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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Conspiracy law, class and society - Part 9

The Hain Case

On 21 August 1972, Peter Hain, who six months earlier had attacked the use of ‘political’ conspiracy charges, was convicted of conspiring to disrupt a tennis match. The facts of the Hain affair may appear to fit into the framework of cases during the 1970s with a political overtone, but it is not really an example of the prosecutors’ obsession with conspiracy charges, because neither the police nor the Director of Public Prosecutions were interested in indicting Hain for his anti-apartheid activities. Hain is one of the few cases where the origins of the decision to use conspiracy can be traced: the prosecution was brought at the instigation of Freedom Under Law Limited, an organisation partly funded by white South Africans. It alleged that Hain had conspired with persons unknown to obtain a lawful object by unlawful means, that is, interfering with the lawful rights of persons to watch a Davis Cup tennis match against South Africa, by running onto the court and distributing leaflets. Hain was, in effect, subjected to a ‘blanket’ indictment in which lawyers could distinguish 147 different ‘unlawful activities’, including an allegation worded in almost exactly the same way as an offence under the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, intended to deal with unruly trade unionists, as follows: ‘watching and besetting places where members of the team happened to be, and following members of the team from place to place’.

Hain was not, of course, the only person who had demonstrated against South African sports tours, nor was he the only identifiable one. His public image made him a suitable scapegoat and ensured maximum publicity for the political organisation which took him to court. Judge Gillis fulfilled the prosecutors’ expectations by refusing to accept defense submissions that tours by South African teams were not in the public interest because they would strain race relations in England. He held that the issue of ‘public interest’ meant ‘something of importance to citizens interested in the maintenance of law and order.’ Telling Hain that any conviction for conspiracy was a serious matter, Gillis fined him £200 and saved the South African subscribers their money by ordering that costs should be paid from public funds.

One significance of Hain’s case is its difference from another private prosecution brought in Bristol during 1975. David Southwell, a voluntary social worker, had been assaulted and unlawfully evicted from his flat by a group of men who included a prominent local lawyer. Neither the local authority nor the police would handle his complaint, so Southwell brought his own conspiracy prosecution, unaided by wealthy racists. He appeared in person at the committal hearings, where he established a prima facie case against the accused, but was represented by counsel at the Crown Court trial. The accused changed their plea to guilty at the last moment, possibly to avoid the embarrassing publicity which cross-examination might bring. Judge Ewart James fined them a total of £50 for five offences including conspiracy to evict, conspiracy to effect forcible entry and conspiracy to trespass. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the seriousness of conspiracy charges seems to depend, at least so far as private prosecutions are concerned, on the public image of the accused and the influence of the prosecutor.

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