Assessment One: A Court Report
On the 24th and the 26th of October, our firm visited the Magistrates’ and Crown Court respectively; each having considerably different procedures but both working effectively in the English Legal System, in order to interpret the law for the “interest of the public”.
We were lucky to witness a trial in one of the two court hearings we witness as “members of the general public” in the Magistrates’ Court. The first case we witnessed was on sentencing. It was for dangerous driving, in which the defendant was accused of holding a mobile phone to the ear whilst driving and driving with a without a license because it was disqualified by the magistrates until there was a verdict to the case, all of which were admitted except for use of a mobile phone. This breaches the Road Safety Act 2006 c.49 s.23, s.26 (1) and Bail Act 1976 s.3 (6). The case was ruled by the bench via the speaker, who were one of the Magistrates sitting. After advice by the court clerk and extensive discussions behind closed doors from the bench, the verdict given was that the defendant was guilty for dangerous driving and is disqualified from his driving license for a twelve month period, under the Road Safety Act 2006 s.37 (4) and until he passes his driving test after the twelve month disqualification has been served. This coincides with a fine of £750 of court fees and damages.
The next case we had witnessed has been in court proceedings for considerable period of time as the representative of the Criminal Prosecution Service had notified the bench about at the beginning of the trial. The circumstances of the case had involved dog biting another dog.
There are two significant personnel who aid operation of the Magistrates’ Court, the court clerk and the usher. The Court Clerk is an advisor to the bench which consist of three lay people from the general public; who although have no prior legal knowledge, would have received minor legal training. The Court Clerk has significant legal training and experience to enable them to advise the bench. The usher’s role in the court is to ensure that people participating in the trial are in the required place at the designated time. However on the day we observed there was significant disorganisation.
The defendant did not attend the trial personally; however he had given his lawyer specific instructions and authority to act on his behalf. During an average Magistrates’ Court hearing, there would be two lawyers present, one representing each party. In most cases, this involved the Crown Prosecution Service and Defendant however, as the Magistrates’ Court can resolve civil cases as well, the CPS is not always represented.
On the day that we attended the Crown Court, the majority of cases that were taking place were pre-trials and trials, therefore we were unable to attend a sentencing however through observing trials and pre-trials we attained a considerable overview of the processes and procedures that take place in this type of court.
The trial we observed concerned the defendant, Mr Gary Moore, who was arrested in Dover under suspicion of drug trafficking. The defendant however claimed that the drugs in question, approximately 1.8 tonnes of cannabis resin, were stashed onboard his vehicle and hidden without his knowledge or permission. The defendant claimed this was done when another unknown person loaded the vehicle whilst the defendant was discussing matters with the employer for this job. Possession of this drug and in quantities could be considered as intent to distribute and is a violation of the Misuse Drugs Act 1971.
The other cases we observed were pre-trials and plea callings. In contrast to a full trial there proceedings were significantly shorter in duration. For the plea callings the defendants had been queried as to the plea they would submit. In the cases we observed, there were no guilty pleas so unfortunately we are unable to comment on the procedure that would occur in that scenario. However for a not guilty plea, the judge set a date for trials, with specific instructions regarding to collection and submitting of evidence and witnesses; furthermore the judge would decide whether to grant bail to the defendant(s) or remand in custody.
