Friday 31 August 2012

Sex Offending

I became aware of this case at Carlisle Crown Court some time ago and have just noticed that the guy has been convicted, but sentencing has been adjourned till today for a probation report. Nothing particularly unusual in that I hear you say, except what it's reported Judge Peter Hughes told the defendant. According to the local rag the News and Star:-

Judge Peter Hughes QC described it as "a very worrying case" but said that Wotherspoon would not be going to prison. He said that when he first heard details of what Wothspoon had done he had considered that a conditional discharge would be appropriate if he were convicted. But he said he had become "more concerned" the more he heard Wotherspoon giving evidence. "I find it remarkable that a man of his age should have behaved in that way on a night bus from Edinburgh to London", he said. "I have become increasingly concerned by the nature of the offence and how he came to be in this situation." Because of that, the judge said, he needed Wotherspoon to discuss his background and his reaction to the guilty verdict before passing sentence. 

Interestingly, this element of the judges remarks is missing from the piece in the Daily Mail. The defendant could be said to have effectively 'cooked his goose' by giving evidence and even the judge could detect all the worrying signs of someone who's possibly been getting away with similar behaviour for some time. In such cases there is always the worrying possibility of escalation and I absolutely commend the judge for adjourning for a proper full probation report, rather than the temptation of a quick 'standown' FDR on the day.

During the course of my career, sex offending of all types has steadily been treated rather more seriously than when I started and all of us involved in such cases have become used to the degree of deviousness often intrinsic to the offences. Not only is this case a good example of distorted thinking on the part of the perpetrator, but one has to seriously question why such a high-powered lawyer is on a night bus anyway? 

In my experience sex offenders often go to considerable lengths to try and convince you, and possibly themselves, that either their behaviour was innocent, accidental, or a one off. I have to tell you that it's invariably none of these as this other recent case amply demonstrates. This case also highlights how technological advancements invariably create new opportunities  for sex offending. It is a sad fact of life that camera technology has made it much easier to record images, for example children playing in city centre water features, and for this reason such sites invariably have to be monitored by police cctv cameras for suspicious spectator behaviour.

In my experience it takes a great deal of effort and skill to get someone to face up to such behaviour, accept the effect it has on victims and decide or agree to desist. In my view the only hope of effecting sustainable change in such cases is a Sex Offender Treatment Programme as part of a supervision order, but it really can be a long haul to alter entrenched deviant and distorted thinking. 

PS According to the News and Star, Wotherspoon received the maximum three year Community Order with supervision and SOTP. He will be required to abide by the terms of Sex Offender Registration for 5 years. Costs were set at £2,500 with £1,000 compensation going to the victim. Apparently his barrister had described him as ' an unconventional character' but the judge said he was a 'disgrace.' It's stated that he has already resigned from his post, prior to the Law Society taking a view no doubt. One final point. I notice Wotherspoon chose to sit next to the woman, despite there being vacant seats elsewhere on the bus, thus breaking what I think is a pretty well-established social norm of public transport usage.        


Thursday 30 August 2012

What Business Am I In?

I don't know what to make of No Offence the 'award-winning' Community Industry Company - "The voice for Criminal Justice. One Voice for Change". A bit presumptuous that, despite its illustrious supporters drawn from all corners of the criminal justice world and ranging from Lord Ramsbotham to G4S. The award seems to be in respect of business innovation, and their website carries job adverts, currently alongside a surprising guest blog from a guy with a long-standing grievance against Essex police. The testimonials page is full of breathless praise for past conferences and range from Probation Trusts to SERCO.

Having rooted around as much of the website as is available to a non-member, I conclude that the organisation has come about specifically in response to the government's intention to privatise further chunks of the Criminal Justice System. As much as anything, it's clearly an organisation focused on job creation, business contracts and career development opportunities that are going to arise during the public service breakup. 

At the same time as I'm trying to absorb what all this means for stressed and over-worked public sector probation officers trying to do a useful job for society, I notice that it's only 15 days before the rather more sober Centre for Crime and Justice Studies hold a mini conference somewhat ominously entitled 'Downsizing Criminal Justice' . They clearly feel the whole sector has got way too large and are arguing for a massive re-balancing towards a 'non-criminal justice policy mix'. I couldn't agree more and guess that's about sorting out education, training, employment, housing, healthcare etc etc etc. Not exactly a novel idea, but all the proper business of government of course. 

