A Day in the Cambridge Magistrates Court


Tuesday, March 8th, 2011. 5:21am


Cambridge Magistrates' Court

Cambridge Magistrates’ Court

On Monday the 7th of March 2011 I spent the day observing two of the magistrates courts sitting in Cambridge. I went along primarily to see the students sprayed with “Pava” by police officers within Kings College at their first court appearance. Having seen a video showing the police use of the incapacitant it appeared to me the police had been very heavy handed and had used excessive force, I wanted to hear the full story. Thanks to the Cambridge News reporting the date of the court appearance and the Cambridge Tab publishing the names of those arrested I was able to observe the case. Without the excellent local press, finding a specific case would be almost impossible as the courts service refuse to provide times / dates of court cases without defendant’s names, something I’m currently appealing to the Information Commissioner.

The only public information given about the court’s start time is that the building opens at 9am. I knew that would be a little before the court actually sat so turned up at 9.30. When I arrived a joined a short queue for the security metal detector. My bag was searched, and I had to walk through an arch metal detector as well as get checked – holding my hands up – by a hand held metal detector. One individual in-front of me walked straight through the arch with all his belongings causing it to beep furiously and proceeded to walk purposely past the security guard with the hand held device. As the security guard moved to stop him he gave the magic pass phrase: “I’m prosecuting in one of the courts” and was allowed through. The security theatre then promptly resumed for the entertainment and “reassurance” of the rest of us. I had specifically left my usual kit at home (I usually travel with a bike pump, allan keys, leatherman multi-tool, camera, etc.) so as to ease my passage through the door; a warning says knives found at the security check will be confiscated and not returned. Last time I visited I had to surrender my camera to the security staff, though they were happy for mobile phones with integrated cameras to be taken in. As I thought my bag might be subjected to a search I took a new, blank notebook.

On being allowed in I then walked up the cramped claustrophobia inducing staircase to the top floor where the court rooms are situated. I didn’t notice any signage, and wasn’t directed, I discovered the location of the courts by exploring when I first visited. The stairwell has CCTV camera domes at regular intervals. At the top a short version of the court lists were posted on the notice boards; comprising the names of the defendants, a column which was generally filled with “Cambridgeshire Police Southern Division” and also a case number. The reception desk was unmanned throughout my time in the court. Cambridge is no longer a magistrate’s court in its own right, it is merely a “hearing centre”, part of Peterborough Magistrates’ Court. No copies of the full court list for court one were available, the usher said they had only been provided with a limited number by “Peterborough”. I found Jacob Wills and Miles Watson’s names at the end of the list for Court One, and found the court. Three courts were in operation. To confuse matters those cases on the notice board signed for Court Two were being heard in Court Four, apparently due to a broken computer in the court.

Before the courts sat at 10am the area outside filled up. There was a call for asking if a Romanian interpreter was present; and at about ten to ten the duty solicitor asked if anyone wanted to speak to him before the courts started their session. Two people went to seek his advice.

Notices outside the court stated that no electronic recording was permitted within the courts. Electronic recording was not defined. Would writing notes on a laptop, or drafting tweets on a phone count? I don’t know.

When I entered court one the clerk, and solicitors were discussing bringing the student’s case forward. There was a group of pupils who said they were from Parkside school there to observe, as well as Robin Turner who introduced himself as a student journalist, and journalist for the Socalist Worker. There was also another individual with a notebook who may well have been from the Cambridge News. It appeared that the court was keen, despite the individuals being listed at the end of the list, dealing with them first. I guess this may have been at least in part due to the number of people present to observe – so a top tip – if you don’t want to hang around in court all day, take a bunch of people along to watch.

As it happened there was a brief delay and for some reason the court wasn’t ready to do the student’s case so they took another first. The court was sitting with only two magistrates. I was told by the usher the chairman of the bench was Dr Kilven Shaw, though I’m not sure that’s a real name!

A man appeared before the magistrates charged with assaulting, beating, his nine year old son. The individual pleaded not-guilty so what I believe was a committal hearing was held. I’m restricted as to what I can report to those items listed in Section 8(4) of the Magistrates Act 1980. In addition a reporting restriction order under Section 39 of the Children and young Persons Act 1933 was imposed, preventing the publication of anything which could lead to identifying the child involved.

I’m not publishing the name of the defendant, the language he spoke to the court in, via an interpreter, the names or job titles of witnesses to be called during his trial and the arrangements for the trial. Though it bears no relation to the child, I’m also not able to report on the problems the court clerk had trying to schedule the crown court hearing because those matters are beyond those in the permitted list. Eventually the next suitable available day in Cambridge Crown Court was found to be the 8th of June 2011, the date was booked for a trial. The court imposed bail conditions not permitting the defendant to communicate with his son. The magistrate explained, in a speech she was to repeat variations on many times during the day, this meant not talking, writing, texting, phoning, or using “networking sites” – “no contact”.

