Harrow Council has abandoned its prosecution of Mrinal Patel today. No surprise there, then. I expressed myself in moderate terms while criminal proceedings were under way, but summonsing her under the Fraud Act 2006 always looked dodgy – it’s difficult to see how you can really call a school place property.

I agree with Harrow Council that some offence needs to be drafted to cover this. As I explained in my last post on this, the sanction of withdrawing a school place a council thinks has been gained by fraud is not enough. In spite of what civil libertarians might say, it’s important to ensure the threat of strong action deters people from anti-social behaviour such as unfairly gaining their children a school place that should by rights go to another child.

But I think questions need to be asked, too, about what Harrow thought it was doing here. Clearly it’s given up now because it thought, presumably on counsel’s advice, that it did not have a reasonable prospect of conviction, or indeed of commital to the Crown Court – in other words, than the courts were unlikely to accept their “school place=property” argument, and interpret the Fraud Act as applying here. But if I was saying that a month ago, Harrow’s lawyers must have been alive to the problem by then. Harrow have been working on the case since at least May. And given that this is such a high-profile case, it’d be strange if they took the decision to prosecute without counsel’s advice. So how did Harrow come to believe, until today, that a prosecution was appropriate?

If its lawyers genuinely advised, until a few days ago, that the prosecution was likely to succeed, and changed their mind this week – I think it’s strange, but fair enough. But it’d be a scandal if Harrow decided to proceed with this in full knowledge of the legal difficulty they’ve now acknowledged, with the purpose of gaining publicity for their campaign to get new legislation. Avoiding that kind of unjustified prosecution is the whole purpose of requiring a lawyer to make the decision to prosecute based on the evidential test laid down in the Code for Crown Prosecutors (which I’ve no doubt local authorities apply).

2009-07-03T12:07:00+00:00Tags: , , , |