Friday, January 27, 2006


I went down to my local Magistrates Court this week to deal with, amongst other things, a case that was being prosecuted by the DVLA. After locating the prosecutor and speaking with her for a few minutes I noticed that she was in fact wearing a dark blue suit that was a DVLA uniform. Stitched on to jacket in green lettering were the letters DVLA. In my line of business the only people who I regularly encounter in uniforms are either the Police, Prison staff, the staff who bring prisoners to Court, and Court Security staff. I think that this was a first for me and I have never been prosecuted by a person in uniform.

I started to think a little more about this idea of uniform. The list callers, or ushers in Court often wear a black gown to distinguish themselves from everyone else in Court. The advocates (and ushers) dress in a smart fashion. It would be an interesting idea if uniforms were brought in so that the divisions in Court could be easily identified by the casual observer. Defence advocates could dress in the colours of their firm, Prosecutors could dress in the colours if their CPS region. Other prosecuting departments such as Trading Standards and the Department for Work and Pensions could also adorn themselves in some identifiable uniform or strip. Eventually the whole Court could be awash with colour and each person, other than the defendants, could easily be identified.

Or perhaps not! I cannot believe that this lady had to attend Court wearing a uniform - what a ridiculous idea. Personally I think that you can tell a lot about a person by the way they dress,and putting people in to uniforms where it is simply not necessary is a step too far.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Breath Of Fresh Air

I left my old job this week and started my new job. I have moved from a relatively small criminal department in East London to a fairly large criminal department in Essex. I have been very impressed by what I have seen so far in terms of the organisation, it's people and the work that they do.

About twelve months ago I had an argument with the Human Resources department of my last firm. As a duty solicitor I was due to pay a £200 fee to the Law Society to be provided with a certificate to show that I had obtained the relevant qualifications to be a duty solicitor. When I asked for a cheque from the firm to pay the fee I was told that I would have to meet with the Human Resources Manager to discuss the business needs of the firm to see if it was appropriate for the firm to pay the fee.

To an outsider it may seem greedy for a solicitor to expect a firm to pay fees on their behalf but the truth of the matter is that payment of the £200 meant that I would remain on the local duty solicitor schemes and therefore the firm would draw in work from the local courts and police stations via the slots I was allocated on the duty solicitor rotas. Basically it was in the interests of the firm to pay the fee to get more work.

When I eventually got my chance to discuss the business needs of the firm with the Human Resources Manager the firm 'generously' offered to loan me the money to pay the fee on the condition that I repay the money. I told the firm they could stick their offer where the sun doesn't shine or would leave. Eventually they backed down and paid the fee. I should have really considered my position back then and left sooner!

I have been in my new job for three days. I have already had discussions about training, personal development, professional association memberships and the like. There has never been any suggestion that I should pay for the associated fees because the new firm knows that they will benefit from any training or development that I undertake. I am now going to crack on with getting my higher rights of audience sorted out before December of this year as I have been given a real incentive to develop my professional career further.

So far so good for the new job.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Getting The Best From Your Lawyer

The Department for Constitutional Affairs has issued a press release called "Getting the best from your lawyer: 7 steps to a better deal". This guide is aimed at people instructing a solicitor and paying for those services. My work is generally funded by legal aid but if my Clients were to go through the 7 steps they are likely to come up with the following answers:

1. What will the legal adviser do for me?

Anything I ask him. Hopefully he will get me out of the Police Station on bail, but if he can't do that he should be able to get me bail at the Magistrates Court. He can then defend me with whatever rubbish I tell him so that I can be found not guilty despite the usually compelling evidence that suggests I am guilty.

2. How much will this legal adviser cost me compared with others?

Cost? What's that? I thought that was all done on legal aid. I'm on benefits you know.

3. What do I get for my money?

Usually fags and booze, occasionally I'll get some coke - and if things are really bad I might get some crack with my cash. Usually I don't need money because shoplifting is easy enough, and hey, what you can take for free doesn't cost me any money.

4. How often has the legal adviser handled this type of work?

Too many times, in fact I am wondering why he is always down the Police Station or Magistrates Court - he doesn't seem to know any other kind of work. When will he become a barrister?

5. How long will it take for the transaction to be completed?

Transaction? What? A drug deal - no, not me mate.

6. What can I do if something goes wrong, or I am not satisfied with the service provided?

I'll transfer if I don't get what I want. If I don't get bail, or I don't get some fags or tobacco off my brief I might go elsewhere to another firm. Getting a conviction or being sent down is not a problem, I just need my tobacco.

