The recent appeal in the case of Bobby Cooper Appellant/Defendant- and -Wrexham Magistrates Court should in my opinion be compulsive or should that be compulsory reading for all J.P.s. The essence of the judgement was that the L/A had overstepped the boundary between his duty of providing legal advice and guidance to his bench and the finding of fact by the bench. The result was that an appeal against verdict was allowed.
Legal advisors like all highly qualified skilled workers practise their profession in their own idiosyncratic manner within the limits of their expertise. Generally speaking I hold them in high regard. They have to cope with many hundreds of individuals from varied backgrounds with whom they might in the fullness of years strike up a working relationship built on mutual respect and understanding. They have to cope in the main with chairmen who talk over much or behave as if they were a latter day Judge Deed. They have to carry along and support those who wish to involve themselves as little as possible in the running of their court and whose ability in the retiring room perhaps leaves something to be desired. And it is in the retiring room that problems can occur.
The appeal mentioned above was last week. But it immediately reminded me of a situation during the winter when the building`s ancient heating system finally died. There were the three of us in a cold retiring room one male and two females my lady colleagues being sensible enough to have worn coats to court that morning and now in the confines of the retiring room they had put them round their shoulders in an attempt to insulate themselves against the low temperature which would have had paid workers in the streets shouting it was against their human rights to work at what seemed like 32*F. We had a guilty plea on a class A possession and were considering her sentence. Maxine was a well spoken mid twenties heroin addict long since fallen from grace who had last been in our presence for the same offence when she had been convicted five months previously. We therefore did not require any further information from probation other than that she had so far been attending all appointments for her six month drug rehabilitation programme contained within a supervision order. My colleagues were of the opinion that a similar new six month DRR would be onerous enough and relatively heavier than the preceding sentence. I maintained that an element of punishment should be incorporated in the sentence eg curfew to indicate that similar repeat offending in such short a time frame was unacceptable. At this point our very able L/A attended having waited the instructed ten minutes requested by our chairman who was now visibly shivering. Our sentencing discussion became quite heated but positions were entrenched and the majority carried the day as it always must.
Later that day when we were alone discussing that sentence the L/A made it quite clear to me that he considered that my colleagues were incorrect insofar as a structured sentencing approach should not have considered that in effect an increased DRR was more onerous and therefore constituted an additional punishment element that I had criticised as being lacking. But, he was quick to point out, it was a lawful disposal and it was not for him to comment further.
I had occasion last year to ask a newly appointed L/A who casually sat with us as we opened our discussion after a trial and with whom none of us had ever previously officiated to leave us and return when we rang for her. She replied that in her previous post it was commonplace for L/As to sit in at such times and contribute when required or requested. So it appears that in certain circumstances magistrates` courts are still “local” with local practices and local foibles.
Roll on 2012 when many court amalgamations will have been implemented and I`m sure there will be many more such scenarios of, “that`s the way we`ve been doing this for years”.