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

I don't often comment on particular sentencing decisions, not least because it's a dangerous game for anyone not in possession of the full facts of a case. However, here the issue appears to be one entirely of the judge's maximum sentencing powers available to the court. I think it will come as a surprise to many members of the public to learn that the maximum sentence for Aggravated Vehicle Taking is two years imprisonment, and then only when serious personal injury is caused, as in this tragic case. 

On occasion and when having nothing better to do, I am prone to watch old episodes of 'Police Camera Action!' or similar, and am invariably appalled by the dangerously reckless driving of those being pursued by the police. I shouldn't I suppose, but my anger is often such that I feel very little sympathy when the culprits are invariably caught and somewhat roughly handled in the process. I have to say that this feeling is frequently compounded when I hear what sentence was eventually dished out for such terrifyingly dangerous behaviour.   

In short I find myself agreeing with His Honour Judge Hayward Smith on this. Here we seem to have an example where the sentencing guidelines have removed way too much discretion from sentencers. In my view it's left them completely unable to adequately reflect the seriousness and consequences of actions typified by this case. It's of absolutely no comfort at all to know that had death been the result, the maximum penalty has been increased to14 years on indictment. 

Just as an aside, and at a time when there are attempts to stifle public comment by the  Judiciary, I note that this judge has also had cause to severely criticise the actions of the Crown Prosecution Service's increasing habit of indulging in plea-bargaining. As this piece from last year in the Daily Mail shows, he made his views abundently clear.  

Monday 27 August 2012


I notice that Ian Brady features in the news again, this time as a result of a solicitor publishing the transcripts of two meetings held with the convicted murderer at Ashmore Special Hospital in 2006. Representing Winnie Johnson, mother of missing victim Keith Bennett, the solicitor apparently met with Brady at his request and attempted to persuade him to reveal the whereabouts of Keith's body.

This surprising news comes hard on the heels of the recent Channel 4 documentary 'Ian Brady : Endgames of a Psychopath' screened just days before Mrs Johnson's death last week. I assume that as a result of her death the solicitor feels able to breach confidentiality, hopefully in consultation with her family, but I'm still a little surprised by the timing, being just three days before the funeral

But then surprising can only be my reaction to the Channel 4 film and the part played by so-called Mental Health Advocate Jackie Powell. You will recall that transmission was presaged by widespread media coverage of her arrest and charging with an offence of Preventing the Lawful Burial of a Body. This came about as a result of her revealing that Brady had handed her a sealed envelope with instructions that it only be opened following his death. She speculated to the producer of the film that the envelope may contain details of Keith's whereabouts. No wonder all hell broke loose when Greater Manchester Police found out and eventually decided to act, obtaining Search Warrants for both Jackie's home and the hospital.

To be honest there was nothing particularly surprising in this film about Ian Brady and his continued highly psychopathic and manipulative traits, but what exactly is going on with long-term visitor Jackie Powell? How on earth did she feel it appropriate to be cooperating with a film crew if she was a Mental Health Advocate? Has she no line manager or support network reigning her in a bit when dealing with one of the most manipulative patients it's possible to imagine? I gasped out loud when I'm sure I heard her say that she is Executor to Brady's Will and has an Enduring Power of Attorney over his affairs. Surely this cannot be right or sensible for a Mental Health Advocate?

Well, rooting around on the internet as one does, I came across this statement by Action for Advocacy expressing very similar concerns. According to this the whole concept of legally-appointed Mental Health Advocates for certain patients detained compulsorily only came about as a result of the Mental Health Act 2007 and enacted from 1st April 2009. Such persons have to be qualified and appropriately supervised.  It will be interesting to see what comes out about Jackie Powell's role in this whole sorry saga. 

Meanwhile, Brady's Mental Health Tribunal Appeal into his demands to be declared sane and thus be returned to prison remains adjourned following his recent seizure. Having been forcibly fed since 1999, he hopes to regain ultimate control over his destiny by being allowed to starve himself to death in prison. This will only be possible though if the medical profession conclude that he is no longer mentally ill and are able to convince the Tribunal. 

