HC Deb 04 February 1964 vol 688 cc1121-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Hugh Rees.]

10.9 p.m.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

I wish to bring to the attention of the House a serious miscarriage of justice which I believe has been experienced by one of my constituents. I regard this House as the custodian of the liberty of every subject of the realm. I believe it to be the protector of individual rights and that on both sides of the House right hon. and hon. Gentlemen are equally concerned when an injustice has been committed. An injustice to one is an injustice to all. I therefore seek the intervention of the Home Office in the disturbing case involving Mrs. Searle, of Loftus Street, Cardiff and I have sent details to the Home Office.

In August, 1962, Mrs. Searle was fined £3 for exceeding the speed limit and she was told that her licence would be endorsed. She was fined at Cowbridge Magistrates' Court. This was her first offence. She had never been in a police court before. She visited Canton Police Station, at Cardiff, and asked whether she could pay her fine. She was told that she must pay it in the area where she had been fined. Cowbridge is about eight miles from Cardiff. So my constituent did the sensible thing. She obtained a recorded delivery letter and sent the money—this was her only mistake—and the licence together. There is no dispute about the recorded delivery.

The licence was returned to Mrs. Searle and on it was written—I have seen it—"Fined £3, licence endorsed". To her, this was a receipt. She had never had to pay a fine before. I must confess that I should have accepted a licence so written on and endorsed as a normal receipt. Nothing more was heard of this case and she was not surprised. She had paid the fine and her conscience was clear. But on Saturday, 11th January, 1964, three officers, in a police car, went to her home in Loftus Street to arrest Mrs. Searle for the non-payment of the fine.

When she told an officer that she had paid the fine, he, very wisely, accepted her explanation and went away. When Mr. Searle, who is a railwayman, came home and heard that the police had been to his house, his reaction was the same as that of any other innocent man. He advised his wife to call at Cowbridge Police Station and tell them they must not do this sort of thing and that she had paid the fine.

Mrs. Searle called at Cowbridge Police Station to protest that the police had been to her home. To her dismay and astonishment, she was arrested. She was submitted to the humiliation of having the contents of her handbag tipped out and all the items recorded. I understand that a policewoman searched her as if she were a dangerous woman. She was put on £5 bail to appear at the Cow-bridge Magistrates' Court on Tuesday, 21st January.

Mrs. Searle's reaction was that of an entirely innocent person. She took two courses of action. She went to the South Wales Echo and told her story because she was so indignant. I wish to pay a tribute to the South Wales Echo for the way in which a very serious miscarriage of justice has been brought to light. Mrs. Searle also wrote to me and I visited her home. Hers is a family of three. They never buy anything on hire purchase. They will buy only what they can pay for They told me that they would not have a television set until they had saved the £73 to pay for it. I say that only to tell the House and the Minister the sort of people with whom we are dealing.

I took immediate action; experience has taught me that it is always wise if we can settle these matters locally so to do. I called at Canton Police Station and was advised that it was nothing to do with them and that it was wiser to contact the Glamorgan County Constabulary. I contacted a very high-ranking officer in the Glamorgan County Constabulary. He is a man who is most highly respected and in whose integrity I have absolute trust, a man who has the trust both of the force and of the public. He told me that he had looked at the fines book and opposite Mrs. Searle's name had been written in pencil, "Fine paid", but that it had subsequently been crossed out and the officer who dealt with this case had, unfortunately, since died.

I am quite willing to give the name of this high-ranking police officer to the Minister, but which I do not care to give it to the House as I do not think it essential. When I put to him that this would undoubtedly clear Mrs. Searle when the case came to court, he quite agreed. I may have misunderstood him, but I understood from him that the police would give such evidence when the case was raised in court next day. I obtained permission from him to call on Mrs. Searle and to tell her that she need not worry; she was bound to be cleared next day when the matter came up in court. I went to her and told her so in confidence.

Imagine how surprised and dismayed I was when, on 21st January, as soon as I came out of a Standing Committee. I had a telephone call from the South Wales Echo to tell me what had happened at Cowbridge Magistrates' Court. The magistrates' clerk had done most of the talking. The magistrates had not been informed that "Fine paid" had been written opposite Mrs. Searle's name and subsequently crossed out. The fines book was not produced. I am a great believer that in a magistrates' court the magistrates should be in charge. Clerks should be there to give advice when they are asked for it, particularly when a magistrates' clerk is involved as he was in this case. I think it most unfortunate that he should have said to Mrs. Searle in the court: The only people concerned in this are yourself, ourselves"— linking himself with the bench— and the Home Office". He forgot the public, he forgot the Press and he forgot this House. When any person comes before a court in this land it is not only that person who is concerned, but the public, too, which has a right to see that justice is done and is seen to be done. Mrs. Searle, when she came out of the court, was interviewed by the Press. I quote from the South Wales Echo of 21st January: Weeping, she said, 'I was hoping they would clear my name today. I do not know what I shall do now. It is the first time I have been in a court. It was a terrible experience.' I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department here to reply to the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I ask her why it is that 18 months elapsed from the time when Mrs. Searle had her licence back and when she says she paid before the police were at her door? She had no warning notice of any sort. This was made clear in the court on 21st January. There were people in the court that day for not paying fines six months before, but this was 18 months before.