The court then adjourned. Much time had been wasted already not actually doing anything, and again the court sat inactive, with the magistrates having left. Four Romanian’s in the cells were due in court, but there was no interpreter available. Staff were trying to arrange the interpreter. The duty defence solicitor explained the problem saying: “There’s no interpreter because the police are muppets”. Later the usher explained that the police are supposed to arrange an interpreter, if required, for someone’s first appearance in court, she said this regularly doesn’t happen and causes problems.

Kings College Altercation

The court then returned to the students’ case. Mr Jacob Wills and Mr Curtis-Watson (as he was called) were called to the dock. They had been sitting in the public seating. I have no idea why more people don’t do that before their cases and use the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the court and the attitude and approach the staff are taking. They had been given, at the court, papers describing the police’s case. I heard them reading PC 1555 Steve Hinks’ statement with incredulity; it certainly appears to contain some surprising sentences. When asked by Robin Turner they said didn’t want to comment on it at that stage though.

Mr Curtis-Watson was asked to confirm his name and address. He gave an address in Littleport, Ely. Mr Wills gave his address as “667 Kings College, Cambridge”.

The clerk noted they were not represented, but wanted to make an application to the court themselves. Mr Wills explained that they had not had enough time with their solicitor to get legal aid in time. He explained that they would like the opportunity to get legal advice before making a plea.

The clerk questioned Mr Wills, she asked when they had first met their solicitor, and was told “Wednesday / Thursday last week”. The clerk told the court the alleged offence occurred on the 24th of February, and that the pair were in custody until the 25th. Mr Wills, seeing where the clerk was going, she was clearly about to suggest they’d had plenty of time to consult a solicitor, explained that they had been advised to change lawyers – suggesting they were not intending to use the duty solicitor provided via the police, and that was why they’d only met them for the first time a few days before.

The clerk then explained to the magistrates that the court was encouraged to make progress with case, and that generally not having a solicitor present was not a good reason not to go ahead with taking pleas. She made a counter argument, saying that if pleas were taken then they’d get to the stage of asking the defendants to complete a “Case management form”, the clerk suggested this would “need to be complex” the implication being that Mr Wills and Mr Curtis-Watson would have difficulty without a lawyer. (Quite a worrying suggestion given that one would hope justice is accessible to those wishing to represent themselves).

The prosecution solicitor was asked if she had anything to say; she said she had “no relevant approaches”.

The magistrates then conferred and gave their ruling after a minute or two; they said: In the interests of justice we will give you a bit more time, two weeks. We consider that there has been no inordinate delay in finding a solicitor. The clerk scheduled the next appearance at court for the 21st of March at 11am. The pair were given unconditional bail and advised to take the papers they had been given at the court to their solicitor.

Scheduling Hearing

A brief hearing, via video link from Peterborough prison was held. A court hearing for the prisoner was set for the 13th of April where he was told he’d be brought to Cambridge to appear in person.

It was impossible to follow what was happening from the public seating as the TV at the back of the court was off. I pointed this out to the usher, outside the court, and she abruptly replied: “we don’t have to have it on”. As she was being rudely dismissive I asked if she would pass my comment onto the court, which she did. The clerk ordered the second TV be turned on. The usher turned it on. As the clerk hadn’t expressly asked her to try and press any of the buttons to get it to show anything it was left on simply displaying black screen with a channel number.

Cherry Hinton Newsagent Charged with Supplying Cocaine to Two Fourteen Year Olds

Newsagent Mr L Renganathan, of Cherry Hinton, Cambridge appeared charged with supplying cocaine to two fourteen year olds on the 1st of December 2010. He pleaded not guilty. Magistrates “declined jurisdiction” and committed him to the Crown Court for trial in six weeks time.

A S.39 order was imposed. Magistrates stated this prevented any reporting of the case. The clerk overruled them (I’m sure that shouldn’t ought happen!) and made clear the order was just to forbid publishing material which could identify the children.

I thought there would be public interest in this case in Cambridge; particularly parents might be interested. I made Raymond Brown, the Cambridge-News’ crime reporter aware of the case. Later he came into court to clarify the reporting restrictions with the prosecuting solicitor; he also told me he’d been doing some research and had identified the newsagent involved; by then he was also aware of the trial date.

Failure to Provide Specimen

Next up was an individual charged with failure to provide a specimen [presumably in relation to suspected drink/drug driving]. This person was visibly shaking and the court was told he had a “history of torture”. His appearance in court had been delayed a number of times for a psychiatric report. Due to the report not being present his appearance was again deferred.

His next appearance in court was set as the 18th of May.

It appears the process of justice is generally very slow.

