Thursday, 23 June 2011

A Divided Parish - Part 1

On January 19th, 1982, the culmination came of a court case which had caused great divisions in St Brelade's Parish. Mrs Olga Johnson, Rating Officer at the Parish Hall, sued Mr Donald Lucas, former Assistant Rating Officer for defamation.

The case was thrown out, and Mr Lucas was thereby vindicated in the actions he had taken. Nevertheless, the Constable, Len Downer, who had sacked Mr Lucas, refused to reinstate him.

But what had happened, and why had it caused so much upset in the Parish?

In a large Parish, such as St Brelade, the task of the Rating Assessment Committee had changed as the Parish had grown. It had been the duty of the Committee to carry out personally, not only all the calculations to arrive at a proper rateable assessment of each person liable to pay rates, but also the attendant clerical work. This burden was clearly too onerous for what was, essentially, a honorary position. So the Parish employed two paid staff who would report to the Committee - the the Rating Officer and the Assistant Rating Officer. Neither held any executive power, but they would carry out the attendant clerical work which the Committee had found tedious and time consuming, as well as the formal assessment of properties. They would then report to the Committee with their recommendations.

In February 1974, Mrs Olga Johnson joined the staff of the Parish Hall as a a clerical assistant in the rating office.. In 1975, the post of Rating Officer became vacant and both she and Mr Donald Lucas applied for it. She ended up getting the position, and he got the position of Assistant Officer. The working relationship between them seemed to have been good at that time. They both worked in a room on the first floor where the Assessment Committee met.

But in 1980, Mr. Lucas was asked to move out to an adjacent room on the same floor, so that he no longer had the same level of access to the Assessment Committee, leaving Mrs Johnson alone in that position. When properties were being assessed, one of his main duties was to transfer the details of the assessments from the Schedules on to cards and from the cards into the final filing system where eventually the items would be bound. But as he did this, he discovered that it appeared that she was beginning to fill in some of the details on the right hand side of the Schedules in the part reserved for the use of the Assessment Committee. He wondered if she was, in fact, exercising too great an influence on the Assessment Committee.

Mr Lucas thought that it was likely, as far as he could determine, that some of computations on rates were being worked out by Mrs. Johnson to the detriment of some rate payers who were not being given all the statutory allowances to which they were entitled. There were a number of inconsistencies between how different properties were assessed, and he did not see this as fair or just, but when he had raised the matter with Mrs Johnson, she had told him, in no uncertain terms, "that's the way it has to be done", with no discussion of the matter.

But there was another problem. Although a start had been made some years previously to re-assess each property in the Parish, the system of doing so was piecemeal and this was inequitable to those persons whose properties were assessed first. The delay of several years before similar properties in the Parish, and in some cases adjacent to the newly assessed ones, were dealt with meant that some ratepayers were carrying too high a proportion of the rates although temporarily. Moreover, in making the re-assessment, Mrs Johnson appeared to follow some rules for some properties, and other, inconsistent ones, for others.

Both of these matters resulted in a very high number of appeals, and Mr Lucas was very concerned. As he saw it, rates should be levied with equity in relation to the rental value of the land we own or occupy and in accordance with the law. But from what he could see happening, there seemed to be two laws operating in St Brelade "one enacted by the States of Jersey and one according to Mrs. Johnson."

As Mrs Johnson was clearly not amenable to any discussion on the matter, he sought an interview with the Constable, Mr. de la Haye, who was the de facto head of the Parish Administration. He had gone to see the Constable to tell him what he believed was happening in the rating office as regards Mrs. Johnson and the assessments but, following a conversation between the Constable and Mr. Philip Daubeney, one of the assessors elected in 1980, he was asked to put what he was going to say in writing. He agreed to do this, and also that that the members of the Supervisory Committee might see the letter on condition that the copies made for that purpose were returned to him.

On 28 June 1980, the letter was submitted to the Constable. Unfortunately, Donald Lucas had failed to put "Private and Confidential" on the letter, and it was this which was to lead to the Court case against him.

