If we had had a rather more robust jury in the second Vicky Pryce trial, some pertinent questions might have been put to the judge.
For example: “Why do we have to sit and watch a chap in a funny wig constantly slagging off that poor woman over there?”
Or: “Why did he tell us that we weren’t going to hear evidence from a lady we’ve never heard of, was never mentioned in the first trial and who anyway doesn’t seem to have had any role in Ms Pryce taking driving penalty points for her husband, Chris Huhne?”
Or: “Given the offence took place 10 years ago and the issue was what happened on the fatal day when Pryce was persuaded to take the speeding points, why did we have to listen to all that scuttlebutt from years later about Huhne’s affair, his relationship with his kids, Pryce’s relationship with journalists, her abortion – all of which is properly the province of the Sun and the Mail, which we can read in our leisure time?”
Or: “Given Chris Huhne has admitted the offence, was the beneficiary of the offence, and was clearly the mastermind behind the offence, why are we wasting vast thousands of public money (and our time as jurors) trying to pin it on his wife as well?”
Some of the answers are clear enough. Take the first and third questions. The denigration of Vicky Pryce by the prosecuting barrister and the consequent examination of how a “woman scorned” sought revenge for the break-up of her marriage years later arose out of the nature of her defence. She pleaded marital coercion – that she was forced or obliged to take the then MEP and rising Liberal Democrat star’s penalty points for him.
The common law of marital coercion was abolished in the Criminal Justice Act 1925 but replaced with the words: “on a charge against a wife for any offence other than treason or murder it shall be a good defence to prove that the offence was committed in the presence of, and under the coercion of, the husband”. Once the defendant makes the plea, it will be presumed coercion took place unless the prosecution can rebut it.
This the prosecution proceeded to do in the Pryce case – not by showing that Huhne was not present when she signed the legal documents accepting the points or that he didn’t, as a matter of legal fact, coerce her. Instead the line was that a woman like Pryce, feisty, tough, intelligent, a career woman and brainy to boot – her expertise is in the most unwomanly area of economics and she has become rich and famous on the back of it – a woman like that in this day and age could not possibly have been coerced into doing anything by Chris Huhne.
This is why the Pryce team felt it necessary to lay before the court all the intimate evidence that showed family life chez Huhne was not the marriage of equal minds and mutual respect that one might have assumed.
But the prosecution seemed to want to go further. It wanted to prove that Pryce was not merely tough and clever but also, well, evil. That she was a Greek Medea figure, scorned by her husband and not quite up to murdering his children, but certainly prepared to go to any lengths to bring him down.
‘The prosecution case was framed as an attack on tough successful women and the evil that they do when they get together, possibly over a bottle of Lambrusco’
This is where Constance Briscoe, the witness who never was, came in. The rumours about the barrister and part-time judge’s involvement with Pryce had been known to journalists for a while but publication of stories was slapped down by court order when Briscoe was arrested in October. Nothing was to be published about the specific reason for her arrest or her link with Pryce or the fact that there was a police investigation into it.
Nothing was said in the first Pryce trial, halted when the jury couldn’t reach a verdict and seemed rather confused about their job. But suddenly she appeared in an off-stage role in the second trial.
The court was told this woman they’d never heard of might have been a witness but wasn’t going to be; that she was, by implication, an untruthful person because she had been dropped as a “witness of truth” (a concept the jury will never have heard of and would be unlikely to understand) and that she could face charges of perjury or perverting the course of justice (though no charge had yet been brought).
We also heard a bit more scuttlebutt. Briscoe had suffered relationship breakdown as had Pryce. Her partner, Anthony Arlidge QC, had left her at the age of 76 for a woman of 25. Briscoe is 55.
What the jury was to conclude from this was not that men are bastards tossing aside women at will – even women who would commit offences on their behalf – but that women are conniving she-devils ready to bring men down by criminal means if necessary. Andrew Edis QC, prosecuting, said the two women “appear to have cooked up a plan” to destroy Huhne by going to the press about it. We also heard Briscoe was a bit of a drinker, or at any rate, “quite partial to a glass or two” according to a journalistic contact, quoted, apropos of nothing, by the prosecution. So a very bad woman indeed to be a friend of the accused.
The prosecution case was framed as an attack on tough successful women and the evil that they do when they get together, possibly over a bottle of Lambrusco. Thus the judge, when he came to sentence Pryce to 8 months’ jail, was quite clear in his mind that she was “controlling, manipulative and devious”.
There seemed rather less about the fact that Chris Huhne didn’t want to face up to the minor embarrassment of being caught speeding (it would have made the papers for a day or two) or the minor expense (for a millionaire) of having to pay a chauffeur to ferry him about for a bit. Nor about his preference for allowing his wife to take the rap.
It will be interesting to see, once these two have paid their debt to society, which of them first returns to his (or possibly her) honoured place as a member of the establishment.
Note: Vicky Pryce’s solicitor, Robert Brown, gives his view that she should have been dealt with as a victim/witness in the case here. He will consider an appeal (whether over conviction or sentence is not clear) when transcripts of the case are issued.
This is a fascinating insight into the thinking of the the trial judge, Sweeney J, regarding marital coercion: ICLR blogpost.
His ruling in full is here. The judge notes that marital coercion involves two elements: that her husband was present and that he “coerced her – that is put pressure of some sort on her to commit the offence in such a way that, as a result, her will was overborne”. He adds that this includes being overborne “to commit the offence out of love for, or loyalty to, her husband or family, or to avoid inconvenience (whether to herself or others)”.
He notes that the prosecution view of the circumstances of the actual offence were as follows: “The Prosecution assert that, at the material time, Ms Pryce was one of the most powerful, intelligent and trusted women in the country. The commission of the offence benefited both of them. In particular, to her and the family’s benefit, it enabled him to pursue his political ambitions and it enabled her to avoid suffering the considerable inconvenience of driving him around (which is what she did suffer when he was banned, a few months later, in October 2003). The crime was, the Prosecution say, the product of a choice made by Ms Pryce (albeit possibly against her better judgment) at a time when she and her husband could be confident that their crime would never be discovered.”
It’s a reasonable case against her and pertinent to the events of 10 years ago – when the offence actually occurred. Yet the prosecution case was made up of attempts to denigrate her for her “woman scorned” revenge after the break-up of the marriage years down the line – paradoxically showing her up as not at all the controlled, steely woman that they portrayed her as for the purposes of showing she couldn’t be “overborne” by Huhne.
The argument of this post is that the defence sought – successfully – to show her as a vengeful she-devil over a period of years and that this is why the second jury convicted. The first was both confused and unconvinced. One might add that the idea of “one of the most powerful, intelligent and trusted women in the country” driving her husband around (as she did, apparently, later on) suggests that she was not the one wearing the trousers in that relationship, nor was she quite regarded as Huhne’s equal in it, despite what the prosecution tried to assert. She had to serve his ambition and his consequent travel needs, whether by taking his speeding points or becoming his unpaid chauffeuse.
Note: On 22 April 2013 Southwark Crown Court announced: “In the course of the submissions made on behalf of Christopher Huhne that he should not be responsible for the entirety of the prosecutions costs application against him, the court was referred to the applications he made for witness summonses that resulted in documentation relating to Constance Briscoe coming to light, which led to allegations being made against her.”