The clerk was getting frustrated, at the equipment, and slow progress. She swore, saying “Bugger” and complained the “remand system to Peterborough isn’t working”.

Breach of Restraining Order

Next up was a male from near Royston pleading not-guilty to a breach of a restraining order.

Arrangements were made for a trial.

While a child was involved no reporting restriction was placed on the case; though I don’t think it would be appropriate to name the defendant, and hence his child.

While the circumstances of the case were interesting as I understand it I can’t report them as it was a committal hearing.

Handling Stolen Goods

Mr Ian Cooper, of no fixed abode, using a contact address of “Tenison Court” appeared in front of the court.

The court heard he was charged with a range of charges most relating to handling, possession and receiving of stolen goods and one of driving without insurance (one of stolen items involved was a car). He’d already pleaded on some, and was in court to plead on two more: dishonestly receiving £65 and 500 krona. (The specific nationality of the krona wasn’t mentioned).

The clerk invited the legal representatives to “do the bidding war”. I have no idea what she was suggesting, but nothing happened.

Magistrates were told all the charges related to the same burglary. Magistrates accepted jurisdiction.

Magistrates heard more background; and what was about to happen was explained to Mr Cooper. When it came to the pleas he pleaded not-guilty to the one relating to the £65. This appeared to derail everything and the prosecution asked for more time to consider what to do in response and proceedings fizzled out.

Magistrates did urge speedy progress, asking the prosecution to take what advice she had to from her bosses that day and to come back later. The prosecution said this wasn’t possible because it involved instructing a new solicitor who’d have to be made familiar with the case and who would want to be see the papers first hand.

Mr Cooper was let out on his old bail conditions – reporting to Parkside police station daily between 12.00 and 14.00 and was let off reporting that day by the court, even though it was well before 12.00. He was kept waiting outside the court for a many hours for some reason. (A number of people were left a very long time outside court waiting for documents; there was no way for them to find court staff who could help them find out what was happening; some complained the delay was costing them money in the Grand Arcade car park. When it came to lunch time some were concerned they’d been left waiting while staff had gone to lunch, security and ushers stated unconvincingly that wasn’t what had happened).

Conspiracy Three defendants, each represented by their own lawyer, appeared on a charge of conspiracy. One of the three was under 18 so reporting restrictions were again imposed. The alleged offence was committed between 1 October 2009 and 25 January 2011; magistrates committed them to the Crown Court in just a week's time.

No details of the alleged offence were revealed, so I don't know anything more about this one than I've written - beyond the names of those involved. They do appear to be getting speedy treatment with their wait of just one week to get to the Crown Court.

They were let out on bail, with a condition banning them contacting a specified individual.

There was a little more swearing, as a clerk from another court (which had been doing a series of quick trials) came in and said he'd got "bugger all" to do, and he took some of the cases from the court I was in.

Supply of Diamorphine (Heroin)

An individual charged with supplying Heroin between the 10th of January and the 19th of January had his case was rapidly committed to the Crown Court to be heard on the 4th of April at 10am.

He was in custody, as the charge had resulted in him being recalled to prison.

As this was a committal hearing the statutory reporting restrictions apply.

Shoplifting

An individual scheduled to appear had called the court saying they’d strained a muscle in their back and couldn’t make it.

Magistrates agreed to give them the benefit of the doubt and re-arranged the appearance for two weeks time. They stated the individual would be required to provide a medical certificate, and stated that if they did not they would be dealt with for a “bail act offence”.

Moving a Community Order

An individual had moved to Bedfordshire and the magistrates were asked to formally move his community order there too which they agreed.

Domestic Violence

A sad case of a polish man’s alcohol fuelled violence against his wife of 15 years in the presence of his and others’ children was related to the court. He had been on bail conditions which prevented him going home.

The man pleaded guilty. Despite magistrates telling him “what you’ve done is indefensible” he was given a 12 month suspended community sentence, and required to attend a domestic violence programme. His bail restrictions preventing him going home were lifted after the court heard his wife was happy with that.

As children were involved a S.39 reporting restriction was imposed.

Domestic Violence

A young couple were in court. The man, who looked to be in his early twenties, was in the dock and his partner was in the public seating. They both looked smart and presentable. He pleaded guilty to assaulting her; so the court heard about the circumstances to allow them to sentence him. The court was told they had been together for 2.5 years and had a 14 month old child together. The events of the day leading to them being in court started with the man waking up and asking where his tobacco had gone. His partner wasn’t able to tell him which prompted an argument during which she threatened to walk out. He dragged her into their kitchen, giving her carpet burns and slapped her around the head. He apologised and left for work. When he returned from work that evening he asked her if she had been drinking, at first she said no, then said she’d had a gin and lemonade. They argued, she fled outside and he dragged her back in. While they were outside away from the house their 14/15 month old daughter was in the house alone. He says he was trying to get her to come back into the house as she’d run out in her knickers.