Another serious aspect of the case is that the magistrates had on the paper before them that she had been fined in August, 1963. When Mrs. Searle said, "No, 1962", it had to be altered because the clerk had to confirm that Mrs. Searle was right, that it was not six months but 18 months since the offence had taken place. Since then, there have been surprising developments. I have had two letters from people who have suffered identical experience at the same magistrates' court. I have the letters with me and I am prepared to give them to the Under-Secretary for her to read when she is considering the request I make to her tonight.

It is a cardinal principle of British justice that people are presumed innocent until they are proved guilty. In this case, the benefit of the indisputable doubt about the entry being in the book and about the recorded delivery was not given to Mrs. Searle. I want to know why the fines book was not produced before the magistrates. Why was all the evidence not put before them? Why did the clerk play such an active part in the proceedings since his department is responsible for collecting fines, although I understand that the officer responsible has since died? I make no more serious charge than incompetence and mistakes in the office. They are human and I do not wish to go further, but I believe that it would be a grievous thing to let this woman suffer the burning sense of injustice which she has at present.

I hope that the Home Office will not feel I have wasted its time by raising this question. I believe, and I have done my best to do justice to it, that we have the happiness of a family at stake here, where a grave injustice has been done to a mother. We all know the unhappiness of people when police call at their homes and those are respectable homes. In this case, I believe that justice demands a recommendation of the Queen's pardon and that this woman's name should be cleared.

I shall not rest until justice is done and Mrs. Searle is cleared of the dishonesty which will shadow her until a pardon is granted.

10.23 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Mervyn Pike)

This is a very unhappy case and I am sure that we are all grateful to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) for bringing it forward, and for the manner in which he has approached it.

As the House knows, the question whether a fine has or has not been paid is a matter for the court, but as the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, my right hon. Friend had inquiries made from the Clerk to the Cowbridge Justices and the Chief Constable. The facts, as they have been reported to us, are as follows.

On 7th August, 1962 Mrs. Searle was fined £3 in the Cowbridge Magistrates' Court for a speeding offence and her licence was ordered to be endorsed. Mrs. Searle had availed herself of the procedure of sending a written plea of guilty, so she did not appear at the hearing. She was duly given notice of the fine, and, as she had not sent her licence to the court, she was also informed that this was required for endorsement.

On or about 16th August, Mrs. Searle sent her licence by recorded delivery post; it was endorsed and sent back to her.

In October, 1963, the Clerk to the Cowbridge Justices—he had been appointed in March, his predecessor having died the previous December—made arrangements for the enforcement of outstanding fines at the Cowbridge Court. The clerk is also clerk for another division and has an assistant at the Cow-bridge office. There was no entry in the official receipt books, cash books and ledger that this fine had been paid. I will deal in a moment with the hon. Member's point about the pencilled note.

The justices issued a means inquiry warrant on 9th November. The police visited Mrs. Searle on two occasions; she said she had already paid the fine, so the police did not on those occasions execute the warrant, but sought further instructions.

On 14th January, Mrs. Searle called at the Cowbridge police station to make inquiries about the matter, and repeated that she had already paid the fine. Police officers called personally at the magistrate's clerk's office to see how the matter stood. They were told that the money had not been paid and that the warrant must be executed. Accordingly, while Mrs. Searle was still at the police station, the warrant was executed; Mrs. Searle was arrested, and bailed to appear in court on 21st January.

When Mrs. Searle appeared she stated on oath that she had paid the fine by enclosing three £1 notes with her licence when she sent it the previous year. When asked why she could not produce a receipt, she said that she regarded the endorsement on her driving licence as a receipt—and I do not think there is anything unreasonable in that. I freely admit to the House that, never having had to pay a fine myself, I would have taken the same view.

She strenuously denied any suggestion that she might have forgotten to put the notes in the envelope. The clerk to the justices stated that he had not received the money, that no receipt had been issued and that no entry appeared in the accounts. The chairman then told Mrs. Searle that she would have to pay and offered her time. Mrs. Searle decided not to ask for time and paid the money there and then rather, as she put it, than have all this trouble.

I should now like to say something about the pencilled entry to which the hon. Gentle man drew attention. The clerk reported that his assistant at Cow-bridge keeps an informal record in a notebook. This notebook is not part of the official records of the court. She keeps it merely as a matter of convenience and for quick reference.

In this notebook—written in ink, and not in pencil—were the words "licence", struck out indicating that the licence had been received and endorsed, and the word "paid". The existence of this entry was brought to the notice of the clerk before the court heard Mrs. Searle on 21st January and he questioned the assistant closely about it. Earlier, when it was decided to apply to the justices for a warrant, this entry was very carefully scrutinised and the records thoroughly checked.

