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Visible Justice in Staffordshire

On Monday 25 July 2011 people were given an insight into what is happening in the Staffordshire’s Magistrates Courts on a daily basis. 

Staffordshire Police worked closely with magistrates and published every result from the courts live on the Staffordshire Police website.  In total, the event had over 3,500 readers.

The event has now been archived, but you can still read selected comments from David Goodman, Justices' Clerk and Director of Legal Services for Staffordshire.

09:41  David Goodman: I'm David Goodman. As Justices' Clerk and Director of Legal Services for Staffordshire I am the principal legal adviser to the 500 Magistrates in the county and leader of the 3 legal teams who advise the magistrates on law, practice, procedure and sentencing. 

10:05  David Goodman: We think it is very important that the public should see open justice. Our Courts are open to the public to come and sit in, but this is a great way to communicate what we are doing. 

10:09  David Goodman:  A trial, if the defendant pleads not guilty, can last from an hour to 2/3 days. If the defendant pleads guilty it is much quicker, and can take from 10 minutes to an hour in a complicated case. Staffordshire Magistrates' Courts are among the best performers in the country, so it is very rare for there to be multiple hearings. Usually there is one hearing at which the defendant enters his plea; if that is not guilty, the next hearing will be the trial. If it is guilty, the case will often be dealt with there and then. 

10:13  David Goodman: If the defendant pleads guilty, Magistrates may or may not need a report. If the offence is very serious indeed, with little or no mitigation, they may even send the offender to prison without a report. Other cases are not serious enough to need a report. In between are the cases where the Magistrates feel a report would help them decide sentence. We have a superb Probation Service, which will often prepare that report on the day. If it has to be adjourned for a fuller report, that can be on bail or in custody.

10:15  David Goodman: The Magistrates don't usually know, when they arrive at court, what will be in their list - a trial, sentencing cases etc. When they arrive at court they are given a court list, with the names of the defendants and the charges against the. The Legal Adviser then briefs them on what to expect when they go into court at 10. 

10:32  David Goodman: When an offender is released from prison, he will usually be on licence, which requires him/her to keep in touch with a Probation Officer, and to comply with any other conditions of the licence the Prison Governor considered relevant to that particular person. 

10:52  David Goodman: All charges start at the Magistrates' Court. The most serious are sent on to the Crown Court. About 96% of all cases, however, stay and are dealt with in the Magistrates' Court, from parking offences to burglary or serious assaults. 

11:03  David Goodman: In theory anyone can be a Magistrate. The idea is to have a wide cross-section of the public sitting together so that they understand local issues and problems. In practice, as you would expect, someone with a criminal history will not be appointed as a Magistrate, and in order to ensure fairness, certain occupations are excluded - it would not be right, for example, for a serving police officer to be able to sit in judgment on cases brought by the police. 

11:06  David Goodman: Not only are the public allowed to go into Magistrates' Courts, I very much welcome it. There is a public gallery in most Courts (although that is a grand title for what, in some courtrooms, can be a few chairs!), and I think it is very important that the public come and see what we do, because you usually get just a few lines in a press report, not the whole story which led the Magistrates to reach the decision they did. The public can't go into a Youth Court or a Family Court, because of the need for privacy. So come along! 

11:15  David Goodman: If a case has to be adjourned, e.g. to allow the Probation Officer more time to look into the issues an offender has before reporting back to the Court, the offender must be allowed bail unless there is a substantial risk that s/he will re-offend or fail to turn up at the next hearing. Usually that risk can be covered by adding conditions to the bail, e.g. daily reporting to the police, so keeping an offender in custody while the report is being prepared is often not necessary. 

11:31  David Goodman: Magistrates (and Judges) have to follow Sentencing Guidelines set by the Sentencing Council unless the circumstances of an offence are much more, or less, serious than the norm. What is very interesting, however, is that we have often run Court Open Days across Staffordshire, in which we act out a 'real' case in front of the public, and then ask the public to pass sentence. In every single one which I have been involved in - and that is many - the public, having heard the whole case, both sides, always passes a less severe sentence than Magistrates would in real life. The reason is obvious - when you read a couple of lines in a newspaper, you wonder how the Court could possibly have been so lenient. But when you hear the whole case, both sides, you realise there is far more to it than at first appears. 

