Now that I am retired having been many years a magistrate with a long awareness of the declining freedoms enjoyed by the ordinary citizen and a corresponding fear of the big brother state`s ever increasing encroachment on civil liberties I hope that my personal observations within these general parameters will be of interest to those with an open mind. Having been blogging with this title for many years against the rules of the Ministry of Justice my new found freedom should allow me to be less inhibited in these observations.





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Thursday, 9 January 2014

LET SLEEPING DOGS LIE



I had first sat with Jane three years previously when she had only been in the job a few weeks.  It was obvious to me then that she would be a first class magistrate.  And so it was a pleasure not long ago to note on the sign in sheet that she and I constituted a two person bench that morning. 



By the time I had poured myself a cup of tea she was already in the retiring room with two copies of our court list.  “I haven`t ever sat in a council tax court,” she said as I sat down.  I expressed my surprise and wondered what the odds against such an omission could be.  Council tax courts (and related business rates courts) are generally greeted by colleagues and me with little anticipation.  99% of the time they are truly a case of rubberstamping applications brought by local councils of liability to pay the tax.   Sitting in such courts can sometimes be frustrating but the legislation allows us virtually no powers to intervene except if there appears to be an abuse of the process or the council fails to show that there is actually  an outstanding amount for which the defendant is indeed liable.  I explained the process in general to Jane and she resigned herself to an uneventful hour ahead.  Our legal advisor appeared and told us that before we could get to the bulk list there was a defendant appearing to contest the liability order for her owing business rates.     Accordingly at 10.00a.m. we entered court.



The defendant was an elderly lady who, we learned, had recently sold her optician`s business;  lock, stock and barrel including the freehold premises which had been vacated some time prior to the sale being completed.  It was around the vacant period that the dispute revolved.  After some forensic analysis by the bench it became apparent that not only did the defendant not owe a penny in business rates; she had actually overpaid by a four figure sum.  In spite of all this the non lawyer representatives of Capita plc, the outsourcing monolith which collects these taxes for councils, gave us looks of astonishment when the pronouncement was made.  It seemed they were unused to losing an application.  At our brief post court review our L/A inquired whether we wanted to report them for contempt.  He had overheard them exchanging derogatory remarks as to our sanity…..”Are they barking mad”?  We decided to let those sleeping dogs lie.   

5 comments:

  1. Your call of course, but I doubt whether I would have had such forbearance.

    Defendants disrespecting the authority of the court is one thing but there is no excuse for anyone who is a part of the judicial process for making an audible comment such as was overheard by the L/A. Clearly they need a lesson in how to conduct themselves in court and a contempt action might well have focused them/their employer in this regard.

    As I said, it had to be your call and I respect your decision but I'd have taken it further.

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  2. Judicial deafness is an important skill in being a JP. Never heard any of the 'professionals' in my court make disparaging remarks but I'm a little disappointed if I make it through a whole day in court without at least one of their facial expressions suggesting I might be barking mad.

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  3. Indeed judicial deafness can occasionally be appropriate, as can judicial blindness. I think you hit the nail on the head when you commented about not hearing the 'professionals' making disparaging remarks. The word professional is apposite. Those involved in the judicial process should conduct themselves in a professional manner. Those who do not are deserving of our censure. I wasn't there so I cannot say whether I would have taken the matter up or not but my own experience suggests that the quality of some of the individuals now involved does leave a lot to be desired.

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  4. Very rarely happened in 20 years but when it has, I find that asking the usher to bring them back into court, after they think they have finished and been released, to then apologise, is quite effective.

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  5. While you're contemplating 'Judicial deafness & blindness' have you actually considered who (exactly) issuse's the Court Summons for Council tax? Of the hundreds that are all called on the same day and time (making it a physical impossibility for Magistrates to hear) are they all signed by the Clerk to the Court or are they fraudulently processed by the Council themselves in some cosy arrangement between the Council and Judiciary? If the latter proves true, what do Magistrates intend to do about this act of fraud?

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