Tag Archives: a view from

A view from…the Crown Court dock – pleading guilty

It took a fuel stop, an hour’s pissing around at a Police Station in Manchester, where I was given a sandwich, handcuffed, walked to another cell, locked in for 40 minutes and five hours to get me to the Crown Court; in the wrong town (The G4S driver had miss-spelt the town we were supposed to be going to and I knew we were heading to the wrong town – how was I supposed to know? They could have been picking someone up from there) then to the Magistrate’s Court in the right town when I was supposed to be at the Crown Court. It was now 3 pm and my bloody suit was fairly crumpled.  I was asked by the driver via the female guard where the back door was for the court. Sighs…  At this point I wanted to slit my own throat. I mean, how I am supposed to know that?  I know where the front door of the court is for pity’s sake.

Lyndon Harris asked me to be honest in this account of my experiences and I’m going to honour that request. In December of 2011, I was convicted of fraud for the first time. I’d taken out a credit card in my stepmother’s name, paid it; she found out, reported me.  I didn’t even wait for the bank to produce the evidence, Police called me, I went in and pleaded guilty right from the off. I had to pay off substantial debts left to me by my ex-husband; fees that I’d built up over a five year battle in Family Law courts to see my children.  I wasn’t sorry; I’m a mother, who fought for her children. Show me a mother who wouldn’t do anything to fight for her children and I’ll show you a man that never plays with himself.  It’s not an excuse, its honesty, love it loathe it.  As a result of that offence, my sentence was a custodial sentence of 12 weeks, which was suspended for one year. This offence had been committed a week after this sentence was passed and I was in breach of that suspended sentence. That suspended sentence was completed on November 24th 2012. I knew it was off to the big house for me.  Of course, there is a long story behind why I did what I did and I am not sorry. Not in the slightest. I am sorry only for the pain I have caused my family. There, I have said it.

I was taken to another cell; this was far less pretty than the Warwickshire one. Oh my, how do people etch things into cell doors? What do they use, anyone?  There was no pleasantness this time. No smiling custody sergeant, no chatty WPC to help me through. No, this is G4S, one woman (questionable, but I’ll run with it) told her colleague that I wouldn’t be able to take my handbag into prison and that she had her eye on it. I mean whisper it, by all means, but she was quite overt around her plans for my handbag. They’d made their mind up I was going to prison. I could sense their underlying hatred for me. Nice handbag, nice clothes, nice shoes and I’m pretty in tune with body language, they were almost sneering at me. I might have lived on a canal bank, but I still had pride in the way I presented myself. The night shelter run by the Salvation Army let the homeless in for showers and a coffee. I didn’t have much, but what I had was good quality. They didn’t give me any eye-contact whatsoever. Now there’s impassion and then there is being downright bloody ignorant. I was collected (more handcuffs) and taken through the cell corridor and up to civilisation where Jeremy was standing waiting for me, leaning against a door frame looking as cool as a cucumber. I found some resolve from somewhere and I managed to hold it together.

We went through my case. Jeremy explained what would happen. I would be convicted today and sentencing could be in a few weeks. I would likely be remanded in custody and Probation would do a pre-sentence report for sentencing purposes. I was taken back to the cell, by a man this time, who was far more pleasant. No handcuffs this time. Not that I cared at this point. I was done for. Then ten minutes later I was taken to the court room.

I sat in the dock then rose when the Judge came in and we were all seated. I scanned the room and there she was; the journalist. I threw her a warning glance just because I wanted to. I then put my head down. I wanted to die, right there and then. I heard the prosecutor say his part and I waited for Jeremy to state my defence. I was guided to stand up by the woman sitting next to me. I was at the point where I simply wanted to crumple to the floor and pray for an early death. I answered “Guilty” to the charges laid before me. One was for “Failing to Attend” court and the one which was going to send me to prison was: Fraud by Misrepresentation.

