Thursday, 7 July 2011

A Divided Parish - Part 3

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 even worse for himself by assembling a cohort of supporters against his own parishioners, thus polarising matters even more, as he retreated into a fortress mentality.

The new Assessment Committee which had been elected in 1980, (Mr. Benest, Mr Daubeney, Mr Binnington, Mr Anderson and Mr Jackson) also came under fire for their part in the affair.

This is the third part of the story...

Although Donald Lucas had not been in the same room as the assessors, since Mrs Olga Johnson had managed to get him moved to another room, he was still privy to the deliberations of the assessors, but now filtered through the voice of Mrs Johnson. A largely new team of assessors had been appointed and after they had met, Mrs Johnson came with a "decree" that the assessors had decided that no assessment would go out under £25 (which would be around £66 today). So if a small strip of land would have been assessed with a lower rental value, the calculation would be £25 instead. Mrs Johnson told Mr Lucas that "they agree it costs too much to send these small accounts."

Donald Lucas saw that this was essentially making a charge for collecting the rates, and although he could not find anything in the rates law which allowed a charge to be made for collection, or a minimum value to be fixed, he did as he was asked, especially as he was pressured to do so by Mrs Johnson. All Schedules declaring land were assessed on the new ruling, even where only ½ a vergee or less was declared.

It was like saying that if someone's income tax came to £10, the tax office would nevertheless send out an assessment for £25, on the grounds that it cost too much to process a bill of just £10. In fact, it was not only not in the rates law, it was also quite illegal, and it is a measure of how inept the new rating committee was at administering the law. Despite being businessmen of some standing in the community, they were clearly out of their depth, and thought they could simply make up rating procedures as they chose.

But when Mrs. Johnson arrived at Centenier Alf Vibert's Schedule, suddenly an exemption was made. She changed the method in which the assessment was to take place. Donald Lucas described this to the Court:

She suggested to me, half heartedly, 'Fred hasn't got much land, has he?' Knowing immediately what she had in mind I replied 'Oh yes he has a fair amount between one and two vergees I would say'. 'Oh' she replied, 'he hasn't very much, the house and land can go together!' I relate all this because it is of considerable importance in my certain belief that to avoid confrontation on this matter with Mr. Vibert the rates on his land were cancelled completely rather than be put at £25 A.R.V. Mr. Vibert has a very considerable knowledge of the rating law and how to apply it and there was no way Mrs. Johnson was allowing her pet scheme to fall on his plate. You may think Sir, that I am suggesting that Mrs. Johnson was being devious: I make no apology for allowing you to come to that conclusion.

In fact, Centenier Alf Vibert had been a former member of the St. Brelade Assessment Committee and - as Donald Lucas had said - was very knowledgeable about the Rating Law in Jersey. He had between one and two vergees of land separate from his house, and Mrs Johnson had decided to assess the Centenier's land and house together, whereas other owners with far less land than Mr. Vibert had been assessed at £25. Had his land been assessed separately, he would have faced a liability on £6 per vergee rental value, making a total liability on about £12 rental value. If the policy of increasing the liability to a minimum level of £25 had been applied, the liability would have been double what was properly due. Instead the Mrs Johnson assessed the land and the house together, with the result that the land and the house together were assessed at the same figure as the previous year for the house alone and the land was effectually omitted altogether save in name.

Donald Lucas argued for the Court to infer that Mrs Johnson's motive in this sudden and abrupt change in stated police was "to avoid a confrontation with a man who was knowledgeable about Rating Law over a practice which she knew to be unjustifiable."

The Committee also saw to cover their tracks with a minute in which they pretended that they did not know Mr Vibert's property at all:

"Mr. Vibert's Schedule does not give land measurements is it a garden, agricultural or building land? It is assumed there is a guest house, private house and flat. Name of occupiers not given for flat. Correct details must be given 1981, this ruling has also been given by the Supervisory Committee".

In fact, however, this was completely untrue, as Mr Vibert gave evidence in Court:

Mr. Vibert said that Mrs. Johnson, Mr. Daubeney and Mr. Benest knew his property well. Mrs. Johnson had known Mr. Vibert some time before her husband's death. Even allowing for some inconsistencies in the filling up of his Schedule, we find the minute of the 1st May 1980 quite inexplicable, and in direct conflict with the evidence, certainly of Mr. Vibert himself and which was not challenged. Even Mrs. Johnson admitted she might have made some such remark as Mr. Lucas said she did about Mr. Vibert's land. We accept Mr. Lucas' evidence unreservedly on this point.

