Monday, 27 June 2011

A Divided Parish - Part 2

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 new Constable, Len Downer, who had sacked Mr Lucas, refused to reinstate him. This, and the rates fiasco which the Court case revealed, was going to cause stormy Parish meetings over the coming year in which Mr Downer showed himself to be completely out of his depth, and tended to make matters worse by assembling a cohort of supporters against his own parishioners, thus polarising matters even more.

As part 1 of the narrative revealed, this legal case concerned complaints made by Mr Lucas against Mrs Johnson, concerning the inconsistent and unjust way in which Parish rates were being assessed, which had also led to a significant rise in the number of appeals, and prompted Mr Lucas to write a strongly worded letter in which he gave a number of examples of bad, inconsistent and unjust rating assessments. This letter was, on the basis of a verbal conversation with the Constable, for the eyes of the Supervisory Committee only.

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. The Constable, Mr Max de La Haye (senior) had made an extremely poor judgement, because the letter was was given to the very people who should have been kept away from the matter until an investigation had been made. What is more, he had betrayed the firm request of Mr Lucas that it was to be a letter for the Supervisory Committee to consider alone, and not for third parties.

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 Mr Lucas credibility. 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, and without giving him he opportunity to explain or apologise to her, she instituted an action against him for defamation!

After this, some action had to be taken by the Constable. Mr de La Haye had retired, and the new Constable was Len Downer, a newsagent in St Aubin. In January, 1981, Mr Downer had suspended both Mrs Johnson and Mr Lucas for three months, to have a breathing space to decide what action to take.

However, rather from instituting an investigation to discover whether Mr Lucas' accusations had any merit, Len Downer decided to reinstate Mrs Johnson in April.

Donald Lucas, in the meantime, was having difficulties in securing the documentary material to support his case. Away from the Parish Hall, he found that Mr Downer was extremely uncooperative in providing this, and he had to seek the help of the Royal Court to obtain papers such as the Schedules and Rating Cards together with the correspondence relating to them.

These should have been made available to him without seeking the redress of the Court, and this intransigence demonstrated that Mr Downer had already decided that Mr Lucas' claims were not correct, and he was himself supporting Mrs Johnson. Again, this was poor judgment on the part of Len Downer, as the substance of Mr Lucas claims were now to be assessed in Court, and if they vindicated his letter, this would leave the Constable backed into a corner for prematurely taking sides. Throughout this period, Mr Downer showed a lamentable lack of understanding of Mr Lucas rights.

Because Mr Lucas had needed to seek the Courts to obtain documents which he should have been given copies of anyway (as the Court itself admonished), Mr Downer took that as a personal affront, and told the Parish Secretary that he simply could not employ Mr Lucas again because he had taken him to Court. Conferring with the Parish Secretary probably confirmed his own prejudices, because Mr Le Brocq, the Secretary did not appear to have much sympathy for Mr Lucas.

Indeed, when Mr Lucas had raised these matters with Mr Le Brocq, Mr Le Brocq had simply taken Mrs Johnson's side rather than pursuing a more diplomatic approach of getting all parties together, such as Mrs. Johnson and the Assessment Committee, to resolve matters.

The case was heard before the Bailiff, Sir Peter Crill, with Advocate F.C. Hamon appearing for the plaintiff, Mrs Olga Johnson, and Advocate Geoffrey Fiott for the defendant, Donald Lucas.

Donald Lucas denied that the letter was defamatory and argued in his defence that it was published on an occasion of qualified privilege and pleaded justification and fair comment.

He also argued that the documentation supported other anecdotal evidence which he had seen, and which had also been seen by other witnesses, and this had changed his attitude to Mrs Johnson, because as a result he could no longer trust what she told him about rating matters.

Some were trivial in themselves, but cumulatively built up a picture of Mrs Johnson's character, and how she dealt with rating matters and the general public on these issues. One example which Mr Lucas cited was when he had seen her put down the telephone on a woman caller. When this had reached the ears of Constable Max de la Haye, she had denied doing so. The Constable remembered the incident.

His attitude changed towards her so that he no longer trusted what she told him about rating matters after he had heard her deny to the Constable that she had put the telephone receiver down on a woman caller. Mr. de la Haye remembered the incident. There was a conflict of evidence on this point between the plaintiff and the defendant. The woman caller was not called. We accept the defendant's evidence on this matter.

The Court found that there was a major flaw in how the rates can been assessed, where the task of doing the computations delegated to Mrs Johnson. The Assessors were professional businessmen, but they were not as acquainted with the law as Mrs Johnson. In 1980 four new members had joined the Assessment committee. As complete novices to assessing the rates, they tended to rely on Mrs Johnson for guidance. And shortly before 1980, at the request of the Assessment Committee, she had been asked to to fill in and complete the computations. This had given her an an opportunity, if she so wished, perhaps unwittingly, to lean in favour of the Parish, especially given the inexperience of the new Committee.