The most significant differences in personnel between the two courts are that the crown court utilises a judge and jury system whereas the magistrates court utilises 3 magistrates. The judges often have a significant legal history and training and most have trained as solicitors or barristers for at least 8 or so years and therefore have a large spectrum of knowledge about the law, their job is to oversee proceedings and maintain order in the court, furthermore they are responsible for using their knowledge and expertise to hand out a suitable sentence. The jury consists of twelve members of the general public; initially fifteen possible jurors are drafted and from these twelve are selected to witness the trial. The concept behind a jury being present is for the defendants to be tried by their peers, however as the jury are not legally qualified the scenario often arises where the judge is required to explain legal terminology to the jury. The court clerk and usher are still present in the crown court; however they operate in a slightly different role. The court clerk is no longer the most qualified person in the room and, as a consequence, is not required to explain things to the jury or bench, instead the court clerk works in more of an administrative role and saying the oath to witnesses or translators as seen in one of our cases. The usher’s role is very similar in both courts, however in the crown court the usher also sits inside of the court room giving out handouts from most likely the defending barrister; they are the only person allowed to move around the court room in the crown court. This enables the court to analyse and complete cases in a far more time efficient manner. There were also a few extra personnel in the Crown Courts, solicitors, sound recordist and a typist. The solicitors sitting behind the barrister is there to assist them during the case because they have all the information and can remind them about certain aspects of the case to them. The recordist is the person who records what everyone in the courtroom is saying throughout the proceeding and can be used as evidence if there is an appeal by the defendant. The typist is someone who records what the witness is saying onto a special machine in which can also be used as evidence later one if the case is reopened.
How do they fair in the English Legal System?
From the witnessing trials taken place at both the Magistrates and the Crown Court, the Crown Court comes higher in the scale than Magistrates’ Court. There are a number of ways that backs this up like the dress code, the number of trained professionals present in processing the proceedings and the types of cases.
Once you step inside a court room in the Crown Court you instantly see the difference in level between that and the Magistrates Court, because we went to the Magistrates Court first. There where people wearing gowns in the courtroom proceedings the trials whereas in the Magistrates’ Court they are just dressed smart. From the old fashioned, well dressed appearance gives anyone the impression that this is at a higher tier in the English Legal System than the Magistrates’ court.
As established above, the Magistrates’ Court only have one professional personnel that has any legal training, the court clerk whereas the Crown Court has a judge. The Crown Court usually has Barristers fighting the case but the Magistrates’ can have any person that has legal training like the dog case, there were only lawyers there fighting the trial.
Cases in the Magistrates’ Court did not sound as serious as the one we have seen in the Crown Court. Like the dangerous driving offence committed by Mr Standen and the drugs offence. The driving offence did not hurt anyone but if it did, it would of been in the Crown Court but the drugs case where the victim was trafficking millions of pounds worth of class A drugs was a big incident the Magistrates Court cannot handle therefore it kits higher up in the English legal system scale than the Magistrates’ Court.
Cases from the Magistrates Court in which they cannot make a decision out of are transferred to be put in trial in the Crown Court which shows that the Crown Court is at a higher tier than the Magistrates Court and have a more professional in the way they proceed a case therefore makes it feel like a more serious place to be.
Case 1: Magistrates court
A substantial case witnessed in the Magistrates court was of accused vs CPS. He was on trial for careless driving, a plea and charge was going to be heard in this trial. He did have some previous convictions which would go against him in a court of law, for instance he had recently been disqualified from driving for 12 months, he had also been convicted of using a mobile phone while driving and had also previously been convicted for driving without insurance.
He was initially going to be on trial for 3 separate offences; driving while on a mobile phone, careless and inconsiderate driving, and for driving whilst disqualified. The man in front of the accused claims that he saw him on his phone through his rear view mirror, but due to insufficient evidence the charge of driving while on a mobile phone had to be dropped at the start of the case.
The trial went on as he was still accused of careless and inconsiderate driving and for driving whilst disqualified. He pleaded guilty to the charges. The charge of careless and inconsiderate driving comes under the road traffic act of 1988, section 3, which states that ‘If a person drives a motor vehicle on a road without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road, he is guilty of an offence’. A charge of driving whilst disqualified comes under the same road traffic act of 1988 but from section 103, subsection 1, paragraph b. Because he pleaded guilty to the charges a long trial was not needed, the magistrates went out the back to reach a verdict.
The result of the trial was that the accused should be given a further 12 month disqualification from driving from the day of trial. He must also pass another driving test before he is allowed to drive again. On top of this he had to pay £715 to cover the fines and court fees.
Case 2: Crown Court
This trial was to see the plea’s of the two men involved.