In December 2011, after I was sentenced for the first offence, my partner and I split up for the first time and I moved into the property of a man who told me he owned the property and he was looking for a lodger. It was a little out of town and after the press had printed a nice spread around my first case in the regional paper; I decided to tell him that I had been convicted of fraud. He was accepting of the situation after telling me he had been convicted of fraud and had had a couple of suspended sentences. His father had also been convicted of a million pound fraud back in 2004 when he was a local councillor. His father had the book thrown at him as he was a “respected councillor” I suppose you’d call them both rogues. I’d written him a cheque for two month’s rent; £875. I’d had a client who had disappeared and I was running out of funds quickly. With the sentence, caring for my mother, splitting up with my partner, a nine year battle to see my children, my mind was mashed

Now this landlord was beginning to become a little familiar with me. It was the last thing I needed at the time. I rejected him. At this point, my ex-partner had found me and asked me to return home. I did, having remained with the rogue for three weeks. The cheque bounced and his campaign started. He knew I was on a suspended sentence the messages came through. Just in case he couldn’t have me on the cheque bouncing, he made a claim that I had stolen £900 cash, a Rolex and a Breitling watch from his bedroom. I’d moved back with my partner on December 9th. I’d returned to the property to collect my goods on 20th December 2011, he helped me to load the car and was with me the whole time. I have never returned to the property since.  His statement to the police claimed I’d been at the property on the 6th January. My partner was my alibi. I was at home with him on the 6th January. I was a convicted fraudster, not a thief. This is the thing, theft and fraud, while both dishonesty offences, are not the same. They are two different acts; two different charges and two different crimes. In his statement he claimed he noticed the watches and cash were missing an hour after I had been at the property. Yet he didn’t make his statement until the 22nd of January.

Did I intend to defraud him?  Prosecution stated I did, I pleaded guilty, and minds are made up. The bank provided account evidence which showed my behaviour, a regular income, up until the middle of November, no discrepancies there. I was told that the Prosecutor would insist that I was only pleading Not Guilty because I knew I was in breach of my suspended sentence. “Intent” That’s the word isn’t it? That’s the letter of the law. Did I feel guilty? No, do I feel a sense of injustice?  I did, that’s seeping away now. That one signature on a cheque, which actually should have only been £250.00, me signing my name, taking that decision, fearful that I would be homeless, rendered me what I was trying to avoid in the first place. That might explain why at the start of this journey I may have come across as though I was trying to get away with something. Would he have had me charged had I not told him that I had been convicted previously? That I was on a suspended sentence? Or would he have called me up and told me in no uncertain terms that my cheque had bounced and demanded his money?

I told my partner everything apart from the unwanted advances the rogue had made on me while living there. His soon to be ex-wife called me and told me that it was her house, not his and that he had accused her many times of stealing cash and had reported her to the police. I drew down the Land Registry report and it was in there I saw she was telling the truth. He was allowed to live in the property as long as he paid the bills, that was the agreement she had with him. She had no idea he had taken in a lodger. He was simply angry at me for the cheque and for rejecting him. I haven’t made that up. I have every single SMS he sent me telling me I would regret turning him down and writing him a rubber cheque. A 10×8 was where I was going. In the police transcription, the words “texts not threatening” were written down next to where I told the officer.  He was also highly in the mire financially himself

Anyway, enough of that…

The Judge spoke with the court Probation Officer who agreed to see me the next day for a pre-sentence report. I was ordered to return for my sentence hearing on the Friday. This was Wednesday. Surprisingly, the Judge allowed me bail. I couldn’t believe it. It was all wrapped up in ten minutes and I was allowed to go. I was taken back down to the cell for ten minutes. A form was brought to me by the pleasant guard which I had to sign and I was released to be taken up the back stairs to meet with Jeremy. I was reunited with my goods. Jeremy was as surprised as I was. But, it was only 48 hours. It did however give me time to talk to my mother. I could stay with her till Friday. For the first time in over 38 years I sobbed in my mother’s arms. She never left me alone all night. She simply sat and watched over me.

