Tuesday, March 21, 2006

It's Chaos Out There

Here is the text of a Sunday Mirror article looking at the sad state of affairs in our Magistrates Courts:

The Sunday Mirror investigates "chaos in our magistrates' courts" which costs £173m a year. It warns "BRITISH justice is in danger of collapse - as our criminal courts descend into farce."

One in three magistrates' court cases fail to go ahead because of needless adjournments, missing files and time-wasting, a Sunday Mirror investigation has revealed.

We sat in court and witnessed a catalogue of blunders and delays. Scarcely more than 40 per cent of cases reach a satisfactory conclusion on the day they are listed. Because of the chaos many defendants don't bother turning up, knowing that amid the confusion it may take the system weeks to catch up with them.

Our findings come weeks after a National Audit Office survey revealed £173million was wasted last year on trials and hearings in magistrates' courts. Sitting in three courts last week, we witnessed how:

One defendant phoned the court to say she could not appear on a shoplifting charge because she was off on holiday to Thailand.

A thief who had broken the terms of his jail parole laughed as he was freed from court and told to give himself up to police.

A bored solicitor started planning her holiday wardrobe as she waited hours to ask for a simple adjournment.

Take the case at Dartford Magistrates' Court in Kent of Simon Hull, a 20-year-old criminal let out of jail early on condition he behaved.

But he was caught damaging and stealing items from a car. All his defence said was that he was in "a sorry state with alcohol and drug problems".

You might think he would be sent straight back to jail. But it was explained to him that a warrant would be issued for his arrest. He was told he could go to a police station to be arrested or wait for police to catch him. He asked: "So I have to get myself arrested?" The court clerk said: "Yes. The word 'daft' comes to mind."

Hull responded: "I've never heard something so stupid in all my life." He added, to laughter: "I'll do it Sunday. I'll enjoy my weekend then I'll give myself up."

We witnessed another example of the disdain in which our courts are held in Staines, Middlesex. Jessica Gibbs, 24, had phoned the court the day before she was due to appear on a shoplifting charge to say she couldn't make it because she was going on holiday to Thailand.

When she did finally appear she admitted the offence, claiming she stole £500 worth of computer games from a newsagents because she owed her rent. Magistrates' chairman Mrs Vicky Royce told her: "Your holiday fits a little oddly with you saying you could not pay your rent arrears."

Gibbs said the holiday had been a gift from her family. When asked if her family were prepared to help with the rent, she replied: "No, they wasn't."

Gibbs was ordered to carry out 60 hours of community service and pay £50 costs. The cost of wasted court time was estimated at £687, according to figures from the National Audit Office.

Back in Dartford, the court was due to hear a case against a 17-year-old youth charged with a string of offences. The woman defence solicitor was so bored she began to draw up a list of all the clothes she needed for a holiday she was about to go on.

When she finally got the chance to put her case she said her client was too ill to attend court. She was finally able to leave after three hours.

A spokesman for the National Audit Office said of the £173million wasted last year in magistrates courts, nearly £24million was due to the Crown Prosecution Service. "The defence is responsible for more than half, while the CPS and the police are responsible for just over a fifth," he added.

It is calculated that 28 per cent of all pre-trial hearings in magistrates' courts do not go ahead on the scheduled day.

Tory MP Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said: "The innocent are kept in custody longer than necessary. And some guilty people must be getting away with their crimes."

A spokeswoman for the CPS acknowledged there were too many "ineffective hearings" but said it was "taking action".


28 per cent of all pre-trial hearings in magistrates' courts do not go ahead on time


Girl charged with shoplifting doesn't turn up because she's on holiday in Thailand


A thief who broke his bail terms laughs when he's told it's up to him to hand himself in to cops


A man appeared twice, costing thousands, for stealing £15 of bacon from a Sainsbury's store

Case 1: Staines

THERE were many mutterings of discontent during the frequent adjournments at Staines court.

Lawyers were overheard complaining to each other - and one said: "Magistrates always slow things down."

A defence solicitor added: "One day they retired seven times, on a matter a two-year-old child could have decided on."