7. Have I got a good deal?

As long as I don't get convicted of the offence that I have been charged with I will have got a result, even if it just being convicted of a lesser offence.

Disgruntled Client

I cam across a web site today that had been set up by a disgruntled Client of a firm called Moss & Coleman. It is quite amazing what efforts people will go to in order to express their unhappiness at the service they received.

If you want to look at the site I am referring to click here. Please be aware this site contains swear words and should not be viewed if you are a child or easily offended.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Get Yourself An ASBO

E-bay are now listing ASBOs for sale. This time limited offer can be bought if you bid the right price before 21st January 2006.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Stupid Criminal File

Stupid Criminal File is a blog I stumbled across this week. It lists news stories from around the globe of the misfortunes suffered by criminals as a result of their poorly planned actions.

Familiar Faces

In the week I had to go to a Magistrates Court that I had not been to for about a year. In a previous job with another firm of solicitors I used to attend at this Court about once a week. If you go to the same Court on a regular basis you tend to get to know the staff and people working in and for the Court.

As I parked my car in the car park I noticed a personalised number plate of a solicitor who I know of, he had changed his car since I had last seen the number plate and had clearly done well for himself since I had last seen him. I then remembered who this solicitor was and recalled that his Court demeanor consisted of simply shouting in a gruff voice demanding to get what he wanted.

I got in to Court and after seeing my Client in the cells I went to find the usher for the Court I had to appear in. The usher was a gentleman who I had met before but I had never really understood his system of calling cases on. My previous experience with him was whatever you told him he would do the opposite. For example if I were to tell him that my case was ready to be put on he would leave me until the end of the list, if I told him I was not ready he would out my case on straight away!

I then bumped in to the Crown Prosecution Service Prosecutor. This gentleman has always been very pleasant but there have been rumours in the past about this particular prosecutor that he has an alcohol problem. Now I am not one to gossip and quite frankly I think that the rumours were just an excuse to explain why he never paid attention in Court, why he always went out for a glass of water whenever the Court rose, and why his hands would shake at any given time during the day. My one outstanding memory of this Prosecutor was that once I dealt with a contested breach of bail case with him and after my Client gave evidence denying the breach the Prosecutor stated that he did not want to cross examine my Client. The District Judge in Court asked the Prosecutor twice if he was sure that he did not want to cross examine my Client and then stated that my Client was free to go because the Prosecutor did not cross examine my Client the Court was duty bound to accept my Client's evidence denying the breach.

After getting the papers from the Prosecutor and seeing my Client again I sat in Court and told the usher that I might be ready to go on in Court in the vague hope that he might think that I was not ready. I then saw a typical display by the solicitor I mentioned earlier. His case was called on and as he waited for his Client to be brought up from the cells he stood up in his gruff voice and said, "May it please you your worships, I represent this defendant." Now this solicitor appears in this Court virtually every weekday, he probably appears before the same lay Magistrates regularly, and before his case was called on the usher said, "The next case will be Mr. Bloggs represented by Mr. Solicitor". You would think that this solicitor would develop a more friendly or more familiar introduction, such as, "Good morning your worships," afterall, they already know who he is.

The solicitor then dealt with the case which was a breach of bail. At the end of his submissions that his Client had been a bit foolish not abiding by his curfew but should be released on the same bail conditions as before the Chairwoman of the Magistrates said, "Bail is refused because we fear he will commit further offences and he has breached a conditional discharge by breaching his bail." This is entirely wrong as breaching bail is not an offence, you cannot be sentenced for it, you can only have your bail revoked if you breach your bail conditions. The solicitor stood up and in his 'gruff' fashion he started talking in a rather rude manner to the Magistrates by pointing at them in an accusatory fashion (is there such a word as accusatory?) telling them they did not know what the law was in relation to breach of bail and conditional discharges.

I always act in a polite way to whomever I encounter. I was also dealing with a breach of bail case that day. After employing my pleasant demeanor I managed to convince the Court that my Client had made a silly mistake and he was released from Court on the same bail conditions as before. I was expecting a remand in custody having observed the 'gruff' solicitor, and the way the Magistrates reacted in the previous case.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Was It Worth It?

One of my Clients was recently sentenced for offences better known as benefit fraud. He was given a sentence that some people might think sounds quite sensible, but I cannot stop thinking that the logic behind the sentence is very much flawed.

