Yesterday I was convicted of criminal damage. The short version being that I refused to pay my council tax for a number of perfectly valid reasons, but also with a view to catching bailiffs in the act of unlawfully inflating fees. As predicted, that is what happened. But in late 2012, when I paid my council tax, the bailiffs clamped my car, demanding that I pay their unlawful fees. I cut it off with an angle-grinder. I made a complaint to the police and they then charged me for criminal damage - and refused to examine the evidence of fee-fraud. I complained to the council and they also upheld the unlawful fees, without investigating.
I represented myself at the magistrates courts and kept the proceedings
running for a full day. I failed. Yesterday it finally went to appeal
and I failed yet again. But we did establish that the bailiff firm,
Rundle & Co did inflate their fees unlawfully. So folks, you are now reading Bristol's newest convicted criminal. I stand before you guilty as charged. I knowingly and wilfully destroyed property belonging to Rundle & Co. This is what happened...
I lost. But there are few reasons to be despondent. Today we got a frank admission from the "truthful and honest" Nicola Spring, that unlawful charges had been added in the first instance - and the judge observed there were significant inconsistencies between the paperwork issued and their records. Rundles failed to follow proper procedure. Spring admitted she had no idea why the charges had been added. I have my suspicions why this might be the case but one couldn't possibly comment.
In that respect it was worth going to appeal, if only to have it on record that Rundles had attempted to extort fees not permitted by law. That then confirms what I have so often said, in that South Gloucestershire Council (SGC) are complicit in this fraud epidemic by way of failing to properly investigate, which lends weight to the notion that there is a culture of denial in the public sector - where complaints are wilfully ignored. SGC failed to properly investigate and have upheld charges not permitted by law. It is that same shameful attitude to complaints that kills people in NHS hospitals.
My barrister is confident that were this a civil case, the chances are that Rundles would be facing fraud charges and SGC would be in some way liable for allowing it to happen on their watch. But I would have had to capitulate to Rundles in order to bring that case about - and it may not have been as successful as this trial in getting at the truth. On principle, I could not capitulate and this way, at least the arguments have been heard.
The Judge upheld the phantom visits even though it was put to him that there was no possible way they could charge for a visit without having confirmed residency, but even if one were to acknowledge that these visits took place and the correct paperwork had been issued, there was still no lawful basis for the charges amounting to £192.50 by the time of the first provable visit.
I knew the charges were unlawful even then, and that is why I elected to pay my council tax directly to the council, rather than striking a deal with bailiffs. I don't think the Judge was any more taken in by James Cohen's "butter wouldn't melt", yessir no-sir Uncle Tom act any more than I was, but sadly, this was not a trial as to whether Rundle & Co are fit to consume oxygen, nor was it a trial to establish whether they are fly-by-night thieves who make up their charges on a whim. That is rather a pity, because this trial would have demonstrated precisely that. This trial was whether my removal of the clamp was a reasonable action to take. There the judge and I have a difference of opinion.
I take the view that when the council is unwilling to mount any kind of proper investigation, the bailiffs inflate their fees unlawfully - and use tactics of harassment and intimidation, then the system is not functioning. The police are a liability in such matters, often assisting bailiffs in the commission of crimes, therefore self-defence against a wrongful trespass on property is the most expedient and reasonable thing to do. The judge disagreed.
It was his view that I should have capitulated to James Cohen, paid for the release of the vehicle, and pursued it as a civil case. That is, in his view, a reasonable course of action. The fact that council tax recovery regulation grants no authority to bailiffs to clamp vehicles was of little consequence to the judge.
Regardless of the fact I need my car for my job, and regardless of the fact I have a ministerial letter confirming that bailiffs may not levy goods in excess of the value of the outstanding amount on the liability order (which was zero), the judge was not swayed by these arguments either.
As per the magistrates conclusion, his view was that I could have called the police (who regularly assist bailiffs in committing crimes) or phoned Rundles (who had already misrepresented their powers and inflated their fees unlawfully). Rather than deal with unreasonable people I elected to remove the clamp - which apparently was an unreasonable act. In effect the judge opted to invoke the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.
Rather than addressing the fundamental issues at play this was a case that focused on my specific actions at the time. It stands that Rundles are liars. It stands that Rundles attempted fraud. It stands that SGC are incompetent and it stands that there is a culture of denial in the public sector - and Williams and Hooper of SGC are complicit in that. They facilitate the crimes of James Cohen and his ilk. But it was I on trial, not they. Thus I am guilty.
So who is to blame?