In this case two men were on trial for robbery, they were accused of stealing £10 in cash and taking numerous other items. They were kept behind glass on the other end of the court room to the judge; they had two police officers in the room with them. Both men were represented by different barristers, making it a 3 way trial.
One of the men pleaded guilty to the charge of robbery. The other man pleaded not guilty to the charge. The robbery charge comes under the Theft Act of 1968, section 8, subsections 1 and 2, subsection 1 states that ‘A person is guilty of robbery if he steals, and immediately before or at the time of doing so, and in order to do so, he uses force on any person or puts or seeks to put any person in fear of being then and there subjected to force’. Subsection 2 states that ‘A person guilty of robbery, or of an assault with intent to rob, shall on conviction on indictment be liable to imprisonment for life’.
The end result of this trial was not concluded as it was only a plea hearing not a full trial, both men were taken out of a separate door at the back of their private room, the decision from this trial was to keep both men remanded in custody until their trial.
Case 3: Crown Court
This was the most significant case we saw in the Crown Court, the accused was Gary Moore from Glasgow; he was accused of smuggling 1.8 tonnes of Cannabis resin into the UK.
Gary Moore had no previous convictions, and on February of 2009 he was given bail, Gary was claiming that he did not have any reason to believe there could have been drugs in his lorry, stating that he was only driving the lorry.
In this trial an example of Documentary evidence was given, in the form of a telephone receipt showing who he had spoken to at certain times during his journey driving his lorry. Although we did not get to see this there was also going to be a character witness later on in the trial, Gary Moore’s father, he would be trying to explain the kind of person Gary is and why his character would not do something illegal such as drug smuggling.
One way of suspecting somebody of being involved in the smuggling of drugs is if in their lorry they have a substantial amount of money, the only money Gary had in his lorry he said was given to him by his employer (Nigel Burgess) for expenses.
If prosecuted for the accused reasons then Gary Moore would be in breach of two laws; The Misuse of drugs act of 1971, Section 3, subsection 1, paragraph a; ‘the importation of a controlled drug’. And the import, export and customs powers (defence act) 1939, section 3, subsection 1, paragraph a; ‘If any goods— are imported, exported, carried coastwise or shipped as ships' stores in contravention either of an order under this Act or of the law relating to trading with the enemy’. Both of these laws are broken simply by bringing a drug classified as a class a drug into the UK.
Moore’s defence was quite secure, he had been a HGV driver since 2005 when he obtained his license, at this time he was unemployed he was initially driving to Italy but got a phone call to tell him to change direction to Spain. He did not have any reason to suspect that the forklift he was driving to be fixed would be filled with cocaine. The prosecution did not bring in any new evidence they just reiterated what the defence had already stated. The prosecution spent a lot of time asking questions about some of his answers at interviews, mainly because he lied to customs police on a couple of occasions.
The case had a break for lunch, and was to resume around 1o’clock, unfortunately we did not get to see the end of this case, we decided it would be in our interest to witness some more cases at the Crown Court, the verdict of this case is unknown but we can tell the case had a long way to run.
Law Assessment Section B(b)
When we visited the magistrates court we observed two cases, a trial and pre-trial. The trial heard the case of R v Standen, regarding a violation of Road Traffic Act 1988 s (3) which states:
‘If a person drives a motor vehicle on a road without due care and attention, or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road, he is guilty of an offence.’
In terms of procedure the trial in its entirety took approximately 45 minutes to finish. During this time the prosecution gave its opening statement which outlined the basis of their case. In response (which coincided with a late guilty plea) the defence agreed to all of the outlined facts of the case; apart from the accusation that Mr. Standen had been using a mobile phone at the time of the offence. Their claim was that Mr. Standen was using a hands free set and not a handset.
The case resulted in a sentence (with a guilty plea) of a 12 month suspension of driving license and the provision that Mr. Standen pass another driving test. He was also fined the sum of £350, reduced from £450 due to the guilty plea, which resulted in a total of £715 monetary fine which was due to be paid within 14 days of the day of trial.