I had my meeting with the wonderful Nick who did a thorough report on me. It took over three hours and he rather cleverly got to the bottom of my offending behaviour. He was going to recommend to the court that prison would benefit no-one least of all me and that Probation had done everything they could for me as my Probation Officer from my previous offence had given me a great reference on how I’d worked with her. There was nothing that Probation could do for me. He would be recommending a suspended sentence without any orders attached.

By Tracey McMahon

About the author: Tracey McMahon is a 45 year, copy writer/transcriber/translator. She is a convicted offender and is currently serving her sentence.

A view from…The cell

 My view from the cells, by Tracey McMahon

police-cell

Here I am in the CJS awaiting a trial. It’s at this point; I have to thank my solicitor and barrister, Jeremy, who likely never knew what was coming from me next. That man had to contend with me calling him in a distressed state and telling him I was about to “off” myself, on several occasions. Sometimes it’s the simple sentences isn’t it?  The words “I hope you don’t” gently coming down my line was enough to pull me back. He has the most incredible manner and uses that good impassion to re-rail a situation. I’d have never gotten through such a time without that support. Jeremy, thank you.

I had a case management hearing in January where a date was set for trial in April. That hearing was over quickly. I soon picked out the journalist. I have a bit of thing with the local rag in my town. It involved my local MP, the NHS and my mother. So they knew who I was and I knew who they were and I damn well knew my name would be in the paper before the weekend.

From March, I’d moved out of my home with my fiancé. We were so broken we couldn’t put it back together. I couldn’t tell the truth, he watched me slipping away into a black abyss of work and never being able to reach me. A difficult, yet wonderful man who had his own demons to deal with, but yes, I miss him, deeply. I moved back down south and continued building my business. April was approaching and I was prepared. I was standing by my plea. I know enough about this system to know that I would have to face him in court. I wanted him outed for his false allegation and I wanted him to balls it up. The charge I was guilty for and knew I was could come at the eleventh hour. I know that will piss off lawyers, but you see, without going into detail, I wanted him to stand there and lie in front of a jury on oath. I so wanted that. Just to see if he had the balls to do it. I then received an email from Jeremy to say that my case had been de-listed for the next day. I crashed back down to earth.

Then my unravelling began to a whole sorry mess around me. My ex-fiance now at this time decided he was going to “out” me to my friends and he and another man set about destroying me. I had friends remove themselves from my life overnight. By this point was my case was relisted for June 3rd. On May 28th, the day after Whitsun, I was in a bed and breakfast and I took an overdose. I’d finally come undone. I could no longer face life, face court and stand there and lie. I simply wanted out. The B&B owner had sensed something and the next thing the Police and paramedics had kicked in the door. I was carted off to A&E. I was two stone underweight, I hadn’t eaten for weeks and I was a mess. I had nowhere to go and the hospital was sadly no help. I left the hospital with my bag and found a spot on the canal path where I could sleep. Jeremy was tracking my movements. I would email him from the library daily. I’d also changed my plea to Guilty at this point. I simply couldn’t hold out any longer. I was to live on the canal for two weeks. My hearing on June 3rd was put back to the 10th June. The only way to get back to the North was by not turning up at court and a warrant to be issued for my arrest. From the 10th of June, that warrant was issued according to my solicitor; only it wasn’t. Someone had forgotten to put it on their system (yes really) Warwickshire police had a call from me every day if not a visit to ask when they were taking me into custody. It became a standing joke in the end. The Police were so kind, but their hands were tied. Eventually they had the warrant. I handed myself in where I was formally arrested and taken into custody for a night. They were relieved and so was I. The custody sergeant was fantastic and knew me before I’d even got there. My hand bag was emptied; things were placed into clear plastic bags with big white ties. I saw them grinning at the contents. Jo Malone perfume, deodorant, spare underwear, (the best, naturally) I had a Tumi case (I’ve worked hard all of my life and I like nice things, just like the next person). I was well-looked after. I was so weak mentally and physically. They put me in a cell away from the vagabonds and drunks. I was allowed to take a book in. I was reading “The Examined Life” By Stephen Groesz. Ironically, I was at the chapter which explored why we lie.

