Less than a month ago I wrote with disappointment about the case of three life term prisoners that were potentially going to get their sentences reduced because of a European Court ruling that their whole-life tariff was considered a breach of their Human Rights.
Now its the turn of a family of travellers from Hampshire to benefit from the inverse benefits that the ECHR provides. Benefits that exist at the expense of genuine victims of crime who are still paying the costs of their loss.
In 2011 Kathleen McLelland and Michael Curry had their caravan stolen. They had paid £20,000 for the top-of-the-range 26ft Bailey Louisiana and invested a further £10,000 upgrading it. They had poured their life savings into this project plus some additional financed costs. The caravan was stored on a secure site, but unfortunately this wasn’t enough to prevent it disappearing into the night.
Fortunately Police discovered the caravan 18 months later on a traveller site in Surrey. It was identified as stolen by officers who were at the site for an unrelated matter. By now it was being lived in by a family on the site. Police arrested and interviewed a 22 year-old man in respect of the theft who provided an account of the sale as well as what he said was proof that he had lawfully bought the caravan. His story – that he had bought the caravan for £300 from a man in a pub who he cannot name.
The arrested man was unbelievably – on the strength of this story and a hand-written scrap of paper masquerading as a receipt – released with no action being taken against him. Apparently there was insufficient evidence to suggest that he knew the caravan was stolen or was involved in the theft of it.
This is where things started to go wrong in my opinion.
I would love to know what justification was provided for accepting this story. It is completely ridiculous. I have always believed that if someone pays substantially under the expected market price for an item, especially in the ‘man down the pub’ scenario, then it is reasonable to expect that the item may not have been lawfully obtained. They lose their ‘honestly held belief’ that the item was lawfully in the possession of the seller and hey presto – you’re nicked for handling stolen goods.
It is here that the pendulum swung in favour of the travellers. The line between Police powers relating to investigation of criminal activity and the bureaucratic world of civil matters was crossed and a new box of red tape was opened…
Advice was subsequently sought, by Police, from their legal experts and a letter written to the victims explaining that they would now have to take civil action against the occupying family to remove them from their home as doing so by force would breach their Human Rights. The fact that this was now a dwelling property evidently pushed the case out of reach of the legislation relating to seizure stolen property. It was now considered to be well and truly into the realm of evictions, squatters and tenancy disputes.
As soon as that person walked out of custody with a release form the legitimate owners of the caravan lost nearly all hope of recovering their property. They will now have to go through complex, and expensive, civil proceedings and fight the HR legislation as well as the current occupants. Their chances of ever seeing this caravan again are – in my experience – slim.
I don’t think that I would be alone in predicting that the family currently living in it will not be doing so it for long once a civil case starts. I would expect that, at around that time – or conveniently just prior to it, the caravan in question might be sold to another unknown person in a pub for a small amount of money and disappear – leaving the current occupiers free to move into newly ‘acquired’ accommodation at the same site experiencing none of the hardships that the ECHR claims to be protecting them from.
I cannot challenge the ultimate decision of the force to declare this a civil matter with the circumstances being as they are now. But I feel that the ball was dropped at the point where there was still a potential for prosecution and seizure of the caravan. I do not know whether this was a fumble by the investigating officer in putting their case forward, or whether it was an unfortunate decision by the Charge Desk Sergeant or CPS.
I would have been furious if I had been asked to let this person walk out of my cell block without a charge sheet because I know how complicated things would have been about to become. I expect he even got offered a lift home too.
Meanwhile Kathleen McLelland and Michael Curry are still paying £250 per month to clear the outstanding balance owing against their caravan. There’s justice for you…