The Diary of a Criminal Solicitor quotes a Sunday Mirror article on the blunders and delays that make up much of the business of the Magistrates Courts.
When I first had to sit through a day’s proceedings at the Belfast Magistrates Courts (to challenge a parking ticket), I was amazed at how shambolic the whole thing seemed to be. Although recently they seem to have imposed a little more order into the process, with solicitors and barristers now forming a queue for who gets to speak next, rather than the older process of whomever happened to speak loudest at just the right moment, the whole process still seems mostly out of control.
This morning I watched as what appeared to be somewhere between 25%-50% of the cases were put off for anywhere between 3 days and 4 weeks, occasionally because police, witnesses, solicitors, or defendants couldn’t be found, but mostly because the PPS didn’t have files, or wanted to re-charge the defendant.
Defendant after defendant sat waiting in court for up to two hours, only for it to be announced, often even before they made it as far as the dock, that their case was put off until several weeks later. The magistrate berated the PPS several times for not having material, but they in turn usually blamed the police, or the probation service, or someone else, and it doesn’t seem like anyone really expects anything to change. The magistrate occasionally looked like he expected defence counsel to make some sort of application — presumably to either proceed without the files or for the case to be dismissed — but everyone just seemed to play along with the delay. (Cynics might think that the defence team might be happier to get their fees for another day in court than in actually getting their clients’ cases dropped, but I’m sure that never actually happens…)
One case in particular even had numerous journalists sitting waiting in court for hours: that of Seamus O’Kane who had been convicted four weeks ago of common assault on Sammy Wilson, and was due for sentencing today. However, the pre-sentence reports hadn’t yet been received, so the sentencing was unable to go ahead. The magistrate demanded that someone from the probation board explain why his earlier order hadn’t been complied with, but they just stated they hadn’t gotten the request until two weeks ago and hadn’t had time to prepare the reports yet. They then asked for, and received, another four weeks to prepare them. At least this case came up at 12:30 and the journalists only wasted two hours waiting for it, rather than having to wait until the afternoon session. And Mr O’Kane gets to spend another month sweating about whether or not he’s going to have to serve time away from his young son.
I should probably write up some of my notes from the original trial too, as I found it to be rather amazing. Mr O’Kane strongly denied the charges against him, and his counsel even tried to make an application that there was no case to answer as the four witnesses against him all gave mutually exclusive evidence – particularly on key points such as whether or not Mr O’Kane had ever even made any physical contact with Sammy Wilson. (Sammy said that there was no contact other than him being pushed against a car, whereas his dining companion said that Mr O’Kane had kicked Sammy twice – once on the upper arm(!), and an eyewitness from a nearby restaurant had said that he had seen the defendant standing over Sammy Wilson whipping him with a chain whilst he lay on the ground!)
However the magistrate ruled against this application, and defence counsel struggled to put on any defence other than the complete confusion of the prosecution evidence, seemingly surprised that that wasn’t enough. Although he tried to push this point several other times, including during his summing up, the magistrate shot him down several times saying he’d already made himself clear on that point.
Sammy Wilson’s assertion that he doesn’t drink alcohol put paid to the only other real alternative theory put forward – that when he left the restaurant he had been drunk, or at least a little tipsy. This really shouldn’t have surprised the defence as much as it seemed to, as I would expect that most DUP MPs/councillors would also be teetotal. And then the defendant did himself no favours whatsoever by claiming that the policewoman who gave evidence had never actually spoken to him at his house, as she had claimed, and that the signature on his witness statement wasn’t his, even though the police stated that it had been signed in the presence of his solicitor, who in turn declined to give any evidence on the point. (Although this caused a little commotion as people tried to work out whether or not the solicitor could or should even give evidence on such a matter.)
I clearly watch too many bad legal dramas or something, but even where the defendant patently lies through the proceedings (as the magistrate declared had happened here), I don’t believe that that manages to overturn the reasonable doubt that clearly has to arise when none of the witnesses can agree on any significant point whatsoever. The magistrate went on to give a bald ‘guilty’ verdict with no explanation whatsoever as to what version of events he believed had actually happened, or which particular incident of the many set forward by each witness had been the occasion of common assault for which the defendant was being found guilty. One of the principles of our legal system is meant to be that it is not enough for justice to be done – it must also be seen be done. In this case I believe that principle was sorely absent.