'Metric martyrs' cannot sell in lbs and ozs

By John Aston,Pa News
Monday 18 February 2002 01:00

Five market traders – the so–called metric martyrs – today lost their High Court battle for the legal right to trade in pounds and ounces.

Lord Justice Laws, sitting with Mr Justice Crane, rejected their claim that domestic law provided a loophole which meant European Union directives requiring goods to be sold in metric units did not apply in England and Wales.

Lawyers for the five had warned during a three–day hearing last November that making it "a criminal offence to sell a pound of bananas in order to please Brussels" threatened to cause a "deep constitutional crisis".

Mr Fox was in court this morning to see the judges dismiss their application for judicial review.

All were fighting convictions and court orders against them after they defied weights and measures inspectors.

Neil Herron, spokesman for the five traders, said defeat today meant "the death of democracy" but pledged that the fight would continue.

Mr Herron said it showed that an act of the UK Parliament could be overruled by a "mere directive" from "an entity, a gathering of unelected bureaucrats over which we have no democratic control".

The defeat highlighted "in no uncertain terms how a nation and its peoples had been betrayed by the political elite".

The five traders faced legal action after the Government complied with European metrication directives by making it a criminal offence to weigh and sell goods only in imperial measures.

The case has gained worldwide attention and is being keenly watched as it marks the first head–on legal clash since the UK joined the European Community between laws made by Parliament and European law.

Michael Shrimpton, appearing for the five, told the two judges during a three–day hearing last November: "It is a test case of constitutional importance, we say, and the public and the country are entitled to know what has been done in their name."

On the first day of the hearing, car horns tooted support for the "imperial rebellion" at London's Law Courts, whilst about 200 protesters waved placards and banners demanding "Keep our lb" and "No to Euro Fascism".

Members of the UK Independence Party set up a fruit and veg stall – selling bananas and sprouts in imperial measures.

Mr Shrimpton argued the 1985 Weights and Measures Act authorised traders to continue using imperial measures, even though the UK had signed up to the 1972 European Communities Act and became subject to European directives.

There was no "hierarchy of legislation", and the 1985 Act had just as much legal weight as the 1972 Act.

He said: "The later 1985 Act impliedly repealed the earlier Act, in so far as it related to weights and measures."

The Government and the courts were now "duty bound" to apply the 1985 Act, even though it "ran a coach and horses through a Commission Directive with spectacular effect".

Laws made by Parliament could undo, "in part or in whole," the contents of the 1972 Act.

The metric martyrs include Steven Thoburn, from Sunderland.

He was found guilty in April last year and given a 12–month conditional discharge for using two sets of imperial scales, which did not bear an official stamp, to sell bananas by the pound.

The stamp had been obliterated by a trading standards officer on a previous visit because his scales only weighed imperially.

His lawyers say he had the facility to serve in metric and had always dual priced his goods.

Fishmonger John Dove, of Camelford, Cornwall, was ordered to pay court costs for selling mackerel at £1.50 a pound; Julian Harman, also of Camelford, was ordered to pay costs for selling Brussels sprouts at 39p a pound.

Hackney market greengrocer Colin Hunt was given a 12–month conditional discharge in June last year for pricing pumpkins, sweet potato, cassava and other vegetables by the pound, and ordered to pay £4,500 costs.

Street trader Peter Collins, of Sutton, Surrey, had his trading licence revoked for using imperial scales.

Mr Shrimpton described them as "ordinary men without means or higher education but whose patriotism and courage puts ministers to shame".

The judges declared that the regulations which introduced metrication were valid and not ultra vires – outside the Government's powers – as had been claimed.

They also rejected a claim by Mr Hunt that the proceedings taken against him were an abuse of the court process.

Former Conservative Chancellor Lord Howe called on the Government to complete the UK's conversion to the metric system.

Speaking before the metric martyrs' defeat, Lord Howe, who is patron of the UK Metric Association, said Britain was the only Commonwealth country not to have completed the process.

"It's high time we sorted ourselves out," he told political web site epolitix.com.

"It truly is a national disgrace to live in this twilight world, educate children in one way but then have different measurements in shops and on signposts.

"It's an illustration of the way in which our country hasn't really acquired a familiarity with today's real world."

Lord Howe said he regretted the decision of the Conservative government in which he served to abolish the Metrication Board, saying it was a "very modest but foolish measure of economy".

"I regret that very much because it was the one body that could and should have sustained the educational campaign, to achieve completion of the process."

The court ordered the traders to pay the legal costs of the prosecuting authority in their particular case.

Philip Moser, appearing for Sunderland City Council, which prosecuted Mr Thoburn, said the appeal costs estimates which had appeared in the press and media had been "vastly inflated" and the actual figure was some £37,000.

Lord Justice Laws gave the prosecuting authorities 36 days to decide whether or not to apply for costs orders against the Metric Martyrs Defence Fund after the court was told the Fund had been backing the legal action, raising £250,000 from public supporters.

The judge said: "By then it should be clear whether the fund proposes to meet orders for costs made against the appellants, or does not, or is not indicating one way or the other."

The court also certified that the cases raised a point of law of general public importance, but refused to grant permission for appeals to be heard by the House of Lords.

The traders and their lawyers will now have to petition the Law Lords themselves to give a final ruling.