The same lawyer - looking at a tall stack of traffic offence paperwork - said: "We will never get through that. It's ridiculous.

"There should be a special clerk at the police station to deal with that. There is no need for them to come to magistrates court."

Lawyers also expressed frustration at two cases that had to be adjourned because the police and court staff did not know where the defendants lived.

In the first, a doctor had been due to answer a charge of driving through a red light. Summonses had been issued to three different addresses and her case had already been adjourned to see if any had reached her.

None had - and the case was put off again, this time until April 5.

In the second, a man had been summoned to appear charged with driving at 70mph in a 50mph zone on the A3 at Esher, Surrey.

The prosecutor said: "There have been various attempts to serve this notice.

"If he can't be found then we can't continue with this prosecution." The case was adjourned until April 11.

Another case was also adjourned because the Probation Service computer system had failed.

Over two days, 62 cases came before the courts. Only 44 were heard through to the end.

Cases had to be dropped because no one could find the defendants

Case 2: Manchester

A CROWN Prosecution Service lawyer faced the wrath of a judge over delays at Manchester Magistrates' Court.

It happened when Alisha Kaur appeared before District Judge Alan Berg for the second time on charges of theft - and for the second time her CPS solicitor did not have the file.

The judge described it as a "terrible situation" and adjourned for 10 minutes to see if the file could be found.

Prosecutor Martin Fleming returned to say the file was still being held by the police, even though he had sent several memos asking for it. Judge Berg said: "I've got a bee in my bonnet about this Mr Fleming, because this isn't a unique set of circumstances' it's happening daily. I'm at the end of my tether. You say you keep sending the police memorandums but they don't seem to be achieving anything, they just ignore them don't they? It's appalling."

Finally he said: "I want an explanation from you next time this case appears as to why these papers have taken so long to arrive and an explanation from the officer involved as well.

"This is the second time we've heard this case and we're no further forward. If you do not have the papers next time I may well have to let the matter proceed anyway." The next day CPS prosecutor Alison Cartmel faced the judge's wrath when it was realised files were missing in four of the 21 cases due to be heard.

The judge told her: "Someone needs to tighten up the system.

"Defence solicitors are waiting here to have their cases heard and all you have to offer is that you haven't got the file."

On Thursday, a man appeared in court for the second time...for stealing £15 worth of bacon. Wayne Moore, who also admitted stealing £37.05 worth of goods from Sainsbury's, was ordered to pay the money back at £10 a fortnight.

The case will have cost hundreds of pounds to take to court.

On Friday, 21 cases were heard - and 10 had to be adjourned. Among them was that of Pole Marcin Wawrzyniak, who was charged with offences including drink driving.

As he barely speaks English, the judge was forced to order an adjournment until an interpreter is found.

21 cases were due to be heard.. but 10 had to be put back to another day

Case 3: Dartford

JUST four defendants were due to have their cases heard in the Monday morning session at Dartford Magistrates Court, Kent.

But the court clerk told the magistrates NONE could go ahead. One defendant did not have a solicitor present.

Another phoned to say their transport had broken down. A third failed to turn up - and their solicitor couldn't find them.

The last said he did not want a solicitor, then changed his mind...and one could not be found. Typical was the case of Ryan James, charged with assault causing actual bodily harm. He did not turn up and when his solicitor tried his mobile a voice on the other end said he bought the phone from James a week ago. The magistrates had no option but to abandon the morning session.

It was a frustrating day as the court heard only six cases when it did finally swing into action in the afternoon.

Tuesday was more productive, with 18 cases heard, but many dragged on and the court rose an hour late at 5pm.

One prosecutor said: "I have lost the will to live". At the same time, a despairing social worker said: "We will be here all night."

Wednesday was another late start because none of the defendants turned up. In the afternoon. just nine cases were heard. On Thursday it emerged the prosecution has lost yet another file - and a breach of the peace case which had already been adjourned twice was thrown out.

The cases dealt with on Friday included a Slovakian man charged with a sex attack who needed an interpreter.

Chair of the bench Elizabeth Brown asked the clerk why the interpreter had been awarded more than £100 in fees for less than 20 minutes work.