Without going in to too much detail my Client had overclaimed benefits to the value of about £18,000. Now that is a lot of money. The Client pleaded guilty at the first opportunity. His case was adjourned for the Probation Service to prepare a pre-sentence report. He went back to the Magistrates Court and even though he had a very positive pre-sentence report recommending a community penalty he was committed for sentence to the Crown Court.

When sentenced at the Crown Court my Client was given a custodial sentence of four months. Now the leading cases on sentence for cases of this type say that a custodial sentence for the value involved in this case can be expected and should be imposed, in fact I advised my Client at our very first meeting that he was at serious risk of getting a custodial sentence. Before the Client had even been summonsed to Court he had been paying back the overpayment, now he has been sent to prison he has lost his business, he will probably be in debt when he is released due to a non-functioning business, he will probably struggle to get his business going again when he comes out in about 6 to 8 weeks time. By sending the Client to prison so that he can be maintained at one of her Majesty's Hotels the Court has deprived society of it's best chance of recovering the money that was fraudulently overpaid in the first place. As he was overpaid benefit the departments that overpaid him are entitled to claim their money back.

May be years of defence work really has made me biased. In an era where the prison population is at breaking point my Client has been sent to prison to be punished for a number of offences. I cannot complain about the sentence because legally it is correct, perhaps it is even morally correct. But financially it is illogical. Why send the Client to prison, where he will loose his current business, so that it will probably take 50 years to repay the overpaid benefit when giving him a community penalty would have allowed him to work and repay the debt in little over three years as he would have retained his income and his ability to repay the debt? At the end of the hearing I spoke with my Client in the cells, he described being sent to prison as an inconvenience and that he was more concerned about his financial affairs than the loss of his liberty. The irony is that the sentence he has been given has probably made it easier for him to avoid paying back the debt when he is released from prison, as an out of work convict who is going to want to employ a person who has a conviction for dishonesty? If his business cannot be restarted then he will be dependant on benefits again putting a further strain on the benefits system.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Useful Information For Magistrates

I read a document today called "Useful Information for Magistrates". This document has been published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. This is one of the most patronising and sarcastic 'official' publications that I have come across recently.

Here a few quotes from the guidance:

What should I do if I don'’t agree with a law that has been passed?
All magistrates are required to obey the law and to enforce any law that is enacted. If you were to break any relevant law enacted by Parliament, or to refuse to enforce it, this would be likely to constitute conduct incompatible with the requirements of your office. It is also important that magistrates maintain the dignity, standing and good reputation of the magistracy at all times. Those found to have brought the magistracy into disrepute are liable to disciplinary action. Before deciding to express in public your personal views on any sensitive or controversial issue, you must consider carefully how your position might be perceived by those who come before you in court, and the implications it might have for wider public confidence in the administration of justice.

What can I tell others about my work as a magistrate?

There is no reason why you shouldnĂ‚’t discuss the work of the court in general terms, especially as this helps promote a greater understanding of the magistracy and might encourage other people to apply. However, a great deal of the work you will be involved in will be of a confidential nature. You should never discuss individual cases, past or present, or reveal information to which you had privileged access (such as the views expressed in retiring room discussions). You should also be alert to the danger of doing anything which might bring the magistracy into disrepute or seriously compromise your impartiality.

This is from the What should I do if the media wants to speak to me? section:

On very rare occasions the media have tried to gain access to a magistrate at their home (usually after an unsuccessful attempt to interview them at the court). This can be very unsettling. However, you can do the following:
- Avoid answering the door, even to say no comment” as you might still be photographed.
- Avoid making a scene as this will add to the journalist'’s story.
- Get a friend or relative to run errands.
- Use an answerphone to screen incoming calls.
- If you need to go outside, adopt a calm, polite attitude and donĂ‚’t get tempted to make a rash comment.

If a reporter or photographer is on the pavement, they are not breaking the law.

I have a great deal of respect for the senisble Magistrates out there who deal with something like 95% of all criminal cases, but publications like this make it seem as if the Magistrates that fill our Courts are incapable of dealing with simple, everyday decisions.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Whoops, Are We Prosecuting?

I received a telephone call today whilst I was sat in my office. The person on the end of the telephone said that they had a bit of a problem as they were phoning from a London Borough's legal department:

Him: Are you dealing with Mr. Blogg's case.
Me: Yes, why do you ask?
Him: I have had a telephone call from the Crown Court and they have listed a case which they say we are prosecuting. The problem I have is that both of our solicitors are away today and we know nothing about this case.
Me: It is a benefit fraud prosecution.
Him: Do you have a file?
Me: Yes, hold on I will check. [I go a get my file] Ah, the case is a joint prosecution between you and the Department for Work and Pensions. It was the DWP who issued the summons so I guess they are dealing with the prosecution.
Him: Yes, that must be right. That could have been a bit embarrassing with the case being called on with no Counsel.
Me: Yes.
Him: Oh well, thanks for your help. Remember not to mention this conversation to anyone.
Me: Sorry... [phone is hung up].

