The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

A Case of ‘Incitement’ in Monmouthshire

Category: Politics

by D. N. Pritt

This case was a good illustration of the way in which the government, and some of the judges as well, will behave, or rather misbehave, in political cases. Coming in the early thirties, it was my first direct experience of their capacities.

A group of Communists in South Wales and Monmouth­shire had been distributing anti-war pamphlets to sol­diers; the government, always terrified of soldiers being giv­en any opportunity of learning of any point of view except the orthodox ones presented to them by their officers, arrested them and charged them with various offences under the In­citement to Mutiny Act, a piece of legislation aimed not just at what most people understand to be mutiny but at almost every conceivable activity inconvenient to the Establishment,

The famous left-wing solicitor, W. H. Thompson, brought me the case. He had a very long experience of poli­tical cases, and when he brought me the brief, he said: “Look here, Pritt, you know how to conduct a case, but you haven’t the least idea of what you will have to put up with in the say of dirty tricks from the judge and the prosecution in a political case.

“You will smell the hostility the moment you go through the door of the Court, and you will do much more than just smell it as soon as the hearing starts, and all the way through!”

He was a great friend of mine, a great solicitor, and a great man; but I had not yet lost all my illusions about the fairness of our Courts, of which so many boasts are made, and I did not wholly believe even him, with all his expe­rience.

I told him so, and he answered: “All right. Wait and see.” I did not have to wait long, and I saw!

The next bit of government sharp practice was that a copy of the indictment — the document which tells each of the accused exactly what charges are made against him, with a little detail — was not delivered until 4. 30 p. m. on the day before the hearing.

It is always important to have a copy in good time, in case the offence charged in the indictment should turn out to be enlarged or altered as compared to the committal; and Thompson, who never failed a client and never trusted a gov­ernment, had been pressing for a copy day by day for a week, being put off all the time with excuses: “Sorry, it’s not quite ready today; probably tomorrow.”

When he finally got the copy, he found that the most important defendant, who had decided to conduct his own defence whilst I and my junior defended the resi of the ac­cused, had been quietly “promoted” from acharge of a minor offence, punishable with a maximum of one year’s impris­onment, to one of a major offence punishable with impris­onment for life.

This important change, coming at the last moment, raised all sorts of problems, Until then, it had been a moder­ately simple case, in which the man directly affected could defend himself vigorously on political lines, with the know­ledge that the worst thing that could happen to him would be a year’s imprisonment, whilst I and my junior could defend the others.

Discussing the problem with Thompson and the man in­volved in the evening, I said that we would obviously have to get an adjournment of a few days to consider the problem, and if necessary get a new barrister to read the case for the man involved.

“Yes,” said Thompson, “if the judge gives you theadjourn- ment”. I replied that he could scarcely refuse, since the whole trouble had been caused by the inexcusable delay of the government in delivering the indictment. He replied: “As I said before, wait and see.” And, as before, I waited and I saw.

The next morning, we came before a judge of great expe­rience and knowledge, so bitterly opposed to anything left-wing that he could scarcely have given a fair trial if he had tried; he had in fact been one of the prosecuting counsel in the prosecution of twelve leading Communists in1925, inwhich he upheld the thesis that the Communist Party was an illegal organisation.

When I asked him for an adjournment, he said, “Why?” in the iciest tone imaginable, and I proceeded to give him, subject to a certain amount of interruption from him, the reasons I have already outlined. He was quite unmoved, and said that the alteration of the charge made not the slight­est difference.

I replied that unless and until the prosecution acted on that view by dropping the new charge it made the difference between a possible year and a possible life in prison. And so we went, hammer and tongs, or to vary the simile, like a rocket, red-hot at one end and icy cold at the other.

After over an hour’s fighting, it was quite clear that the judge was determined not to give me an adjournment, so I played my last card, taking advantage of a curious old rule, at one time very important and still not to be disregarded, about “challenges” to jurors.

Every accused has the right to “challenge” anyone who is called to sit on the jury that is to try him, i.e. to refuse to have that person on the jury; and some of these challenges may be what is called “peremptory”, which means that the accused does not have to give any reasons, and can simply say: “I won’t have him (or her) on the jury”.

Now, the officials who have to summon jurors to attend at the Central Criminal Court, whilst they naturally summon a substantial number over the bare minimum likely to be required, certainly do not prepare for wholesale challenges; and I saw that if the judge persisted in his refusal I could hold the case up, probably for the whole day, by challenges.

I could not directly threaten the judge that I would follow that course, but I could —and I did — “stage-whisper” to my junior that, if we did not get the adjourn­ment, I would exercise the sixty challenges, and “ if there are seventy-two jurors waiting I will eat my wig”.

The judge of course heard me, and he cannot have wanted this public advertisement on his behaviour. He made no comment of any kind, but just said, as icily as ever, “I will grant an adjournment until tomorrow morning”.

We thus had time to decide, and we concluded that I had better defend all the accused, and we went on with the case the next morning.

My clients were “duly” convicted and sent to prison. Like so many of my political clients, some of them are now doing very important work.

From Comment, Sept. 12, 1964

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