IT SEEMS a fine point that is not pursued in other areas of life or the law.
Yesterday, Vicky Pryce, the former wife of the ex-Liberal Democrat MP and former Cabinet minister Christopher Huhne, claimed that her then husband had forced her to take penalty points after being caught speeding on the M11 in 2003. She had falsely informed police she had been the driver. The result was that Huhne avoided prosecution. He had been in danger of losing his licence, having already accrued nine penalty points.
The legal proceedings have attracted enormous publicity given the profile of Mr Huhne and a bitter divorce battle. It was in the wake of the marital breakdown that Ms Pryce, charged with perverting the course of justice by completing a form saying that she was the driver, entered a defence of marital coercion. The prosecution argued that she had chosen to take the points, but later sought to expose Huhne after the marriage fell apart.
It was a case that by its nature, the bitter breakdown of a marriage, and in the choice of defence adopted, could not do other than knock a window into the soul of the couple’s relationship – both at the time, and subsequently.
The defence of marital coercion dates back to 1925 and is rarely used – and even more rarely used successfully. It requires the wife to prove first that the offence was committed in the presence of her husband, and second that it was committed under his coercion.
The defence critically hinged on the nature and definition of coercion. It can be very difficult to judge, but certain points are clear. That her husband was behind the wheel was not in doubt. And Ms Pryce did accept the points. But was she coerced? It seems a very tight criterion that the difference between being coerced and not is that the person doing the coercion has to be present. That certainly seems an overly harsh and tight definition. Nowadays, in domestic cases, a different view could reasonably be taken. The defence essentially had to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Huhne’s behaviour towards her made it impossible for her to exercise her own judgment. That had to be a hard thing to prove, and how would it only be possible in the physical presence of a husband? The sad truth is that the fact that she only came forward with charges against her husband years later, in the context of Huhne’s leaving her for another woman, did not count in her favour.
Yesterday, the judge warned that perverting the course of justice is a serious charge and that the couple could be sentenced to jail. Huhne persistently denied that he had been the driver before finally admitting the truth. But Ms Pryce, while she took her husband’s penalty points, even if she has not been legally found to have been coerced into doing so, surely does not merit a prison sentence. The public needs no protection from her. The searing publicity this case has generated will remain with her for life. She should not be jailed.
Austerity could trap nation in abyss
We must stick with the plan because there is no alternative: such was Prime Minister David Cameron’s Thatcherite rebuttal to suggestions by Business Secretary Vince Cable that the government should consider borrowing more to kick-start the economy.
Few can be in any doubt as to the huge debt liabilities of the UK government and the need to bear down on them. The budget on 20 March is likely to show net debt continuing to rise towards
£1.5 trillion even though the annual amount by which it is rising has eased back. Mr Cameron’s
instinct is that resorting to further borrowing to get out of an already colossal debt hole cannot be right.
But the only way in which real progress can be made in debt reduction is through economic recovery, bringing with it a sustained rise in business and household tax revenues. So the Prime Minister has only furnished half a rebuttal. He and his Chancellor need to show, and with some urgency, how the government is promoting that. The decision by the Bank of England yesterday not to add to the £375 billion of monetary easing, for now, adds to the pressure on George Osborne to go further than rhetorical support for business but to unveil a budget that genuinely moves the needle on the economic dial. That requires not only reinstating the injurious cuts to capital spending, but to augment this with real and meaningful tax cuts to encourage household and business spending. The Prime Minister has warned that more borrowing would plunge us “back into the abyss”. But failure to map out a recovery plan and roll out measures to put that plan into action would entrap us in the very abyss of which he has warned.