I am not quite sure why the man was so embarrassed. Last year I had several cases where some of my Client's were committed to the Crown Court to be sentenced in cases brought by both the Department for Work and Pensions and London Boroughs in respect of benefit frauds and Counsel for the prosecution did not turn up, or turned up with no papers and no idea what was going on. It is a sad fact that incidents like this are usually accepted as being accepted problems.

I shall wait and see if Counsel from the Department for Work and Pensions turns up tomorrow prepared for the hearing.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Day In The Life Of A Duty Solicitor

Here is a post from the Criminal Solicitor Dot Net web site from a Duty Solicitor recalling how she spent her days over the festive period. This is what I call dedication. In my younger days before I had a wife and children I might have considered doing this volume of work over a two national holidays:

This is the way my Christmas holidays have gone:

26th December - to court to deal with own client. Only 5 prisoners in the cells, 1 of whom had asked for the duty. (I am not on the duty rota for this court by the way.) When I arrived the duty had not arrived. Group 4 or whatever they call themselves now checked the rota and said that the duty had a client in the cells for breach of bail. The original charge was att rape x 2. When contacted the duty said they were not coming to Court. The clerk then said that he could simply bail the client who had asked for the duty but this left the breach prisoner and could I help. I spoke to the client and agreed to represent him. It was clear that he should be re-bailed. He was not a British national and his English was not sufficiently good to represent himself in Court. The prosecution were opposing him being re-bailed. I represented him and he was re-bailed. I cannot submit an agency bill because the firm did not know that I was going to represent him. I think that I can let them have a grad fee claim and ask them to submit it with their bill at the end of the case though. With regard to my own client who was on a warrant to another court as well, I could not even get him to enter his guilty plea because there was only one Magistrate. Come back on 30th when we should have 2 magistrates.

27th December - to court as duty solicitor - there should be 2 duty solicitors each day. The other duty did not turn up leaving me to deal with clients in two courtrooms. It is manageable unless it is simply a remand Court which this was. The Bench were kept waiting but did not seem to mind too much.

28th December - 24 hour duty from 6pm until 6pm 29th December - this led to problems on 29th December because....

29th December - contacted at 8am by police station to say own client in cells and not yet ready. Not going to be ready until about 11.30am. Thats OK because although I am Court Duty I should be finished for about then and will contact once I have finished. Arrive at Court and the other duty does not turn up AGAIN. This leaves me with 6 prisoners, in 2 courtrooms and 5 needed bail applications plus the prosecutor in one court was extremely gung ho and wanted pleas entering. I managed to resist that though.

As a result realise that I am not going to be able to deal with own client at police station. Speak to her on phone and she agrees to ask for the duty. Next thing I get a call from the Duty scheme referring my own client to me. I have to decline.

30th December 2005 - Back to the court from 28th where again there was only one Magistrate and the clerk and the prosecutor said that the clerk from 28th should have known that there would only be one Magistrate! No real progress there then.

31st December 2005 - Awoken at 6.10am by telephone call from Duty Scheme as they cannot raise either of the two 24 hour duty solicitors could I deal with a panel case? Allegation of digital penetration. Speak to Custody staff, client arrested at about 3am and when brought into custody stated he had had 15 bottles of WKD and also the complainant was extremely drunk and could not be medically examined until later in the morning. Also because I know that the police will offer the AP a video interview before taking her statement I think that it is very unlikely that there will be an interview before late afternoon and possibly early evening. Having agreed to take the case and written off my New Year's Eve I am delighted to deal with two of the nicest and most sensible officers I have met in a long time. They say that they will be ready at 11.30 and no we don't mind if you go to the bank first and get here for 12.00. They give me disclosure of the outline of the allegation and when I speak to client he denies offence categorically and in such a way that I am able to advise him to answer questions now without AP having been interviewed. After his interview the officers go off and do the video interview and then client is bailed for forensic results.

So in the space of 5 days 5 different duty solicitors either did not attend Court or did not answer their phone. Not good. If you are wondering why I was Court duty twice its because I agreed to cover both days for people who have children and wished to spend Christmas with them.

Finally, guess what I am 24 hour duty from 9am tomorrow until 9am 2nd Jan.