Even though I was desperate to be away from my “home” the canal, I somehow missed the freedom and the smell of the outdoors. The cell contained a bench with a blue thick-protective-coated mattress, I was given a blanket. On the ceiling was a sign which told me if I had alcohol or drug problems I could ask for someone to come and see me. Okay, I’ve liked 28 glasses of Chablis like the next person, but I wasn’t withdrawing. I was fine. Weak, shaking & scared and couldn’t stop staring at the matt stainless-steel, piss-smelling lavatory.  I managed to sleep. Oh how I needed to sleep. I could hear shouting, doors being clunked closed. But I fell into a sleep knowing my list of charges had just grown. But I had no choice. I was going to prison. I’d been told. The next morning, a lovely PC came and took me for a shower, we chatted as I showered and she handed my clothes and I was allowed to put my face on. I was clothed in my court attire.  Custody Sergeant was a different one; he was just as pleasant, helpful and supportive. Warwickshire Police took care of me, I thank them too. My night in the cell was over. It wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. But I sure as hell don’t want to go again…

Warwickshire Police’s job was done. They had the surrendered “wanted woman” from the north. They all shouted goodbye and good luck to me – I heard comments such as “If only they were all as easy to deal with” I took that as a backhanded compliment. I was now in the custody of G4S. (I bet you’re all grinning now) Keys jangled and this was the first time I’d felt like a criminal. I’ve got to ask this, can someone tell me why the female guards all look like something out of Prisoner Cell Block H?

I was now in the custody of G4S, with handcuffs on.  So, I’d surrendered, at no point did the police handcuff me. Yet, the morning I was heading to court, I had to be handcuffed from the custody area through to the van, commandeered up the stairs of the van where the guard guided me into the poky hole I was to sit in for four hours. (They got lost and I shouted directions from my “hole”, they even took me to the wrong court in a different town) I was the only person in the van for the whole way. I apologise to tax payers here.

I was on my way to court, we got there (eventually, good old G4S they got there in the end with me directing them. I should have had them on the Eurostar to Paris, they’d likely have not realised.)

I was now going to stand in the dock of a Crown Court…

By Tracey McMahon

About the author: Tracey McMahon is a 45 year, copy writer/transcriber/translator. She is a convicted offender and is currently serving her sentence.

A view from…the Magistrates’ Court dock

My view from the Magistrates’ Court dock by Tracey McMahon

mags court

My purgatory was to last for nine months. A week after I was interviewed by the police, I received a phone call from the PC who had interviewed me. She requested that I sign a form authorising the police to make further enquiries. If this turned out as I had relayed the story in my statement, then there would be what is known as, an NFA (No further action) I arranged to go into the police station the following week to sign the form.

Here’s the thing. As any conscious offender will tell you, I use the word ‘conscious’ for a reason. This is because I was now beginning to wrestle with my conscience. One of the allegations was false, of this there was no doubt. (It’s a long shot asking people to believe me, I mean come on – I’m a criminal right?)  The other allegation was true. I made sure the sand was keeping my ears warm for sure. I was planning my wedding and nothing was going to stop that, least of all a criminal charge.   Here’s a picture of my rings. Beautiful eh?

 tracey pt2

After signing the form at the police station, life moved on and as I watched my phone each and every day and shook every time it rang, I began to relax as the weeks went by and I heard nothing from the police.