11:39  David Goodman: Magistrates themselves are volunteers. They give up, on average, one day a fortnight to sit ion court, but also attend training and meetings to help them in court. We have a Witness Service at each Courthouse, with volunteers who do a brilliant job supporting witnesses when they come to court, so that they can be in a protected environment. 

12:12  David Goodman: If a case goes to the Crown Court it takes longer to deal with, simply because their cases tend to last longer than in the Magistrates' Courts (weeks sometimes to hear all the evidence in, say, a murder or major fraud case). But in the Magistrates' Courts, from the time the defendant is charged to the time our Courts deal with him takes, on average, just 4.7 weeks - less than the national target of 6 weeks. And we tend to deal with cases in 2/3 hearings, thus minimising the number of court appearances and also saving cost. 

12:16  David Goodman: Magistrates can deal with most offences, including GBH or burglary of someone's homes. Often they may decide in such cases, however, that their maximum punishment, 6 months imprisonment, is not enough for a GBH or burglary of someone's home, so will commit it to the Crown Court to be sentenced there. But in the Youth Court Magistrates can, and do, deal with anything except murder or manslaughter. In some areas there are District Judges sitting in Magistrates' Courts. They have the same powers as Magistrates, but sit alone, whereas Magistrates sit in Benches of 3. 

12:20  David Goodman: Every Magistrate has to be appraised at least once every 3 years; if the Magistrate also sits in the Youth Court or Family Court, s/he will be appraised more often. All aspects of their work is appraised, both in the courtroom and how effective they are at making decisions and taking part in discussions about verdict and sentencing. They have to 'pass' the appraisal each time or sit out until they have had further training. 

12:26  David Goodman: There are set periods of imprisonment for not paying fines, and they go up according to how much the offender owes. In the case of a Crown Court fine, the term of imprisonment can be years, not weeks or months as it is in the Magistrates' Courts. Fines are written off if the defaulter goes to prison, but usually we keep any compensation outstanding and will pursue that when they come out. 

13:02  David Goodman: A Newton hearing is where the defendant pleads guilty to committing the offence, but denies one of the more important aspects of the offence; for example, s/he admits that s/he assaulted the victim, but says s/he punched the victim but didn't kick him on the ground. That would be relevant to sentence, so the Magistrates adjourn and ask the witnesses to attend. They hear both sides and then sentence on whether they are sure the defendant kicked the victim or not. 'Newton' is the name of the case which established the courts' right to hold such a hearing. 

13:26  David Goodman: It is a fairly new thing for the Magistrates' Courts to be able to sentence someone to imprisonment in their absence. It happens only when the defendant has either been in court and pleaded guilty or has failed to attend court and been found guilty in their absence, then failed to attend court to be sentenced. It happens very infrequently indeed. If someone is sentenced to custody in their absence, the Magistrates issue a warrant, which asks the police to arrest him and bring him before the court for the sentence to be confirmed. That ensures that there was no mistake, although in practice the safeguards in place before that stage should prevent that. 

13:31  David Goodman: Sometimes a defendant who is prepared to admit the offence with which they are charged will want to 'clean up the slate' by also admitting other offences they have committed. The advantage to them is that, while it might make the sentence for the offence they are before the court on more serious, they will not receive a separate sentence for the tics. 

13:39  David Goodman: Staffordshire Magistrates' Courts and Staffordshire Police were the acknowledged model for streamlining cases so that the process from arrest to completion, so much so that when the DWP wanted to prosecute their cases in a similar way, Staffordshire was chosen to pilot that process, which is now being rolled out in other areas. This means that witnesses do not have to wait several months, as used to be the case, before going to court to give evidence. Unfortunately, the number of courts we are allowed to run has been reduced this year, so that may have an effect, although we are doing everything we can to keep delays to a minimum. 

13:44  David Goodman: To make a decision re. whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty, or what sentence to impose, at least two magistrates, and usually three, must be sitting. One magistrate can sit alone, for example on a Saturday, but only to adjourn a case and decide whether the defendant should have bail or remain in custody. Sometimes the Legal Adviser to the Magistrates can make decisions, e.g. to commit someone to the Crown court for trial. 

