KAFKA IN GRANTHAMWhen magistrates send an either way case to the crown court where the plea is not guilty because they decline jurisdiction owing to the facts appearing to indicate the matter is too serious for their limited sentencing powers if the defendant were to be found guilty and when they do similarly after summary conviction they expect a judge to use his/her full sentencing powers i.e. more than six months custody. In 2007 or 2008 then Justice Secretary Jack Straw in a public speech described how over 20,000 such cases in the year resulted in sentences within the lower courts` powers. This blog has previously highlighted such cases.

There is, in my court, widespread criticism of the new guidelines on assault. This criticism emanates from the legal advisors and most if not all colleagues who have been sitting long enough to have had sufficient experience since the original guidelines were introduced. Much of the criticism apart from the arguably inverted pyramidical structure was that “seriousness” might be reduced in cases which were on the cusp. In addition to the current guidelines the total lunacy regarding the new PSR request forms takes us truly into territory where Kafka himself would have felt at home. The use of the form is discretionary unlike the previous instruction that a request form must be submitted. On the new form are the words,
“ The information in this form is provided only to assist the Probation Service/Trust in the preparation of a pre- sentence report. It is not an indication of the likely sentence. The sentencing court may impose any sentence that the law allows, including a custodial sentence. It may choose to commit the offender to the Crown Court for a heavier sentence than is available in the Magistrates’ Court. This should be made plain to the defendant if the case is adjourned for a report”.

It also states that if any form is to be used it must be this one and no other. But the lunatics` input to this fiasco does not end there. The fact is that the new form is not being used by many courts. My own court is still using the previous design and according to recent information this new form itself has now been withdrawn without a replacement.

It seems that in Grantham Magistrates` Court there is less than the harmony one would normally expect between the lay bench and the District Judge[MC] and it is not unlikely that the confusion over guidelines and request forms is to blame. That, however, does not excuse the local DJ from his derogatory public remarks of his J.P. colleagues in which he was almost scornful of their {in his opinion} underestimating the seriousness of an assault. District Judge John Stobart seemed to be intellectually incapable of marrying his remarks to the sentence he finally imposed on the defendant. He said that the bench had assessed the seriousness as “medium”. Presumably he would have made the assessment as “high” but there are no longer estimates of seriousness as low, medium or high. The new guidelines specify three categories with “1” being the highest with a sentencing range of a low level community order to 26 weeks` custody. Category “2” has a sentencing range from a fine of half a week`s wages to a high level community order. And what was the final sentence imposed by the good Judge Stobart? Three months` custody suspended for one year with £60 costs and £50 in compensation. Why eg did he not impose in addition an immediate order to undertake unpaid work if he felt his hands were tied and the magistrates had so underestimated the seriousness? Why did he suspend the sentence? More detail can be found here.

If I were a member of that bench I would be voicing my concerns to my Bench Chairman and expect a full investigation.