The Committee, too, was uncertain how to assess rates properly regards company owned properties, and was seeking an interview with the Supervisory Committee to discuss this and other queries. As this took a very long time to arrange, the Committee was bound to rely on the Mrs Johnson's experience of rating.

Donald Lucas had been excluded from the assessment room, and could only infer what was happening from the Schedules themselves (now written up in Mrs Johnson's hand), from what he himself heard and saw.

He had personally observed what appeared to be a violation of the law. One member of the Assessment Committee, when looking through the appeals which lay on Mrs. Johnson's desk remarked "Of course this one has to be assessed on his business and his turnover". Mr Lucas noted that: "There was no intervention or comment from Mrs. Johnson on his remark and therefore this gentleman at least, has been assessing business premises on this basis which Mrs. Johnson knows as well as I do is not permissible under the law . . . but of course it is one way of bringing in more Qtrs!!!"

One of the new members since 1980, Mr Philip Daubeney rejected Mr Lucas claims, and told the Court that it was rubbish to suggest that Mrs Johnson had told the Assessment Committee how to do its job, although he did agree that the Committee asked her for her views and respected her experience.

It is curious that Mr Daubeney had not confronted Mr Lucas with this same argument when he had been privy to the interview between Mr Lucas and the Constable, just before Mr Lucas penned his letter, but on the contrary, seems to have been supportive of Mr Lucas at the time. Why had he appeared to change his mind? It certainly appears that he was determined to support the new Constable, Len Downer, and discredit Mr Lucas testimony by providing his own. Or perhaps, he also thought that it reflected badly on the Committee that they had delegated work, and not provided adequate oversight.

But unfortunately, Minutes had been kept, and they showed significant variance with what Mr Daubeney was saying, and the Court noted the inconsistency. The Minutes for 20th February said:

The New Committee do not think they should complete the Property Schedules, just make an assessment on all properties to be assessed in 1980. If more staff is needed it would then be for the Constable to see that extra staff is employed for the clerical work, which seemed to increase each year."

That entry is confirmed by that of the 27th March, which is as follows:

"The Committee feels that the Rating Officer should be given more help with correspondence etc., especially now that Schedules have to be completed by the Rating Officer after having been assessed by the Assessment Committee."

This the Court saw as a clear delegation of power to Mrs Johnson from the Committee, contradicting (and pre-dating) Philip Daubeney's statement, which now seemed to have no supporting evidence whatsoever.

Against the suggestion that she deliberately made errors, the Court was, however, of the belief that she may have been overburdened by the extra work, and even taken some of it home because of time pressures. As a consequence, they suggested that she might have overlooked some items in her computations and made a number of entries which seemed to Mr. Lucas to be totally wrong. They were taking the most charitable view of the mistakes made.

The record, as well, supported Donald Lucas interpretation of events, rather than Philip Daubeney, and not just the minutes, but another member of the Assessment Committee, Mr Anderson, gave evidence which directly contradicted his narrative.

Mr. Daubeney said that the Assessment Committee made the calculations, and Mrs. Johnson merely filled in the forms, that is to say the computations, and these were agreed by all the members of the Assessment Committee. Mr. Anderson on the other hand said that Mrs. Johnson was left to work out the figures and that the Assessment Committee did not go into "terrific details".

The Court also took evidence from Mr Benest, the only existing member who was not new to the 1980 Assessment Committee. He said that Mrs. Johnson knew exactly what to do, and this - together with the other evidence - caused a re-assessment of Mrs Johnson by the Court.

We think also that this was true. Mr. Le Breton said that if Mrs. Johnson altered the Schedules (that is made up computations in a way that did not reflect the rentals assessed by the Committee) she must have had the Authority of the Assessment Committee to do so. If this is so there is no record of such later approval in the minutes. He agreed that the plaintiff had used words referring to the rating situation as "a mess" and that she had to "put it right". All this points to a very clear delegation of power, certainly in 1980 and to a lesser extent in the previous years to the Rating Officer, Mrs. Johnson. She is not and, was not we think at the relevant time, as unassuming as her demeanour in the witness box might otherwise have implied. In our opinion, contrary to what she told us, she did not just sit there and do as she was told.

Part 3 to follow next week....

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

1 comment:

James said...

This is very, very enlightening - because in so many ways it encapsulates what is so badly wrong with "the Jersey way":

- the failure to follow due process
- the recourse to law as a blunt instrument
- the failure to provide justice that restores damage done

All that's missing for the full house (so far) is the outright nepotism - and I presume that might be coming in Part 3!