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TV Licence Summons: What To Do?

tv-licensing.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/tv-licence-summons-what-to-do.html
Imagine that you awake one morning to find a
brown envelope on your doormat, which
contains a summons to the Magistrates' Court
for the offence of using a TV receiver without a
licence.
Would you know how to proceed in those
circumstances?
In today's article we shall explain the general
process for anyone finding themselves in that
unnerving situation. Before we start a quick
disclaimer that, in common with the vast majority of
TV Licensing's Court Presenters, we are not
lawyers, however, over the years we have
accumulated considerable knowledge and
experience of how TV Licensing handles its
prosecution cases.
It is true to say that since starting this blog we
have reviewed and observed literally hundreds of
TV Licensing cases. We have also offered winning
advice to several defendants, including Tony who
we blogged about only a few weeks ago.
1. TV Licensing Lay Information Before the Court.
It is an offence under section 363 of the
Communications Act 2003 for a person to use a TV receiver in a property that is not covered by a valid
TV licence. It is a summary offence, which means it can only be dealt with by the Magistrates' Court in
the first instance.
In order for the Magistrates to issue a summons TV Licensing must lay information before the court that
an offence has been committed. This basically means they tell the court they have evidence to charge
the accused (hereafter referred to as the "defendant") with an offence, although the court will not
actually review or test any evidence at this stage. There is nothing to say that the evidence laid before
the court will withstand closer scrutiny.
2. Summons Issued.
After information is laid the court will issue a summons, which is effectively an invitation asking the
defendant to respond to the charges in person.
The defendant normally receives the following documents with the summons:
Statement of Facts: This is a short summary of the information TV Licensing laid before the
court.
Plea Form: The defendant can complete this to indicate whether they plead guilty or not guilty.
Statement of Means: The defendant completes this form with details of their income and
outgoings, which the court uses to assess the level of any financial penalty it imposes.
TVL178 Record of Interview form: Usually a copy of the famous TVL178 Record of Interview
(self-incrimination) form is included. The defendant should closely examine this form and
compare it with the copy they should have received when TV Licensing visited the property. See
our earlier post for more information on this document.
Under section 127 of the Magistrates' Court Act 1980 the court can only issue a summons if the
prosecution lays information within 6 months of the commission of the alleged offence. If TV Licensing
take longer than that the case cannot proceed.
If the defendant fails to respond to summons the case will be heard by the Magistrates in their absence
and they will be found guilty by default. The majority of TV licence cases end this way, with the court
making judgments against defendants that fail to respond to summons. For this reason it is very
important that the defendant responds to summons.
3. Response to Summons.
This is where strategy comes into play, as the defendant will have to weigh up the most appropriate
way to respond given their circumstances.
If, having thoroughly considered the circumstances, the defendant believes they've been caught "bang
to rights", then the best option is to plead guilty from the outset. A defendant choosing this option does
not have to attend court and the case will usually be dealt with in their absence. The court will convict
them solely on the basis of their guilty plea and will not consider any other evidence, however weak,
that TV Licensing may have presented.
If, on the other hand, the defendant wishes to challenge TV Licensing's representation of the facts,
then they should plead not guilty. A defendant choosing this option does not have to attend the initial
hearing, but will obviously need to attend for trial at a later date. If the case gets as far as trial then the
defence will have the opportunity to test the quality of TV Licensing's evidence, which might be enough
to discourage them from proceeding with the case. For whatever reason, TV Licensing are sometimes
very reluctant to have their evidence and witnesses tested in court.
There may be circumstances where a guilty defendant takes the strategic option of pleading not guilty.
That might seem a strange suggestion, but there are two possible advantages to the defendant by
doing this:
TV Licensing may well make procedural errors, which result in the case being dismissed or the
Magistrates ruling in the defendant's favour.
TV Licensing, who are known to take shortcuts, may decide to withdraw the case instead of
risking closer scrutiny of their evidence at trial.
4. Pleading Guilty.
If the defendant decides to plead guilty then it is best to do so early, as the court will give a discount on
the penalty they impose. The defendant has the option of attending the hearing, but most choose to
have the case heard in their absence.
The court will usually impose a financial penalty on the guilty defendant. The starting point for any fine
is determined from the defendant's completed Statement of Means form, but the Magistrates can vary
this to take into account any mitigating or aggravating factors. The Magistrates' Court Sentencing
Guidelines give details of the current recommended fine levels. In addition to the fine, the defendant will
normally have to pay TV Licensing's costs (probably between 50-100) plus the Victim Surcharge (the
greater of 20 or 10% of any fine imposed).
5. Pleading Not Guilty.
Whenever possible we would encourage the defendant to plead not guilty, thereby forcing TV Licensing
to prove their case. It is only by challenging TV Licensing's evidence or procedures that the defendant
has any chance of winning their case.