The court heard how he had at first not admitted to hitting her, but then said he may have slapped her but it wasn’t an “actual slap”.

Photos of injuries were passed to the magistrates.

The man had no previous convictions.

Surprisingly the chair of the magistrates announced that he and his colleagues had already discussed the case after reading the pre-sentnce reports. It appeared the court hearing the circumstances was entirely for show as he announced the magistrate’s views as soon as the circumstances had been relayed. He said a suspended sentence was what they had in mind. He apparently quoting from the report said that the man now takes their dog for a walk if he comes home from work feeling stressed. Magistrates recommended an anger management plan, supervision, and a domestic abuse programme. The probation officer said the domestic abuse programme “could start within 6 months” when asked how long it would take to get started by the magistrates; the implication appeared to be this was quick – to me it sounded a very long time.

The clerk advised magistrates to opt for an 18 month suspended sentence as that gives an option to extend the period of suspension to the maximum of 24 if it is breached; ie. letting a future court dealing with a breach have another option other than sending the man to prison. Magistrates sentenced the man to 4 months prison, suspended for 18 months. He was told if he didn’t complete the probation service courses he would go to prison. Magistrates wanted to, an in fact did, order the “supervision” to run for 24 months; however the clerk, on request from the probation officer overruled this and made it 18 like the suspended sentence – deciding the magistrates had been inconsistent.

The clerk decided to guess the magistrate’s likely reasoning as they hadn’t given any. He suggested they’d probably decided the offence was “so serious” it warranted prison due to the child being present and the violence. However the reasons for suspending the sentence was the good character previously.

Domestic-ish ABH / Assault

The next case involved older people; again another couple. This time the woman was in the dock. This pair had begun their day which brought them to court by starting drinking in the Regal pub in Cambridge at 0930. After 7-8 pints each they walked to a pub on Victoria Road where they had another pint and began arguing (about if one should visit their relatives). They went to the man’s house where the woman tried to open the man’s post. He resisted this and she hit and bit him; they fought and at one point she came into the bathroom where he was and she had a kitchen knife. The man ended up needing to go to hospital.

When the chair of the magistrate’s heard the pair were still together, and the man was in the public seating, his eyebrows nearly hit the ceiling with amazement.

Magistrates heard the woman was on benefits, and no drugs were involved.

Announcing the sentence the chairman said: “If I drank 8 pints I would’t be able to stand up. Unless you do something it’ll kill you eventually”. The woman was sentenced to 4 months in prison suspended for 12 months and was to be given alcohol treatment.

Assault by Beating

A binge drinking individual who had been involved in fights in the city centre was found guilty of “drunk and disorderly” for which he was fined £100 – deemed paid due to him having spent 48 hours in police custody. For assault charges he was fined £285 plus given a curfew of 7pm -7 am on Friday and Saturday nights. He was also given 6 months of alcohol treatment.

Chair of Bench in Court 4

The chair of the bench in court four spoke to the court during a recess. He spoke about the fact the court building was under-used, and suggested even more space would become available. He wondered if tribunals, currently held in the government buildings on Brooklands Avenue, such as social security tribunals would move into the building. He suggested the lack of public access to most of the building might pose a problem.

He was asked to explain a badge he was wearing, he explained it related to charity collections for leukaemia research.

He also said he was a Cambridge blue badge tour guide, and explained this involved lots of lectures weekly and written and practical tests. He said he was currently taking French teenagers around, speaking to them in French, and said this was hard work as they didn’t really want to be there. He said that he tells those on his tours there’s only one cyclist in Cambridge who goes the right way down one way streets, stops for red lights and has lights on his bike; and that’s him.

I left him to his ramblings and went to another court.

Shoplifting

Four Romanians were brought into the dock. They were each accompanied by their own G4S security guard. They had been in the cells. The court had found an interpreter for them. They all looked very happy and relaxed.

They were all charged with shoplifting £994.75 worth of clothing from TK Max on the Beehive centre in Cambridge. They were all represented by the duty solicitor a Miss Yates.

They gave their names, and all gave the address of “237 Bromley Road, London, SE6″.

They all pleaded guilty.

The court then heard the circumstances of the case prior to sentencing; it was told that at 15.00 yesterday (Sunday 5th March) they had been seen in the TK Max shop at the Beehive centre in Cambridge. They had been clocked by security in the shop who saw them making eye-contact regularly. They each filled up baskets with clothes and took them up-stairs where they met up and one of them placed selected clothes from the baskets into a bag. He then left the store, past the till point, without paying. (This sounded like a typical bit of police using standard phrases rather than using the facts as the tills are not right by the door in that shop). All the goods were security tagged but the alarm did not go off.

