What joy, eh, to be living in such a system?
Soca – which last year replaced the Assets Recovery Agency, after it had spent £65 million to recover £23 million – assumes that if someone has benefited from the proceeds of crime for more than six months, he is living "a criminal lifestyle". Everything he owns can then be deemed to have derived from criminal activity.
In the case of Charlie and Charles McBride, all their assets were thus valued at more than £1 million, including their boat and homes (valued at the height of the property boom). On this basis Judge Nigel Gilmour not only imposed on them fines of £385,000 – infinitely more than the value of the fish they had wrongly declared – but ruled that all their assets should be frozen as "proceeds of crime", even though the home and boat had been bought before the offences were committed. He also told the men that, unless they paid the fines within six months, they would go to prison for up to three years.
At their wits\’ end as to how to raise the money, the two McBrides negotiated a second mortgage on their homes. Charlie McBride presented Soca with £120,000, asking that it should be taken as a down-payment on the fine until he had somehow found the rest. The agency asked how he had come by the money and, when told that it came from remortgaging his house, told him that he would be charged with contempt of court because the house was a "frozen asset".
Two weeks ago the two men were accordingly jailed for contempt, and having been allowed one telephone call to tell his wife Karen what had happened, Charlie is now serving out his sentence as a prison refuse collector.
Leave aside the whole point about what they are accused of. Think about the actual logic of the fines.
You must pay us lots of money. But you cannot use your own money to pay us because we\’ve already frozen it.
We used to, however mistakenly, be proud of the essence of fairness at the centre of our legal system.
No longer, eh?