Since my last post about my life, I have spent the week in West Yorkshire. I have been carrying out advocacy observations on CPS prosecutors, both in-house staff and members of the Bar. It has been an interesting experience. I spent time observing in Leeds Crown & Magistrate’s’ Courts, Dewsbury Magistrates’ Court and Bingley Magistrates’ Court.
What did I learn this week? Well, there are several things I learned.
1. The quality of the advocate is not dependant on them being solicitor or barristers. I have seen good and bad solicitors, good and bad barristers and good and bad Associate Prosecutors. Some advocates that I saw both prosecution and defence were particularly bad. I would think very carefully before choosing someone to represent me if I was in court.
2. Despite lots of attempts to change things, trials still crack on the day and it is difficult to change this culture. For an early guilty plea, you can get a reduction of up to 30% on your sentence. This however does not prevent trials cracking for the reasons at point 3.
3. Sentencing is by and large pathetic and punishments are often ridiculously lenient. Why is this? Well partly because those sentencing are under pressure not to sentence people to prison as the prisons are full and partly because the judges (and magistrates) are suckers for a sob story and focus too much on the offender not the offence and the protection of the public.
4. Sod’s Law (Legal inspector’s Version) states that when you have identified a trial you particularly want to see that it will not go ahead.
I saw some examples this week of pathetic sentencing. The courts are under pressure not to send people to prison so lots of suspended sentences are handed out – this is a sentence that you will go to prison for x months, but this is suspended for a set period (up to 2 years) on the proviso that the offender does not commit any offences during that period. However, I saw several examples of people who had committed offences whilst subject to a suspended sentence not having the suspended sentence activated in full or even in part. What is the point in imposing a suspended sentence if you are not going to enforce it? All this does is create contempt for sentencing in the minds of the defendants. It is no wonder the Daily Mail continually talk about defendants getting let off.
I wonder if the way to reduce the prison population in the long term is as follows:
a) convert former army camps etc. into prison accommodation for the short term to increase capacity
b) rather than reduce the numbers sent to prison, we should go the other way, i.e. increase the numbers sent to prison and the length of sentences imposed.
I know this will increase in the short term the prison population, but I think in the long term it could reduce the prison population as people will know that they face lengthy sentences if they were convicted. It would also ensure that people were getting sent to prison, and realise how unpleasant that is, before they become hardened offenders. I think at present people are given so many chances before custody is imposed that they have become hardened offenders before they ever go to prison. By the time they are hardened offenders, it is unlikely they will ever be diverted from a life of crime.
One other thing I was reminded of this week is that the most important people in the judicial process are not the judges or advocates, but the court ushers who call the lists and organise the smooth running of their courts. They are an under sung group, but would be sorely missed if not there.
What does an Inspector do on an evening? Well, its hardly a glamorous life living out of a suitcase. Monday night, I went for a meal with 3 fellow inspectors, but was sat alone in my hotel room by 21:30. Tuesday night, I went alone to Chesterfield v Wycombe. Wednesday night I spent a night in my room alone. I was going to watch the Arsenal v Orient game on the internet, but fell asleep. Thursday night was a few drinks and a meal followed by more drinks with a number of other Inspectors. Then Friday brought a long drive back to London AFTER a day in court. Its hardly glamorous and on Sunday I will be heading off to do it again in Hull for next week.
The hotels we get to stay in are nice but not the 5 star luxury the media would lead you to believe. In Leeds it was the Leeds City Hilton and in Hull it will be a Holiday Inn.
The only good thing is that I do get to read more books than I normally do. Hopefully next week I will get to take my bike with me to Hull and can get in some short rides each night. Hopefully!