Chris Huhne was, as I am sure readers know, an MP for the Liberal Democrats, who reached the heights of a Cabinet post (an achievement seen as unattainable for the Lib Dems till we ended up with a hung Parliament after the last election).
He now awaits sentencing on Monday following his plea of guilty to perverting the course of justice by having his now ex-wife Ms Pryce accept a fixed penalty for speeding in 2003 when in fact it was Mr Huhne who was driving.
The “logic” behind the offence was that he was sitting on 9 penalty points at the time and a further 3 for speeding would have led to a “totting-up” disqualification. Whilst a driving ban, especially for collecting penalty points, would not be helpful to a politician’s reputation, I suspect it was the practical effects of a ban which might have concerned him most.
Ironically he was later in 2003 banned anyway, having been caught using his mobile when driving, and the penalty points for that led to a disqualification.
But, back in 2003, he and his wife might have felt that there was nothing to be lost be having her fill in the form – after all, they were both respected people in their fields – Mr Huhne as an MP and his wife as a leading economist. It was just filling in a form. Neither of them was a criminal. In fact, their thought processes might have been, a ban would cause considerable inconvenience to Mr Huhne’s constituents, so a ban would affect his abilities to carry out his public duties.
So the form was filled in declaring that Ms Pryce, and not Mr Huhne, was driving.
She had penalty points imposed and paid the fine.
And then matters sat, and would have stayed, until Mr Huhne left his wife for another woman.
The famous saying by William Congreve in The Mourning Bride – “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” – has rarely seemed so apposite.
When Mr Huhne left his wife, she was furious. She wanted her revenge. How much she wanted revenge is shown if you read through the documents at this link, being emails used by the prosecution.
They make clear, in a lengthy email correspondence between Ms Pryce and Isabel Oakeshott, Political Editor of the Sunday Times, that she wanted to destroy her ex-husband’s career – to force him to resign as a Minister and as an MP if possible.
Ms Pryce knew that she was in a risky position too. The email trail makes clear that she wanted to drop a bomb on her ex-husband, but without her fingerprints being upon it. There was extensive discussion about the terms of the agreement under which the Sunday Times would write the story.
Early on Ms Pryce and Ms Oakeshott discussed that the story could damage the economist’s chances of being appointed to the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee and indeed to the House of Lords. Little did she realise how much damage would be done to her reputation.
The importance of the offence arises from what could be seen, cynically, as a “fiction” about the law.
The law is clear. When responding to a Notice under the Road Traffic Act it is a crime to give a deliberate incorrect answer. But the form itself has no magic powers forcing the person completing it to do so properly.
It is similar to the oath being taken by witnesses in court. There are now, I suspect, few people who view the oath as, in some way, binding them in the eyes of God to tell the truth. However most people who do end up in the witness box will do their best to tell the truth. That is what one does in court.
If you ever have the fortune to see a regular in the criminal courts give evidence (and by “regular” I mean someone who has a frequent seat in the dock) you will see what happens when a witness has no fear of telling lies. After all, if someone is used to prison, then the prospect of an additional sentence for perjury will weigh less in the balance than the prospect of an acquittal, if their story is accepted.
It is also similar to the force of an interdict, or court order preventing a person carrying out a specified action. An interdict works where the recipient, consciously or sub-consciously, is prepared to accept its force.
This, by the way, is NOT an implied suggestion that the “Freeman on the Land” proponents are in any way accurate. You may recall that the “Freemen” argue that law is in fact a contract and as such only binds a person where they have accepted it. Legally that argument is nonsense.
I have spoken in the past to wives who have sought advice fearing violence at the hands of their husbands. Some have asked what effect an interdict would have. As one lady said “But it’s just a bit of paper. It won’t stop a bullet, will it?”
The law depends for its force upon people being prepared to accept its consequences (effectively by treating the bit of paper as bullet-proof).
In the same way therefore, there has to be a penalty, and a severe one, for undermining the criminal justice system by the false declaration made by Ms Pryce for Mr Huhne.
If the population of Britain all decided that they would deliberately fill in every Notice sent out under the Road Traffic Act falsely from now on, then this would almost certainly “succeed”. By that I mean that there is no way that the hundreds of thousands of prosecutions which would be needed to prove the offences and then punish the miscreants would hopelessly jam up the system for years!
An offence which brings no fear of prosecution might as well be taken off the statute book. For example, it is a criminal offence, and has been for many years, to serve alcohol in a pub to an intoxicated person. That is an offence committed numerous times every day of the week. No one is ever prosecuted for it.
So the apparently minor bit of paper shuffling – no harm really done – is in fact one that goes to the foundations of the criminal justice system.
It becomes even more serious when done by people as prominent as Mr Huhne and Ms Pryce. The widespread opinion that there is one law for the great and the good and another, more severe, for the common man demands that the matter be treated in an exemplary fashion.
The judge’s comment that the accused should be “under no illusion” as to their sentences indicates that the matter is almost certainly to be treated most severely.
Mr Huhne might have ended up getting his “just desserts” as I heard a journalist on Radio Scotland saying on Friday. His argument for “mitigation” will be, I suspect (a) that he pled guilty (although he waited till the start of the trial to do so, having denied the offence on numerous occasions up to that point) and (b) he has already suffered enough, or substantially. The danger though is that a suspended sentence, or community service, or a fine, would remove the deterrent factor which makes us obey the law.
The late Sheriff John Fitzsimons, who sat for many years at Dumbarton, would sometimes, when about to pass sentence, nod to the reporter from the local paper who was usually in the court to let him know to pay careful attention. As the reporter eagerly jotted down what the Sheriff was saying to the guilty person, the magic phrase would appear. “A message must go out”, the Sheriff would say and the next edition of the Lennox Herald would have its front page lead, whether this related to a deterrent sentence being passed for car theft, knife crime, drunken assaults or whatever.
In this case too Mr Justice Sweeney will send out a message, I suspect.
The Guardian reported:-
According to Crown Prosecution Service guidelines, the usual range of sentence is between four and 36 months, with “the degree of persistence” involved and the “seriousness of the substantive offence” taken into account.
Ms Pryce herself has most definitely been a Pyrrhic victor. Her aim of destroying her ex-husband has been fulfilled. However, it has been at the cost of her own reputation, future and in all likelihood, liberty.
Her defence of “marital coercion” was rejected by the jury, so the judge can pay little attention to such a submission in mitigation. The emails produced, linked to above, make it quite clear that she knew the risks of revealing the story, as can be seen from the efforts she made to have the story out but with herself distanced from it. She cannot claim that she revealed the crime of her husband in a public spirited way which might allow her to claim credit for the disclosure.
It joins the efforts of Jeffery Archer and Jonathan Aitken in putting themselves in the dock as examples of how those in power or prominence can ignore the effects of their actions, with disastrous personal consequences.
So what does this all tell us?
First of all, the lesson is that, if your partner knows a secret that can bring you down, do not dump them and leave on acrimonious terms!
Secondly, and more seriously, it may be that this will emphasise to people that there is a need for truth in filling in official forms like this. After all, if a Cabinet Minister and possible peeress go to prison as a result, then Joe and Jean Bloggs could do so too.
Thirdly, it is a morality tale, to which maybe only Shakespeare could have done justice.
Posted by Paul McConville