One was detained outside, and the three others detained a few minutes later inside. The police were called and all admitted shoplifting. They were found to have a foil lined bag, which one said they’d been told would stop the security alarms activating.

The other three, not caught with the goods, admitted they had a pre-agreed plan, and intended to sell on the clothes to make money.

The court were told that all four had been cautioned by Essex police for shoplifting. Two on the 17th of February for shoplifting on the 16th, one on the 1st of February and the other on the 17th of February for an offence on the 17th.

The police asked the magistrates to impose £85 costs and to order the destruction of the bag.

The duty defence solicitor did her bit. She stressed they’d pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and were fully cooperative during the interviews. She said their intent was to come to the country to work, but work hadn’t been as readily available as they’d hoped. They needed money to supplement a shortfall in their legitimate earnings and hence the shoplifting plan.

They traveled to the UK not to steal but to work she said. All had good character except for their cautions the court was told. The defence solicitor then suggested that as they’d spent 24 hours in custody the magistrates should deal with the matter by means of a financial penalty deemed served by the time spent in custody.

If magistrates weren’t minded to do that she suggested an alternative of a conditional discharge.

The defending solicitor then argued that any penalty involving costs would be difficult for them, as they have no regular income. She warned an unintended consequence might be further offences being committed to pay the court ordered charges.

The defence ended by saying they have an intention to stay out of trouble, and register themselves in the UK so they find legitimate work. All they wanted was to support their families in Romania she said.

The clerk pointed out some aggravating factors: they’d planned the crime and travelled to Cambridge, they had the foil lined bag; as well as pointing out the mitigating fact they’d pleaded guilty.

The clerk then asked the defendants some questions (I presume because the Magistrates were too wet to do so), she asked for more details about what work they did. She was told they do all sorts of construction related work eg. decorating and plastering. The female was supported by the males, and has no yet found work.

The clark pointed to the starting point on the sentencing guidelines, a community order or conditional discharge for 12 months.

The defence argued that it would be difficult for probation to manage a community order, unpaid work, as they were non-English speaking. This would be setting them up to fail she said.

Magistrates tried to clarify when they had arrived in the UK. “1 month ago” they were told, prompting a query about the 1st February caution. One had been in the UK before Christmas, gone home and returned again, the others had come in a month ago the court was told.

The defence solicitor added that one of the group goes to B&Q to try and find work with those labourers going to buy supplies at the store.

She also said the group’s relatives in Romania were currently paying their rent; and their plan to send money in the other direction wasn’t yet working.

The magistrates retired and returned to announce their sentence. They gave the same to each of them. They explained the planning, the bag and the fact they’d travelled from London to Cambridge were factors they’d considered; and they’d also considered the early guilty plea. The sentence was a “community order for unpaid work” for 60 hours each, reduced to 40 each for the guilty pleas. Plus £85 costs each and an order for the “forfeiture and destruction of the bag”.

The clerk noted it was unusual to sentence someone to a community order without ordering a pre-sentence report first. The court didn’t know if the health of these people was up to a day’s work, or if their English was good enough to cope.

The magistrates told those being sentenced they were in the UK to work. The probation officer asked that the order be made directly to London probation, not Cambridge. The magistrates then released them to speak to probation, the officer said if they could understand her English the probation service should be able to do something. They were release via the cells in the basement, and then told to come up to the court floor on the public side to speak to the probation officer. They said they would re-convene the court in a few minutes if the probation officer couldn’t communicate with them in English. I waited for a while, until the prosecution solicitor left, so it appears the court did not reconvene.

Changes

While the magistrates were considering their sentence, the clerk, Jill, addressed the court commenting on plans to re-arrange when the courts sit in Cambridge. She said currently there are sometimes not enough clerks available, but changes would result in some days when clerks will be employed to sit in the office all day. This illustrates much of the problem with the place, no one is in charge, everyone feels like they’re just a helpless cog in the system.

Articles Following Previous Days in Court

18 comments/updates on “A Day in the Cambridge Magistrates Court

  1. Paul Harvey

    Richard,

    Glad you enjoyed your day in court. The security is fun. I recently came through KL on my way to Heathrow and the security was not as tight or as expensive. Unlike airports , where even the pilos go throuh security, the blessed are waved through at CMC.
    At the last count there were eight security guards (private contractor so probably £25k a piece) and the absurd scanners. Who wants to attack the place? However, one of the guards does an excellent impression of Harry Worth: I am sure the court has it on video.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    There were a couple of other security related issues. One was on returning after lunch I again had my bag searched; this time I was asked if the liquid in my water bottle was water. I said: “Yes” and this satisfied the officer, who said I didn’t look like someone who would be taking gin in.

    I am not sure this process would have done much to stop anyone taking, say a flammable liquid, into the court building.