For those who are pondering if he has a probation officer, I think that will indeed be the case as he remains a convicted murderer subject to Special Hospital transfer and restriction under the Mental Health Act 1983.          

Sunday 26 August 2012

Brand on Addiction

A reader asked what I thought of the recent Russell Brand BBC 3 documentary 'From Addiction to Recovery' so I thought I'd better get around to watching it on i-player before it disappears next week.

Now I have to say first off that the guy irritates me, and even though I can't abide the supremely smug and pompous chair of the House of Commons Home Affairs committee Keith Vaz, I think Russell's appearance and demeanor did nothing to help his message. Anyway, back to the documentary and Russell's case for abstinence. I quite agree, but it won't work for everyone, not least because to be most effective as a treatment model it really has to be delivered in a residential setting away from negative community influences.

In recent years, apart from the rich and famous, residential drug treatment is about as likely as winning the lottery. In theory there are NHS beds available of course, but getting your local health commissioning body to agree to funding is nigh on impossible. It will come as no great surprise that the real reason why the government and National Treatment Agency are so keen on community methadone prescribing is because it's cheaper. It doesn't work of course, but since when does a small matter like that affect social policy?

What really shocked me about this film was Russell's encounter with Dr Clare Gerada, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners no less. I'm pretty sure I heard her enthusiastic and ringing endorsement for an utterly failed prescribing policy described as "the gold standard" FFS! During a short and understandably tetchy engagement she went on to compare methadone the 'medicine' as being akin to insulin for diabetics! Speaking, as she presumably does, for General Practitioners nationally, we really are all doomed.

Upon reflection I've been unfair to Russell in the past and this film is to be welcomed as shedding a bit more light on the whole sad and depressing business that drug policy has become. Politicians still dare not speak openly on the subject for fear of public and media outrage, so the charade continues in the form of an unwinnable  'War on Drugs' coupled with a failed prescribing regime of legal opiate substitutes. But as I've said before, there is no magic bullet solution. 

Common sense should dictate that there has to be a range of responses that include a return to legalised and controlled prescribing as prevailed prior to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. A quick perusal of wikipedia on the subject throws up this:- 

"Before 1971, the UK had a relatively liberal drugs policy and it was not until United States influence had brought to bear, particularly in United Nations circles, that controlling incidental drug activities was employed to effectively criminalise drugs use." 

I seem to remember that the US had a go at alcohol in the past too, and just look what prohibition led to - a massive boost to criminal activity - hang on a minute........            

Saturday 25 August 2012

To Blog : Or Not to Blog

Like many regular readers, I'm delighted to see that The Magistrates' Blog will continue, despite the heavy advice from the senior Judiciary and following some administrative changes. Of course one reason why this blog and many other occupation-based efforts are so popular is precisely because they are not officially-sanctioned and therefore are likely to have something meaningful to say. 

By coincidence, just as this blog has confirmed it's continuation, I notice that another is going to cease. After just eight postings, probation officer Zoe Stafford has decided to cease blogging and tweeting under the auspices of Greater Manchester Probation Trust on the basis that she is no longer on the 'frontline' having moved to Head Office. I guess I'm not surprised because to be honest just how much can be said about any organisation when presumably the content is officially sanctioned? Is it not highly likely to be merely platitudinous or self-serving in some way?

As I've said previously, the whole enterprise seems to have been an attempt at image management but significantly with no attempt at engaging with any negative comment that might be generated as a result. To be honest my view of responsible blogging includes engagement with detractors and discussion with those of differing viewpoints. I have a funny feeling that this probation dip of the toe into the hostile waters of public perception was conceived rather more as a clever press release than an invitation to a serious debate. 

Friday 24 August 2012

He Has a Point

I hope the author of the following comment to Zoe Stafford's piece in Inside Time will not mind me quoting it in full because I think it very neatly sums up what many clients feel about their probation officer. It makes for uncomfortable reading, but in my view it's no good trying to pretend otherwise and the points raised need addressing.