It was also noted that on 10th January, 1980, the Supervisory Committee had sent a letter to the Constable through its Secretary. In this, the references concerning land show that this Committee was unaware of the novel and newly invented £25 policy, and they ruled that the land (where there was no property) should be assessed on the basis of £6 a vergee with £3 a vergee for meadow-land. It was clear that that this letter had been passed to Mrs. Johnson because her writing appeared on the copy that was presented to the Court, but there was no mention of this directive in the minutes of the Assessment Committee of that letter as such.

The Court thought it likely that Mrs Johnson had omitted to bring it to the Assessment Committee's attention. The result, as proven by schedules were that a number of properties with land were assessed at £25 where they should have been assessed for less.

The Court also noted that her high-handed attitude to any rate payers who queried their assessment, either because of the £25 minimum rate levied, or because of the gradual and uneven progression of re-assessing ratable value of properties in the Parish. This had given rise to some Parishioners facing extortionate rises of 180% or more, because they had been re-assessed first, while others, who were not likely to have their properties re-assessed until four years later, were just paying an extra 10%. Mrs Johnson did not attempt to explain why the rates had risen, because this would have exposed the complete shambles that the re-assessment was creating over the Parish.

As regards her attitude to ratepayers who objected to or enquired about the assessments we do not feel it necessary for us to say more than that some of Mrs. Johnson's replies to enquiries might have been more helpful and explicit. The quoting of the Law in extenso is of little assistance to somebody asking why his or her rates have been increased.

After some difficulty, Advocate Fiott was able to extract from the Supervisory Committee the information that a total of fifty-seven objections had been received against their assessments by ratepayers for St. Brelade in 1980... It was apparent, therefore, that in 1980, there was a considerable increase in the number of dissatisfied ratepayers over the two previous years, but particularly compared with 1979.

The Court finally ruled on whether there had been defamation of Mrs Johnson, or whether Mr Lucas had made a valid case:

From the evidence of his witnesses, as well as from some of the plaintiff's witnesses and after considering the defendant's own evidence, particularly his general demeanour and attitude in the witness box, we accept that he is an honest man who would not make assertions he did not truly believe in. As he told us he had a fanaticism for the truth; this we can well accept. It is true that that might make his vision somewhat narrow; it may lead him to be intolerant but that does not make him a deliberate liar.

It follows that we may now answer the question as to whether the plaintiff, on a balance of probabilities, has proved that the defendant when he wrote the letter on an occasion of qualified privilege was acting from malice. We answer that question in the negative. Accordingly, the defendant is discharged from the action.

But the case had brought to light the fact that both Mrs Johnson and the Committee had been inconsistent and incompetent in the matter of assessing Parish rates, both with the strategy of a four year re-assessment of properties, and with the creative amendments to the rating law over the £25 minimum charge on land.

The arrogance of the Committee was also particularly apparent in some of the stories told by witnesses in Court, and reported in the Jersey Evening Post. On example cited as of how one ratepayer told how she had gone to see the Committee, not to make a complaint, but simply to establish how the rates were assessed so that she could consider whether she had grounds for an appeal. Rather than explaining how the rates were assessed, the Rate Assessment Committee simply burst out laughing and dismissed her out of hand.

So there were two problems facing the Parish.

One was that the Court case had largely exonerated Donald Lucas, and there was a growing body of Parishioners who thought that he had been dealt with unjustly by the Constable, and should be reinstated. Far from showing him to be mistaken, the Court case had publically exposed malpractice with regard to rating assessments. Donald Lucas was a whistleblower who had been unfairly treated, and it was not right that he had been sacked.

And this was the other matter - the total shambles of the policy on how the rate assessments in general were being done, and how the revaluation of rate assessments was proceeding, leading to some people getting rises of 180% and others 10% because it was taking so long.

This was to lead to some of the noisiest and most vociferous Parish Assemblies that St Brelade had ever seen. These Assemblies had to be held at the School hall at Quennevais School - and these were packed out - because there simply was not enough room for everyone at the Parish Hall. Such was the anger felt by the general public.

Len Downer was to survive as Constable, but his intransigence and inability to admit he could have made mistakes led to a his losing the trust of most of the electorate, and as the storm broke, a surprising figure would emerge as peacemaker, and suggest realistic solutions to restore faith and trust of the Parishioners.

Part 4 will come next week....

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

1 comment:

James said...

This series gets better and better.