    I witnessed a shocking exchange on my way out. A woman with a large hold-all was asking to leave it in the foyer with security as she went onto the street to smoke. Security refused to hold onto her bag for her, but offered to turn a blind-eye if she smoked just inside the door.

    It wasn’t raining, and while February, it wasn’t bitterly cold so I couldn’t see any justification for this.

    There were a number of security officers behind the desk downstairs. And during the afternoon four officers were in the waiting area upstairs, were there were only a handful of people at the start, and later almost no-one (an occasional person walking through). The large numbers could be needed as each defendant in custody is accompanied to/from and while in the court by a security officer. I’m not sure if there are different pools of officers responsible for those held in the cells and those responsible for the building security. Security also has to lock and unlock the doors into the dock; this is an inefficient process as the security from the waiting room does this, rather than the security officers from the cells doing it on their way in/out (though they do check the door is locked on their way in).

    Despite the heavy security (in person, and CCTV) presence the waiting room is still littered.

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    A copy of the case management form is available via:

    http://www.justice.gov.uk/criminal/procrules_fin/

    Had the students been forced to make a plea, and been required to fill in that form it isn’t clear to me how much time they’d have been given to do so. The suggestion from the clerk was they’d be asked to do it right away – without legal advice (other than perhaps the duty solicitor and any advice the clerk could give).

    I think the system needs to be more accessible to those representing themselves. It isn’t clear if while a defence solicitor might be expected to negotiate with the prosecution to agree various elements of the case / evidence a defendant representing themselves would be in a position to enter such negotiation with their prosecution.

    If I ever have to fill in one of those, and I’m innocent, I’d have trouble with:

    Does the defendant understand that: he or she will receive credit for a guilty plea ?

    I fear that really interferes with the opportunity to get a fair trial; if someone genuinely believes they’ve got a good case to put before the court answering the allegation(s). I would rather magistrates be given, and encouraged to use, freedom to make their own assessment as to if such credit ought be given if someone has tried, but failed, to make a reasonable defence. My understanding is the magistrates in fact have great freedom to exercise their own judgement, but simply often elect not to use it (the selection process for magistrates being designed to eliminate those who might consider such action in any case). Would, as the form states, credit be given for a guilty plea even if it was at a very late state in proceedings?

    When I was in court I observed one person get offered the opportunity to have his case heard in the Crown Court if he chose. He was warned that this could result in greater court costs being awarded against him should he be found guilty and elected for a trial in the magistrates court. (He actually specifically requested, and was apparently granted, his request to be tried by magistrates!). Personally I would prefer magistrates to a district judge in a magistrate’s court – but I don’t think that option is actually given to defendants.

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    On reflection I have a couple of further comments on my experience:

    Not Dealing with a Cross-Section of Society

    Those in court don’t appear to be generally a cross-section of society.

    One individual was asked about his means to pay any fine; he replied he earned £50/day and Magistrates remarked that it was unusual to get someone in employment in front of them.

    From the police speaking at area committee meetings, and the community safety partnership I’ve heard them give statistics that only about half crimes such as robberies involve a “member of the public”, others are spats between criminals stealing from each other and then calling the police. There appears to me to be a section of society with which the police regularly get involved and who therefore end up in-front of the court a lot.

    I am concerned that the police, and justice system is very focused on low-level crime; such as minor assaults between friends, criminals stealing stuff from each other etc. and wonder if enough is being done to tackle, and deter, crimes with a more significant impact on the public at large such as fraud and corruption.

    I also think there should also be more transparency in Cambridge about the level of offences dealt with (or not) by the universities and colleges internally; and typically not reported to the police.

    Domestic Violence

    While some of the events related to the court appeared quite serious; there have been events in my own and my friends’ lives which, if related in the formal language of the court, and the kinds of words used in statements written by the police might sound very serious too.

    I think it is notable that in all cases I observed those involved, all male-female couples, were still together and were supporting each other. Either supporting each other in-person in court, or having supported to the lifting of bail conditions / restraining orders.

    Cambridgeshire Police state that domestic violence / abuse includes “Disrespect” and “Name-calling or put-downs”. I also note that at least within Cambridge recently the police have been trying to increase the number of domestic violence cases reported.

    My concern is that police and court time is being used when really its not necessary. I wonder if there is a way for couples to approach the police after an event and ask, together, that it be taken no-further. From what I observed in the court it appears this isn’t possible; and that once a call to the police has been made and they’ve got involved and got a statement they can use to support a charge that kicks off an unstoppable chain of events.

    It appeared to me that neither of those involved in most of the cases I observed wanted to be in court; and I couldn’t see how the public interest was served by the court case.

    I can see it would be of value to record these incidents, but assume this would be done by the police, and going to court shouldn’t really change that – but of course does – as it gives one of those involved a criminal record, and a sentence typically involving an “integrated domestic abuse programme”. It may be the courts are being used by the police/couples to get access to that kind of “help”?