"Those who say that they have a good probation officer are either gullible, naive or living in cloud cuckoo land. Yes of course they always welcome you when you report. 'how are you today?' 'how's things?' and so forth like they care. All they care about is that you are not offending as that means a recall if you are on licence and you do not even have to offend to be recalled. Never tell them that you have a problem, lost your job, lost your flat etc as that becomes risk. Report on time, smile and tell them everything is fine even if it's not. Never ever trust a probation officer for they have all the options open to them, recall, recommending in their reports that you should receive a custodial sentence and steering you to banal and irrelevant offending behaviour courses which are as useless as they are. Believe me they are the biggest con merchants going but so many ex-offenders fall for it. You do so at your peril."

What makes a 'good' probation officer is a fascinating question and of course the answer will depend to a great extent on who you ask and what side of the desk they sit. Top of my list if I were pushed to come up with a response would be the ability to take appropriate risks.

In my experience a good PO has got to continually weigh up what risks to take with a case in order to achieve the long-term aim of public benefit that flows from crime reduction. Admittedly this willingness and scope to take risks has got much harder over the years with crap like OASys, an increasingly proscriptive culture and management scared witless by what might appear in the press. But deep down all PO's worth their salt know that we are in the risk business and risks have to be taken sometimes in order to achieve progress. Life without some risk is no life at all. 

Risk-taking can take many forms such as deciding to give a guy a chance, even when the track record has not been good and he's not responded to previous interventions. It's about the officer wanting to take a risk and then putting an argument to the court that's convincing. Of course this is a risk in itself as there is always the possibility of ridicule from the court, from colleagues or management even. There's the risk that if the court goes along with a positive outcome it will all go pear-shaped at any point. On the other hand the fact that the client knows you've taken a risk and helped give them a chance should help build a good working relationship. 

There are always risks associated with exercising judgement. A good PO in my view must decide what it is appropriate to record or pass on to management. Sometimes what is heard in the interview room might be more appropriate to keep between officer and client. The information can form the basis of constructive work at a later date and need not require immediate action. Just to be clear, I'm not referring to child protection issues or discussion of unreported criminal activity, but for example I have not always passed on threats to myself if I felt they were not meant or likely to be carried out. 

Sometimes unwise things are said at moments of great stress and an apology at a later date has much more worth than the alternative of adding yet more trouble to an already desperate situation. It should be self-evident that a client is hardly going to be open and honest during supervision sessions if everything they tell you either results in lectures or draconian responses.     A degree of trust has to be established if the magic of probation is to have any chance of working. 

Good officers always consider what is best for their client and society and act accordingly. Like the comment author, I share the irritation surrounding referrals to courses as a matter of routine and only do so if I feel it appropriate. Shamefully there was a period some years ago when management harassed us as a result of targets introduced by NOMS and in order to justify the hugely expensive investment in accredited programmes. No longer as fashionable thank goodness and with targets a thing of the past, such courses are now only reserved for those who really need them.

Essentially, being a PO is not about winning a popularity contest, it's about doing a useful job for society and a popular officer might not necessarily be a 'good' officer.    


Thursday 23 August 2012

Good Luck Ben

It's good to see that long-term prisoner Ben Gunn has finally been released on Life Licence. As I've said before, to go so long over tariff indicates a high degree of effort on the part of the prisoner in frustrating progression. However, I'm equally sure that the Parole Board pondered the case long and hard, and in the end felt able to acknowledge the progress that had been made. 

For Ben the really hard bit is about to begin and he's already had a taste of tribulations that might lie ahead by the reaction to his piece in the Guardian recently. I was not entirely surprised, and suspect that the online readership might not be the same liberal types that shell out daily for a hard copy of the paper. 

Having read Ben's blog avidly for some time I know it's unfair to say that he doesn't express remorse, because he does. The trouble is that he doesn't do humility a great deal and often casts himself in the role of victim. It was definitely a mistake to invoke the image of Nelson Mandela and hopefully Ben will learn from the reaction he got. Unfortunately, apart from a few trolls, I suspect he has been developing a somewhat distorted view of the world as expressed by his blog fan base.

Adjusting to life outside prison after so long is not going to be easy and a task made that much more difficult by any temptation to continue a self-stylisation of victim hood. In my view in order to make a success of release on licence, Ben will have to work on an entirely different mindset that focuses on the positive, rather than the negative. It's not going to be easy and he will need help from all those around him, including his supervising probation officer. I wish him well though and will watch with interest.      

