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Metric martyrs case poses legal conundrum for the authorities

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:56 pm on 24 September, 2005.
Categories political liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
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In the Telegraph, Christopher Booker writes:

This extraordinary story began with a ruling by Lord Justice Laws in the “Metric Martyrs” case that certain Acts of Parliament, such as the Bill of Rights Act 1689, are “constitutional statutes” which cannot be overridden by subsequent legislation, unless this is made “expressly clear”. It was on this point that the judge decided that the Metric Martyrs, including the late Steve Thoburn, should be found guilty.

But a central provision of the Bill of Rights is that no one can be fined except by the judgment of a court. For more than a year therefore, Neil Herron, the Metric Martyrs campaign director, has been questioning the legality of the automatic parking fines imposed by the 142 councils that operate “decriminalised” parking schemes under the 1991 Road Traffic Act, since motorists penalised under these schemes have no recourse to a court. Their only appeal is to the National Parking Adjudication Service, which is run on behalf of and financed by the councils involved, and which is anyway on record denying that it is a court of law.

Sunderland city council -which originally seized Mr Thoburn’s scales - had so many motorists using the “Bill of Rights defence” to justify non-payment of these automatic penalties that it sought legal advice. Eleanor Sharpston QC said that, since it was the intention of the 1991 Act that the Bill of Rights should be set aside, the penalties are legal.

Here, however, Miss Sharpston is impaled on a hook, because it was she who represented Sunderland in the metric case, which she only won because of Laws’s ruling; and Laws was unequivocal in saying that the Bill of Rights can only be overridden where Parliament makes this “expressly clear”.

The 1991 Act does nothing of the kind. The only way Miss Sharpston can defend her latest opinion is by rejecting the very ruling that won her the case. If she is right, the Metric Martyrs’ case should be quashed.

Booker also notes that the government are considering legislating to set aside the Bill of Rights, though this might not work since Parliament has no power to undo the Declaration of Rights that the Bill enshrined.

Could we be seeing an embryonic written constitution for Britain in the making here?

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