On the 27th August, I was hanging out the laundry as the postman walked into the garden and handed me that day’s mail. I saw this envelope and it was then, call it a sixth sense, I knew what was inside the envelope. The Crown Prosecution Service was charging me. I was summonsed to appear before the local Magistrates’ Court to answer the charges put before me. I had never been formally arrested. There’s no need for that in today’s modern-day provision of ‘services’

On the 18th October at 9.30am I entered the Magistrates’ Court and went through the scanner while the court security guard had a quick poke through my handbag. I had at this point instructed a solicitor and told him prior to the court hearing I was pleading Not Guilty. If I pleaded Guilty to one charge, he would attempt to get the false allegation dropped. I wasn’t having that, I wanted it my way and I set about my own investigation. It was at this point for the first time I was to see the transcription of my police interview. I was handed the paper work and I couldn’t believe what I was faced with. Now, I don’t know what the criterion is for entering the police service these days, but I’d expect them to at least be able to write. Or even worse, if an administrator had written up my interview then he or she deserves to be fired on grounds of gross misconduct. This document to my knowledge was to be placed before a jury of my peers and was my defence. It looked like I didn’t give a shit, that I didn’t care and where I’d answered “yes” during the interview, it had been written “yeah” It was frankly an appalling display of our mother tongue. The prosecution’s evidence against me was even harder to understand. Their photocopier had clearly run out of ink and their girl Friday must have copied that on a Friday afternoon at 4:58pm and couldn’t be arsed to do it all again. It was a piece of paper which presented nothing. Even my solicitor had the grace to be a little bit embarrassed as I looked at him in horror before I launched into a diatribe of how shit we are in the UK at teaching our secondary school children their own language and was it any wonder that the rest of Europe laughed at our inability to speak and write our own language never mind theirs.

As I was seated in the court waiting area, I watched those around me. It was like watching an episode of Shameless (incidentally, the TV show Shameless was based on a sink estate where I grew up and was the very town in which I was sitting in the Magistrates court of) as people with various colours of track suits sailed past me dragging children with snotty noses behind them. There were mothers, fathers, grannies, brothers and sisters with members of their family who were ‘up’ for ‘stuff’ I’ve never seen as much snot in my whole life and I’ve cried buckets. I vowed next time I was in there I would be taking a box of tissues to wipe brats’ disgusting noses. Likely I’d get a clout or a profanity edged comment thrown at me, but its snot. I hate the stuff.

I asked the woman next to me if she would like a coffee. The coffee was 30p per plastic cup of shit. Whoever passes that off as coffee should be reported to Trading Standards. She looked terrified and I could tell she was on her own. She then broke down in tears as she told me her whole sorry tale of why she was there. I still speak with that lady today. I have helped her with her CV, written cover letters for her and she is now working for a pharmaceutical company and was given a conditional discharge for her crime. Oddly enough, which we laugh about now, she thought I was her solicitor.

Finally, my snot-induced nightmare was to come to an end. I was called through to Court No. 1. I know that Court No. 1 is serious business. I was told amongst the snot. Comments such as “You’re obviously in the shit if you’re in that court” and “the press are always in there”.  Well, the press were. I’m a scriber; I know when someone’s writing in a hurry. We were told to rise as the three Magistrates entered the room. Everyone else sat down, so did I. Moments later I was asked to stand as my name was read out and I answered the charges which were put to me.  I remember listening as the Prosecutor read out the charges. I was then asked to enter my plea. I spoke calmly but clearly. Not Guilty.  This was my Plea Hearing.  The Magistrates’ bench consisted of two females who were separated by the male in the middle; it was all frightfully proper. I remember looking at the three Magistrates and thinking these people are, for the next few minutes, going to decide what was going to happen to me in the next few moments. The Prosecution had applied for conditional bail. Now, I’m not a lawyer, but the charges were from 2011 and it was October 2012, I’d turned up. Any person who was not devoid of any intelligence could clearly see that I was hardly a flight risk. Equally, the chances of me contacting my victim were slim. Had I been in the business of contacting him, trust me, I’d have been standing there answering a charge of murder. My immediate thought was that they were going to put a tag on my ankle. Still, it was winter so at least no person would see it. My solicitor won the argument and I was granted unconditional bail. The Prosecutor was clearly new and very young. She stumbled with her words a little. I felt for her. I couldn’t help it. I wanted to go up to her and say “you’ll be fine” Odd thought process, given the scenario.

