has not previously provided any instructions so you have to go through the case with them at Court meaning that you will be thrown in to the back end of the usher's ready case list when you are finally ready to go in to Court.

I have thought about this many times and have yet to come up with a decent suggestion as to how to eliminate all of this waiting around at Youth Courts or Magistrates Court. An obvious suggestion would be to move to the Crown Court system where Defendants are given staggered times across the morning and afternoon for cases to be dealt with. The random factors that plague the Youth Court and Magistrates Court system are likely to render the staggered system unworkable.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Why Do They Do It?

"I urge you to co-operate with the Probation Service in the preparation of your pre-sentence report as it may be very influential when you are to be sentenced". This is a standard phrase that I use and include in letters when Clients have pleaded guilty and their case has been adjourned for pre-sentence reports. If a PSR has been ordered I usually come out of Court and verbally advise my Clients to drop everything to ensure that they attend at their appointment with Probation. The appointment is usually made by the Probation Service sending the Client a letter in the post telling them to attend their office within a few days at an appointed date and time.

With this advice in mind I still fail to understand why some of my Clients simply do not attend for their PSR interviews. I have heard all of the excuses under the sun. Some of my Clients fail to understand that where a PSR has been ordered considering all sentencing options, including prison, the fact that they fail to turn up to the PSR interview without a good excuse suggests that they are lazy and unlikely to comply with any other sentence supervised by the Probation Service.

What frustrates me about Clients who fail to attend at their appointment for their PSR interview is that I am usually left to explain to the Court why the interview did not take place as arranged. Sometimes the Court will refuse to adjourn the case further and they proceed to sentencing with only prison in mind.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Pleasant Prosecutor

My afternoon today was spent down at a Youth Court for what should have been a trial. This was a trial where my Client had failed to provide any instructions and had a pretty poor defence anyway.

I had dealt with the Police Station investigation for this case and had been present when the Client had been interviewed. I had told him to answer questions and he had put forward a less than convincing defence as to why he was riding around on a Ă‚£3,000 motorbike that had been stolen less than 24 hours before his arrest.

When I turned up to Court I had the usual chat with the Prosecutor who seemed to have his doubts about the case. He kept telling me that my Client sounded very credible in interview. Eventually the Prosecutor decided to offer no evidence against my Client on the basis of what he had said, and the manner in which he had said, in interview. This was a case where my Client was being prosecuted for want of a better phrase joy riding. His defence was that he paid money for the motorbike that he was on, and he had no suspicion or knowledge that the bike was stolen. All he had said in interview was that he had paid a guy on the street a few hundred pounds for the bike.

The Prosecutor did offer no evidence against my Client, which was a good result. I cannot decide why the experienced Prosecutor offered no evidence as his case was reasonably strong, perhaps he has a good trial record to protect and did not want to suffer a loss, perhaps he wanted a quick afternoon free of a trial so he could go home, or perhaps he actuallybelievedd what a Defendant had said!

Rude Judge

As part of my travels today I went to Snaresbrook Crown Court where three of my Clients were appearing for a plea and directions hearing. Out of these three Clients two did not speak English and required the services of an interpreter.

When the case was called on the interpreter was sworn in and before anything else was said the Judge said to defence counsel, "Very disappointing Mr. Bloggs." Mr. Bloggs replied, "Sorry your Honour?" Then the Judge asked if the Clients were UK residents. The Judge was told that the three Clients had all been UK residents for over 10 years. Then the Judge laid in to the Clients who did not speak English saying that it was very disappointing that they had come to and been in the UK for over 10 years and had not even made the effort to learn English, and that they had not made the effort to integrate within English society. At this point most of the jaws of people in the Court room had hit the floor as they could not believe what was being said.

The Judge fell short of making any racist remarks but clearly left everyone with the opinion that if anyone had failed to integrate with society it was probably the Judge. He did not take the time to understand that one of the Clients had such a poor education in their country of origin that they could not read or write in their native language. The Judge also failed to appreciate that the second defendant using the interpreter did speak some English, but had the interpreter not been present he would have undoubtedly been unable to follow the Court proceedings with phrases and words being banded around such as 'indictment', 'lie on file', or 'basis of plea'.