There is plenty of blame to go around but ultimately I am at fault for my naivety. When discussing matters of crime and punishment we describe it as the "Justice System". From that one assumes the purpose of that system is to serve justice. Justice has not been done here today. Not by a long shot.
Today there was an opportunity for a judge to send a message that bailiffs may not clamp unlawfully, that bailiffs will be held accountable for fraudulent fees - and citizens have a right to protect their property. But today the judge gave a free pass to state-sanctioned habitual criminals - and instead of meting out justice threw the book at the victim.
For sure that may sound like a feeble pronouncement by a guilty man, but by criminalising me, he diminishes the stigma to criminality and cheapens the very word. I am a citizen who has committed no act of theft or violence upon another and stand as a criminal for the simple act of defending his property against a wrongful trespass.
A word has yet to be invented that properly describes how little this criminal record means to me. So many have been criminalised now that it is now a largely meaningless label that is not the barrier it once was now that ordinary citizens are criminalised for petty administrative transgressions. It is ironic that the state makes a criminal of those who resist having their money taken without consent. Taxation without proper representation is an act of theft.
If anything, a criminal record is now a badge of pride because it means I stood up for myself and, unlike the rest of the bovine population, I stood up and defended my property against a state that grants more rights to the homeless than it does property occupiers.
The nature of council tax is that you are not a free individual unless you pay for your freedom. You are out of jail on license. Your crime against the state is to have a roof over your head. There is far too much to debate surrounding this issue, but I will expand upon this experience on my other blog. This is not over. I just need to change tactics.
Contempt of court
There was a suggestion of contempt of court. These charges were all thrown out. The only condition being that I take down the Youtube where I read a part of a statement made by Nicola Spring and called her a liar. I am unsure what value there is in taking the video down after the trial - and I view this an act of censorship. But no matter. I have taken down the Youtube that says Nicola Spring is a liar and instead will film a new one that also says Nicola Spring is a liar - because she is a liar. She knows it and so do I.
As to witness intimidation, the CPS were at least smart enough to drop that one because I would have had a field day with it. That is because I have evidence that Nicola Spring is a liar and were I allowed to present that evidence the trial might have gone differently.
So what did I achieve?
Well that's a philosophical question that entirely depends on my objectives. The rule of the North insurgency is that whatever you pay in taxes, it must always cost the state more to get it than it costs you. I have occupied three whole days of court, occupying judges, many court staff, many officials, magistrates, a dozen plod, the council chief executive, council recovery officers, the police commissioner and a couple of chief inspectors. So did it cost them more than it cost me? Oh you betcha. I now face costs in excess of £1000 but less than £50 goes to Rundles, which is considerably less than what they were trying to extort, so that is a win. I also kept James Cohen and Nicola Spring off the streets for three days.
I am completely satisfied that whatever I paid in council tax since then has been spent on handling this case. More than that I would like to think this case blog caused some ripples in the back offices that now mean bailiffs are monitored more closely, and maybe bailiffs think twice about clamping. The next person they clamp might be another Pete North.
The problem of rogue bailiffs has not gone away and the police are still ducking complaints but perhaps all this noise brings us a little closer to the day when councils and the police take these matters seriously. One more notch on the crime statistics might just trigger action.
Thanks to the incompetence of Bristol Crown Court, I ended up paying two days fees to my barrister Steven Fitzpatrick. But if one were to pay that just for the pleasure of his company, it's still a bargain and I consider him a friend for life, a super bloke, and though he did not win he can be forgiven since he had a me as a client. I still spent less than the state did - and Steven forced the admission from Nicola Spring that the fees were wrongfully inflated. More than I managed at the magistrates court.
Would I do it again and what would I do differently?
Yes I would do it again in the same regulatory environment. Perhaps I would have made a couple of calls to the council and Rundles to give them the opportunity of removing the clamp before I did, just to have it on record, but we all know what that would have achieved. I think it might have been nice to have smacked James "Uncle Tom" Cohen squarely in the mouth with a house-brick, because that is the nearest you get to justice, but that is just a fanciful mental image that gives me a great deal of pleasure.
I knew what I was getting into this when I started this. In my heart of hearts I never expected to win, because the system looks after its own. I knew this would be expensive and I knew there would be consequences to fighting a system where the game is rigged. I accept that responsibility and the consequences are mine alone. But if you feel this fight was worth fighting as I do, hit the donate button. Just a small, nominal sum says you think this was worth doing.
This fight is never over. While that state steals from us with zero accountability and we have no democracy, a permanent state of war exists between the people, the state, and the private enforcement goons employed by them. We may have lost this battle, but the war continues. That is why we have convened The Harrogate Agenda.