I spent a day watching the Cambridge Magistrates Courts in action today.
Of the defendants I saw there were two eastern Europeans, one person from 222 Victoria Road, one from Jimmy’s night shelter, an elderly British man, and four young apparently local men in their teens/early twenties. I saw eight defendants, all were male. I saw only sentencing, no trials, though I did see many people technically plead guilty, but do so in such a way as to make clear they were doing so under duress: “I have been advised to plead guilty” or “not guilty” … then the solicitor turns to his client and says … “I thought we’d agreed…”) and the client concedes: “OK guilty” having made his point to the court. They then proceeded to try and persuade the court of their innocence while benefiting from the reduced sentence coming from an early guilty plea. This suggests to me that there is too much emphasis placed on getting an early guilty plea, there is too great a difference in punishment between admitting guilt and being found guilty after a trial. I think if a defendant is innocent, they should have the opportunity to defend themselves without fear of a greatly increased sentence if they fail to persuade the magistrates they are innocent. I believe, both from my experience today, and my experience as a juror at the Crown Court the current system encourages people who believe they are innocent to say they are guilty. Choosing to take the quick certainty of a small punishment rather than take the longer drawn out route of a trial and risk a harsher penalty often appears the sensible rational route. In one case I heard today the clerk even commented that it was “unfortunate” the defendant had been advised to plead guilty. If I am innocent, even if I don’t have a good case for my own defence and feel I might loose, I should still be able to put my defence to the court without risk of worse punishment just for seeking justice.
Currently there are many situations where the rational thing for an innocent person to do is plead guilty and that’s a serious flaw in the system in my view.
Stealing cakes from the Police?
A young Lithuanian was charged with theft of three cakes and a can of Fanta (Value £3.90) from the Police Station in Ely, as well as “resisting a police officer” and the theft of a purse which was found on him when he was arrested. The stealing cakes from the police charge unsurprisingly raised smiles from the Magistrates, Ushers and Probation Officer in court. The defendant pleaded guilty to all charges.
When the prosecuting solicitor started reading out excerpts from her file to we learnt that the drinks and cake were in fact stolen from a stall on Ely railway station (not the police station) however the cock-up was ignored and the sentencing ploughed on. While it had provided some amusement this incident revealed that the defendant’s translator wasn’t enabling the defendant to properly communicate with the court – surely he would have piped up and said he didn’t nick the cakes from the police as that was put to him if he’d understood; it also suggested to me that neither the prosecution or defence solicitors had read up on the case – both appeared to be dealing with many cases that day.
We learnt he had run off from a policeman on Ely station and had been when he was caught he was CS gassed. The individual already had suspended sentences for other crimes, and despite being sentenced for relatively minor crimes today ended up being sent to jail for a couple of weeks as his suspended sentence was activated.
Punching a police officer in Cambridge – just £50!
Another individual’s most serious charge was for assaulting a special constable on duty in uniform (He’d thrown a punch at the officer but no injuries to the officer were reported), he pleaded guilty, and in respect of that charge was only asked to pay £50 compensation to the Special Constable, a decision by the magistrates which was met with incredulity by the clerk and prosecutor – who both politely and formally asked the chairwomen if she was sure, implicitly pointing out that it would sending out a pretty appalling signal and was a shocking decision. The prosecution had already stressed that courts usually for good reason take assaults on uniformed police officers seriously, and the fact this officer was a special, a volunteer, did not lessen the offence, in fact it could be seen to make it worse. The prosecutor noted that the police would want to know why there was no specific penalty/punishment for the offence and asked the bench how their decision could be explained to the police. The reasons given by the bench made some sense: this individual was also on a suspended sentence which was activated by the court as the sentence for another charge so he was going to prison anyway – they were looking at the totality and didn’t see the assault on the police officer as requiring a specific punishment. The prosecutor and clerk pointed out that the Magistrates could have sentenced the individual to a prison sentence to be run concurrently with his existing sentences which might have been a better way of dealing with the police officer assault charge rather than leaving the suggestion that the only punishment for attacking a police officer in Cambridge is £50 compensation.
