“Corrupt Gift to Education Officer”

December 6th, 2010 by James Goudie KC

On 1 December 2010 the Court of Appeal heard an appeal in R v Webster [2010] EWCA Crim 2819.  Webster (W) had been charged with corruptly giving gifts to P and to A, employees of Cambridgeshire County Council (the LEA).  P had been charged with corruptly receiving the gift to him.  W had purchased an off-the-shelf company, Education All Ltd, as a business vehicle for the supply of educational aids to schools. He was the effective owner and managing director of the company. About fifty per cent of his business came from the LEA’s ICT department. Between Autumn 2007 and December 2008 the turnover of the LEA/Education All business was  £250,000. P was a procurement officer. His role was to advise schools and colleges about technical solutions and specifications. The ICT department acted as middle man between the supplier and the school. Most of P’s invitations to quote were made through a more junior employee, A. A would receive requests from schools for advice about their needs. If a school or schools needed equipment W would be contacted by e-mail and invited to quote. If the quotation was accepted and the order confirmed W would make the supply and present an invoice. A would process some of the requests but the larger contracts were passed to P. A would follow up the contracts on behalf of ICT. The LEA’s policy on gifts was that any gift or offer of a gift should be disclosed even if it was declined. A gift of money should always be disclosed and refused. “Token” gifts such as pens or mouse mats could be accepted.  W as a Christmas gift delivered a DVD/VCR recorder and player to P.  A was in almost daily contact with W.  W made a £100 deposit into A’s PayPal account as a Christmas gift. It was declined by A and the money was returned. Shortly afterwards W made a routine visit to A at work and asked to speak to him in the car park. They went to A’s car. When A opened the driver’s door W placed an envelope containing £100 in cash in the interior door pocket and walked away. A reported the matter to his line manager and the police were informed.

W was convicted.  He appealed against his conviction.  The sole ground of appeal was that, in contravention of ECHR Article 6, he did not receive a fair trial, because the (pre-Bribery Act 2010) statute required him to “prove” that the gift was not “given … corruptly as … [an] inducement or reward”, and that he argued violated the presumption of innocence to which criminal charges are subject under Article 6.  The appeal succeeded.  The Court of Appeal held that W’s conviction under the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889 s1(2), read together with the Prevention of Corruption Act 1916 s2, was unsafe, as s2 placed a reverse burden of proof on W and unjustifiably interfered with the presumption of innocence.  The Human Rights Act 1998 s3 permitted the Court to “read down” s2 so as to require W to discharge an evidential burden rather than the legal burden of proof.    The ultimate legal burden of proving to the criminal standard that the gift was corruptly made must rest upon the prosecution.

James Goudie QC

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