Monday 13 August 2012

In the Public Interest

According to a quick scan of wikipedia, public interest is said to refer to the "common well-being" or "general welfare". It goes on "The public interest is central to policy debates, politics, democracy and the nature of government itself". So pretty important, even if there's no consensus as to what it constitutes exactly. 

I've certainly resorted to using the concept extensively throughout my career as a probation officer, particularly if I've ever felt the need to privately rehearse my reasons for a particular course of action, and especially if likely to be deemed unorthodox by some. It's held me in good stead, even through regrettable disciplinary proceedings, and continues to be my guiding philosophy to this day.

The concept underpinned my decision to start blogging anonymously a couple of years ago and having been impressed by the level of insight and debate contained in several long-standing blogs, including those penned by a magistrate and a police officer. It should be obvious to all that one really useful aspect of the internet is the ability to publish insights and thoughts gained from ones sphere of endeavour and that can be made widely available to anyone who might be interested. In my view this ability to publish unfettered and hence add to an informed debate is an incredibly powerful tool that can only be in the public interest. 

It is therefore extremely sad to hear that the senior Judiciary have decreed that magistrates are henceforth forbidden from blogging, whilst proclaiming to be part of the judiciary, and on pain of disciplinary action. Naturally, being responsible bloggers and citizens, several lay bench bloggers are currently considering their positions and no doubt garnering solicited and unsolicited advice as to how to proceed. 

On a personal note, I shall be extremely sad to see their contributions to the debate disappear if they decide to follow these draconian instructions, and it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that my readership would be drastically affected as the majority of hits come via a certain magistrates blog. Of course vanity plays its part in all this as there seems little point in burning the midnight oil for no remuneration and no readers! 

I can't help feeling it's all a big mistake as responsible blogging can only be beneficial. I think there needs to be a distinction drawn between what is actually said, rather than who is doing the talking. I've always understood that in the final analysis the author of any electronic media contribution might be held to account and that alone should help concentrate the mind, if nothing else does. In my view these blogs have never brought the judicial process into disrepute - quite the opposite, so why on earth must they stop? 

Here we have an example of an experienced magistrate who got into trouble via facebook, and as a consequence was disciplined, not for using social media per se, but for what she actually said. That's the important bit surely? Lets not shoot the messengers, but rather continue the laissez faire policy that's operated up till now and take notice of the content instead.  

Friday 10 August 2012

Oh Dear...

I've just caught up with the latest edition of the newspaper for prisoners 'Inside Time' and find that the relatively new probation blogger Zoe Stafford has written a piece for them entitled 'My Probation Pledge'. 

All I know about this officer is what she has decided to share via the Russell Webster site and her posts to date. Naturally it's great to see someone else writing on the subject of probation, but right from the beginning I've been just a bit wary of this all bearing the hallmarks of a piece of stage-managed media image building. I have visions of meetings filled with the usual professional meeting attenders discussing the really bad press the probation service currently gets, especially on the internet, and how that might be addressed. 'What the service needs is a young, vibrant, trendy voice to spread the word via Twitter and other exciting media outlets' - you know the sort of thing. 

This is a great shame in my view as it is so transparent, as well as being risky and possibly counter-productive. The majority of comments the article has generated are pretty forthright and shall we say confirm a certain degree of naivety on the part of those that encouraged this particular line of attempted image-manipulation in the first place. In my view clients have always been experts in sussing out the true character of their officers and can spot bullshit and bollocks  a mile off. Patronising them is not to be recommended in my view. 

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Reality Imitating Fiction

Regular readers will recall my taking to task the BBC 1 four-part probation drama 'Public Enemies' for bearing little relation to reality. In addition to painting the extremely unlikely scenario whereby a life sentence prisoner is released back into the community where the index offence had been committed, it also strayed into the equally unlikely world of a sexual relationship developing between officer and client.

I guess it was bound to happen, but exceptions always prove the rule and here we have a case of a female probation officer indeed having an inappropriate relationship with a released life licence client. This highly unprofessional breach of trust only came to light because the client 'went on the run' after being informed by the officer that he was to be recalled to prison having been arrested for Driving over the Prescribed Limit. I guess it was this act that resulted in the offence of Wilful Misconduct in Public Office.