Finally, a date was set for a committal hearing. In six weeks I was summoned to go through it all again.  We all stood up again as the Magistrates left the court room. I have visions of them going into their little room at the back and commenting “She doesn’t look the type” and the other two shaking their heads, acquiescing. I’d heard stories in the waiting room among my “new friends” about Magistrates’ comments. One lad sticks in my mind, “I was told last time that if I was brought before the bench again, I’d be going down” he claimed. I was expecting a huge bollocking, don’t ask me why. I don’t know. Not the case, I was treated with impassion and as far as I am concerned, that’s absolutely okay.

It was to be another six months before I appeared at Crown Court. I had my committal hearing (yes more snot and I did take the tissues. I also managed to leave with my face intact)

I can write with humour about the situation but there is nothing more humbling than being charged with a criminal offence. It was a humbling experience when I came face to face with people I’d likely have crossed the street to avoid previously. We all had something in common. We had been charged with a crime. It’s so hard to define my true feelings. It was the day my life began to unravel. I draw again on people in my life who have pulled me back from brinkmanship so many times. “If you cannot feel Tracey, you must hurt” That hurt started, like a pressure cooker with the lid on. Round and round in my head I went. Turmoil and torment were simmering nicely under the lid. I met myself again. Everything I had pushed away deep in the very core of my mind began to rise and catch up with the cold, hard, impassionate woman that stared back at me every morning. That’s what lying did to me. I justified my lies with never having to feel the guilt.

Guilt is a killer. It twisted me, it changed my moral compass and drove me to hurt the people I love. With the same impassion I’d been shown by the Magistrates’ that day, I lied to myself, to my fiancé, to my defence team and I was to continue lying… for six months.

Those lies were to cost me everything. Home. Fiancé.  Friends. Father.B rother. The final knife I stuck into myself and twisted incessantly, I’d lost the chance to rebuild anything with my children.

I’ve been in a “system” since being a child. Back in 1977, I’d stood in a county court as a nine-year old, explaining in only the way a nine-year old can, how my mother was neglecting me. I watched my parents rip chunks out of each other over me.  Of course, that wouldn’t happen today. Then 25 years later I was to stand in a front of a Family Law Judge fighting for my children.  I’m pretty used to “systems” I’ve been in the High Court with a Family Law barrister. I’m a system slut in all honesty. I’ve been around the “systems” of the UK for the majority of my life.

Now, I was in the Criminal Justice System.

By Tracey McMahon

About the author: Tracey McMahon is a 45 year, copy writer/transcriber/translator. She has been convicted of a criminal offence and is currently serving her sentence.

A view from… the Magistrates’ Court bench: The appointment and role of a JP

My view from the Bench

By Beaky JP

 First a little introduction. I am a Magistrate with nearly 20 years’ experience on the Bench. I am an Approved Chairman and an appraiser of other Magistrates. In my day job, and somewhat unusually for a Justice of the Peace, I also happen to be a qualified and practising Solicitor in the City of London. This little musing is intended to cast a little spotlight on what it’s like to be a JP in the 21st Century. I hope to dispel some myths and correct a few misconceptions. Any cases that may be referred to will be completely anonymous and certain facts changed if they are so unique as to allow any sort of identification. While I may comment at times on the Criminal Justice System, I will say nothing that might bring the Magistracy into disrepute. It is an office under the Crown and over 630 years old in the making…it is something Britain should be very proud of. Now read on…

The role of the Magistrate has been very much in the news recently. There are changes afoot in the Criminal Justice System and articles in the national Press and on Social Media and in particular some of the comments of the great British Public, have illustrated just how much ignorance there is out there about just what a JP does. So in this first of an occasional series, I’m going to try to explain who JPs are, how we get appointed and what happens when we are.

