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The Story of the English Metric Martyrs

London February 18th, 2002: traders convicted of using pounds and ounces announce their campaign to restore traditional weights measures to the UK marketplace, and to lift laws compelling the use of metric.


On January 1st 2000, the British Government announced that it was a criminal offence to use pounds and ounces for foods sold loose in the United Kingdom. Only metric weights and measures would be permitted. This announcement followed a similar declaration in October 1995 compelling the use of metric units for packaged foods and goods.

This announcement was greeted with astonishment by British legal experts, since the metric regulations in question, passed under the 1972 European Communities Act, had been repealed by the more recent 1985 Weights and Measures Act that authorised pounds and ounces. Under UK constitutional law, later Acts take precedence over earlier Acts.

Nevertheless, across Britain, trading law enforcement agencies were directed by central government to enforce the old regulations. Thousands of inspectors were dispatched to check whether retailers were using metric weighing machines and pricing in accordance with the 1972 Act. They found, however, that tens of thousands of traders were continuing to use pounds and ounces.

Enforcement Action against Steve Thoburn

Steve Thoburn: the "metric martyr"

On July 4th, 2000 an undercover officer for Sunderland city council entered the shop of Mr Steve Thoburn and made a "test purchase" of 34 pence worth of bananas, advertised as 25p per pound. Mr Thoburn weighed out the bananas on a lb/oz weighing machine. Shortly afterwards, two more trading standards officers arrived and told Mr Thoburn that he was breaking the law, adding that they were to impound his offending lb/oz weighing equipment. When Mr Thoburn objected, two police officers were called and Mr Thoburn was warned that his refusal to surrender his weighing equipment could lead to arrest.

Three weighing machines removed from Mr Thoburn's shop and he was forced to tell four of his ten staff not to come into work the following day. A Sunderland city council spokesman said: "From Jan 1 [2000], it has been illegal to use machinery weighing imperial measures. If metric equipment is not installed the imperial machinery can be seized with a view to forfeiture".

After a two-month interval, on September 6th, 2000, a spokesman for Sunderland city council said: "Following careful consideration, the city council has decided to prosecute Steven Thoburn for using non-metricated scales in his business".

Verdict: Guilty

Following three days at a local Magistrate's Court, and three days at Divisional Court in London, Mr Thoburn was found guilty of using pounds and ounces. The guilty verdict was based on the view that the 1972 European Communities Act, implementing EC directives, was so powerful that it could be projected into the future to repeal Acts yet to come. In other words, even though the 1985 Weights and Measures Act expressly allowed the use of pounds and ounces, this could be repealed by the earlier 1972 Act in order to implement European laws in Britain.

This verdict provoked outrage from the British press; no fewer than four national newspapers carried the story as front page news. It meant that not only did British traders and consumers lose the right to trade in pounds and ounces, but that Parliament had lost its power to legislate in any way contrary to the will of the European Commission.

Appeal to Europe

On August 12th 2002, Steve Thoburn, together with four other convicted traders (featured below), lodged an Appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The traders are supported in their fight by the civil rights group Liberty. Liberty's director, John Wadham, said: "It's ridiculous that people should be criminalised for this. It's completely out of proportion. The Government, the EU and the criminal justice system should not be involved in whether a grocer uses imperial or metric measurements - it's ludicrous."

Donations to assist Mr Thoburn's Appeal to the European Court of Human Rights can be made by checks payable to the "Steven Thoburn (Metric Martyr) Defence Fund" and sent, by post, to PO Box 526, Sunderland, SR1 3YS England. Payments can also be made online via the Metric Martyrs website.

The other Metric Martyr traders
Julian Harman (Fruiterer), Cornwall

Crime: Pricing apples at 45p per pound. Verdict: Guilty (Cornwall Magistrates Court, June 13th, 2001). Sentence: ordered to pay £250 towards court costs of £4,500, and given a six-month conditional discharge.
John Dove (Fishmonger), Cornwall

Crime: Pricing mackerel at £1.54 per pound. Verdict: Guilty (Cornwall Magistrates Court, June 13th, 2001). Sentence: ordered to pay £250 towards court costs of £4,500, and given a 6-month conditional discharge.
Peter Collins (street trader), Sutton

Mr Collins has not been convicted of any criminal offence but took his council to court after it threatened to revoke his street traders licence for using a lb/oz weighing machine. Verdict: complaint unsuccessful (Sutton Magistrates' Court, 13th August 2001). Sentence: The courts told Mr Collins that he would be liable for the council's costs of £13,500 should he appeal.
Colin Hunt (street trader), London

Crime: failing to display the price per kilogram of sweet potatoes. Verdict: Guilty (Hackney Magistrates' Courts, 29th August 2001). Sentence: a 12-month conditional discharge.

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