In a series of
unusually outspoken interventions, astonishingly unreported by the media, a
High Court judge last week dramatically called the bluff of successive
governments in their efforts to foist exclusive use of the metric system on
Britain by stealth.
It was "shameful"
that such a massive change could have been imposed without an Act of
Parliament, said Lord Justice Laws, as he heard the appeal of five small
traders against convictions by magistrates in Sunderland, Cornwall and London
for the crime of selling fruit, vegetables, fish and meat in pounds rather than
"If I had had this
case in a lower court" said Justice Laws, "I would have halted it for an
excessive abuse of process". It was wrong that men should be prosecuted under
laws deliberately made so opaque that they would have "to bury their heads in
law books" to know what the laws were.
Justice Laws implicitly rejected the claim last April by district judge Bruce
Morgan, in finding Sunderland market trader Steve Thoburn criminally guilty of
selling a pound of bananas, that by joining the European Union Britain had
"voluntarily surrendered the once seemingly immortal concept of the sovereignty
of Parliament". Britain, insisted the judge, was still "a sovereign nation",
and Parliament was still our sovereign lawmaking body.
prosecuting QC Eleanor Sharpston insisted she was not taking "instruction from
a government authority", Justice Laws shot back that the government "should be
present in this courtroom" to answer for its actions.
The crux of the
case made for the five 'Metric Martyrs' by their barrister Michael Shrimpton in
front of the two judges was that the government was not entitled to use a mere
statutory instrument to repeal the Weights and Measures Act 1985 which
specifically authorised continued use of the imperial system alongside metric.
Between 1990 and 1995 the Tory Government issued a series of regulations making
it a criminal offence to use imperial measures, to comply with two EU
directives. It was this on which Justice Laws focussed in saying he was fully
"aware of the constitutional implications" of the case, and that if "20 Acts of
Parliament were to fall" as a result, this was not "a relevant concern in this
He accepted the
government had 'Henry VIII' powers to make minor changes to primary legislation
by statutory instrument, but not for something as substantial as abolishing the
country's entire traditional system of weights and measures. If they wanted to
make it a criminal offence to use that system, he asked, why did they not do so
with an Act of Parliament?
What was remarkable
was these points were not part of the judgement in the case, which is expected
in the next few weeks. During the three-day hearing, the atmosphere in the
courtroom was electric. Several times supporters of the 'Martyrs' and their
mastermind Neil Herron, himself a Sunderland trader, applauded Justice Laws's
So packed was the
court that when Mr Thoburn once arrived late and had to stand at the back, he
was told by a security man to leave the court, until he explained he was one of
those whose livelihoods were at stake. Afterwards court staff told them
"privately we are right behind you".
One of Miss
Sharpston's points which received short shrift was the familiar charge against
imperial by supporters of compulsory metrication that "no one uses it any
more". But the best answer to this came from Mr Herron when, on the BBC
Breakfast show, the same point was made by presenter Jeremy Bowen. Obviously
prepared for their encounter, Mr Bowen smugly observed "I know my height in
metres", conveying that everyone is now familiar with the metric system. "OK"
replied Mr Herron, "so what is your chest measurement?". Visibly embarrassed,
Mr Bowen admitted "I concede defeat".