Why we're here:
This blog is to highlight the unjust persecution of legitimate non-TV users at the hands of TV Licensing. These people do not require a licence and are entitled to live without the unnecessary stress and inconvenience caused by TV Licensing's correspondence and employees.

If you use equipment to receive live broadcast TV programmes, or to watch or download on-demand programmes via the BBC iPlayer, then the law requires you to have a licence and we encourage you to buy one.

If you've just arrived here from a search engine, then you might find our Quick Guide helpful.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Work of the Magistrates' Court: Quantity Over Quality?

Today the TV Licensing Blog explores the role and effectiveness of the Magistrates' Court, not just in relation to its disposal of TV licence cases, but also more generally.

All criminal cases start their journey in the Magistrates' Court and 97% of them finish it there as well. TV licence evasion, as a summary offence, can only be tried in the Magistrates' Court, although the option remains to appeal the verdict or sentence to the Crown Court later on.

Before proceeding any further I should volunteer the fact that I am a fervent supporter of the work of the Magistrates' Courts. Some readers might find that statement surprising, given my previous opposition to the apparent rubber-stamping of most TV licence cases. The simple fact is that the courts are bound by procedural red tape, which limits their options in the disposal of many TV licence cases. 

If anyone reading is of the mindset that the Magistrates' Courts are run by clueless amateurs struggling to deliver justice, they might wish to stop reading now. There is no denying that the Magistracy has its faults - its willingness to authorise TV Licensing searches springs to mind - but generally speaking the system has worked very effectively, in one form or another, for the last eight hundred years.

The Magistrates' Association has been campaigning for years for the decriminalisation of TV licence evasion, which would see an immediate 10% reduction in the workload of the subordinate criminal courts. Make no mistake that a lot of Magistrates hate the way the TV licence is enforced as much as the rest of us, although by swearing the Judicial Oath they vow to set aside personal opinion and uphold the law as it is written on the day without fear, favour, affection or ill will. 

I am reminded of a comment previously published on The Justice of the Peace (Magistrate's) Blog, which described TV Licensing's conduct as "sometimes aired iniquitous practices of said (Capita) plc when licence 'evaders' were giving evidence in court only to be contradicted by dubious so-called 'inspectors', whose evidence to say the least was often unconvincing".

Setting aside the increasing prevalence of District Judges (Magistrates Court), the big strength of the Magistrates' Court, in my opinion, is that fact that it sees ordinary local people, who understand local circumstances, evaluating and sanctioning the alleged misdeeds of their local peers. Some may dispute the notion that "lay" Magistrates, otherwise known as Justices of the Peace, are "ordinary people", but the fact is that any person of good standing, irrespective of their employment status or personal beliefs, can apply for the role. The pool of Justices is therefore as broad as the people willing to apply.

Justices sit fairly infrequently, which allows them to approach their role fresh in mind and without legal preconceptions. They do not have legal training - indeed having most types of legal training disqualifies a person from applying for the role - but they do have the assistance of a legally trained clerk, who has undoubtedly advised on dozens of similar cases in the past. Justices normally sit in threes, with the chairman in the middle and a "winger" either side. The chairman is effectively the voice of the bench and does the vast majority of speaking, however, the opinion of each Justice has equal weight in the decision making process. A lay bench can operate just as authoritatively with only two Justices, but there is a risk they might disagree and be unable to proceed. 

The fact that at least two, often three, different people are involved in the decision making process is a huge advantage of lay benches in my eyes - it means they can really scrutinise the evidence and challenge each other's opinions. The way a lay bench operates has previously been likened to a mini-jury.

Justices are unpaid, but can reclaim travel and subsistence costs. Section 49 of The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 sets out the rare circumstances in which a lay Justice can act alone. A new Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which will permit lone Justices to deal with simple uncontested summary offences, is currently winging its way through Parliament. The Bill, which is likely to be enacted in the next year, will allow a single Justice to deal with uncontested TV licence evasion and speeding cases, which should free up valuable court time. The Government has been quick to stress that any contentious cases will be dealt with by a full bench in open court, as is currently the case.

District Judges (Magistrates Court) are professionally-qualified Magistrates, who can preside over the court alone. In this sense they have exactly the same powers as two Justices sitting on a lay bench. There is an argument - and a valid one in my opinion - that because District Judges see so many cases, often those at the more severe end of the scale, they become complacent, fatigued and case-hardened in their dealings. The enhanced legal knowledge of a District Judge means they often deal with cases much faster and more confidently than a lay bench does, but this speed is offset by the additional costs of employing them. 

Back in 2011 the Ministry of Justice commissioned an Ipsos MORI report titled "The Strengths and Skills of the Judiciary in the Magistrates' Courts". The authors observed almost 2300 cases in 44 different Magistrates' Courts across England and Wales and compared the decisions made by lay benches and District Judges. The report demonstrated that overall there was no significant difference in the outcome of cases heard by lay benches or District Judges. If anything, District Judges were slightly more inclined to impose higher level community and custodial sentences than their lay counterparts.

In 2013 a total of 707,229 cases were completed within the Magistrates' Court, of which only about 13,000 (1.8%) were appealed. Such a low appeal rate suggests that the Magistrates' Court is concluding the overwhelming majority of cases efficiently.

Having observed a lot (e.g. dozens) of Magistrates' Courts sessions over the years, I can honestly say that I have never seen any practise or decision by either a lay bench or District Judge that I'd consider unfair. I have seen decisions that I disagree with, although not many of those either. I have seen benches forced into making decisions due to an error or omission by the defence or prosecution - TV licence cases heard in the absence of the defendant are a prime example of this. I have occasionally seen lay benches unsure of how to proceed on a point of law, but their clerk has always explained the situation clearly and audibly for the benefit of the whole court. I have seen defendants, who in all likelihood were guilty, walk free because the prosecution failed to prove its case to a sufficient standard. Unpalatable as that is, that's how it should be - those defendants probably won't be so fortunate the next time.

In conclusion, I really do think our system of Magistrates' Courts is a force for good. Relatively speaking it is quick, efficient and makes sound legal decisions. Lay Justices perform their duties just as diligently as professional District Judges, although they take longer and are slightly more cautious with their sentencing.

The Magistrates' Court can only interpret and enforce legislation as it is written. Problems with that legislation are a matter for another place and the decriminalisation of TV licence evasion cannot come soon enough.


Anonymous said...

Fervent supporter of this blog as I am, I have to say that this ... "but the fact is that any person of good standing, irrespective of their employment status or personal beliefs, can apply for the role. The pool of Justices is therefore as broad as the people willing to apply" ... is utter tripe.

I started applying to be a magistrate. I found however that even at the application form stage, it was made quite clear that only certain people were wanted, and that anyone else was wasting their time.

In the courts themselves, my experience of lay magistrates has been entirely negative.

Anonymous said...

In a case unrelated to TV licencing, I have an appeal pending at the Crown Court. The magistrates court used a document that had been signed, then the signature clearly scribbled out. The document was a section 10 agreed facts which was falsified by the CPS and did not bear any resemblance to the statements produced by the 'victims'. I stood up in court and stated openly that a fair trial could not be carried out if this document were to be used, and they had not bothered to get the interview tape.

Because they wanted it done on the day they insisted the trial went on, and I was subsequently found guilty of both charges.

I trust magistrates about as much as I trust tvl goons. You may not have seen it happen but believe me it does. And just in case you were wondering, I had no previous criminal record or even arrests.

The notion of innocent until proven guilty seems to have been lost in translation. I now often sit in on trials just to ensure the defendant is getting a fair deal, and I am always asked who I am and why I'm there, in the public gallery...