    Weak Magistrates

    I’ve mentioned the two cases where the clerks directly over-ruled the magistrates – one reducing the term of a “supervision order” to match the period for which a prison sentence was suspended and the other relating to narrowing the reporting restriction. A clerk also had to suggest the magistrate’s likely reasoning for a sentence when they failed to give them.

    The magistrates generally appeared pretty useless; the clerk in one court did a lot of questioning of both the defendants, and their representatives, in the interests of making sure the magistrates had all the information they required. The clerk was also ensuring that those not represented got a fair hearing; for example in one case she noted to magistrates that had the individual being sentenced had a legal representative they would probably be arguing that the sentence should be reduced in respect of time spent in custody. (Notably the court generally appears unaware of times people were arrested / released from the police station, so if you go in over midnight you appear to get credit for spending 48 hours detained)

    When the magistrates were out of court the clerk at one point, while not directly complaining about the magistrates in her court that day, did note how another magistrate chairing the court might have done so better; and commented on some of the magistrate’s rather inane comments.

    I would like to have seen the magistrates show that they were the most important people in the room, that it was there court, and to do that they have to do more than simply tell the defendant to stand up and sit down and deliver a pompous speech along with the sentence and/or bail conditions.

    No-one Sent to Prison

    I watched a whole day of magistrates’ court action and no one was sent to prison. Not even the gang of organised shoplifters, stealing goods to sell on. I suspect had I been in a court 50, or 100 years ago that would have been very different.

    What the Sentences Actually Are

    It wasn’t at all clear to me what the sentences to attend various “programmes” (domestic violence, anger, alcohol etc.) and “supervision” actually amounted to.

    The court was told in some cases the “programmes” wouldn’t start until six months into a suspended sentence, and would only last till the end of it, so the amount of time an individual would have to spend attending appeared very haphazard.

    One magistrate did ask the probation service how often an individual would have to attend for a “supervision”; the reply was at first a weekly appointment and then probably getting less frequent as the sentence progressed. It all appeared very woolly.

    If I was sentenced to attend these various programmes or “supervision” I’d want the magistrates to be sentencing me to a particular number of hours, or at least capping the number of hours. As far as I could tell it all appeared to be left in the hands of the probation service.

    Cambridgeshire Probation’s website says their alcohol programme is provided through partnership with Addaction and Addaction’s website’s front page appears to show someone having needles stuck in their ears – acupuncture I presume. Sentencing someone convicted of an alcohol related offence to acupuncture sounds very wrong to me. And I could just imagine how it might end up being presented in court if that’s what was recommended and the person declined: “unwilling to take part in the programme”. I note the probation website states alcohol treatment programmes must have the consent of the offender, but I didn’t hear magistrates ask for that consent from those they sentenced when I was observing (perhaps it was in the paperwork?).

    Reading the Cambridgeshire Probation Service website I learnt “community service is the “brand name” the probation service have given “unpaid work”. As those wearing ‘community payback’ orange jackets are a commonly seen sitting on Midsummer Common and Jesus Green in the summer I’ve previously asked Cambridge City Council about sentences served with them, they knew very little.

    Other probation areas hold their board meetings in public. Cambridgeshire’s probation board’s webpage contains no meeting papers and no suggestion their meetings are open to the public. The relevant law allows each trust to “regulate its own procedure”. Cambridgeshire also don’t have a FOI publication scheme online, unlike other trusts.

  5. Rupert Moss-Eccardt

    Richard,

    I would borrow a copy of Anthony and Berryman’s Magistrates Court Guide which is the ‘standard’ handbook to get a good feel of how the court is driven; my copy is 1999 so not particularly current.

    On the Domestic Violence front, AIUI the victim has to make a written witness statement so it does require a certain degree of commitment and I do believe the complainant could withdraw the compaint but a solicitor could clarify that. There is a specific protocol on DV that is different from the usual CPS process:
    http://www.cps.gov.uk/publications/agencies/dv/index.html

  6. Hmmm

    Mr Taylor,

    It is always interesting to read a lay person’s impression of the legal workings of the Court.

    One understandable misunderstanding I think you may have is that the Clerk in a Magistrates’ Court is, in fact, a Legal Adviser and therefore knows more about the law than the Lay Magistrates (who are more akin to three jury members than judges). The Magistrates decide issues of fact (like a jury) and are then required to apply the law, as directed by the Prosecutor, Defence barrister/solicitor and Court Clerk.

    The interventions made by the Clerk (eg. reducing the supervision period to 18 months to correspond with the 18 month suspended sentence) were made because the Magistrates were in error. In this case, the supervision period of a suspended sentence must not exceed the operational period as set out at section 189 (4) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003:

    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/44/section/189#text%3Dsupervision%20period%20suspended%20sentence

    The importance of the Court Clerk in the Magistrates’ Court should not be underestimated. As a practitioner, I say thank goodness for them!