Drunk drivers have nothing to loose by not giving a breath sample in Cambridge
A young, apparently British teenager was in court having the night before driven his parents Mercedes into Cambridge and came to the attention of the CCTV operator when he tried to go the wrong way down a one way street. The police became involved and by this morning he found himself in court facing a long list of charges, including driving without due care and attention, failing to give a breath specimen, making off from the police and possession of 0.8g of Cannabis (which was found in the car). As was typical for the day he pleaded guilty to all charges, but evidently did so reluctantly, as his solicitor explained – he wasn’t pleading guilty because he was guilty, but because he and his solicitor had decided between them he didn’t have much of a defence. He claimed that he had tried to give a breath specimen but the machine was broken, that the cannabis wasn’t his (someone else could have left it in the car), he also claimed it wasn’t clear that he had been asked to stop by the Police, he claimed he thought the police were trying to get him to move out of the way to let a taxi through – which he did, he moved on, parked and walked off, after which he was surprised to be arrested. As he had pleaded guilty there was no trial, and no opportunity to find out if he was as appeared to be claiming (in all but his guilty plea) innocent. We had no evidence from the CCTV or from the police who had stopped him – who might have been able to tell the court if there were any indications he was drunk for example. Surely if he had been very drunk / drugged the prosecution would have been able to make this point to the court irrespective of the functioning of the breathalyser/intoximeter for example by reading a statement from the police officer who stopped him?
With respect to the cannabis he was given a conditional discharge (which was explained as a warning that if he comes back to court for a similar offence he might be sentenced for today’s offence then in conjunction with the future offence). He was disqualified from driving for a year, which he was told would be reduced to nine months if he went on an alcohol awareness course.
The prosecution were surprised by this, when the court had risen they noted the punishment for failing to give a specimen of breath needs to be higher than the punishment for driving and giving a high alcohol breath specimen. As it is the message the court appeared to be giving out that morning was that if you get stopped for drink-driving in Cambridge and have been drinking excessively – refuse to give a sample and you’ll be given a punishment towards the more lenient end of the spectrum, whereas if you had been shown to have a high amount of alcohol the magistrates’ guidelines would have pointed them towards the harsher punishments.
Sentencing guidelines for failure to provide a sample:
Mandatory disqualification for at least 12 months, a minimum period of 24 months is suggested in the Magistrates’ Sentencing Guidelines and a possibility of 6 months imprisonment*
A case was adjourned as a defendant was looking for an expert to give evidence saying that he was medically unable to blow a specimen of breath. This was to be paid for by public money so three quotes from experts had been obtained. The cheapest expert was going to charge £1200 for writing a report, the state were only willing to pay £800 for this report and the expert had stopped replying to the defense solicitor’s correspondence. The magistrates allowed the case to be adjourned for many weeks to allow the report to be obtained.
One case was put-off to another day when it was found that the prosecution had been given charges numbered 1,2,3,6,7 from the police and were wondering if 4,5 were missing. The prosecution solicitor and magistrates openly blamed the police for this (I don’t know where the blame lay), the magistrates asked the prosecution to pass on the fact that they were unimpressed to the police. I feel that if the magistrates feel they need to make a point to the police they’d have more influence doing it directly.
Wasting PCSO’s Time
At one point a PCSO, PCSO 7222 Streater sat in the court for a few minutes (with his radio on until the usher glared at him) until between cases the prosecution solicitor came up and told him he wasn’t needed. I realise police/PCSOs wasting their time sitting in courts is hardly news or surprising, but this instance could have easily been avoided by letting the person know they were not required as soon as the court knew.
Locked up and punished with no “day in court”?
