A retiring Northampton judge has said he believes the police are “massaging” the crime figures by downgrading offences and using cautions and reprimands to prevent cases being sent to court.
Judge Richard Bray, who has been working in the town for the past 21 years, was given a special valedictory event at Northampton Crown Court on Friday.
During a farewell speech to a courtroom packed with barristers, ushers, journalists and court staff who had worked with him, the notoriously outspoken judge expressed his views on the current state of the criminal justice system.
Judge Bray said he believed the police were now deliberately using cautions and ‘community resolutions’ to prevent criminals from being sent through the court process.
He said: “Sentencing is a skill only acquired after long experience and cannot be reduced to a tick in a box.
“Over the years I’ve seen a number of Government initiatives with sentencing. We’ve had suspended sentences introduced, abolished then introduced again.
“All this tinkering about is more to do with money and votes rather than criminal justice, while all the while the prison population has continued to rise. None of the Government initiatives have worked.
“The final solution the Government has reached is by preventing courts from being given the chance to send offenders to prison and make their savings that way.
“We’ve now got warnings, reprimands, cautions, conditional discharges that prevent people from appearing in court. The figures have been massaged. Robbery is now classified as ‘theft from a person’, burglary is downgraded to criminal damage. Cautions and reprimands are used to save police time.
“Magistrates’ courts are withering away and have been closed down as the number of criminal cases decreases.
“But you ask the people who walk about the streets of towns and cities at night if crime has gone down and they will give you a very different picture.”
Judge Bray also criticised the Government for telling judges not to send offenders to prison due to a lack of space and said judges were in danger of becoming civil servants.
He said: “My guiding philosophy was always to do justice without fear or favour, without bias towards the prosecution or the defence. To speak frankly where necessary in the public interest.
“It is not up to the executive to tell the jurisdiction what to do, it is up to the executive to make sure they have enough spaces in prison for the judge to send them to.
“It is right that judges should be able to make decisions without fear of influence from government. That now seems potentially at risk. We are almost being treated as if we are civil servants and distributing power and influence on behalf of the Government.
“We are being described as ‘stakeholders’ in the criminal justice system. Those who want to become judges have to sit exams and attend interviews where they have to spout political correctness like civil servants. We’ll soon have full inspections of judges.
“I’m proud of the fact I was appointed by The Queen not by the civil service.”
Judge Bray paid tribute to former Chronicle & Echo court reporters Derrick Holden and Rob Middleton for “faithfully reporting” his sentences and judgements over the years and giving him “a voice” in the outside world.
The judge described the Chron as the world’s greatest local newspaper and said Northampton Crown Court was “by far the best court he had worked in.”
Tributes were paid to Judge Bray by his colleague Judge Rupert Mayo and barrister Matthew Lowe.
Judge Mayo said it had been a “pleasure to sit” in the same court as Judge Bray and said he “cared about all the people who work around him.”
Matthew Lowe, who was Judge Bray’s pupil, said: “it was the end of an era” at Northampton Crown Court.
Mr Lowe said: “I learnt everything I know about preparing for a trial from Judge Bray.
“We will miss him for many reasons; because his robust case management style and his nuanced approach to case procedure.
“He must have saved massive amounts of court time and taxpayers’ money through his proactive case management and the sheer volume of work he was able to get through over the years.
“We will miss his intelligence and shrewdness. In particular the strategic type of intelligence that was able to outmanoeuvre and stay two steps ahead of any crafty defendant.
“I must honour your wit in court, the majority of which was at our expense. Your considered, headline fulfilling sentencing remarks and your fierce independence of refusing to conform to the latest protocol.
Mr Lowe said Judge Bray had a “legendary status” in Woodhill prison with many saying it was a rite of passage to be “Brayed”.