Isn't it good that all members of our judiciary are fair and impartial for every case and defendant that they deal with?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Marriage Made In...?

Whilst standing around waiting for a case to be called on at Court last week I started talking to a fellow solicitor. After talking for a while our conversation drifted off the topic that we started on and this solicitor told me that he was married to a vicar. I was most intrigued about this marriage as I would have thought that a vicar might have had some issues being married to a person who may from time to time protect people who are not wholly innocent.

Friday, September 23, 2005

I Don't Give A Toss Anymore

Whilst sitting around at Southwark Crown Court today waiting to go in to Court I overhead two police officers talking.

Officer 1: ...She was stabbed in the neck by her boyfriend. It was touch and go for a while in hospital and after a few days the boyfriend turned up. He wanted to get in to her bed for a shag. The hospital would not have it so she asked me if she could leave. I said it was not up to me. She left with the boyfriend who nearly killed her. That's why I don't give a toss anymore, why should I?
Officer 2: Hmmm...
Officer 1: If they are going to get in to bed with the people who have just stabbed them why should they bother to turn up to Court?
Officer 2: Hmmm...
Officer 1: It does my head in.

Newton Hearings

I was down in the diary to deal with a Newton hearing today. Newton hearings are often fairly odd because they are mini trials to decide how guilty someone. Usually a Newton hearing comes about because a Client has made limited admissions or accepts responsibility for part of a crime but not all of it.

My hearing today was to decide if my Client had accidentally struck his partner or whether he had really laid in to her and caused her moderate injuries by punching, kicking etc., etc.

The slightly odd thing about this hearing was that there had been two previous attempts to have the Newton hearing but the victim had failed to attend and had shown little interest in attending today. I say it is slightly odd for this scenario as people accused of domestic violence often say nothing when they are interviewed, they then plead not guilty at Court in the hope that the victim will not come to Court, or that the Prosecution will not have other evidence such as witnesses, photographs or hearsay applications that are capable of proving the case without the victim attending. I had not previously dealt with this Client before and had not worked on his file until I prepared for today's hearing.

I went off to Court expecting the victim not to turn up again and for things to go my way. The victim did not turn up, but eventually the Court ran out of time to deal with my case and at 4.45 pm it was decided that it was too late to deal with any issues arising from my case even though the victim had failed to attend again. A trial from the morning that had an estimate of 3 hours kept on going until past 4.45 pm. If that trial had finished on time my Client would have got his chance to argue that his basis of plea was correct.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Bizzare Offences

When I go off to Court I usually see the same faces. Newer faces tend to walk around with books under their arm. New barristers always tend to walk around with either a copy of Blackstone's Criminal Practice or Archbold's Pleadings and Evidence. New solicitors generally walk around either with a copy of Anthony and Berryman's Magistrates Court guide or the Criminal Law Solicitors Association Duty Solicitor Handbook. My preference is to walk around with no books as I have enough files to walk around with. If I need to refer to a book I will either find someone at Court and commandeer their copy for five minutes, or I will phone up the office and get someone to read out what I need to know.

Everytime I read the larger text books I come across some kind of bizarre criminal offence. Now these bizarre offences sometimes come in handy. Years ago I remember being at Tottenham Police Station and I was representing a youth who had been accused of theft of a pedal cycle. I had remembered seeing that there was an equivalent offence to joyriding for bicycles under s. 12(5) of the Theft Act 1968. After using this bizarre offence I managed to get my Client a caution instead of being charged with theft. They had not considered cautioning him as he already had cautions for theft (straightforward s. 1 of the Theft Act 1968), but they were happy to caution him where the caution was for a different offence.

Here are a few more offences that I have pulled out of the text books - ther older the offence the more bizarre it sounds. By the way these are all offences that are still currently available to be committed and punished for.

