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Editorial

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Friday, 22 February 2008

Proof

I am sitting at my desk looking at a letter. The letter is from a young lady who appeared before me for sentence in January 2006. She had been dealing class A drugs. I imposed a suspended sentence with a Drug Treatment and Testing Order. That was on the lenient side of lenient, but what I had read suggested that it might work and she brought her Mum to court. I asked to hear from Mum, who seemed very sensible. I looked at the young lady. And, without being in the least bit confident about my own prescience, I took a deep breath...

The letter tells me that this young lady is now drug free. She has a job. She is buying a house. She has a daughter who is living with her. She thinks I saved her life, which I think is wrong - she saved her own life (there is little doubt that drugs would have killed her by now) by the actions she took. And the probation service saved her life.

I have never had a letter like that before and I was really very touched that this young lady had taken the trouble to write. The law affects peoples' lives. Sometimes it is nice to have proof that what you do makes a difference.

23 comments:

Mr Pineapples said...

Nice One

geeklawyer said...

A heartwarming tale.

When this girl's daughter appears before you, in 20 years time for similar charges, you can sentence her more certainly in the sure hope that the sentence will work.

Philip Sinclair said...

It is likely that the young lady would have died from the consequences of her addiction had you passed a sentence of immediate imprisonment. You had the judgment (and the courage) to ignore the official guidelines and, perhaps, popular opinion. She is right. She owes her life to you.

P

Simon Myerson said...

Mr P - thank you. Philip - thank you too. Although I still think that overstates it a little I don't deny that it's a nice thing to hear. GL - a healthy dose of cynicism to keep me focussed. In 20 years time I shall be retired.

Matt said...

Retired?

I'm actually disappointed you aren't considering joining Lords Bingham and Hoffmann et al.

You could go on forever.

The Chief said...

Did you know that your fame now extends all the way down to the big smoke? That's right, you've managed to get into today's Metro. I daresay into some proper newspapers as well, but I haven't bothered to read any today.

The Chief said...

Actually, I've just done a search and the BBC website reported on the case yesterday. Bah, the Metro has let me down again.

Solemn Wanderer said...

Hmmm. I'm very impressed you were so honest about the lack of science in sentencing, i.e., it basically turning on intuition and hunches (which is all you can go on).

When sitting as a Recorder Mr Myerson *is* only required to "have regard to" the sentencing guidelines; they need not be followed slavishly.

Mr Pineapples said...

Hey Solemn....the thing about the guidelines is that they are there and will be referred to (along with cases reported) by the Court of Appeal.

Judges dont like to be appealed and would rather play it cautious

Solemn Wanderer said...

I don't actually see why judges don't like to be appealed. In certain cases, they are doing the only thing they can do when that happens: namely, following a dubious precedent which only the higher court (on appeal, of course) has the power to overrule.

The criterion for interfering with a sentence is that it's "manifestly excessive," and I think the Court of Appeal maybe needs to bear that in mind. (It should also then only cut the sentence to take away the manifest excessiveness, even if the appeal judges themselves would have sentenced far more leniently than that.) Trial judges have a particular familiarity with the case and with local conditions, as well as being the decisionmaker basically trusted to exercise a discretion with very little science to it.

Indeed, in the US there was no appellate review at *all* of sentencing discretion prior to the Sentencing Reform Act 1984 (and after that put a rigid guidelines system in place, you could still not challenge a trial judge's selection of a sentence within the bracket yielded by the guidelines).

Mr Pineapples said...

The US? What relevance is that.

Judges - they do in fact take umbridge at being appealed (at least some of them)- it's a human nature - to have your judgment criticised and then overturned is not something that is welcomed. Surely you can see that.

The 50-Year-Old Pupil said...

Simon, A simple application of the "but for" test proves causation as far as your sentence was concerned. You are one of the good guys,

Solemn Wanderer said...

"The US? What relevance is that."

With respect, you're very last century. :) Their Lordships in committee room whatever absolutely love comparative law, from what I gather.