She was told interpreters can charge for three hours work - even if their involvement only three minutes.

In another case, Christopher Walker, 21, of Northfleet, Kent, was being held in custody and magistrates had to rule whether to grant him bail on two charges - actual bodily harm and attempted criminal damage.

The case was delayed for nearly 20 minutes because the prosecutor did not have details of the attempted criminal damage charge.

The prosecutor had to wait for his office to fax the papers through before Walker was finally granted bail.

Complete morning wasted when NO cases actually make it into court.

From One Extreme To The Other

Last week on a particular day I had two appointments in my diary. Each appointment was to attend at a Police Station where a Client was to be interviewed about a matter.

The first interview was rather heavy going. The Police had raided an address and found ten 9 oz bars of cannabis and over 3,000 ecstasy tablets. My Client was not a frequent visitor to the address but had been present when the raid had taken place. I dealt with his interview and ultimately a decision was made to charge him with various counts of possession with intent to supply drugs. This is a serious matter and if convicted the Client can expect to go to prison for a number of years.

My second appointment of the day took me to a Police Station that I can only describe as 'quaint'. The Police Station backs directly on to the community library, and according to the reports that I have been given the Police Station is only open on a part time basis. My Client had been accused of attempted theft and attended at the Police Station by appointment. It was fortunate that the arrest was by appointment because a Custody Sergeant had been drafted in for this particular arrest to open up the custody suite of the 'quaint' Police Station to allow my Client to be interviewed. The allegation of attempted theft was nearly six months old, and to be honest I have no idea why the Police even bothered to investigate the matter. The allegation was that my Client had been in a shop, he had been seen to walk up to a bottle of vodka, pick it up and look as if he was going to put it in to bag he was holding, a member of staff then shouted out, "Oi!", and my Client put the bottle back on the shelf. After giving his account in interview of a complete denial by Client was released without charge.

I get to deal with all sorts of crime from attempted thefts like the one mentioned above to murder. I never really know what I will be doing by the end of a day when I start. This particular day is just one example of how I can be called on to deal with the most simple of matters, and then in the same day deal with a very grave matter.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Report Waste Initiative

The Criminal Law Solicitors Association has set up a web site for criminal practitioners to report wastage that they come across in the criminal justice system. The Report Waste Initiative is a forum for people to post messages about their experiences of waste. I am all behind this campaign as us solicitors do take quite a knocking from the public who are told by someone that we are responsible for a large amount of waiting and delays in the criminal justice system when in it is usually the fault of another party such as the Crown Prosecution Service, the Police, the Courts for listing cases irresponsibly, or even the privately contracted firms who move Clients from prisons and police stations to Courts.

To an outsider this web site will look like a bunch of solicitors grouping together and having a right moan, and because all of the posts will be about waste onlookers will think that us criminal solicitors have nothing better to do than whinge. I assure you that this is a good cause and hopefully a systematic record of failings of other parties may hopefully shift the pubic perception that us criminal solicitors are the bad guys in the criminal justice system.

I am very much in support of this waste reporting, so much so that I have one of the CLSA banners displayed on the Criminal Solicitor Dot Net web site:

Report Waste Initiative

Say No To Carter

You may have heard me ranting and raving before about a man called Lord Cater of Coles and his Procurement of Legal Aid review. This review basically, and I am simplifying this as much as one possibly can, believes that legally aided criminal defence services can be better delivered by awarding contracts to firms that bid the best price, and satisfy a quality criteria. I am sure that I have expressed my views on this issue before so I will not bang on about it again, save to say, I am extremely worried about the future of my profession and that all I can see ahead is doom and gloom.

After wondering what a single individual could possibly do about Lord Carter's proposals I decided to pull my finger out and I have now established the "Say No To Carter" online petition.

Please lend your support to the cause and register your objections to Lord Carter's proposals by signing the petition!

