Audrey Gillan reports from a ‘guilty plea’ magistrates’ court in Essex

Published in The Guardian on 29 May 2012

Southend’s Early First Hearings Court begins the day at 10am, and all those who appear before it are expected to plead guilty. A total of 30 cases are heard, though a small amount of that work is shared with court four, the not guilty plea court. Early First Hearings is presided over by three lay magistrates – a chairman (who is actually a woman) and two assistants colloquially known as ‘wingers’.

Sitting in court three, they are helped by laminated cards which prompt them on legal guidelines and are steered on the finer points by a legal adviser – barrister Martin Harris. Today Louise Gloyne, Angela Skinner and John Parsons will expedite justice in a fair and sometimes kindly manner.

Before them is a 22-year-old man currently living in a hostel in Southend. His offences were committed in the caravan park on Canvey Island that he previously called home. He is charged with assault and the possession of a kitchen knife. The court is told that the complainant – the current partner of the accused’s ex-fiancee – claimed that he was in his car in the caravan park when he came across the accused with a small cricket bat in his hand. Associate prosecutor Lesley Chips minds her language. “He said: ‘I am going to f-ing kill you – you are dead’, referring to him by the c-word. He hit him across the right shoulder and continued to hit him.”

Winding down his window, the complainant says he was hit again but managed to drive off and report the incident to the camp security guard.

When he was arrested, the accused told officers that he had a knife but it was ‘because he wanted to self harm’. He admitted he did assault the complainant but he did not have a cricket bat – it was ‘a piece of fencing slat’.

The man’s defence solicitor told the magistrates: “He was in a relationship with a young lady and they were engaged. She left him for his friend and it’s this friend he has assaulted. My client tells me he had his car splashed, people were following him and he was threatened. He lived on Canvey. It appears that people on Canvey have sided with his ex-girlfriend and her new partner. He admitted that he just snapped… He is a gentleman who is suffering from mental health problems and has admitted he has made attempts on his own life – he has cut his throat and his wrists and has taken a great number of paracetamol.”

The court is told that the man is on medication, though he does not know what he is taking. He has a previous conviction for which he completed a community service order but there is no pre-sentence report. His case is adjourned until later in the day.

A woman of no fixed abode appears on a charge of stealing some cream liqueurs and two packets of beefburgers from Lidl. She has been previously sentenced for criminal damage and is now in breach of that.

Her solicitor says: “She had a flat – still technically has a flat – but unfortunately her ex-partner came out of prison and trashed her flat entirely. While she was waiting for the council to fix the door someone came and stole the hot water boiler and the flat was uninhabitable. The locks were changed and she cannot retrieve her belongings. She was promised a refuge but that has not materialised and she is sofa surfing. She stole these items to give to someone for her board and keep.”

The court is advised that fining the woman would not be a help and that she needs assistance in dealing with her violent ex-partner. She has the promise of a flat in June. The solicitor says: “She is a lady who would benefit from support from probation… she is very much alone in the world.” As the magistrates consult, the accused’s phone goes off as she sits in the dock. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she pleads. “I forgot to switch my phone off.”

Drink drivers appear. One man ‘never drinks’ but had had three pints and the ‘faulty’ steering locked on his van when he crashed into a property. He is ‘a man of good character’. He is disqualified for 16 months, with a 25% discount on the ban but if he goes on a drivers’ rehabilitation course. He is fined £200 plus £80 in costs, as well as a £15 victim surcharge – there was no victim, but the funds will be given to other victims of crime.

Another man who was three times over the limit decided to drive from Leigh to Grays and crashed into a parked car which then shunted a van. He is given a suspended 42-day custodial sentence, disqualified for 28 months (with a six-month reduction if he does the rehabilitation course), 240 hours unpaid work and is fined £500. He is told: “The reason we didn’t send you to prison is because of your good character.”

A 64-year-old homeless man appears on charges of racially-aggravated disorderly conduct and causing harm and distress. Mrs Chips tells the court that the man entered a building looking for somewhere to spend the night but was confronted by a security guard. She says: “He said, you are a black nigger” – she pronounces the word – “you are a black C-U-N-T. I am going to get you.”

The man is told he can choose whether his case goes to trial at crown court or for whether it will be dealt with here. “Here,” he says. The court hears that the accused claims he was threatened with a machete and an axe and that his response to this was ‘reasonable’. He had, in fact, called the police. The case is adjourned for trial.

A series of non-attenders are dealt with next. One is a shoplifting charge by a man who is in breach of three community orders but has decided not to come to court because ‘he wants to continue working’. “Oh, that’s nice,” says the legal adviser. The chairman states: “That’s not convenient for the court.” A warrant – without bail – is issued for the man’s arrest.

Another man fails to turn up. “Oh dear, it’s not your lucky day,” remarks the chairman to the defence solicitor. It transpires the accused has been admitted to Basildon Psychiatric Assessment Unit.

Another no-show is on a burglary charge, his third, so on the basis of ‘three strikes and you’re out’ he is facing a three-year prison sentence. The man has also been recalled by Norwich probation services for a breach and is “still at large for the moment”. The magistrates ponder issuing a warrant with bail, but are advised that if he has gone to London the Metropolitan police will not execute a warrant with bail. They decide to issue a warrant without bail.

A 65-year-old man with a walking stick pleads guilty to criminal damage and assault after an incident in Iceland car park when a 74-year-old man complained that he had reversed without looking. The accused got out of his car, grabbed the complainant by the shirt and pushed him, causing him to fall over and smash his glasses. The duty solicitor tells the court her client said ‘nobody is more sorry than I am – it was two old gentleman having an altercation, handbags at dawn’.

The man is a full-time carer for his partner, as well as visiting his elderly mother twice a day. Because the injuries were low level, he is given a six-month community order with a six-month supervision order. He must pay £100 in compensation, plus £50 for the repair of the glasses, £85 costs and £15 victim surcharge. He is told by the legal adviser he is lucky not to have been disqualified, because ‘road rage incidents get out of hand’.

A case against a man who was drunk and disorderly, became erratic, began hitting a bus shelter and urinated on himself is dropped because it is not in the public interest.

The Canvey Island man whose case was adjourned for him to be assessed by mental health returns to court: he “has been commenced on medication for a depressive episode and for his ADHD, his behaviour can be erratic”. He is upbraided by the chairman: “Are you listening or are you playing with your phone?” He lifts his hands in the air.

The bench retires, asking their legal adviser to join them shortly. They return to hand out a 12-month community order with 200 hours unpaid work, £50 compensation and no costs. He is told his sentence has been reduced because of his guilty plea. The kitchen knife will be destroyed by the police.

Another man, who is accused of being in possession of an eight-inch knife, is already on a suspended sentence order with a supervision requirement attached. He faces a custodial sentence. The magistrates retire for quite some time and upon their return they tell they accused his case must be adjourned to the morning as there is no Serco staff to take him from court to prison should they impose a custodial sentence.

The same applies to another man who admits being in breach of a previous conditional discharge. He is not asking the court to consider a community penalty and has made the ‘brave and proper decision’ in accepting he must go to prison. The chairman apologises to him for the fact he cannot be sentenced because of difficulties with transport. Both men will return to face different magistrates the following morning. The bench sitting today look none too pleased that circumstances outside their control stop them completing their work.