A defendant who pleads not guilty is entitled to review all of TV Licensing's prosecution evidence prior
to trial. A written request for the evidence should be made via the court as soon as the defendant has
formally entered a not guilty plea. If the court applies standard directions then TV Licensing will have
28 days to disclose its evidence to the defence. If they fail to make disclosure in accordance with the
court's directions the case will be dismissed.
Prior to the trial TV Licensing may inform the defendant of their intention to submit a written statement
in evidence, which will be the visiting officer's (goon's) account of how they gathered information for the
TVL178 Record of Interview form. The defendant can object to such a request within 7 days of
receiving notice. We suggest that it is preferable to have all of TV Licensing's witnesses attend to give
evidence in person, because this allows the defence the chance to cross-examine them.
The court will ask the defence whether they wish to call any witnesses at the trial. Notwithstanding the
fact they may already be appearing for the prosecution, it is a good idea to call the goon who
completed the TVL178 Record of Interview form, as the success of TV Licensing's case invariably
hinges on whatever they have written. The defence should call any other reliable witnesses whose
evidence casts into doubt TV Licensing's case.
6. Examining TV Licensing's Evidence.
Once TV Licensing's evidence has been disclosed it should be carefully examined for any factual
inaccuracies or contradictions that could weaken their case. If problems are found the defence has two
main options - they can either get straight on the phone and challenge TV Licensing before trial or keep
quiet and challenge them during the trial. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these
options.
If the defence challenges TV Licensing on the quality of their evidence before trial then there is a
chance they will withdraw the case before it gets that far. The downside of challenging before trial is
that the defence has shown their hand and TV Licensing may be able to mitigate the evidential
weaknesses that have just been drawn to their attention. Alternatively, if the defence waits until trial it is
less likely TV Licensing will be able to rebuff any weaknesses that are drawn to their attention, which is
likely to weaken their case.
7. The Trial.
If the case gets as far as trial, then the hearing will proceed as follows:
Prosecution opening speech: TV Licensing will summarise their case against the defendant.
Prosecution witnesses: TV Licensing will call and examine their witnesses.
Cross-examination of prosecution witnesses: The defence will have the opportunity to cross-
examine TV Licensing's witnesses.
Prosecution re-examination of its witnesses: TV Licensing will have the opportunity to clarify any
points from its own witnesses that may have arises during the defence's cross-examination.
Submission of no case to answer: The defence has the option of submitting there is no case to
answer at this stage (e.g. the prosecution has failed to submit sufficient evidence to prove their
case). In the unlikely event that the Magistrates agree the case will be dismissed and the
defence can ask for costs to be awarded in its favour.
Defendant's evidence: The defendant can choose to give evidence from the witness box. They
do not have to, but the court may take into account their failure to do so when determining their
guilt or innocence.
Expert witnesses : If applicable. Unlike other witnesses who can only deal in fact, expert
witnesses can be called upon to give opinion on matters within their technical expertise.
Character witnesses: If applicable, character witnesses can be called to support the defendant's
good standing. If a character witness is called then TV Licensing has the right to impugn the
defendant's supposed good character by mentioning any previous convictions they might have.
Defence witnesses: The defence will call and examine their witnesses.
Cross-examination of defence witnesses: TV Licensing will have the opportunity to cross-
examine the defence witnesses.
Defence re-examination of its witnesses: The defence will have the opportunity to clarify any
points from its own witnesses that may have arisen during TV Licensing's cross-examination.
Defence closing speech: The defence will summarise its key arguments, highlighting any
evidence that supports a not guilty verdict.
The decision: The Magistrates will retire to weigh up the evidence and consider their decision.
After a normally short deliberation they will return to the courtroom and announce their decision.
If a not guilty verdict is returned the defence should ask the court to award costs in its favour. If
a guilty verdict is returned then the defence will have the opportunity for mitigation before
sentence is passed. The sentence is likely to be a slightly steeper fine that if the defendant had
pleaded guilty from the outset. The defendant will also have to pay TV Licensing's costs, which
will be more expensive having gone to trial.
If it all goes terribly wrong and the defendant is found guilty there is still the option of appealing the
Magistrates' decision. The defendant needs to act quickly as there is only a short time to lodge an
appeal.
To conclude, let us leave you with the heartening statistic that less than half of those people TV
Licensing catch evading the licence-fee are actually convicted. With a little bit of research and
preparation it really is possible to mount a very credible defence.
We hope that you've found the information in this article useful. If you require any further advice please
get in touch and we'll be happy to help.
Edit (17/8/13): We should probably mention the unusual situation where a defendant does not receive
their summons, so is completely unaware they are facing prosecution and are convicted without their
knowledge. In these circumstances the defendant should make a Statutory Declaration (see form on
Resources page), which is effectively a sworn statement denying all knowledge of the case. The
completed Declaration should then be submitted to the court, which should then overturn the
conviction. If there is sufficient time, TV Licensing may re-issue the summons for a second attempt at
prosecution.