Section 36 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861: Obstructing or assaulting a clergyman or other minister in the discharge of his duties in place of worship or burial place, or on his way thither

Whosoever shall, by threats or force, obstruct or prevent or endeavour to obstruct or prevent, any clergyman or other minister in or from celebrating divine service or otherwise officiating in any church, chapel, meeting house, or other place of divine worship, or in or from the performance of his duty in the lawful burial of the dead in any churchyard or other burial place, or shall strike or offer any violence to, or shall, upon any civil process, or under the pretence of executing any civil process, arrest any clergyman or other minister who is engaged in, or to the knowledge of the offender is about to engage in, any of the rites or duties in this section aforesaid, or who to the knowledge of the offender shall be going to perform the same or returning from the performance thereof, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.

Section 3 of the Game Act 1831: Penalty for killing or taking game on certain days and during certain seasons—Penalty for laying poison to kill game

...If any person whatsoever shall kill or take any game, or use any dog, gun, net, or other engine or instrument for the purpose of killing or taking any game, on a Sunday or Christmas Day, such person shall, on conviction thereof before two justices of the peace, forfeit and pay for every such offence such sum of money, not exceeding [level 1 on the standard scale], as to the said justices shall seem meet,...; and if any person whatsoever shall kill or take any partridge between the first day of February and the first day of September in any year, or any pheasant between the first day of February and the first day of October in any year, or any black game (except in the county of Somerset or Devon, or in the New Forest in the county of Southampton) between the tenth day of December in any year and the twentieth day of August in the succeeding year, or in the county of Somerset or Devon, or in the New Forest aforesaid, between the tenth day of December in any year and the first day of September in the succeeding year, or any grouse commonly called red game between the tenth day of December in any year and the twelfth day of August in the succeeding year, or any bustard between the first day of March and the first day of September in any year, every such person shall, on conviction of any such offence before two justices of the peace, forfeit and pay, for every head of game so killed or taken, such sum of money, not exceeding [level 1 on the standard scale] as to the said justices shall seem meet,...; and if any person, with intent to destroy or injure any game, shall at any time put or cause to be put any poison or poisonous ingredient on any ground, whether open or inclosed, where game usually resort, or in any highway, every such person shall, on conviction thereof before two justices of the peace, forfeit and pay such sum of money, not exceeding [level 1 on the standard scale] as to the said justices shall seem meet...

Section 35 of the Malicious Damage Act 1861: 35 Placing wood, etc, on railway, taking up rails, etc, turning points, showing or hiding signals, etc, with intent to obstruct or overthrow any engine, etc

Whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously put, place, cast, or throw upon or across any railway any wood, stone, or other matter or thing, or shall unlawfully and maliciously take up, remove, or displace any rail, sleeper, or other matter or thing belonging to any railway, or shall unlawfully and maliciously turn, move, or divert any points or other machinery belonging to any railway, or shall unlawfully and maliciously make or show, hide or remove, any signal or light upon or near to any railway, or shall unlawfully and maliciously do or cause to be done any other matter or thing, with intent, in any of the cases aforesaid, to obstruct, upset, overthrow, injure, or destroy any engine, tender, carriage, or truck using such railway, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be kept in penal servitude for life... or to be imprisoned...

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Life Of A Head Clerk

Clerks in barristers chambers always seem to me to have an easy life. I regularly phone up clerks and speak to them a number of times a day. Their role in chambers seems to be to maintain the diaries of the barristers they are looking after to ensure they have a constant flow of work. They seem to be able to outsource billing. They also seem to have to shout at more junior members of chambers when something goes wrong.

I went out tonight with a few friends and met up in Holborn. As we were having a quiet drink we were met by a number of barristers and two of their clerks from a chambers that I regularly instruct. The head clerk was out and he was walking around with a briefcase. I asked him what he carried in his briefcase as I doubted that he would take home any work. He told me that he basically carried around the diaries of five QCs, and that his main role in chambers was to ensure that his five QCs got to every case that they were supposed to be at.

This particular clerk is a nice character. He has obviously been very successful and is reaping the rewards of his hard work. He maintains a suntan by regular golfing holidays to Spain. He told me that after a chambers meeting it had been suggested by the more senior members of chambers that he should try to bring in some work from the Cayman Islands. Apparently the Cayman Islands has the same legal system as the UK. He then told me that he is due to fly out to the Cayman Islands soon for a three week trip designed to network and drum up business for his five QCs and other members of chambers.

