A JUDGE refused to hear a case because a probation officer had been sent to prosecute rather than a lawyer being employed.

Recorder Stephen Parish said while it may be a convenient economy for the probation service not to use a barrister, it did not comply with the law.

He said it would have meant there was no one legally qualified to ensure he was getting it right, adding ‘sentencing these days is an extremely difficult matter’.

The judge said as the probation officer, who he did not blame for the problem, did not have the right to appear in court, called rights of audience, he would not hear the case.

Danny Norris was appearing at Swindon Crown Court accused of a second breach of a community order, imposed for stealing metal from a disused office building.

The 19-year-old was put on the order last April after admitting burglary and had 10 hours of unpaid work added in October after admitting failing to make appointments.

When he appeared at the court accused of a second breach he was not represented by a solicitor and told the judge he didn’t want one.

Emma Hellier, a probation officer, told the judge she had been sent to prosecute the case.

She said her manager had informed her an agreement had been made with the court by a previous probation boss so they could prosecute uncontested breaches.

However when the clerk of the court was asked if he was aware of the local practise he told the judge he did not know of it.

The judge said there were strict conditions about who could appear in court which were set down in part three of the Legal Service Act 2007 pointing out while there was a provision for unqualified people to prosecute it should be ‘exercised only rarely’.

Adjourning the matter, he said: “There is nobody here to prosecute this case, no legally qualified person.

“The person who has come here is Emma Hillier, a probation officer.

“Nothing I say is any criticism of her, she has drawn the short straw.

“Mrs Hillier appears before me, I warned her so she can make inquiries, told me strictly speaking she had no rights of audience.

“She told me a local practise had been agreed with the court, her manager told her that. She didn’t know with whom it was made but was told by a previous manager.

“In my judgement a local practice is simply not good enough to displace what is in effect the law.

“Sentencing these days is an extremely difficult matter. The court of appeal had never been slow to criticise judges or advocates who had not alerted a judge to the correct sentencing procedures.

“It is even more important when the defendant is not represented. There is no one legally qualified to advise the judge.

“This may be a convenient economy for the probation service but it does not fall within the law.”

A spokeswoman for the probation service said they understood the judge’s concern and would engage a barrister from now on.

She said it was not about cost cutting but speeding up the court process in cases which were not being contested.

“There was a local agreement put in place by a previous manager. It was a pragmatic agreement at the time to make sure we have as few delays in the justice process.”