Appointment Process

The traditional image of a JP is a crusty old Colonel or Grande Dame in large hat and gloves whose appointment came about masonic like by a gentle tap on the shoulder by someone equally grand and a few whispers in the right place. WRONG. Today’s JP can be anyone – the youngest appointee was 18 and retirement is compulsory at 70. There are no secret discussions; application is by a long and detailed form available from the Ministry of Justice website followed by interview by a panel of 3 members of a Local Advisory Committee comprising both serving magistrates and non magistrates. A recommendation is then made to the Lord Chancellor after CRB checks, and hey presto, about a year after initial application, you may make it onto your local bench. The Advisory Committee members have themselves been specially appointed (after application and interview) and trained for the role. The system is transparent albeit sometimes long and drawn out to ensure that only candidates with the necessary skills and qualities (and stamina!!) make it through.

Pay

Zilch, nada, not a bean!! JPs are volunteers and certainly aren’t in it for the money!! It’s fascinating when sometimes I have visited schools and colleges to talk about the work of the Magistracy and the very first question often asked is ‘What do you get paid then?’ The looks of disbelief on the faces of the kids are a thing to behold, if a little disappointing to be honest. The concept of ‘volunteering’ is a bit alien to some of the little dears. We ARE entitled to some travelling expenses and a small subsistence allowance (Just over £7 which just about covers a sandwich and a cup of coffee for what can be an 8 hour day). Self-employed colleagues can claim what is called a Financial Loss Allowance up to a maximum of around £130 a day but recently the MoJ has moved the goalposts making it far more difficult for the FLA to be claimed.  The loss has to be ACTUAL and provable and for many self-employed, this is simply not possible. How can a small shopkeeper for example prove that a customer didn’t come into his shop because he was in court instead of behind the counter? How can I as a professional lawyer prove that I lost client time when I can (and do) make it up at midnight and on the weekends despite this being unsocial hours which I would rather spend with my family?

 The knock on effect of this may be to discourage ordinary working people from applying or continuing as JPs and this cannot be in anyone’s interest, least of all the CJS. I’m not sure anyone has actually explained that to the MoJ!

Training

Once appointed, the really hard work starts. Newly appointed JP’s must observe in at least 2 different court houses, and undertake extensive training before they are allowed to actually sit on the bench. While they are not expected to be experts in the law – a legally qualified clerk provides that bit of the equation – they DO need to understand a significant degree of legal procedure and practice. They are the arbiters of law and fact at the end of the day and detailed structured decision making processes must be followed in order to ‘do the job’ properly. Sentencing Guidelines are provided to all JPs and again must be adhered to,  to try to ensure consistency in approach to cases throughout the land. Of course there are slight variations in sentencing – they are guidelines not tramlines and no two cases (or defendants and their circumstances) are exactly the same. Nevertheless, in studies of sentencing practice since the Guidelines were introduced, a far more consistent approach has been identified.

Initial sittings of new magistrates are mentored by a more experienced JP. Every new magistrate has an individual mentor assigned to them. The mentor has been specially trained for the role and provides both information and a shoulder to cry on for the first year or so. Reports on these sittings are prepared and submitted to a Bench Training and Development Committee, at the end of which, a formal Appraisal is carried out. Based on set competencies, criteria and behaviours which need to be demonstrated, specially trained Appraisers vet the newbie and prepare a ‘Threshold Appraisal’ report for the BTDC. Only if the BTDC consider the JP competent are they passed to continue. Failure at this stage will probably lead to additional training and support until a further appraisal is held.

 Every magistrate, no matter how long they may have been on the bench is appraised at least once every 3 years and the competencies demonstrated. Training is a continuous process. Every time a new piece of legislation concerning the courts – whether procedural or a significant new criminal offence – training is provided. Sometimes it is provided by the Judicial College – kind of like School for Judges – and sometimes by the local court staff themselves.

 So, just as a final word, please remember that it is extremely irritating for many Magistrates when they hear comments – often I’m sorry to say by young baby barristers – patronisingly suggest to a bench they can’t be expected to understand the esoteric but ‘extremely important’ point they are trying to make. While very naughty of me I have been known to reply that yes, with only 25 years as a solicitor under my belt, I really struggle with the concept of shop theft, please carry on and enlighten me. Strangely, they tend to move on rather quickly after that!!