Our Bench Support Office knowing of my possible availability for emergency or short notice sittings has allowed me more sittings than perhaps the Lord Chancellor would want although I have been assured by more than one Bench Chairman that many benches would have difficulties without there being a coterie of â€œhighâ€ sitters. When the request is for a chairman in a remand court my default option is to accept for the simple reason that our rota sittings for such courts are much reduced. In order to function fluently post LAPSO and ALLOCATION repetitive sittings are the only way to secure the confidence of colleagues and court users. Such was the situation one late afternoon a couple of weeks ago; a â€œcan you sit tomorrow?â€ request.
After some time sitting exclusively in trial courts the hustle and bustle of a very busy remand court is somewhat stimulating but it also brings home the depressingly familiar theme of the havoc drug and alcohol addiction brings to the lives of so many.
Midway through our overnight list of nineteen or twenty came four in a row offenders under the age of forty who had been arrested and charged the previous day with theft from a shop. They ranged from a mid twenties Romanian stopped at the supermarket exit with bundles of nappies to a South Asian with over Â£800 worth of assorted goods in his trolley. The offender with the least number of previous had two pages of similar. A sentence of the maximum available to a magistrates` court with allowance for what is termed â€œan early guiltyâ€ plea was inevitable although why an allowance for pleading guilty should be available for somebody caught red handed by security staff in addition to a complete visual record on CCTV strains the credibility of the justice system. In this real world he was informed that he would most likely, at the discretion of the prison governor, be released on license after serving only half the sentence ie nine weeks. By the time it came for the lawyer for the fourth in line to mitigate on his clientâ€™s behalf he acknowledged the difficulty of his task having sat there watching the earlier processes. Whatever the problems facing lawyers offering criminal legal aid the vast majority to whom I have listened represent their clients with all due eloquence as they did that morning. I would hope to be able to have the same opinion this time next year.
The science of developmental neurology is now unequivocal in its opinion that most men do not reach a state of â€œbrain maturityâ€ until the early twenties. That might have explained the irrational behaviour that led to one particular offender appearing before us. He was 20 years old, lived at home with his wealthy parents who had fled as children from Hungry in 1956 to make their fortune in England. He was of good character and a second year law student. He had been arrested along with a friend for causing criminal damage by throwing eggs at three cars. One car had sustained superficial damage to a door, another to its wipers and the other, the window of which was open, to the upholstery. His guilty plea was accompanied by audible sobs from his mother in the public gallery. The conditional discharge and small amount of compensation was not, of course, what caused that offender to look as if his world had ended: it was the reminder that he would be required to admit to the offence on completion of any form for the Disclosure and Barring Service.
The remainder of the sitting was rather less depressing apart from the two nineteen year olds arrested for dwelling house burglary who had between them nine similar offences and four offences committed on bail and who screamed all manner of ways in which they were going to get me when their bail application was refused. When they had been taken down our legal advisor asked us if we wished to proceed with charges of contempt. We agreed as one that it would be of no practical use to anybody. We satisfied ourselves by requesting that their lawyers might wish to give their clients appropriate advice for their next appearance at the crown court.