Now I wonder when I will pick up a serious fraud case that requires a trip to the Cayman Islands that is being funded by legal aid?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Boring Day

I spent all day sitting around a Youth Court today. I had one case listed in the morning and one case listed in the afternoon. This particular Youth Court is well known in East London for being particularly inefficient.

I arrived early and was ready with my Client early. My Client was due to be sentenced but due to a lack of a pre sentence report my Client's case was undoubtedly going to be adjourned. I had to wait over one and a half hours to get called in to Court to spend five minutes asking for an adjournment.

My case in the afternoon was ready to go in to Court just after 2.00 pm. The same usher and same lay bench in the same Court from the morning took another two hours to call on the case.

Neither case finished today. I have achieved nothing today. Looking back I wish I had got a colleague to cover the hearings or instructed a barrister to represent my Clients. I may sound lazy but I have got other cases to prepare and the time spent traveling and waiting today could have been spent preparing those cases.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Plead Guilty!!!

I went off to one of my local Crown Courts to have a conference with a Client and his barrister today. I had suffered massive problems trying to arrange a conference in prison before his trial date so a conference at this trial readiness hearing seemed like a good idea.

This particular case has troubled me for some time. The case concerns a house being used as a cannabis factory kitted out with hydroponic lighting. The evidence against my Client is that he is seen walking out of the house holding two bin liners stuffed full of fresh cannabis leaves. Also his finger print is found inside the house. His instructions prior to the Prosecution serving their forensic evidence was that he was never in the house. Since the forensic evidence has been served my Client has failed to account for his finger print in any way but refuses to accept that the evidence is so strong that he will be convicted.

The conversation at the conference today went something like this:

Me: The evidence against you is overwhelming.
Client: I know, but, I am not pleading guilty.
Me: The evidence is so strong you will be convicted at trial.
Client: Okay.
Me: Why is your finger print in the property?
Client: I don't know.
Me: How did it get there?
Client: I don't know.
Me: C'mon, at least explain what your finger print is doing there?
Client: I don't know how it got there.
Me: Is it your finger print?
Client: I guess so.
Barrister: If you get convicted after a trial you will go to prison for longer than you would if you pleaded guilty.
Client: I know.
Barrister: You could serve a long time in prison.
Client: Right.
Me: Are you insane? Do you not understand what I am saying?
Client: I understand. I am not pleading guilty.

So my mad client decided to maintain his not guilty plea despite my advice that he will undoubtedly be convicted at trial. He seems to understand the advice I am giving him but he refuses, for reasons unknown to myself, to change his plea to get a lesser sentence. Even if my Client is innocent he has not provided me with the evidence, or the leads, I need to help him fight the case. This is one case of legal suicide.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Solicitors On Strike

I went to a meeting yesterday to discuss with other solicitors in my local area whether we should take any strike action should the Legal Services Commission try to impose price competitive tendering upon us.

I have been to a number of these meetings and they were well attended at the beginning. Tonight representatives from just four firms attended! The chap organising the group had sent letters to all of the local firms doing legally aided criminal defence work.

We found ourselves in a difficult position trying to discuss whether or not the local group should consider strike action, after 30 seconds we decided that our meeting was pointless because we could not make a decision on behalf of the local area as only four firms were represented.

We quickly disbanded with the chap who had made considerable efforts over the past few weeks to organise the group telling someone who had rung him on his mobile phone, "I can't be arsed any more, what's the point?"

I left rather disappointed. I had been impressed when I had learnt that this group had formed as it was one of the rare times I had seen solicitors actually doing something positive to stand up for themselves and the rights of their Clients. I guess we will go back to criticising change and fighting amongst ourselves instead of helping each other.

What A Mess

One of the cases I dealt with today was a pre-trial review for two Clients who were appearing in the Youth Court. The case had already been fixed for a two day trial and I dealt with a pre-trial review for this case about four weeks ago.

