Strange legal decisions

Even the best run and most efficient legal practices need to have lots of professional liability insurance (try!), because things can go wrong in the most unexpected way.

Back in 1985 a lady named Bernadette Ryan complained to her local police force that her video recorder had been stolen during a burglary at her home. To make things more interesting, he told the investigating police officers that the recorder had now been stolen twice, that she bought it as stolen property herself! Not surprisingly, was duly charged with dishonestly handling goods knowing or believing them to be stolen, contrary to the Theft Act of 1968, and dishonestly attempting to handle those goods contrary to the Criminal Attempt Act of 1981.

When the case of Anderton v Ryan (Anderton being the then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester) was up before the magistrates at Manchester Crown Court she pleaded not guilty on the grounds that perhaps she was wrong, and she had not bought stolen goods in the first place. This placed the police in a bit of a quandary since the person she bought the recorder from was nowhere to be found so they couldn't prove whether she had bought it dishonestly or not! The police decided that they were not likely to get a conviction under the Theft Act, so we asked the magistrates to convict her of the alternative charge under the 1981 act. The bench was not impressed and dismissed the charge.

The divisional Court looked at the evidence, decided that she was guilty after all and instructed the magistrates to hear the case again and convict her. Mrs Ryan was, however, was made of strong stuff so she decided to take the matter to the highest court in the land; The House of Lords!

Whilst under normal circumstances the House of Lords would normally only consider major cases, there was an interesting legal precedent to set. Five Lords sat in judgement and ruled by a majority of 4 to 1 that she had committed no offence since she could not, in their estimation, be found guilty of handling stolen property unless the property could have been proven to be stolen! The fact that she thought it was stolen was not, in their opinion, sufficiently relevant.

This caused considerable consternation since the whole concept of criminal intent had been thrown into the melting pot! However, there were to be further twists to this tale.

In 1986 a gentleman named Pyare Shivpuri visited India and was invited to handle a package of drugs which he was to have been given in England; he was then to distribute these drugs in a way in which he would be told about later. When he subsequently collected the package in Cambridge he was arrested , but when the contents were analysed they were found to be harmless vegetable matter, rather than the dangerous drugs which he had been expecting. He was subsequently convicted under the Criminal Attempt Act and, like Mrs Ryan before him, took the matter to the Law Lords in the expectation that the conviction would be squashed. It wasn't on the conviction was held to stand, leaving Mr Shivpuri with not only a severe punisment to face but also substantial costs.
Does this mean that the highest court in the land had admitted that it had made a mistake in the case of Anderton v Ryan? Surely not.

However, if the Law Lords can come to two diametrically opposed decisions based on the same points of law, how can any solicitor or barrister be confident that the advice that he or she gives to a client can be relied upon? No wonder professional indemnity premiums are so high!


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