Monday, July 27, 2015

On the Bench

After my last post, Rick was kind enough to say he would be interested to hear more about my experience of being a Justice of the Peace, so here goes.

I don't know if the Canadian and American courts do this, but in Scotland and England there are lay magistrates in the lowest courts who aren't legally qualified but make judgements in the cases presented. We're given training of course, and we sit 'on the bench', as the saying is, with a legally-qualified clerk in attendance to stop us doing things like pronouncing the death penalty for double parking – just kidding, even the Supreme Court in Britain can't do that!

In England, every case, right up to murder, is brought before a panel of magistrates who decide if it might merit a higher sentence than they are allowed to impose, and pass it on up to the higher courts. If necessary.

It would be quite exciting to deal with major cases, but it doesn't happen here. In Scotland we have a completely separate system – we Scots just like to be different – and it is a prosecutor instead who decides which court is appropriate for a trial; murder, for instance, would go straight to the High Court.

So the cases I tried were always minor – parking fines,  breaches of the peace, petty theft, minor assaults – and at this level I sat in judgement alone.

It's an awesome responsibility. I had powers up to a fourteen-day prison sentence, though I don't think I gave that more than a couple of times in ten years. Generally what we tried to do was to impose a sentence that might make repeat offending less likely – community service, anger management course, that sort of thing – but inevitably there were the faces that popped up regularly and trying to find constructive ways of dealing with them was a challenge.

They were often very sad cases, alcoholics or addicts. One will always stick in my mind, a lady with a drink problem who was constantly in trouble; any court where Jean didn't appear was a good court. On one particular occasion she stood in the dock looking quite dreadful and I said delicately to her long-suffering defence solicitor, 'Is your client – er – fit to plead?' – meaning, 'Is she so drunk she won't understand what's going on?'

However, he beamed at me. 'As Your Honour and I both know this has sometimes been a problem, but I'm happy to say that my client is more fit to plead than I have seen her for a very long time.'

At which point Jean glared at me. 'Are ye sayin' am I drunk? I'm no' drunk. I wish I was – I'd be feeling a helluva lot better now.'

One of the most serious challenges for a JP is keeping your face straight.

But it was a wonderful education for a crime writer and no, Rick, it was really never boring, except perhaps when I was running through postal pleas for speeding to determine levels of fine and number of points, and even then the young defence agents kept me amused. The rule about lawyers being pompous simply doesn't apply to lawyers with a crminal practice.

The trials were utterly fascinating. Even in these small cases, all human life is there and there were some that Chekov could have used in a short story – for instance the love triangle where two men had got into a fight over a woman.

She had apparently been cheating on her partner with another man and I waited with some interest to see the  object of their desire. In fact, she was a wee dumpy woman in her late fifties with a bad perm and the 'other man' when he appeared was just short of eighty, walking with a stick and wearing a kilt. It was a timely reminder that passion belongs not only to the young.

The cases, of course, were so minor that they were no use as inspiration for a plot, but the chance to observe human interactions and behaviour under stress from an almost 'fly-on-the-wall' position was a priceless opportunity for a writer and I learned a huge amount about people.

It was also a wonderful way to learn about police procedure and indeed it was from the women officers who policed my court that the idea of my own DI Fleming developed. They were all very normal working women with partners and children and perhaps ageing parents to cope with as well as a very demanding job, and I wanted to create a detective who wasn't a dysfunctional loner with a drink problem, a string of lovers and contempt for any sort of authority – I wanted her to be the woman you would meet if you went down the local nick.

I owe a lot to my experience and I was sad to give it up, but I was leaving the court area when my husband retired and I didn't want to start again under a system that was bound to be slightly different – especially since my son is a criminal defence solicitor here (now advocate)  and it could be a bit awkward – 'Mum, you never listen to a word I say...'

Sorry, I've rambled on! It was such an interesting time for me, so I hope some of you, particularly Rick, may have found it interesting too.


Rick Blechta said...

Aline, thank you! I did find it most engrossing.

We have a very similar system here in Canada (crown prosecutors deciding which cases proceed, the set-up of the lower courts, etc.).

For a writer in search of potential characters, I can see that being a JP would feel like sitting on a goldmine.

Thanks for the post!

Sybil Johnson said...

What an interesting post. Thanks for giving me a little insight into another country's legal system.

Aline Templeton said...

Glad you were interested, Rick. And thank you too, Sybil.