As this case involves youths as victims of crime their evidence has been recorded on video. Despite these recordings being made some eight weeks ago the Police Officer in the case appeared at Court today and handed a copy of the videos to the CPS and said that copies were being made for the defence and that we could get our copies tomorrow. The Prosecution then had the cheek to make a special measures application for the videos to be played in evidence at the trial. How can you make an application for the videos to be played when they have not been served? Criminal Procedure Rules r29.7 was used by me to fend off this ridiculous application. What made me chuckle about the application was the fact that whole parts of the written application were left empty because the Prosecution could not answer the standard questions as they had not seen the videos.

I really put the boot in today making scathing comments about the lack of professionalism displayed by the Criminal Justice Unit for the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service. After making these comments I was handed a bundle of documents containing some new bits of disclosure.

When I had finished venting my anger I then applied to break the trial date as I stated there was probably insufficient time to properly prepare the case. The Prosecution objected and I never actually thought that the Court would break the trial date but I had to make the application in case I did actually suffer problems getting through the evidence, or getting instructions from my Client. It is better to have an early application that fails and it repeated closer to the time of the trial than just turning up to the trial trying to get it adjourned.

As this pre-trial review was being heard in front of a Clerk and not a bench or a district judge my application had to be transferred to another Court. I only had to wait two hours and ten minutes for the other Court to call my case on!

I cited many varied reasons to break the trial date and then the Prosecutor suggested having 14 working days was more than enough to prepare a trial, and if necessary I could work at weekends or see my Clients after normal office hours. The Co-defendant's representative was rather amusing, he did not seem to understand that the victim's evidence would be on a video and he kept demanding copies of their statements. Once he had managed to understand the concept of special measures he then demanded videos and transcripts that were going to be served tomorrow.

The result of all of the mud slung around Court was that the case was adjourned for a pre-trial review next week to check progress of the case. I am getting ready for round two of the mud slinging if the Prosecution fail to come up trumps with their promises made at today's hearing.

Bar Strike Prediction

I have spoken in recent months about the Bar striking and refusing to accept new instructions from 3rd October 2005. I have applauded this stand against the current legal aid climate where cuts are made by various Government agencies and the legal profession is told to just get on with it.

The Bar strike is less than three weeks away, and I am going to predict now that the Bar strike is going to be called off. The Bar Council recently published a letter that has been circulated to it's members, part of that letter reads as follows:

"Early contacts with Lord Carter give us cause for some cautious optimism that he values the contribution that an independent referral profession of advocates makes to the criminal justice system, and that his recommendations will seek to build on the achievements of the existing GFS. There is no doubt that Lord Carter will be astute to identify and eradicate the inefficiencies in the trial system, but I believe that we will all have much the same object in this regard, since the elimination of inefficiency enables skill and effort to be fairly and properly rewarded."

"There is still a long way to go, but my team and I are intending to finalise an initial submission to put forward to Lord CarterĂ‚’s secretariat in the middle of September 2005."

I believe that anannouncementt will be made on the Bar Council web site before 3rd October 2005 stating that the Bar have called off the strike whilst they wait for the Carter Review to announce recommendations.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Harmonised EU Criminal Laws

Lennie Briscoe said... Gavin, whats your take on the headline in todays "The Times"? "Europe wins the power to jail citizens" . In short Brussels has been given powers to fine or imprison British people for breaking certain EU laws even if the government or parliament are opposed. i.e. harmonised criminal law across Europe..

Lennie my take is, "Oh, my god!". It is bad enough that our Government meddles with the criminal justice system with crackpot ideas that are not thought through or costed properly, but for the EU to suddenly decide that they have the power to create criminal offences and then enforce punishment of those offences without our approval is crazy. I would like to know how the EU thinks it is going to enforce these new laws without the help of our legal system. It is all well and good the EU taking the United Kingdom to Court and punishing them financially for failing to enforce EU laws but I cannot see how our Courts are suddenly going to bend over to accommodate EU law.

This is an interesting development that I expect will receive harsh political criticism and invoke a fierce debate over the next few weeks. I am confident that the Courts all the way up to the House of Lords will do what they can to limit this decision by finding some way to ignore it.