Monday, March 13, 2006

3 Minute Interview

I had the pleasure of attending at a Police Station recently where the Police Constable investigating my Client clearly had no interest in pursuing the case. In disclosure the Officer explained that my Client had been arrested for criminal damage on the basis that DNA evidence that linked a co-defendant to the scene, and that co-defendant had put my Client's name forward in interview as being jointly responsible for the damage caused.

My client decided to exercise his right to silence and his interview lasted exactly three minutes from start to finish. This was a pretty quick interview bearing in mind the first minute and a half was taken up by five people (two Police Officers, the Client, their Appropriate Adult, and myself) in the interview room having to introduce themselves for the purposes of the tape, and the caution being explained to my Client. The interview then went like this:

Q: Did you go to the location and damage the property?
A: No comment.
Q: Where you present when the property was damaged?
A: No comment.
Q: Are you going to answer all of my questions no comment?
A: Yes.
Q: That's the end of the interview then.

To be fair the Police Officer knew that the case was going no where because there was no evidence to link my Client to the crime other than what his co-defendant had said, and as the co-defendant has made a self-serving statement the prosecution will not rely on that as evidence that is strong enough to convict my Client. The Officer reported to the Custody Sergeant after the interview and as predicted by myself the Client was released without charge.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Unpleasant Stories

I try to keep in touch with the legal world in different ways, one of which is an e-mail list. Two comments appeared on this e-mail list under the title of "Oh the joy of Clients" today:

Story number 1:

A first for me today. A client waiting to see me fell asleep in reception. He awoke and decided to leave without seeing me after all. When he left we realised that whilst asleep he had peed all over the chair upon which he had been sitting ! That's presumably why he left in a hurry. The pet shop across from the office just sold me a can of foam to deal with pet accidents - can I claim it as a disbursement on his file do you think? Why do we do this job !!

Story number 2:

If one casts ones mind back to the mid 1980's Laura Ashley style was in full swing. Professional women at the time seemed to look like Alexis Colby (Joan Collins) from Dynasty all shoulder pads and built up hair; or Like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, all Lace dresses Alice Bands etc. As a mere articled clerk at the time I was working with a provincial firm. I remember, (I stress a very capable and professional) member of the latter of the two style camps, who was my direct superior. One day I Looked up from my desk to see a somewhat disheveled client leaving the office. Several seconds later the above mentioned solicitor backed slowly into my office, with a look of stunned Horror on her face and said very quietly "That man's just sh*t himself in my office!" Once it was ascertained that the gentleman had indeed suffered one of life's little accidents, as an articled clerk it fell to me to deal with the situation. I do not recall that clause in my Articles but there you go. But I suppose one way or another I have been cleaning up other peoples sh*t all my professional life!

Trust No One

I went to a West London Magistrates Court recently to deal with a sentence hearing. I try not to venture too far from my office is Essex these days, and usually the most travelling I will do in a day is the 24 minutes the Legal Services Commission allows from me to travel from my office to the local Magistrates Court or Police Station. I went to Court in order to pacify a Client who was less than happy about the barrister who had represented him at his trial.

Most Magistrates Courts have advocates rooms where solicitors can put their hats, coats, bags, papers and whatever other objects they are carrying with them that are not necessary for the Court hearing. The standard of these rooms varies from Court to Court, but they all usually have the same feature - a lock on the door.

The Court I went to yesterday had an advocates room which included a coat rack that had a locking system so that a coat correctly hung could not be stolen. There was some kind of mechanisim whereby you placed a metal wire through the arm of the coat and locked the wire in to the rack. What is the world coming to when you have to go to Court and lock up your own coat in a room that has been set aside for the supposedly honest solicitors?

I hung my coat up and decided on principle that I would not lock it up to see if anyone would have the cheek to steal it. The coat was still there when I got back. My local Court has an advocates room that seems to have collected many items over the years. There is a large coat rack that is never completely emptied and several bags that have not moved in a long time. Perhaps in my local Court items are not locked up in hope that they will one day walk away themselves!

Monday, March 06, 2006

Just Make It Up

I represented a Client recently for an offence where he had pleaded guilty to driving without due care and attention as he had managed to knock a cyclist from his bicycle whilst driving. The cyclist had received an injury to his face, the injury was not life threatening. The Crown Prosecution Service facts stated that the accident had occurred by the driver bumping the rear wheel of the bicycle. My Client accepted these facts.