13:48  David Goodman: Magistrates have to apply the Sentencing Guideline, unless that would be contrary to the interests of justice. Where that involves a fine, they have to use a formula, which requires them to multiply the offender's income by the set guideline. That can result in the sort of fine you mention above for no insurance. It seems a trite answer even as I write it, but the cost of insurance for 1 day would be less than the fine, and the offender has only been proved to have used his vehicle without insurance on one day. OK, we know that may not be the case in many cases, but it's the same with any offence - courts can only sentence for the one offence before them. 

13:51  David Goodman: The jury system goes back to 1215, Magna Carta, when the Barons held the King to account and said that everyone deserved the right to be tried by their peers. In 1361 Justices of the Peace were formally created, as being another way to ensure that people are dealt with by their equals. Today we have an even balance of men and women on our Benches of Magistrates, and a wide cross-section of employed, self-employed, unemployed and retired people serving as Magistrates. 

14:21  David Goodman: There is no average day in a Magistrates' Court! There can be just one case, if we know it's going to be an all-day trial; or it can be 100 or more if we expect them all to plead guilty (eg where they've written in saying they want to plead guilty and not attend, say for motoring cases). Most cases are guilty plea cases, in fact, so the majority of cases end in convictions. And the difference between Magistrates' and Crown Courts is that in the former, Magistrates, who are not legally qualified, sit with a legally-qualified Legal Adviser and they act as Judge and Jury, whereas in the Crown Court a legally-qualified Judge controls the trial, but a Jury drawn from members of the public decides guilt or innocence. The Judge sentences the guilty. 

14:40  David Goodman: You're right, Phil, and Magistrates have to judge whether someone is putting forward genuine and truthful mitigation and when someone is 'trying it on'. You'd be surprised at some of the reasons people give for committing offences! But Magistrates gain experience that helps them to know when someone is being truthful or not. It is easy to become cynical, but sometimes there are very sad people coming before our courts as offenders. Magistrates have to balance the protection of the public with how to help that person not offend again. 

14:46  David Goodman: English law says that before Magistrates can convict someone of an offence, they have to be sure s/he is guilty of it. There are cases where the Magistrates hear evidence and may be 'fairly sure', or 'almost sure', but that isn't enough, and they have to find the defendant not guilty. That can make witnesses think they haven't been believed, but that isn't necessarily the case - it's just that the Magistrates couldn't be sure on the evidence that the defendant did it. It sounds a high hurdle the prosecution has to jump to get a conviction, and it is - but it might be you or me who is charged with an offence we know we didn't commit, because someone, lying or mistaken, says we did it. We would want to know that Magistrates would only convict us if they were sure we did it, not because they think we did.

15:06  David Goodman: I said earlier that Staffordshire's Magistrates' Courts are among the best performing Courts in England and Wales. We are proud that that has been achieved without compromising on the quality of justice in our courts. The national target for dealing with a criminal case (not motoring) for example is 6 weeks from start to finish. Many areas can't get near that. The last stats I have show that Burton Magistrates' Court averaged 3.9 weeks per case, North Staffs 5.8 weeks and Central & South-West Staffs 4.5 weeks. 

15:15  David Goodman: There are guidelines for sentencing for most, but not all, offences. Magistrates use a starting-point, then look at whether any aggravating factors in the case suggest that the offence is more serious than the average for that type of case, or whether mitigating factors mean it is less serious. Often there is a balance to be had between aggravating and mitigating factors, and Magistrates have to decide where that balance lies. No two cases are exactly the same, which is why the sentences can vary, but the idea of having Sentencing Guidelines is so that the sentences for a particular offence should usually be as consistent as possible, given that the aggravating and mitigating factors can vary so much. 

15:44  David Goodman: Interesting to note that 75% of people in the survey think that the Magistrates' Courts in Staffordshire have dealt with more cases than they expected today (and Fenton 
and Cannock are still sitting!), because it has actually been a fairly quiet day by our standards! It is not unusual for Magistrates' Courts to have top sit to 5pm and beyond to finish their lists. 

17:32  David Goodman: Thanks to everyone who has contributed today. You are always welcome to come and sit in the public gallery in your local Magistrates' Court to watch justice in action. 
Staffordshire's Magistrates' Courts are committed to open, transparent and fair justice, so come and see it in action. 

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