Cherie Blair sought to keep poll tax defaulter in jail

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The Independent Online
Cherie Blair, the barrister wife of the Labour leader Tony Blair, asked a High Court judge to return a bailed poll tax defaulter to jail, even though she knew he was penniless.

She told the judge she was "simply anxious" that Martin Jacques should pay his arrears or serve a 14-day sentence for culpable neglect after hearing that he received only £44 a week in income support but needed £40 a week for rent, electricity and food. Magistrates had earlier rejected his offer to pay £5 a fortnight against his £200.62 debt.

Mrs Blair - who is known professionally by her maiden name of Booth - was acting in one of a series of cases for councils pursuing poll tax defaulters. Ms Booth has also given a paper to a conference of enforcement officers and bailiffs. Her fee is believed to have been £200.

Last night, Mr Jacques, 28, of Leyland, Lancashire, described Ms Booth's High Court performance, in a judicial review hearing in November 1993, as ruthless. "She did her job well and didn't give my barrister a chance. It was a terrible experience in jail. I had never been in trouble before."

Mr Jacques had served half his 14 day sentence in Preston prison when lawyers freed him pending a judicial review hearing. When he lost that, Ms Booth said she was "anxious" he should pay his bill or complete his sentence. He did, in Brixton jail, London.

"I was living in a flat in Leyland, but I lost my job," he said. "I'd been paying the poll tax by direct debit but, when I was on income support, I had only £4 a week left after outgoings. I asked the magistrates to take it out of the income support, butthey said they couldn't. It wasn't a protest. I couldn't afford to pay."

As a barrister prominent in employment and public law, Ms Booth must abide by the "cab rank" principle and accept cases as they come along. She may not turn down cases that could prove politically sensitive.

However, she spoke at a conference in Telford held by the Institute of Revenues, Rating and Valuation Officers last March. Her paper, entitled "Enforcement - Effective Prosecution in the Magistrates Court", explained how to pursue non-payers with liability orders and applications for committal to prison.

She advised: "Ultimately, if a liability order is not complied with, the officer will have to decide what enforcement action should be taken. In the event that it is decided that distress should be levied and, in the event that that is unsuccessful, com m ittal [prison] should be applied for." However, she also said it was "important to draw to the bench's attention the alternatives to prison that are available." She quoted a 1992 High Court case in which it was established that the threat of prison shoul d be used as a weapon, not as a punishment. There was no point sending people to prison if they could not pay.

However, at Mr Jacques's High Court hearing, Ms Booth, who was representing two sets of magistrates who had jailed two men, told the judge: "My Lord, I am simply anxious on behalf of both the charging authorities that these gentlemen continue to serve their sentences or produce the money." But, when asking for costs, she said: "I accept that there is no evidence that Mr Jacques has any means at all."

Helen Dent , the lawyer who represented Mr Jacques, said: "Sending him to prison was a gross injustice. It wasn't that he was refusing to pay; he was simply too poor. We have run up against Cherie Booth in three or four other poll tax cases and each timeshe has been acting for the local authorities. She seems to have become something of a favourite with them."

Ms Booth has acted against defaulters in Burnley, South Ribble, Blackburn, Hyndburn and Thanet, not in magistrates courts but in the High Court contesting applications for judicial review. She was also due to represent Dudley council last month, but the

case failed to proceed.

Ms Booth said the work she accepted was on the "cab rank" principle. When it was put to her that she did not have to give speeches on enforcement, she replied: "No. I gave very clear advice as to how, according to the law, the enforcement officers shouldact." She added: "I am sure that you would be very hard-pressed to find any evidence that I have ever suggested that people who can't afford to pay or who are poverty- stricken should have action taken against them."

When the Independent on Sunday faxed details of the Jacques transcript, it was told Ms Booth had left her chambers.

Sources close to the Blairs said all her cases involved wilful or culpable non-payment and Ms Booth became involved only on points of law at judicial review stage. They said professional ethics prevented her from elaborating on the Jacques case.

Ms Booth, 40, joined the Labour Party in 1976. She contested a seat in the 1983 general election, but lost. The couple have two homes, thought to have been bought mostly with Ms Booth's earnings from the Bar. One, estimated at £400,000, is in Islington, north London. The other is a Victorian villa in Trimdon Colliery, County Durham.

The Reverend Paul Nicolson, treasurer of the Campaign Against Poll Tax Imprisonment, said: "I am profoundly disappointed in Cherie Booth. I understood that the Labour Party stood for justice, and the imprisonment of people who are simply too poor to pay their poll tax arrears is a gross injustice."

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