I also saw a request for someone to be released from the cells – the complainant was no-longer cooperating with the prosecution, stating that she was happy that having been in police custody for three days this person had received their punishment. I am concerned that the police and courts were allowing themselves to be used/manipulated by people – they were persuaded to lock thus guy up for the weekend and he never even got to see the magistrates. I think the clerk should not be making such decisions alone, at the very least the clerk could do it in the court in the presence of the Magistrates, having the clerk sitting alone deciding on someone’s freedom seamed wrong to me.
The chairwomen magistrates appeared to be acting like “Divas”, for example one was wearing a piece of jewellery like a large golden “medallion” and sat in her seat it looked as if she was wearing something like a mayoral chain. Another fussed over the temperature of the court room, asking that “something be done about the heat” – the fact there was nothing wrong was made clear by the usher who had to ask which way to adjust it: “do you want it hotter or colder ma’am?”. Another court made a big fuss about a prosecutor appearing infront of them not wearing a jacket; he had to ask for special permission to prosecute in his shirt beforehand and was (seriously as far as I could tell) admonished and warned to bring his jacket next time as his case concluded. The worst big-headedness came with the lunch break, the court rose at 13.15, and the chairwomen said the magistrates would be returning at 14.00. The solicitors and court staff therefore took slightly more rushed lunch break than they would have liked and returned to the court just before 14.00, the Magistrates took more than a full hour and turned up at 14.20 with no apology. Despite this all, including the member of the public, had to stand up as they returned. I didn’t feel the court ought to stand when it had been kept waiting for 20 minutes, I could have stayed sitting down as the court stood as the Magistrates walked in, but I’d probably have been sent to the cells for the rest of the day, and I felt I should watch anonymously and not draw attention to myself as other people’s lives and futures were being decided infront of me.
A Benefit Fraudster?
An elderly man was being sentenced for council tax benefit fraud. At some point he had had £35 000 in an account in his name, and therefore was not entitled to council tax benefit. This money wasn’t his though he claims, and it is agreed it was only in is account for a short period – he says it was en-route from his wife to his children. His case had been found proven in his absence, he was ill and found getting to court difficult, he had attended court previously but missed the session where he was found guilty. At the time of sentencing he had a few small pensions which were topped up by benefits and less than £2000 in savings. He had paid the council back the money (about £6000) he was found to have wrongly received. The man maintained his innocence and was quite infirm and old and appeared to have lost the will to really fight and appeared resigned to his fate – his fine and costs together came to £1990 – that on top of the £6000 he (or perhaps his family who were supporting him) had paid the council. He got a right telling off from the magistrates telling him how his was a serious crime, how the amount involved almost reached the custody threshold, how he had benefited from the £6000 for a number of years.
Someone charged with begging in Cambridge city centre appeared, without representation (as there was no state aid for representation available for such a minor crime we heard from the clerk), he had received some free advice from a solicitor in the court building though -that advice was to plead guilty – even though, as usual, after pleading guilty he still maintained his innocence claiming that he was asking people for a light, or for change and not begging. He was due in court later in the week on an identical charge, relating to an offence committed before this one, so sentencing was deferred to then.
The clerks were excellent at reigning the magistrates in and stopping them doing silly things – for example one bench of magistrates thought someone should be jailed rather than receive a community or supervision order on the basis that they had no address and a punishment other than jail would be hard to administer. The clerk had to diplomatically persuade the bench that they had not meant to say that and come up with better reasons for their decision. The bench had to be reminded that in the absence of information on a defendant’s “means” to pay they should assume an average income, where as they were making their decisions on motoring fines based on what the fixed penalty tickets would have cost (cases were in court because people had not succeeded in paying fixed penalty tickets).
Finally there were also motoring offences dealt with in the absence of defendants, I found it odd that in Cambridge I was seeing offences being dealt with which were committed in and where defendants were from Peterborough which has its own magistrates’ court. I also learnt that when there’s a member of the public in court (me) the prosecuting solicitor has to stand up when they’re addressing the bench, whereas otherwise for the motoring offences they presumably wouldn’t.