Janet Street-Porter: One law for the rich, another for the poor

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The Independent Online

When it comes to motoring offences, there is a two-tier system in this country. If you're rich, you can hire an expensive lawyer well versed in all the loopholes and intricacies of the process, and they will have a stack of incredibly potent reasons why, even if convicted, you need your car to have any kind of a life. Your barrister will claim there are unique mitigating circumstances, which will generally result in any ban being as short as possible. If you're poor, it's a very different story. You will probably represent yourself in court, plead guilty and end up with the mandatory fines, and recommended length of ban.

Earlier this week Gavin Henson, the Welsh rugby player (who definitely falls into the former category) looked understandably pleased outside the magistrates' court in Chippenham after his lawyer had successfully pleaded that Gavin's charity work would suffer if he lost his licence. The result - a man who can afford a £38,000 car was fined one week's wages (£1,850) and £35 costs, with just one month's ban for speeding at 110 miles an hour.

Leaving aside the feeble financial punishment, let's take a look at the whole idea of charity engagements being "work". Gavin is a very rich young man who lives with the wealthy singer Charlotte Church. If he chooses to devote time to helping those less fortunate than himself, that is praiseworthy, but it is not work. His solicitor handed the magistrates a list of Gavin's charity commitments and made the nauseating comment, "Mr Henson will cope with any disqualification but it is the children who will miss out." If Gavin really wanted to be a role model to the young, he should have accepted his punishment like a grown-up and paid for a chauffeur to drive him to meet all these children whose lives are enriched by his presence.

Nick Freeman, arrested on Tuesday on suspicion of a conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice, is another solicitor who uses all sorts of extraordinary reasons why his rich clients should retain their licences. David Beckham, banned after being caught speeding in his Ferrari, managed to get his conviction overturned after Mr Freeman argued that the footballer was fleeing from paparazzi. World snooker champion Ronnie O'Sullivan got off a drink-driving charge after Mr Freeman pleaded that his client could not give a urine sample because he was suffering from depression.

In the case of the model Caprice, Mr Freeman unsuccessfully tried to prove the results of her blood test were distorted by antibiotics, even though she admitted in court to downing a considerable amount of alcohol on the day she was arrested. Freeman also claimed that Sir Alex Ferguson needed to drive on the hard shoulder of a motorway because he had an upset stomach and was desperate to get to a lavatory. Others have managed to get off speeding charges by arguing that there was no proof he was actually driving his car at the time.

All these reasons may be perfectly valid, and in all the cases (except that of Caprice) Mr Freeman has managed to convince magistrates that they are plausible, just as Mr Henson's lawyer was able to turn a sob story about charity engagements into a reason why his client need to be back behind the wheel as soon as possible. The point is that most of us don't have the cash to hire lawyers to try and plead our own, equally important "mitigating cirumstances". The sooner fines and bans are made mandatory the better.

A smart head (on a thin body)

Cynics might think the idea of the un-erotic and over styled Victoria Beckham penning a guide on how to dress is ludicrous. Victoria is very smart - never make the mistake of thinking she's anything other than 100 per cent conscientious about exploiting the position she finds herself in. And perhaps that is why we should admire her, rather than her obvious belief that you can never be too rich or too thin - something Gloria Vanderbilt said many decades ago. Victoria is anxious to morph into Audrey Hepburn, hence the bob and the giant shades. But anyone who can get a London hotel to spend £20,000 tarting up a suite she is going to occupy for two nights has a very good business head on her shoulders.

* The Government plans to set up 12 new academies by 2008 to train young people in specialist areas, from the nuclear power industry to financial services. One will focus on skills needed by the construction industry and another (much needed) academy will prepare students for the catering and leisure sectors. Mr Blair was photographed this week visiting the new Fashion Retail Academy in central London, which is sponsored by Marks and Spencer, Philip Green's Arcadia Group, GUS, Next and Tesco. The thinking behind the academies is sound - using a combination of government money and funds from each commercial sector will guarantee that courses are practical and relevant. In retailing and the hospitality industry they only need to teach one thing-- the customer is always right. Courtesy is a hugely underrated quality in Britain - whether you're buying a drink in a bar or trying on a dress, we seem to specialise in snotty service from people who act as if they are doing you a favour.