Setting aside the unforgivable crossing of professional boundaries, I notice that it's reported that a supporting letter from a colleague is quoted as saying 'how easily this might happen'. Now I suspect (and hope) that this refers to the act of informing the client, rather than sleeping with him. Having reflected carefully, I'm fairly sure I and many other officers might have done something very similar by informing clients either of an application for recall or of it's imminent granting, and possibly prior to the warrant being issued. In all cases the aim is not to tip the client off so that he 'does a runner', but rather to try and maintain trust with them by explaining the reasoning and support a voluntary surrender to custody. In this case the plan went awry because the guy 'wanted to say goodbye to a number of people' first.

It may sound naive, but I've never really thought that by doing such a thing I could be accused of Wilful Misconduct in Public Office. I've always thought it risky, but then much in this job is. The thing about recalling a client is that you still have to work with them afterwards and quite quickly prepare a plan for the Parole Board that sets out reasoned arguments regarding the behaviour that resulted in recall and how it can be constructively addressed. It will be appreciated that ideally this can only be achieved with the clients full cooperation, a process made almost impossible if they feel betrayed by you. Clearly a difficult balancing act, but one that's continually at the core of our work. 

If I'm honest I know full well that this won't be the first time a probation officer will have slept with a client. Nevertheless it's very rare and hugely disappointing for us all and although not a criminal offence, warrants instant dismissal. I note that in passing a suspended prison sentence with Unpaid Work and a six month Curfew, Judge Richard Foster told Luton Crown Court that "cases like this were more common among police or prison officers and to his knowledge no other probation officer had been charged with this offence."               

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Being Rich Does Help

I guess it would be fair to say that in this country many would like to believe that being rich should not have an effect on the criminal justice process, but in truth it does of course. Take the very sad case of Hans Rausing, billionaire heir to the vast Tetra Pak fortune who found himself in court recently for frustrating the burial of his wife and driving under the influence of drugs.

Now it doesn't take an expert to quite quickly pick up that there is a drug addiction and mental health issue in this case and it should therefore be no great surprise that a psychiatric report was requested, in addition to a full Standard Delivery Report from the probation service. But I know from experience that it is getting much harder to obtain psychiatric reports in the criminal justice system, firstly because of the cost and secondly because the process 'delays justice'. It's even becoming difficult to get a full SDR rather than a cursory FDR in such cases. 

In view of the fact that almost certainly Mr Rausing's defence was privately funded, I think it would be reasonable to assume that the report was paid for privately and not from the public purse. I also note that Mr Rausing was able to obtain bail by being accommodated at the  Capio Nightingale hospital, a private mental health facility. Indeed when finally sentenced, a condition of his suspended sentence requires him to be treated at this facility on a residential basis. 

Now as a professional I have no problem at all with the conduct or sensible outcome of this case, judged by publicly available information. My difficulty comes from the fact that none of it would have been possible if the defendant was of limited means and legally-aided. 

Friday 3 August 2012

The Briefs

I found this first episode of a two-parter 'The Briefs' about the largest criminal law practice in Britain absolutely fascinating on a number of levels. It reminded me just how far we've come since the days when solicitors were forbidden from advertising at all, and here we are with 'Tuckers' based in Manchester effectively getting two hours free prime time tv advertising courtesy of ITV1.  

The clients were recognisably difficult, uncooperative, cagey and often unable to act either in their own best interest or accept sound advice. But I have to say that as a small town probation officer, the lawyers were quite alien with way too much sun tan and gold visible, and often no tie! But then this practice turns over £10million a year with more than half coming from the public purse via Legal Aid. And they are based in a big city and experience has taught me that there is a vast difference between small town and big city solicitor. I found it hard deciding who was legally qualified in this huge practice and what exactly was the role of that gobby woman impressing upon the police station lawyers the need to 'get more customers'? 

I've always felt that the court process is basically a game by which the professional middle class earn very decent incomes at the expense both of the state and the under class and this programme served to confirm that belief in spades. Many a time I have pondered whilst sat observing in court that the whole thing is class-oriented, but not-so-subtle changes have been at work as hinted at here. 