In regards to the viewing of the magistrate’s court it was clear that there were various procedural failings. For example there was an administrative error at the beginning of the day which resulted in a delay of approximately 45 minutes before the start of this case. There was confusion regarding the timing of the cases, and the whereabouts of witnesses and the defendants. This showed a clear lack of organisation on behalf of the court and reflected poorly on the state of the English legal system that such a mistake could occur when one of the key reasons for the invention of the magistrates court was to deal with cases such as this in a quick and cost efficient manner.
However, in contrast once the case was initiated it was fluid and direct. It dealt with the issues in a manner fitting of a court of law, and the magistrates felt that the sentence required for this case was within their jurisdiction and powers to distribute.
As for the case itself, it was clear the court had made the correct decision in its sentence, and this agreed with the guilty plea; the defendants actions had been witnessed by a bystander, who in her statement averred that the defendant’s standard of driving ‘fell below that of a careful, safe and confident driver.’ Therefore the combination of the guilty plea, and a strong prosecution case the court had no choice but to sentence the defendant.
Furthermore for policy reasons, and due to the large publicity behind driving offences in the media over the last few years, there has been pressure on judges to enforce a strict policy regarding road traffic offences, and this could be part of the contribution to the significant decline of road traffic accidents on the road since the year 20001
Therefore it would, be reasonable to assume that had this offence been committed only a few years ago the defendant could have expected a more lenient sentence.
During our visit to the crown court it became quickly apparent that this court was far more formal in numerous ways, including the case structuring, the personnel involved and even the architecture of the building itself seemed far more suiting for a court of law.
The major case that we observed was that of R v Moore. The specifics of which included the smuggling of drugs, although allegedly without knowledge of such occurring, and lying to customs at Dover, and giving misleading information to police during an interview.
In terms of a social context this case has significant importance, in the opening facts of the case amongst other figures mentioned it had been noted that the drug smuggling involved had been large scale, such figures mentioned included one intercepted shipment of approximately 15 tonnes of cannabis resin, the shipment intercepted in this case contained 1.8 tonnes of cannabis resin. The group that this shipment was intercepted from have had an estimate ten million pounds worth (street value) of cannabis resin intercepted. Therefore cases such as this carry considerable political and social importance.
With regards to politics the drug named in this case has been given significant public consideration over the last decade, this is due to it being reclassified twice, for the first time in 2003 under The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003 2; which reclassified cannabis from a “Class A” drug to “Class C,” drastically changing the sentencing for being caught in possession of the drugs and for distribution etc. This classification was amended as of the 26th of January 2009 and cannabis or any derivative was classified as a “Class B” drug3.
Although we did not witness the end of the case we did manage to establish most of the events that occurred. The case for the defence was that although they admit to the transportation of the drugs they claim it happened without the defendant’s knowledge. Furthermore it is possible a further case could be launched by the prosecution on the basis that defendant willingly and knowingly lied to customs officials regarding the countries to which he visited; this fact was one of which was also a fundamental part of the prosecution case by seriously damaging the credibility of the defendant.
His lies could be considered as evasive conduct and therefore this may support the inference of his guilt. Which although there isn’t a legal precedent for doing such, the mere act would definitely have significant enough weight to make the jury suspicious and therefore become a detrimental act against the defendant.
Furthermore it is possible that the defendant also would be charged under the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 (c. 2) s167(1)(b) which states:
Untrue declarations, etc
(1)If any person either knowingly or recklessly—
(a)makes or signs, or causes to be made or signed, or delivers or causes to be delivered to the Commissioners or an officer, any declaration, notice, certificate or other document whatsoever; or
(b)makes any statement in answer to any question put to him by an officer which he is required by or under any enactment to answer,
being a document or statement produced or made for any purpose of any assigned matter, which is untrue in any material particular, he shall be guilty of an offence under this subsection and may be detained; and any goods in relation to which the document or statement was made shall be liable to forfeiture.4