Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006

News Shorts And Other Busyness

Travellers Triumph In Court

Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pg. 9.

Unique court precedents were recently established which will help shield travellers from some of the worst excesses of the Criminal Justice Act.

The ground-breaking court decisions followed efforts by Wealdon District Council to use section 77 of the Act against travellers on a site near Crowborough in Kent. The presiding judge, Mr Justice Sedley, ruled that the Council had failed to investigate the social circumstances of the travellers present on the land before applying to the magistrates for an enforcement order to evict.

The case was brought on behalf of a mother who, according to the judge, was entitled to expect the local authority to carry out its statutory duties under the Children Act 1989, the Housing Act 1985 and education acts. These include requirements to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need and to protect their access to education.

Mr Justice Sedley also ruled that an order made under Section 77 of the CJA applied only to travellers present on the land at the time but did not extend to travellers arriving on the site after the order. This decision makes a rotation of traveller sites by differing groups of travellers a possible way of skirting what Mr Justice Sedley referred to as the “in some ways draconic” Criminal Justice Act.

It was undoubtedly an important court triumph for travellers, with future ramifications in other court cases.

“Technically the decision is not binding on future high court judges,” explained David Watkinson, the travellers’ barrister, “but in practice High Court judges do follow another High Court judge’s decision, unless given a jolly good reason why not to.”

In a separate court case in Southend Crown Court, Basildon District Council were defeated in their attempts to evict a gypsy called William Thomas. He had been the subject of an enforcement notice to leave, after it was claimed he lacked the necessary planning permission for the caravans, toilet and small day room that he and his family live in. The family own the land on which they live and refused to comply with the notice to vacate and dismantle their home.

At first, Mr Thomas, who could not read or write, appeared in the pre-trial court hearing without legal representation and pleaded guilty. He was allowed to withdraw his plea, however, when he was advised that he did have grounds for defence. The penalty for non-compliance with an enforcement notice is an unlimited fine which increases daily.

The grounds for defence were that he had done all that he could reasonably do to secure compliance with a notice. The defendant’s barrister argued that doing nothing whatsoever was all he could reasonably do!

The reasons he gave were as follows:

  1. Growing restrictions on gypsies freedom to move and reside by the roadside
  2. Lack of provision of local authority/county council sites
  3. DoE circulars regarding gypsies finding their own accommodation
  4. Basildon District Council’s planning attitudes toward gypsies
  5. The nature and quality of the land on which the defendant had chosen to reside and its environs
  6. The nature and quality of other possible plots in the area
  7. The recent history of gypsy lifestyle
  8. The reality of options open to Mr Thomas

The European Convention on Human Rights was also cited.

The jury decided that William Thomas should be allowed to stay living in the structures on his land and not be fined for non-compliance with the enforcement notice.

Although a jury court decision is not binding on future court cases, it can be used to back up similar pleadings. Along with the European Court of Human Rights ruling last January (June Buckley Vs UK), which overturned a DoE decision to evict a single parent gypsy from her own land, the latest court cases are more of a series of court precedents slowly but surely re-establishing some of the rights eroded so dramatically by recent legislation.