Who wouldn’t – deep down, in the basest, most prurient of ways – not have yearned to be a fly on the wall of the jury room at Southwark Crown Court, not just once, but twice, as 12 good people and true considered Vicky Pryce’s archaic defence of marital coercion.
Whatever they concluded could be interpreted as saying something not just about this one case, but about the nature of marriage in general and the position of married women in particular – even highly articulate, highly educated married women.
Of course, the sanctity of the jury room and the strict enforcement of jury confidentiality mean that we will probably never know – and should never know – what really went on. All we do know is how long it took the jurors not to reach a verdict first time around and how relatively long it took the new jury the second time around even though the argument was essentially quite simple.
This strongly suggests that the scales of opinion are more evenly weighted, even now, as to the status of married women than the old-fashioned feminists among us had hoped.
But I wonder whether there might not have been another element at the back of the jurors’ minds, which boils down to this. Should the case really have come to court at all?
Not just the half that was heard in court, where leading economist Vicky Pryce pleaded not guilty to perverting the course of justice on the grounds that her then husband had forced her to take his speeding points, but the other half, too – the one involving Chris Huhne, former MP, Cabinet minister and deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, who awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to the same charge on the opening day of the first trial.
If this was part of their difficulty, I can only sympathise. This case should never have come to court. I don’t say that because I dislike the law that allows a thoroughly antiquated defence of “marital coercion”, though I do. Nor because I want to trivialise the practice of people “taking points” for each other so that one avoids a driving ban.
When the first allegations against Huhne were made public, friends and colleagues divided between those who knew all about “taking points”, those who had done it, and those – including myself – who were so naïve as not to know what on earth they were talking about.
Presumably, taking someone else’s points is more difficult now, given that speed cameras capture not only the number plate, but the driver, on film. But if it is still happening, it is a crime, full stop – not a driving offence – and those caught should be prosecuted. If only, you think, Huhne had accepted his points as a fair cop at the outset, so much else could have been avoided. The law has to be upheld.
There was another element, too, that propelled this personal and family tragedy on its inevitable way. In 2010, when the allegation about Huhne getting his wife to take his points for him first surfaced in a Sunday newspaper, the British public was still preoccupied with the MPs’ expenses scandal.
The police could not be seen to be giving an MP, still less such a prominent one, any special treatment. What might at another time have been quietly laid to rest as a possible crime that had gone undetected at the time could not be ignored without giving the impression that there was one law for the powerful and another for the rest. Once made, the allegation had to be pursued.
So it was understandable that, given all the circumstances, an investigation was launched and the prosecution brought. But this does not mean that it should have been. The only reason a possible crime had come to light at all was in pursuit of a marital dispute. As Pryce acknowledged, she wanted to “nail” her estranged husband.
Her claim, vouchsafed to a journalist, had very little to do with any desire to uphold the law, and everything to do with the very messy collapse of a marriage. Ditto the agonising exchanges that were heard in court, including the private texts between estranged father and embittered son.
What was played out in court was not really a criminal case at all, but divorce proceedings by proxy. None of this should ever have seen the light of day. And there was a time when it would not have done.
When I was about 12, our family was in a car crash. My late father was driving, and we were hit as we came out of a minor road. He was prosecuted for “driving without due care and attention”. My mother, who had been in the front passenger seat, was prepared to testify that he had looked both ways and, by implication, that the other driver had been speeding. This was long before radar and cameras.
But her testimony was not allowed – or if it was, it was not evidence that could be taken into account. A provision called “marital privilege” meant that husbands and wives could not testify either for or against each other in court. This was designed in part to prevent the sort of unedifying spectacle that the two juries were treated to at Southwark Crown Court. “Marital privilege” could occasionally be contested by police or prosecutors, but that was the exception, not the rule.
This changed in the mid-1980s. The timing might have had something to do with feminism, the blurring of legal lines because of increased cohabitation and the greater social acceptability of divorce. Since then, though, testimony from spouses has been fully admissible in British courts. Husbands and wives cannot usually be compelled to testify against each other – though in some cases, such as domestic violence, they can.
But if they choose to hammer out their differences in court, it is open season. Interestingly, when Australia decided to stop recognising “marital privilege” a little more than a year ago, there was an impassioned debate along exactly these lines about whether the change was really such a good thing.
The case that concluded yesterday will be recorded in court documents as Regina v Vasiliki Pryce and Christopher Huhne. It might more accurately have been described as Pryce v Huhne and, as such, confined to the divorce court. This use of judges’ time says almost nothing about the dishonest practice of “taking points”, but an awful lot about men and women behaving badly.
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