Even Tories can Expect Justice in the UK

Two stories struck me today. First, and most of you probably didn’t even notice this one, the conviction of Lord Howard of Lympne for having failed to tell the police who was driving his car when it was spotted travelling at 37 m.p.h in a 30 m.p.h speed limit area by one of those money making cameras was quashed by the High Court. Secondly, a retired police officer decided to go to the newspapers, rather than to the official inquiry, to reveal his interpretation of material he had found when he and other polices officers, ten years ago, raided the House of Commons office of Damian Green, who is now the First Secretary of State.

Michael Howard first. some time last year his motor car was clocked exceeding the speed limit. Quite a while after that he, as the registered keeper of the car, was sent a notice requiring him to state who was the driver at the time of the offence. He racked his brains, but he couldn’t remember whether he or his wife had the car at the time. He asked her. She couldn’t help. Neither of them could say who had committed the appalling offence. He filled in the parts of the form which he could answer. But when it came to identifying the driver he had admit that he just didn’t know. He sent the partially completed form to the police.

The police decided to summons him for the offence, which carries a more severe penalty than for speeding, of failing to say who the driver was. He pleaded not guilty, relying on the statutory defence that he didn’t know, and couldn’t with reasonable diligence ascertain, who was driving.

Lord and Lady Howard both gave evidence to the Wimbledon Magistrates’ Court. The magistrate, or District Judge as stipendiary magistrates are now called so as to enable them to impress their neighbours, accepted that they were telling the truth. But he then went on to convict Lord Howard, fine him £900 and endorse his licence with six points. I remember, at the time, thinking the law must be an ass if it required Howard’s conviction on those findings of fact. I also thought the District Judge had plainly been appallingly unjust, having found that Howard was telling the truth, in imposing the fine and points on the licence. Surely, I thought, any remotely decent magistrate would give an absolute discharge and find special reasons for not endorsing the licence. But I didn’t think much more about it. In particular, I didn’t look up the law.

Yesterday, about a year after the conviction, two judges of the High Court quashed it. Their judgment has not been released on the internet, but I have been able to work out, by reading about half a dozen newspaper reports, what the reasoning was. They noticed that the magistrate (sorry, District Judge) had given no consideration at all to the statutory defence. He had just decided that, since Lord Howard had not given a name for the driver, he must be guilty. In those circumstances, the conviction could obviously not stand. In theory, the case could have been remitted to the District Judge to require him to consider whether the statutory defence had been made out. But the Director of Public Prosecutions wisely accepted that that would be pointless. In the light of the District Judge’s findings of fact it would be inconceivable, unless he decided to be wholly irrational, that he would convict again.

Obviously, whoever the defendant had been, even if it had been Jeremy Corbyn, I would have been quietly pleased with the final result. No one should be wrongly convicted by our criminal courts. Politics don’t come into it. We are all, even Tory politicians (who tend not to be all that popular in modern judicial circles), equal under the law. Everyone, I thought, would be happy with the High Court’s decision.

Goodness me, how wrong I was. Almost all the newspaper reports I read on the internet had comments from readers attached. I don’t think there was a single comment, anywhere, from someone who approved of justice having been done. The Mail was the worst. Masses of comments all saying roughly the same thing: the judges were looking after their own, it was only because he was a Lord, a former leader of the Conservative party and a QC that he had been “let off”. The general view was that Lord Howard’s conviction for a road traffic offence should have been upheld, not because he was guilty, but because he was a toff.

But what about the reaction to the plainly improper behaviour of the retired police officer who decided to go to the media with his account of what he saw on a computer in Damian Green’s House of Commons office nearly ten years ago?

First, a reminder of how all this arose. Back in 2008 it seemed that someone in the Home Office was leaking embarrassing information to the opposition spokesman on immigration (Damian Green MP). The police were called in. They decided they wanted to search Mr Green’s office. They didn’t apply for a search warrant (which would almost certainly have been refused because of the obvious breach of parliamentary privilege which would have been involved). Instead, they asked the Serjeant at Arms to allow them to raid Mr Green’s office when he wasn’t there. The Serjeant at Arms, greatly to her discredit but admittedly with the wholehearted support of the worst Speaker there has been for several hundred years (Mr Speaker Martin), allowed the raid to take place.

Nothing was found to assist in the investigation of the Home Office leaks. But one of the computers in the office was found to have been used to view legal pornography (the Crown Prosecution Service later confirmed that no illegal material had been viewed or downloaded on the computer). Scotland Yard, quite rightly, ordered the destruction of its copies of the pornography. But one police officer decided not to comply. Yes, he destroyed the original material, but he decided to copy it first and keep it for his own future use. What you have to remember is that the police were extremely put out by the widespread view that, in raiding a House of Commons office without a search warrant, they had been guilty of a very serious contempt of Parliament (though the charge would never have stuck because the Speaker had gone along with the contempt). The rogue police officer and his superior officer, Commander Bob Quick, continue, to this day, to be very bitter about the criticism they faced.

The years went by. The police officer with the illegally retained material retired. But he kept his copies of the pornography. He was waiting for the moment when he could use it. That moment has now come. A few weeks ago a woman accused Mr Green of having “fleetingly”, (so fleetingly that it was, in her word, “deniable”), touched her knee. In the tabloid-run world in which we now live, that required an official investigation. The rogue police officer decided to reveal all.

But he didn’t think of just sending his copies of the pornography with his commentary to the official inquiry. No, he reckoned there would be massively more publicity to be gained by going to the media. He went public in a big way. He said there were thousands of pages of pornography. He went further, he said he was satisfied, though several other people used the office, that Damian Green had viewed it all.

Mr Green denies that he viewed any pornography on any computer in his office. It could therefore be said that evidence which suggests he may be lying about that should be disclosed in the public interest. Yes, up to a point. The rogue police officer’s interpretation of what he saw may well be relevant. There is no reason why he should not give evidence to the inquiry. But can anyone defend the approach he has actually taken?

I have to say that I had assumed that the answer to that question would be an emphatic “yes”. I guessed that Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians, smelling blood, would rush to applaud the noble policeman.

I am becoming far too cynical. I was wrong. I have just listened to Any Questions on Radio 4. It had the usual array of politicians of all colours on the panel. They were asked about the rogue police officer’s behaviour. Every one of them agreed that it was dreadful. A Labour MP said it was always tempting to try to make political capital out of these things, but it would be quite wrong to do so. The policeman’s actions could never be defended. Even Tory ministers had the right to be treated fairly and justly.

I haven’t checked, but I assume the internet trollers have been busy praising the rogue policeman. That is inevitable. But it was heart warming to hear all those opposition politicians standing up for justice.

Charles

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