Ironic Sentence

I went off to deal with a particular case at the Magistrates Court today. My Client was remanded in custody three weeks ago to be sentenced today for a matter of driving whilst disqualified. This Client had seven previous convictions for driving whilst disqualified, and the Court appearance was for the Client to be sentenced for his eighth offence.

I prepared for this case yesterday afternoon, and noticed that we had previously represented the Client. I pulled out the previous file on the Client. His list of previous convictions on the new file suggested that he recently got a four month prison sentence for driving whilst disqualified. The old file stated that he in fact received a four month prison sentence suspended for twelve months! The Client's list of previous convictions was clearly wrong and there was no information on the new file to alert the CPS or Court to the suspended prison sentence.

Solicitors have a duty of confidentiality and therefore it was not for me to put the Court right. Provided that I did not mislead the Court it was perfectly acceptable for me to not correct the Court and just acknowledge that I had seen the list of previous convictions.

The hearing went rather smoothly and thankfully no questions were asked about the suspended sentence that was incorrectly recorded on the Client's list of previous convictions. Rather ironically I was able to keep the Client out of prison and he was given another suspended prison sentence!

Monday, September 12, 2005

Bizarre Pre-trial Review

I received a letter on Friday from one of my local Magistrates Courts. The letter told me that an informal pre-trial review hearing was going to take place in relation to one of the Magistrates Courts trials that I was going to be the trial advocate for. This informal pre-trial review was to take place today.

I went off to Court today slightly unsure what an informal pre-trial review might involve. When I arrived at Court I was directed inside the building towards the Court's library. I have very rarely been inside of this particular Magistrates Court so it was a bit of a surprise to have a pre-trial review outside of a court room. I was ushered by the Court's security staff to a waiting area within the Court and sat waiting in a plush chair which was far nicer than the furniture that I usually sit on waiting.

When my name was called out I was escorted in to the Court library and sat down on one side of a conference table. At the head of the table was one of the Court Clerks. On the other side of the table was one CPS lawyer and then six females who I had not seen before. It was explained to me by the Clerk that the Court was running a trial readiness pilot and that in addition to the Crown Prosecution Service and myself being present there were also representatives from the six criminal justice areas served by the Court. Good idea I thought. We went through the pre-trial review without any major hitches. The Clerk did state that the hearing was to be considered a hearing, that he would use his delegated powers to make directions if necessary, and that the hearing was taking place under the Courts Crest.

Now I know what an informal pre-trial review is. Apparently there are going to be more and more of these hearings - what joy!

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Consultations

Consultations papers are regularly issued by various bodies in the legal system attempting to change systems and methods that are currently in place. The past ten days has seen a flurry of activity with consultation papers being published on subjects that criminal lawyers really should take an active interest in. Recently consultation papers have been issued on:

  1. Home Office consultation on the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 Codes of Practice that deal with stop and search, search of premises, detention, interviews, identification, and now arrests.
  2. Sentencing Advisory Panel's consultation on sentencing in criminal cases of assaults and other offences against the person.
  3. Home Office consultation on victim's advocates so that families of murder or manslaughter victims can have a voice in court.
  4. Home Office consultation on whether a new criminal offence should be created to deal with forced marriages.
  5. Department for Constitutional Affairs consultation paper on, "The Delegation of Powers by Justices' Clerks to Non Legally Qualified Staff in Magistrates' Courts in England and Wales".

The problem with all of these consultation papers is that they take a considerable amount of time to read, consider, and then prepare an answer to. There may be consultation papers on legal issues that I have omitted to mention that have been issued recently, but as far as I am concerned the above five papers are the most important to my profession.