Some viewers might have been puzzled by solicitors suddenly appearing robed-up and on the steps of the Crown Court. Surely the solicitor 'briefs' the barrister when a case goes 'upstairs'? Well not since the profession decided to create Solicitor Advocates who have right of audience in the higher courts. Initially you could tell the difference because they couldn't wear wigs, but that changed in 2008. In theory the client should get a better service from someone that knows the case inside out, in contrast to scenes I've witnessed when a barrister interviews the client for the first time barely minutes before the hearing. I suspect the main motivation however is to keep more of the fee within a legal practice and it shouldn't be surprising that the junior Bar are complaining about loss of trade, and possibly a little 'dumbing' down'? See what you think from these handy idiot guides and the blurring of roles continues as this piece in the Telegraph highlights. 

This process has been going on for a long time in the magistrates court of course. I well remember when the police finally gave up the role of Prosecuting Authority in the lower courts and the Crown Prosecution Service was created, initially barristers were provided, but were later replaced with unqualified Associate Prosecutors. For a long time Judges refused to accept committals unless dealt with by a legally-qualified prosecutor, but they eventually caved in and everything is now dealt with by AP's. There is a move to replace qualified court clerks or Legal Advisers as they are now known and qualified probation officers have already disappeared from court completely. As this article from the Law Society Gazette from 2010 makes clear, we could arrive at a situation when unrepresented clients will be going to prison without a single legally-qualified person present in court.

In addition to my thoughts straying over all this during the programme, I couldn't help reflecting on whether I felt 'justice' had been achieved in the cases highlighted? The old saying 'justice delayed is justice denied' has been taken to a whole new level with the government's latest instruction contained in the 'Stop Delaying Justice' initiative. In the film, CPS failed to get their case together for a trial, the key witness wasn't warned to appear and therefore charges were dropped for lack of evidence. 'Justice' certainly speeded up, but delivered? Smiles all round on camera as the defence win this round in the game we call the Criminal justice System.                   

Thursday 2 August 2012

Secrets of the Shoplifters

In a desperate bid to try and avoid continuous Olympic coverage, I found myself watching 'Secrets of the Shoplifters' on Channel 4 the other night. On closer inspection it seems to be part of a follow-up series, with more to come no doubt.

Once again I take my hat off to the producers of programmes like this who unerringly manage to come up with 'characters' such as the self-styled 'robocop' who appears to have dedicated his life to a personal crusade against shoplifters in York. I know that's what police officers are supposed to be engaged in, but I have to say I found this guy just a tad obsessive and was left wondering how he got along with colleagues, especially as he described with some glee having caught one of them.

I couldn't help but notice that North Yorkshire police have decided to weigh down their response officers with yet more kit in the form of cctv, a move that I suspect is as much about monitoring their behaviour as it is for evidence-gathering. The other surprise for me was how the role of store detective has changed considerably with them becoming extremely 'hands-on' and indeed wielding their own sets of handcuffs. Clearly it would seem to help in this line of work if you are built like a rugby prop forward and if the aim of the producers was to create the impression of a war going on, I think they certainly succeeded.

Like all probation officers with some years under their belts, I've written quite a few reports on 'Theft from Shop' over the years and the common theme is as often as not drugs. Watching this programme I couldn't help but offer a running commentary on the likely candidates proving positive for opiates when they got to the police station, and what a sorry bunch many were. But as the programme highlighted, quite a few get fixed penalty notices underlining the fact that shoplifting is a widespread practice across all social classes and age groups and the reasons are many and varied. I know this from personal experience because my dad was a 'bus pass bandit'

Some years ago I found myself in a branch of Woolworths with my other half and dad. Having split up to look for various items, she whispered in my ear that she was sure dad was putting stuff in his pockets. Sure enough batteries, packets of screws, tubes of glue and various other items were being scooped-up by him and secreted not-too-discretely about his person. Somewhat bemused, I decided to make a big issue of it at the till and made him turf out everything in the hope that embarrassment would sort the problem out. 

To be honest I'm not sure it ever did. He found the whole thing very funny and proceeded to tell me that he was banned from every major store in the town where he lived. It seems that his guile and cunning knew no bounds in avoiding arrest and prosecution. He took some pride in describing how he would in turn feign imbecility or lack of english by lapsing into Hindi or Swahili which he had learnt as a British officer in the Indian Army. The sad conclusion I eventually came to was that this was his idea of excitement when other avenues had receded due to a degree of incapacity brought on by the effect of strokes.