What were his complaints? Here, from his letter, are some of the main points:

It was agreed that the whole Parish be re-assessed. Not by a percentage as everyone would expect but by re-assessing each house one at a time and doing a section of the Parish each year. This I thought to be most unjust and contrary to the spirit of the law. Some of these re-assessments were staggering in their size. One or two were appealed against but the majority said nothing. Others who inquired about the large increase were misled into accepting by such remarks from the Rating Officer as, 'You haven't had an increase for a long time' or if the rate payer asked if all in the Parish had been treated equally would be told '. . . you cannot expect five men who give up their time to do this job and are sworn in by the Royal Court, to do all the Parish in one year'. I must have heard that last remark at least 500 times. I agree it cannot be done in one year using that stupid and unjust method.

One gentleman who came to see me when Mrs. Johnson was on holiday complained of having to pay 180% more than the year before. This man, a Chartered Accountant, asked me this question '. . . Where has all the money gone?' I knew immediately what he meant. Totally convinced, and justifiably so, that everyone was being treated in similar fashion, he assumed that the Parish income would increase by approx. 180%. He continued, 'Your audited accounts do not show that figure so where has it gone?', and before I could say another word he stormed out of the room. The actual increase in Parish expenditure that year was in the region of 17½%.

What is the result of all this? It means that rate payers re-assessed in the first year have been paying a surcharge of, in some cases, 100% for four years until the final section of the Parish was re-assessed which was supposed to be this year but is still not complete. Mrs. Johnson says all properties not visited this year but which have had what she describes as a nominal 10% put on this year will be visited next year to be re-assessed properly. I have never in my life been connected or involved with something more unprofessional or indeed unjust and contrary to the spirit of the law..

Suppose the States agreed to increase income tax from the present 20% to say 30% but the Comptroller of Income Tax decreed that he would, starting from next year, apply the new rate to each Parish in turn, taking six years to complete the operation, what would be the result, besides anarchy? It would be deemed illegal, yet that is what has happened in this Parish during the last four years. To say that it could not be achieved in one year (supposing that it needs to be done at all) is no argument.

I now come to the broad details of matters that are causing me great concern where the public are being treated in an inequitable way and in many cases are being denied their rights to deductions according to law. As a result some rate payers will be asked to pay anything from £1 to hundreds of pounds more than they are required by law. These are not clerical errors, there are dozens and dozens of such cases. In many cases swimming pools are rated as a separate item and are not given a deduction for repairs and there are perhaps as many cases where House & Pool are one item which means the pool will have 50% off. Both cannot be correct. In the case of land the anomalies are so numerous I could not begin to detail all on paper.

He then proceeded to give several examples of how this worked out in practice, and highlighted, in particular, how this meant that in the case of small areas of land, the position was of "some rate payers paying 25 Qrs. for small areas of land, some paying none and some paying as last year, which could mean anything! The position is so confusing it makes nonsense of the law."

There were clear grounds for complaint, and Mr Lucas also gave anecdotal examples of Mrs Johnson's high-handed attitude, and how some members of the Assessment Committee had also made assessments on an ad hoc basis, not by the rating law, and Mrs Johnson had colluded with that. He thought, no doubt, that the Supervisory Committee would be examining the cases which he cited, and considering how the system was being applied unjustly.

However, the Parish Secretary, Mr. L. Le Brocq, on the instruction of the Constable, had some more copies made so that, eventually, it was seen not only by the Supervisory Committee, the 'Comité Paroissiale' and also by the members of the Assessment Committee and Mrs. Johnson. This was clearly not what Mr Lucas had intended after his talk to the Constable, but the verbal agreement that the Supervisory Committee alone would see the letter was ignored. Instead it was given to the very people who should have been kept away from the matter until an investigation had been made.

From all accounts, Mrs Johnson was a forceful woman, and not one to take matters lightly. Instead of countering the claims made by Mr Lucas, and backing up her case with witnesses and documentation, she went for a much more direct route, and one that appeared to destroy the credibility of Mr Lucas. This put the onus upon him having to defend himself, rather than her having to defend herself against his criticisms. A few days after seeing the copy of the letter, she instituted an action against him for defamation!

Part 2 will come next week....

1982 J.J. 67, Transcript of Johnson V Lucas, Jersey Law Reports.

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