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    There is no misunderstanding on my part. I am aware of the role of the clerk.

    the Clerk in a Magistrates’ Court is, in fact, a Legal Adviser and therefore knows more about the law than the Lay Magistrates (who are more akin to three jury members than judges).

    That is not a misunderstanding; that is the case.

    The clerk was wrong to over-rule the magistrates. The clerk over-ruling the magistrates undermines the entire system. The clerk ought act as an advisor. It would have been right for the clerk to speak up, not to over-rule the magistrates, but to advise them.

    Certainly it would be a very worrying situation if the Magistrates were to be directed by the prosecutor or defence as suggested by “Hmmm”. Solicitors did try this on a couple of times while I was observing but the clerk was quick to intervene and advise the magistrates to disregard it; or at least stress who it was coming from.

  8. Kevin

    ‘I watched a whole day of magistrates’ court action and no one was sent to prison.’

    But then you have to think about the cost of that outcome.
    In the case of the shoplifters all that would have meant is that they would have cost £x for x amount of time in a prison. It wouldn’t stop them shoplifting again, nothing would. Having the plan of maybe talking to builders at B&Q for work isn’t the route of someone that is actively looking for a proper new life in the UK.
    Does sound like a lot of things got passed on for another date anyway.

    I can’t see why the students case is taking so long. It’s well documented, could be sorted out very quickly if it wasn’t for all the faffing about. Won’t take long to come to a decision with evidence.

  9. Tallulah

    The speed in which cases are listed before the Crown Court depends on the type of offence. The committal hearing will state under which section the case is sent or committed to the Crown. For example, in a Section 51 sending the first hearing at the Crown Court must be within 7 days of the Magistrates’ Court hearing. These are the most serious offences. Committal for trial has longer before the first hearing, and Committal for sentence will not be given a date.

  10. Richard Taylor Article author

    I was at the Magistrates court on the 25th of July when the trial of Mr Jacob Wills and Mr Curtis-Watson had been scheduled.

    They were not listed.

    An usher, ex cllr Armstrong, let me know their case has been scheduled as a two day trial next week. She didn’t tell me which day, I said I’d ask the police.

    I’ve tweeted @CambsCops who told me to contact @CPSUK which I have now done.

  11. PJ

    Having looked into the Courts Act 2003, you’re absolutely right that a Clerk has no power or right to overrule a magistrate. If I was a magistrate (whether the chair of the three or one of the other two), I would have told the Clerk politely but firmly that he (or she) didn’t have the power to overrule me. Something like “I would appreciate it, Mr/Miss Whatsyourface, if you did not try to overrule me or my associates in this court. I appreciate your advice and expertise in the exercise of your duties. Mr/Miss Whatsyourface, but the Courts Act 2003 does not give you the power to overrule magistrates. You may give advice or make suggestions about changing a sentence if I have made a mistake, but MY COLLEAGUES AND *I* will be the person changing the sentence, not anybody else. Now if you intended to give me advice about changing the sentence, that’s a different matter, in which case I thank you for your advice.” Then “On the advice of the clerk, I am adjusting the sentence as appropriate to 18 months supervision”. But in any case it was a disgusting sentence in the first place – slapped a woman, dragged her by her hair, then when she tried to flee dragged her by her hair again to drag her inside! Should have been sent to the Crown Court for sentencing or, if the not-fit-for-purpose CPS had only pursued it as a summary offence (e.g. common assault), maximum sentence due to the gravity of the attack. I’d ignore Sentencing GUIDELINES (not rules) if they said I should take into account his previous “good character” as mitigation. The woman needed to be protected from him.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      I agree the magistrates ought stand up to their clerks more. I too think the magistrates ought remember their role is one of a human in the system and they should move away from their guidance when appropriate.

      On the case mentioned though; I thought the defendants claim he tried to bring the woman back inside because she’d run out in her knickers ie. he was trying to stop her doing something silly [and protect her from herself] was credible. I thought the sentence was harsh given what was described.

  12. Richard Taylor Article author

    I’ve removed a fascinating report of a case heard at Cambridge Magistrates court from this thread.

    The person who posted the comment had referred to the named defendant in the case as “a thief”; even though they were not found guilty.

    The current state of libel law means I’m not prepared to publish the report; I will write to the poster and encourage them to rewrite it and post it elsewhere, and if they like provide a link here.

    I would love to see more people going to the magistrates courts, sitting in the public gallery and writing about their experiences and the problems they observe with the system.

    One problem noted was prosecutors reading material for the first time on the day of the trial. I’ve previously written about a prosecutor reading a file for the first time while presenting it it court (stolen cakes from the station).

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