Mr Pineapples said...

Hey Solemn...the US - what relevance? My point exactly. One Nil to the Pineapples.

As for their Lordships and the love of the committee room.....do'know - I think you're right...they do love it...very good tea in that room.

But old Solemniser - it's the individual judge who's sentence is being appealed who does not like the room as much.

Catch-ma-drift?

Last century? You little flatterer you.

Law Girl said...

As someone who spent their final year of undergrad writing a dissertation on prison law, I often grapple(on a personal level of interest rather than professional) with the problem of whether harsher sentences or leniency is the best course of action to take on the question of re-offending and impact on society.

As your story shows, it all depends on the circumstances. Sometimes, often even, rules cannot dictate for hunches. Or for human behaviour.

I'm not just glad that lady managed to use her time to rebuild her life, but that she had the manners and grace to thank you for the part you played.

Solemn Wanderer said...

I didn't say that their Lordships on the Appellate Committee love the committee room! Rather, they love comparative law, and the US is a frequent point of comparison.

I was merely pointing out that the fact the United States permitted *no* appellate review of sentences *at all* prior to the federal sentencing guidelines demonstrates how little science there is in sentencing. It is very rarely fair to say that a judge's sentencing decision was "wrong."

For instance, while I was sitting in on the Court of Appeal yesterday there was the case of a man convicted of affray for holding a hunting knife to the throat of one of a group of youths who had suggested his friend's ears were manifestly excessive in size. The Recorder had imposed a prison sentence of 12 months (despite a pre-sentence report recommending probation). A terrifyingly severe-looking judge called Sir Paul Kennedy read out a two-minute judgment saying they agreed "those who hold knives to the throats" of people should "expect to spend a period in custody," but had decided 12 months was too long and were substituting a sentence of 6 months. They didn't even articulate a reason why the Recorder's sentence was "manifestly excessive." Rather, the prison term they plucked out of the air simply differed from the one the Recorder imposed. (And frequently sentencing *is* little more than plucking figures out of the air - hence the historical US practice.)

The "manifestly excessive" test is still there in name, but essentially what the Court of Appeal seem to do frequently is simply to re-sentence the appellant and override the judge's discretion. It certainly does not mean the lower judge was "wrong" in any meaningful sense.

Mr Pineapples said...

Hey Solemniser...ah....got-chaaso the US is relevant after all?

Super.

When you say "sitting in on the court of appeal" - you mean "sitting in on a seat at the bag munching my crisps 'cos I had nothing better to do...for the day..."

Got-cha

Solemn Wanderer said...

I don't think their Lordships would take very kindly to muching crisps in the gallery ...

Yes, the US is relevant to draw comparisons with. On the other foot, Justice Breyer specifically referred to the UK's system of review for "manifest excessiveness" in oral argument in United States v. Booker, where the federal sentencing guidelines were made advisory-only and the Court of Appeals told to review sentences for overall "reasonableness" in future (rather than compliance with the guidelines).

The concern at the moment seems to be that in reality, the Court of Appeal actually routinely substitutes its own judgment for that of the sentencing judge, as opposed to reigning in manifest excessiveness.

Another case I saw, incidentally, was an appeal by way of case stated from the Crown Court on appeal from the magistrates. The judge had specifically welcomed guidance from a higher court on the matter at issue. So assuming they even find out (which I am not sure is too likely), it simply is not true that an appeal constitutes some sort of insult.

Mr Pineapples said...

Solomisor....wow...you certainly know how to party.

Solemn Wanderer said...

So does Mr Myerson, Q.C., by the sound of it. ;)

Mr Pineapples said...

Hey Simone - P sees that you have joined another set - 42 Bedford Row? I know one of the geezers in that set quite well.

Good luck.

Though I didnt know they did crime!!

Law Minx said...

I thought I left a post here - perhaps it was the product of a febrile imagination! I'm considering application to 42BR, they strike me as a Very Nice Set - whether or not they will have me is, of course, a matter of some speculation!

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