On the one hand there was this entry in the notebook; on the other hand there was no entry in any of the official books, and there was no surplus money, and no discrepancies in the accounts. The conclusion was reached that the entry in the notebook was a mistake. However, the court was not aware of the entry.

I thought it right that we should ask the clerk to the justices to tell the justices or their chairman of this entry. He has done this and all the justices concerned: that it, those who were sitting on 21st January, state that in their considered view, knowledge of it would not have affected their decision. But, as I have said, the entry in the notebook first came to the notice of the clerk on the day before the court sat to deal with Mrs. Searle's case, and he went into it the day before—

Mr. G. Thomas

He did not tell the magistrates.

Miss Pike

No. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct in saying that the burden of proof that the fine had been paid rested on Mrs. Searle. His duty was to state to the court how the accounts stood—and I do not question his good faith—he decided that it was not relevant to the court's determination of the question whether the fine had been paid.

I think it would have been better if the court had been aware at the time of the notebook entry particularly since the fine had been outstanding for a great length of time. This circumstance seems to me to have made it desirable that the court should be in possession of any piece of information, however small, that seemed to have a bearing on the question.

But what concerns this House is not whether the court were right in thinking Mrs. Searle had not paid her fine or whether Mrs. Searle was right but whether a satisfactory system exists whereby the possibility of disputes of this kind is minimised. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this case because there are certain aspects of it that must obviously cause concern. The hon. Gentleman has now brought certain other cases to notice, and if, as he says, he will supply me with further particulars, I shall certainly take them up.

The hon. Gentleman did not mention these other cases in the first instance and naturally my inquiries were directed to Mrs. Searle's case only.

Mr. G. Thomas

These cases have come to my knowledge as a result of the publicity which Mrs. Searle's case has had, but I hope that we shall hear something about them.

Miss Pike

I appreciate that, and that is why I shall be grateful when the hon. Gentleman gives me the particulars, so that we can go into the whole matter much more thoroughly. It is impossible to have a system which eliminates all possibility of dispute.

The Magistrates' Courts Rules require the clerk to the justices to give a receipt for money received by him in payment of a fine and one would think that would ordinarily be sufficient to eliminate disputes. Indeed, in ordinary commerce this is so; one proves payment by producing a receipt.

I do not think that in general any amendment of the Rules would produce an infallible result. The books of the courts are regularly audited and the possibility of error is reduced to a minimum. However, it is not enough that the Rules should provide a satisfactory system. We must be sure that there could be no proper ground for complaint about the way in which the system is operated.

There are certain features about the procedure that was adopted in this case that I should like to inquire further into—for example, the relationship between the informal record in the notebook and the official books of the court, and the organisation of the court office for the day-to-day work. It is disturbing that so long should elapse between the imposing of fines and their enforcement, because of course the longer one leaves these things the more chance there is of a dispute; in this particular case the clerk appreciates that.

In the ordinary course of examining accounts, the auditor does take up with clerks cases in which fines have remained unenforced, and I shall undertake to see whether more guidance should be given to the clerks of magistrates' courts on the importance of not letting fines remain on the books of courts without action being taken over long periods such as happened in this case.

The hon. Gentleman naturally wants a full inquiry into this affair. I do not think that further inquiry into the facts will help us very much; I have inquired into them and given them as fully as I can to the House.

The main thing is to see that there can be no complaint that the proper procedures are not being applied, and hence, so far as possible, no occasion for disputes of this kind in the future.

The management of justices' clerks' offices is primarily for the clerk himself, but the magistrates' courts committee of the county has general functions in respect of the magistrates' courts in the county as a whole.

As I said, there are certain features of this case which seem to me to call for further inquiry, and I will take them up with the clerk. The present clerk did not take up his appointment in the division until March last year, and we all appreciate that he has possibly been working under some difficulties. I shall also take the matter up with the magistrates' courts committee, and I will inform the hon. Gentleman of the further results, and I shall also take up the other cases he mentioned.

I am certain, and I am sure that the House is, too, that Mrs. Searle throughout acted in good faith and we all naturally regret that these disagreeable events should have happened.

We hope that the proceedings this evening will have gone some way to mitigate the distress which she has suffered. Until I have made further inquiries, I prefer not to make any comment on what took place. I do not think that that would be fair. But whether the fine was originally received or not was for the court, and it would not be right for my right hon. Friend, even if he had the power to do so, so seek to reverse the decision of the court in this case I conclude by saying to the hon. Gentleman that I shall go thoroughly into this case on the lines which I have outlined tonight. My right hon. Friend will consider his request. I know that he would not expect me to give him a reply now. This is an unhappy case. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it, and I hope that our inquiries will go a long way to mitigate the damage which has been caused.

Mr. G. Thomas

I thank the hon. Lady very much for the understanding way in which she has replied to the debate. May I ask her whether I may look forward to the result of her further inquiries, bearing in mind my request regarding a pardon?

Miss Pike

We shall certainly look into all the matters which the hon. Gentleman has raised this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Eleven o'clock.