Lay magistrates have pleasantly changed: when I qualified, my clients were sentenced by the Chamber of Commerce sitting with a few Masters of the Hunt for diversity purposes. If you asked the government why there were no black people, Asians or women on the bench, they'd reply that, as those folk weren't Club members, they hadn't got the depth of experience necessary for the post. The Chancellor's Chihuahua had more chance of appointment than any gay or lesbian.
The occasional women who did sit were even more frightening, making the entire court feel like they were still in short trousers. When I snuffled my way through a plea, suffering from a stinking cold, one of them first jailed my client and then said, "And as for you, Mr Reid, go home and go to bed!" Howls of court laughter, swiftly silenced by a basilisk stare.
Police evidence was holy writ, acquittals in an assault PC trial were only secured if the officer, when asked to dock ID his assailant, pointed triumphantly to the list caller.
It was just as bad if you worked in the court system.
I remember the first Nigerian appointed as a court clerk having her name deliberately mispronounced by every police jailer in the building. She is now a district judge.
Now it has changed to the point that it is my hillbilly client who complains:
"Bruce, what chance do I stand on a domestic, with three women on the bench?"
My local benches are perceptive, humane and reflect their community, so I was disturbed to read the reply of the Chair of the Magistrates' Association in the last Advocate when he was asked if the prosecution is obliged to prove its case.
Traditionally the answer was, simply, "Yes".
He doesn't seem to agree. Instead, he replied that, if a defendant knows he is guilty, then he should plead guilty, and that, if the defendant thought otherwise, then it was up to the CPS to prove it.
Pardon? When did that tradition change? The burden of proof is not an optional extra. Isn't it the job of the Crown to prove its case ? full stop? If they cannot, it is not an offence. Bankers won't admit fault, why should a burglar? Where did he get the idea that, just because a man is guilty, he's got to admit it?
Probably sitting on the same committee who devised the "Stop Delaying Justice!" initiative, the committee whose invitation to defence solicitors seems to have got lost in the secure e-mail ? but the CPS, Justices' Clerk's Society and HMCTS somehow managed without us. Did no-one notice the empty chair?
Never thought I would line up with those Colonel Blimps of yesteryear; but they would never have come out with that one.
On a positive note, you should all read R v Newell 2012 EWCA Crim 650, where the Court of Appeal has something sensible to say about using the information given on pleas and case management hearing forms. I am now completing PCMH forms, albeit cryptically.
- Bruce Reid