Ex-MP Chaytor jailed for 18 months, sentencing remarks show other defendants could get more

7 January 2011 by

Former Member of Parliament David Chaytor has been sentenced to 18 months imprisonment by Mr Justice Saunders after pleading guilty to 3 charges of false accounting in relation to his Parliamentary expenses.

The sentence marks the end of a long legal road for Mr Chaytor, whose case – along with two others – has already reached the Supreme Court without any criminal trial taking place. In a fascinating case for those interested in the British constitution, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on whether a court could try a Member of Parliament in relation to the submission of an allegedly dishonest claim for Parliamentary expenses. The men claimed it could not, relying on Article 9 of the 1688 Bill of Rights, which states:

That the Freedome of Speech and Debates or Proceedings in Parlyament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parlyament.

The court ruled that the Bill of Rights did not apply in this case (see my post) as “the principal matter to which article 9 is directed is freedom of speech and debate in the Houses of Parliament and in parliamentary committees“.

Mr Chaytor pleaded guilty to the charges against him, which relate to £22,660 claimed and £18,350 received, shortly after the Supreme Court judgment.

Today he has been sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. In his sentencing remarks, Mr Justice Saunders said that Mr Chaytor could not attract sympathy for having limited means, that these kind of offences are difficult to detect and amounted to a serious breach of public trust of parliamentarians:

MPs are trusted by Parliament to make honest claims and the rules make that abundantly clear. The foreword by the Speaker to the Green Book which sets out the Rules says that ‘Members are responsible for ensuring that their use of allowances is beyond reproach’. It is right that MPs should be trusted. They hold an important position in our constitution. These false claims were made in my judgment in breach of a high degree of trust placed in MPs to only make legitimate claims.

Moreover, the public are “entitled to expect that people who legislate for the public will themselves be honest in their dealings with the State and in particular with their use of public funds which are paid for out of taxation“.

Three other men – Elliot Morley, James Devine and Lord Hanningfield (Paul White) – are still awaiting trial for similar offences under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 (false accounting), and will take little solace from the sentencing. Morley is charged with dishonestly claiming mortgage expenses of just over £30,000, Devine just under £9,000 and Hanningfield for six charges under the Theft Act (it is not clear how much for).

Mr Justice Saunders considered the guidelines issues by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and used as a starting point the punishment suggested for offences of confidence fraud involving sums under £20,000 which is 18 months imprisonment. He accepted that was “increased significantly” due to the aggravating factors of breach of trust involved in the offences and the effect they have on the public’s confidence in the legislature.

He also took into account Mr Chaytor’s good character and the fact that he had “devoted a considerable period of his life to public service and he has been a considerable force for good“, and that he had repaid all the money he had received from the false claims.

Mr Chaytor received some discount for pleading guilty, but not the full discount of a third as the judge did not accept that

Mr Chaytor is entitled to the maximum discount because, after the decision of the Supreme Court, he went on to argue that the prosecution should be stayed as an abuse of the process as he could not get a fair trial.

The starting point was therefore 2 years imprisonment, which was reduced by 25% for pleading guilty.

Any judge who approaches the case of the other men – if they are found guilty – will not be bound by this judge’s reasoning, but punishment in criminal cases has to follow certain guidance and sentencing formulae. As such, it seems unlikely that if convicted the other men will receive significantly less than Chaytor, and could receive more, particularly Morley, if the charges of £30,000 worth of false accounting are made out.

This will all be subject to the particular mitigating and aggravating features of their cases, but it seems likely that any judge will take a tough line on the alleged breaches of public trust, as Mr Justice Saunders did. And, of course, they will not be entitled to any discount if they continue to plead not guilty.

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