Thursday, 11 March 2010

Not guilty, not in this dock - expenses MPs

A Daily Record dispatch from Westminster Magistrates Court where three MPs faced charges of false accounting arising from the expenses scandal.

Could there have been worse way of handling the court appearance than starting proceedings by asking not to stand in the dock? Anyway, on with the story

Three MPs tried to dodge the dock yesterday when they faced charges of theft from the taxpayer in the Westminster expenses scandal.

Livingston MP Jim Devine, David Chaytor and Elliot Morley attempted to put themselves above the law by refusing to enter the dock in the magistrates court, like other accused defendants.

They pleaded not guilty to charges of theft by false accounting. Their defence was that they should not be tried in a court of law, like other accused defendants.

Their solicitor then asked for them to be judged by the House of Commons authorities rather than endure trial by jury, like other accused defendants.

Their efforts to beat the rap, defy the court and dodge the dock in a historic trial of politicians didn’t work.

Their lawyer’s stunning plea at the beginning of proceedings that MPs should avoid the humiliation of the dock was refused.

District Judge Timothy Workman replied that it was “normal practice” for defendants to stand in the dock.

The three MPs then entered and stood in the well of Westminster magistrates court, behind empty chairs which they expected to occupy. But they were ushered by a court officer in the glass partitioned dock.

The door was shut behind them and the key turned in the lock - justice was being seen to be done.

The modern courtroom was packed with political journalists more used to watching the three familiar political figures occupying the green leather benches of the Commons.
The court officers were more used to seeing a procession of drunks, petty shoplifters and speeding drivers.

One court official said the MPs had been a bigger draw than Amy Winehouse, who was in the same court on assault charges last year.

Standing behind the glass screens the three MPs confirmed their names and each pled not guilty to the lengthy charges read against them.

Solicitor Julian Knowles entered a plea for their case to be heard in the Crown Court where he would argue that because of parliamentary privilege they should not face a court trial.

Knowles cited the 1689 Bill of Rights and said matters arising in Parliament must be dealt with in Parliament and all MPs should be treated the same.

Knowles said his clients would argue a criminal prosecution would be in breach of a fundamental principle of British law. He said: “To prosecute them in the criminal courts for Parliamentary activities would infringe the principle of the separation of powers, which is one of the principles which underpin the UK’s constitutional structure.”

He insisted his clients were not “saying that they are above the law” , only that their argument was against the process they faced.

The case is now being sent to Southwark Crown Court where it will be heard by Judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC, the Recorder of Westminster.

The first hearing is due on Tuesday March 30th, which could be the day Gordon Brown goes to the palace to dissolve parliament and start the election campaign.

Last year’s expenses scandal is likely to be a huge election issue. Hundreds of other MPs were last month told to pay back a total of £1.12 million after an audit of their expenses claims dating back to 2004.

But the trial of three MPs, who are barred from standing as Labour candidates, during the campaign would fuel public anger again.

Tory peer Lord Hanningfield also faced charges linked to the Westminster expenses scandal and he appeared separately and also pled not guilty. Lord Hanningfield faces charges relating to his claims for House of Lords’ allowances.

All four have denied any wrongdoing but if found guilty they could face jail sentences of up to seven years.

Before appearing in court yesterday Devine, MP for the Labour-held seat of Livingston, said that he was an “innocent man” but the three MPs left court without commenting.

They were met by a media scrum and got into a waiting black cab accompanied by their lawyers and escorted by police officers.

There was a brief camera crush around the vehicle as posh protesters, clutching copies of the Tory-supporting Spectator magazine, hurled abuse, shouting “pigs” and “oink, oink”.

No comments:

Post a Comment