Many non Crown Prosecution Service offenders are brought to a magistrates` court. Examples are RSPCA, TV licensing, transport companies [fare dodgers], trading standards [fly tipping, health and safety etc ] , local authorities [council tax defaulters] etc etc
I can recollect a case some years ago when I was sitting on one such prosecution. The prosecutor in her opening told us that her only witness, the investigating official, would read his five page statement and she would be relying on a bundle of over 200 pages as her evidence. We duly heard the official and a brief glance at the bundle showed that in addition to the official`s statement it was divided into three complainants` statements, the defendant’s interview, documents directly connecting the offender with the alleged offences and his various bank accounts over the specified period. Defence council had little upon which he could defend his client during cross examination of the official. His client who was not the sharpest knife in the drawer duly did his best under cross examination which was not approaching a Perry Mason standard. We retired to read the bundle telling those involved that we might have some questions for the defendant.
Much of the material in the bundle was totally unhelpful and unnecessary. We had to hunt for the pearls that the prosecutor had told us would be the basis for her case. We duly did find documents which appeared to link the defendant with the offence. Our concern was that they although they had been exhibited neither lawyer had pin pointed them. We decided that in the interests of justice we could not adjudicate without further knowledge and more answers. Thus we questioned the defendant in detail overruling objections from his counsel. He was found guilty. At the post court review our legal adviser anticipating the tone of the discussion assured us that our inquisitorial approach was, in this particular case, perfectly lawful. He agreed that the prosecutor was failing in her duty when she attempted to rely on a huge bundle without further probing. He added that he would have intervened if we had been overstepping the mark.
Chairmanship of a magistrates` bench is an art not a science although the drafters of the so called competences required and the resultant appraisals techniques would seem to argue otherwise. J.P.s` awareness of when sensitive questioning of a witness is useful is not in the instruction manual but it is in the interests of justice especially in an era of unrepresented defendants when there is no longer a level playing field.