I probably should respond to all of the papers but I doubt that I will have the time to put together a reasoned and sensible response for any more than one of them. After working a grueling five day week, I often have out of hours work commitments with Police Stations to attend to, and if there is any time at the weekend I try to see my wife and children. Thankfully there are professional bodies that submit responses to these consultations. I am a great believer in voicing my opinion on matters, and I particularly like to be able to stand up and whinge about new changes in the law where I have objected to those changes. I shall try my best to respond to the consultations but there are simply too many at the present time.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

It's Not Important Enough

I work in a fairly run down part of London, and some of the trainee solicitors that I work with live in some of the run down parts of London as they are the cheaper places to live. One particular trainee that I work with phoned me on Monday night but did not leave a message, I asked her on Tuesday if her call had been urgent and she told me that there had been an incident outside of her front door where someone had been stabbed. Blood had gone everywhere but the Police had not turned up when called.

On Tuesday the trainee solicitor discovered that a large blood stained machete had been left in her recycling bin by her front door. She had telephoned the Police and she had been told that a Police Officer would come and collect the knife. As a Police Officer had not collected the knife by Wednesday morning the trainee then phoned the Police again and asked what she should do about the dangerous weapon left on her doorstep. She was told not to worry and that she should consider bringing it in to the Police Station. The trainee stated that she may inadvertently destroy evidence if she moved the machete and did not want to walk around London holding what was an offensive weapon. Then the trainee was told that the knife incident was on a list of things to do by the Police, and it ranked as 90th it the list of priorities.

The trainee was quite concerned that the Police did not appear to be concerned about collecting the knife or do anything that appeared to look like they were investigating the stabbing. What concerns me is that the Police seem to have left the crime, and that means there will be one less potential arrest for me to deal with!

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Case Dismissed

I was looking forward to a trial today. I had several cases to deal with in the morning and then in the afternoon I had booked myself in to do a domestic violence trial.

I had seen the Client whom I was defending on a number of occasions and knew the case inside out. The allegation from the victim was that my Client had arrived at the victim's home uninvited, slapped her several times, dragged her out of bed, down the stairs and in to the street where it was alleged that she had been kicked repeatedly. The medical evidence suggested that she had tenderness to her head and a sore arm but nothing else. My Client's instructions were that he had argued with the victim and she had fallen over when she went to grab my Client when he was leaving. Even if my Client had not been telling the truth his instructions were more consistent with the medical evidence than the victim's.

I met my Client early and discussed his case, then the Officer in the Case arrived and I spoke with him. He said he had not spoken with the victim recently and believed that she had gone AWOL. Within minutes the case had been called on, the Prosecutor offered no evidence and the case was dismissed against my Client. In fact it happened so quickly that my Client was confused about what had happened.

I left Court rather disappointed that I had not had the chance to get stuck in to the case and some good cross examination. Recently my success rate with contested cases has gone through the roof, the only problem is the cases keep falling apart before the first prosecution witness is called.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Stooges

Over the past few months I have been involved in a fair number of identification procedures. I regularly go to St. Anns Road and Southwark ID Suites. As the Police force that I usually deal with is the Metropolitan Police I have become quite familiar with their video identification system.

The VIPER (Video Identification Parade Electronically Recorded) system is very simple. In stage one the Client has a video clip captured of his head and shoulders. Stage two is where the Client selects eight other similar clips to create a composite video of nine clips to be shown to the witness. These eight other clips come from a massive Police database of volunteers who have actually been paid to have their video recording captured - these volunteers are referred to by us in the business as stooges. Stage three is where the witness views the composite vide and tries to identify the Client.

Today I was at an ID Suite viewing a composite video prior to a witness watching the video. I have seen many of the stooges held on the Police database but time after time one particular youth stooge is rolled out. He has a particularly evil look about him and if a witness was looking at a video containing his clip they are likely to identify this stooge as he simply looks like a criminal. I do not know how many stooges the Metropolitan Police have on their system but I seem to be seeing the same stooges more regularly.

After having a small wager with the civilian staff member that was assisting with the parade that the evil stooge was going to be picked out I sat and waited for the witness to arrive. After half an hour the Police telephoned the witness to find out where they were and the reply that was given was that the witness had not attended because they did not know how to get to the ID Suite. The witness did confirm that they had been sent a map with directions. I was amused by this response as the witness was clearly reluctant to assist the Police. I was sat in the ID Suite and the witness lived less than a mile away, I have no doubt that he could have found the Police Station if he had chosen to look at the map.