I mitigated on behalf of my Client explaining the unfortunate series of events, and the unfortunate circumstances that my Client found himself in. The lay Magistrates then retired to consider their course of action and returned. The Chairman of the bench started his speech in which he adjourned the case for sentence by saying, "We have been told that you nearly killed the cyclist". Now this phrase came out of nowhere and had not been used by anyone during the hearing. The injuries that the victim had suffered were not described as life threatening and quite frankly the Crown Prosecution Service had not suggested that anybody's life had been in danger.

I jumped up from my seat and interrupted the Chairman. I said, "Sir, no one has suggested that Mr. Bloggs had nearly killed anyone." The Chairman replied, "Well, that is the view that we have come to". I persisted with my representations and eventually the Chairman backed down and accepted that he had come to the wrong conclusions. I was quite concerned that if the Client had appeared at Court unrepresented he may have found himself being sentenced on facts that this maverick Chairman had more or less made up!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Real Hustle

I sat down and watched a programme on BBC Three called The Real Hustle. This program was an information programme explaining how hustles can take place. Some of the hustles shown on tonight's programme were dipping, and selling black money.

I witnessed a far less subtle scam whilst I was sat in a pub recently. My working week had come to an end and as I sat enjoying a swift pint before heading home I noticed that one of my firm's Clients was in the same pub. As a general rule you should not drink in the same pub that your Clients do but you cannot help it sometimes. This particular Client had engaged one of my colleagues in conversation earlier that evening. I then saw that a few Oriental looking people were walking around the pub, one of them was carrying a large bag. This scenario in my line of business genrally means that dodgy DVDs are about to be offered for sale. I heard some slightly raised voices and then I saw that the Client was holding several DVDs and speaking to the group of Oriental males saying, "What? You want me to call the police. You better get out of here".

The scam is simple:

1. Take physical possession of the pirated DVDs being offered for sale.
2. Inspect the pirated DVDs and ensure they are the ones you want.
3. Once in possession of the pirated DVDs express concern that they are too cheap to be legitimate.
4. Express surprise that the pirated DVDs could be legitimately on sale as the film had not even been released on DVD yet.
5. Suggest that the DVD vendor is committing a crime.
6. Threaten to call the police and the Federation Against Copyright Theft if the DVD vendor does not leave.
7. Refuse to hand back the pirated DVDs claiming that they will be retained for evidence when the police arrive.
8. Hope that the DVD vendor leaves.

This is not a clever scam, but a fine example of how the criminal underworld has it's own checks and balances on it's members.

Fake Alibi

I discovered a web site the other day that allows paying customers to create alibis. Fakealibi.co.uk states on it's web site: "We provide a First Class Alibi service - for whatever your situation requires. Our Account Managers, and FA Agents are on hand 24/7 to assist you!"

I am not quite sure that a service such as this would extend to providing criminal clients with alibis in order to avoid conviction. In fact The Times ran a news article a few weeks ago mentioning this web site and commented that this site may even unwittingly facilitate a crime. I can see it now, Joe Bloggs has been arrested for a GBH, he is interviewed and makes no comment in the interview when he exercises his right to silence, he is then bailed by the Police for further investigations to be carried out. Joe Bloggs then contacts Fakealibil.co.uk and arranges for an alibi to be created by claiming he was in a pub with a friend when really he was assaulting the complainant. The Police reinterview Joe Bloggs when he returns to the Police Station and he gives details of his new alibi. Hey presto he has the barebones of a defence!

I am sure that Police scrutiny would get past the sham of an alibi once a statement is taken from the person providing the alibi evidence.

Another service that I have noticed that has become more popular in recent years is replacement wage slips and P60s. Web sites such as this can provide you with pretty much what financial information you want to appear on a wage slip or P60. I am not suggesting that these wage slip services are doing anything wrong but a criminal who is interested in fraud can lie to a genuine wage slip service and obtain pretty good documents to then defraud another.