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Metric Culprits

The Trial of Mr Steven Thoburn

The trial of Steven Thoburn was held between January 15-17th, 2001, together with an extra day on March 1st for final submissions by the defence and prosecution. A stipendiary magistrate John Morgan was drafted in at short notice for the hearing.

January 15-17th On the first day, Eleanor Sharpston, QC, for Sunderland city council, told Mr Morgan that trading standards officers had a duty to protect consumers. Miss Sharpston said, "This case is not about prosecuting Mr Thoburn for selling a pound of bananas. It is about Mr Thoburn using the scales for weighing goods…not approved by weights and measures authorities". Miss Sharpston argued that the case was about avoiding the "consumer confusion" that would arise if apples in Sainsbury's were priced in metric, while apples sold on Thoburn's stall were sold in lb/oz, thereby preventing price comparison.

Defence barrister was Michael Shrimpton, said: "There is no evidence of deceit or dishonesty in the conduct of this man. He is a man of some courage who has stood his ground in the face of criminal prosecution. He is just an ordinary greengrocer who wants to go about his business of serving customers in the way they want to be served. He was not simply serving bananas by the pound; in fact he was shouting it from his stall. His conduct was open. At no time was it necessary for an undercover purchase to be made".

During the second day, Michael Shrimpton said that when Britain entered the Common Market in 1972 Parliament was assured that ministerial powers would be used to bring in changes of "a small, minor or insignificant nature". He said: "No one in this court would realistically or sensibly suggest that the sweeping away of our imperial weights and measures was a change of a small, minor or insignificant nature."

Mr Shrimpton argued that the Weights and Measures Act 1985 had specifically allowed the choice beween trading in metric and imperial measurements and, because it was an Act of Parliament, it superseded the European directive and subsequent Units of Measurement Regulations 1994. Mr Shrimpton quoted from 18th and 19th century authorities on Britain's constitution, Sir William Blackstone and Prof Albert Dicey, to argue that ministers or the European Union had no power to override an Act of Parliament. As such, any conviction of Mr Thoburn would be "unconstitutional".

Eleanor Sharpston argued that under the European Communities Act 1972, under which Britain entered the European Union, the government was entitled to introduce the new regulations. She said: "This case is not about imposing the will of Brussels by bypassing Parliament, because Parliament had already given a responsible minister powers to do what he has done."

On day three, Mr Shrimpton said that because Parliament was the sovereign authority in Britain, the Weights and Measurements Act could be changed only by a subsequent Act of Parliament and not by the government using so-called Henry VIII powers, under which ministers can rule by proclamation within reason. A list of law authorities was read to the court dating back to 1671, which supported his case that Parliament superseded EU law and European directives. He maintained that imperial weights and measures were "part of the fabric of our way of life" and that, if Mr Thoburn was convicted, it would amount to a "constitutional crime".

March 1st Due to the complexity of the case, an extra day was allowed for final submissions. Eleanor Sharpston QC told the court that Mr Shrimpton's case was based on "a series of very fundamental misconceptions" and that he could be compared to Lord Nelson, putting a blind eye to his telescope at the battle of Copenhagen:

"Mr Shrimpton's argument is based on turning a Nelsonian blind eye to the legislative, jurisprudential and constitutional landscape that has taken place but does not fit in with the defence case", she said. "The fact that such a comprehensive blind eye is required should alert the court to the erroneousness of the chain of argument that has been put before it."

Referring to this previous presentation, she said that Mr Shrimpton was, "like a clever magician who saws his beautiful assistant in half. You almost believe what you think you have seen then when they take their bow you realise it was an exceptionally clever illusion. You almost believe what you see as I did with the arguments put forward by Mr Shrimpton. But his arguments are based on a series of very fundamental misconceptions. "

Ms Sharpston told Sunderland Magistrates Court that European Community law dating back to 1972 had paved the way for an eventual change from imperial to metric and that the nation's traders are legally bound to abide by Euro directives. She maintained that if Britain wants to be part of Europe it has to abide by its laws. She closed by saying:

"We are not, as has been suggested, living in a UK which is sovereign in the classic British Empire 19th century way. That UK is part of political and legal history. The UK has expressed, through its constitution and endorsed by the Queen in Parliament that the UK is part, geographically, of Europe and, much more importantly, is part of the European Union. It is imperative that this Court finds Steve Thoburn guilty as charged. Britain is a member of the European Union and this is part of the legal framework of that European Union".

Mr Shrimpton summed up by arguing that British Acts of Parliament cannot be overturned by European directives and that Mr Thoburn is entitled to sell his fruit and vegetables in Imperial weights.

He said that legislation passed to implement EC directives by amending existing UK laws had been introduced illegally. He said that, if the court ruled against Steven Thoburn, doors would open for all British laws to be changed; Europe would have supreme power.

Mr Shrimpton said: "If the prosecution is right, the UK is no longer sovereign and Community law is supreme. The Europeans see their law as supreme and as such their directives can be amended against the wishes of the British people by qualified majority voting. According to the prosecution if a directive is brought into force whether the British Government agree to it or not it would take precedence over an Act of Parliament".

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