Today was another waste of time. Despite the poor excuse given by the witness the case has been postponed for another viewing next week on the basis that the witness will attend then!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Victim's Advocates

The Government has announced that it has issued a consultation paper and that it will run a pilot providing the families of victims of murder and manslaughter an advocate to speak up in Court on their behalf.

This is a ridiculous idea that I dismissed several months ago as sheer lunacy, and now it looks like our daft Government wants to consider the proposal as a reality. Thankfully the Government has dropped the idea of a victim's advocate for other serious cases such as rape.

I cannot see how an advocate for the family of a victim of murder or manslaughter can add to the Court proceedings. It is already established practice for the Police and other Government agencies to liaise with these families. In some cases impact statements are produced by the families and are given to Judge's before a Defendant is sentenced.

I have not yet read the consultation paper in full but it does seem to keep away from the idea of involving these victim's advocates in a trial process. So if an advocate represents the family at the sentence hearing how will they know what was proved at trial, or whether there was a basis of plea etc.? Surely the family will push the version of events known to them as opposed to the version agreed within the Court?

MY biggest gripe about this foolish enterprise is how are these advocates going to be paid? The government has said for years that the legal aid budget has finite resources and in the past year or so there have been dramatic announcements by the Department for Constitutional Affairs telling barristers and solicitors that they must put up with pay cuts. Are the victims advocates going to be funded by the government in a system similar to prosecution work where there seems to be limitless resources?

It just strikes me as strange that there is already a framework in place for victim's families t be supported and informed about the progress of a prosecution. If this system is not working why not revamp the current system instead of bringing in an additional advocate to a Court hearing.

Is it right that the Government cuts the scope and availability of legal aid to Defendants, that it cuts rates of pay to defence solicitors and barristers, and then out money to victim's advocates when there is already provision for victim's families to have a voice in Court?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Criminal Information Agency

As I checked my e-mail inbox today I received an e-mail informing me about a new web site called the Criminal Information Agency. I first of all read a local newspaper report on the chap who had set up the web site. In the report it described the website as a business venture where the chap was employing 22 people and, "The venture will be funded by more than 40,000 UK solicitors and barristers listed on the site." I then took a look at the site. It appears that the web site has just started (as the news report suggests) and there is not yet much content on the site. But, the site makes several boasts that sounds very impressive.

Firstly the web site suggests that it will provide, "...Probably, the world's first and only service that will provide our readers with 24 hour on-line legal advice. Also we at the Criminal Information Agency are going to introduce a new and innovative way for our readers to find or locate a solicitor or barrister by introducing them to our legal advice and representation area of the website. This is truly a unique way of getting legal advice and legal representation." The web site is clearly aimed at criminal law and I have yet to come across many criminals who have chosen to instruct a solicitor or barrister on the strength of a web site. Most cases that are referred to me are by way of 'word of mouth' recommendations. Criminals are sometimes very picky about their solicitor and stick with their trusted solicitor for years. I know that my firm advertises extensively in local newspapers, the Yellow Pages and other local directories and every once in a while we will pick up a case on the basis of advertising or even a web site.

Secondly, the web site aims to name and shame those people who have received an anti-social behaviour order: "Mr Croxton said: "If you think someone is breaching an asbo you can check the conditions of their curfew, for example, and then report them to the relevant authorities." Does this not go against the ethos of the web site that is aimed at assisting those accused of crimes? A central publicly accessible register of people subject to an ASBO sounds like an interesting idea. But where are the resources going to come from to fund the reporting of ASBOs imposed across England and Wales. Companies such as Smith Bernal charge a small fortune to provide transcription services for Crown Court cases. Even services such as Lawtel or Butterworths do not have the ability to report on routine sentences across the country. I shall wait and see how this section of the web site develops.

Lastly I do not think there are 40,000 barristers in England and Wales who practice in criminal law, although I could be wrong. If someone is looking for a solicitor they can simply use the Law Society's 'Find A Solicitor' section of their website to locate a solicitor that undertakes criminal work in their local area. Why advertise when the Law Society provides this functionality for free?

Good luck Mr. Coxton on your venture.