We often remind anyone accused of TV licence evasion of the importance of mounting a defence against the charges in court.
It is only by pleading not guilty and mounting a defence that TV Licensing is forced to prove its case. Quite often it will be unable to do that, because its evidence will be severely flawed or even non-existent.
Of course in the majority of cases TV Licensing would always prefer to withdraw the charges before any irregularities in its conduct are exposed to the court, but occasionally it presses ahead regardless.
Maddy Stuart was found not guilty of TV licence evasion at North Somerset Magistrates' Court (Weston-super-Mare) on 30th August 2016. Below she tells the story in her own words:
On the 8th of February (yes, it has been going on for that long!), a guy called Mr Whiting (can't remember his first name), came to my door and asked for the previous tenant. I was only in that day because I was off work sick so was in my pyjamas and feeling awful. He asked if he could come in and I said no. I really regret this now as one look at our set-up and he would've seen we didn't need a licence. Anyway, he asked me the questions and I answered. He asked if I watched TV and I said "it's on now". He didn't specify live TV and I didn't know the then rule about catch-up TV being exempt. He asked me how I watched it... I said I didn't understand the question and he said "Sky, satellite, Freeview?". Now, I know this makes me sound like a moron but I haven't had a live TV for ages so I just picked one of his suggestions. Please bear in mind that all the while I was dosed up on co-codamol and feeling like death; I just wanted the guy to leave! He asked if there was a licence at the property, I said I didn't know but I'd check with my flatmates as they sort the bills. I thought they might be transferring one from their last place or something. Bla bla bla, I signed it. BAD IDEA. I didn't really understand it was a legal document to be honest.
I had no idea that that bloody piece of paper would come back and bite me in the arse for another 8 months. Anyway, flatmates returned, informed me we didn't need one so I phoned back the next day and told the woman on the phone, explained the situation and she reassured me it was all fine and the system was updated. I asked if they needed to send someone round to check because I didn't want to get in trouble, she said no. (I asked them to do this several times in the coming months but they said that that wouldn't prove anything as I could've changed the set-up...)
I then assumed that everything was hunky dory. Until I got a letter saying I was being prosecuted. I phoned up again and was told to ignore the letter and that it had been sent in error. She updated the system again. Cue more phone calls. Eventually I'm told that I am, in fact, being prosecuted. I was absolutely baffled as I had been told everything was all fine by incompetent staff. Was told to ring the prosecution department. They are only open during work hours and when I tried to call on my half hour lunch break (every day for about 2 weeks), they were constantly engaged. No 'hold' function, no answering machine. Just engaged. I made my first complaint to a guy called Josh Stuttard. He sent me a £10 cheque as a goodwill gesture for all the phonecalls I had to make but forgot to put the cheque in and sent me an empty envelope. I finally spoke to someone in the Prosecution Department, he was rude and unhelpful and simply told me that as this was my "first offence" I needed to pay for a TV Licence and it would all go away. I declined their offer.
I escalated my complaint to Operations Director Alison Roberts who failed to read my letter properly and sent back a response riddled with errors about the series of events. I wrote back correcting her and asking her to reread my letter. She wrote back with an apology for making a mistake but reiterated that as I had made an 'admission' they had all the evidence they needed to take me to court and that escalating my complaint would have no bearing on the situation. She sent me a cheque for £20 to make up for the shitty service.
I then received my court date for the 30th of August so decided to wait for the result before escalating my complaint further.
I took a day off work (unpaid), drove to Weston-super-Mare and waited 4 hours to be seen. During that time, the TV Licensing lawyer took me into a room and tried to get me to change my plea, telling me that as they had the admission, I wouldn't win.
I finally went in, they brought in Mr Whiting and asked him to retell the events. He said he couldn't remember each individual person he speaks to as it happens every day. I said that it'd only happened to me once so I remember exactly what was said. I defended myself and got a chance to ask him questions eg. why he hadn't written my exact answers on the form. This called into question everything he had written on there. He couldn't explain himself and I knew I was in a good position. My turn to be questioned, I first had to explain what had happened from my angle. I said that although I had misunderstood the severity of the situation and made an error, I had not broken the law and I couldn't quite believe it had got this far. I said it was a spectacular waste of everyone's time but most importantly, mine. TV Licence lawyer tried to be all lawyery but didn't have a leg to stand on. He held up the admission form and said "Is this, or is this not your signature". I said "we have already established that is my signature and I have explained I made a mistake". He said he thought that I had actually been telling the truth about watching Tv on the doorstep but had later phoned up to change my story. I said "so I'm lying?" and he said "I propose that that is the case". I pointed out that I had been given the opportunity to pay for a TV Licence to make this all go away, why on earth would any sane human take a lie that far?! He had nothing else to say. The magistrates deliberated for about 30 seconds (not an exaggeration) and found me not guilty. I skipped out of there desperately wanting to give the lawyer the finger but he was angrily shuffling paper so I didn't get my chance.
I immediately wrote a letter escalating my complaint further and explaining the situation while demanding £200 compensation for loss of earnings, inconvenience and stress/anxiety caused, I sent it on the 4th of September and received a reply today, 8th November, over two months later. The letter just repeated back the series of events to me (as if I don't know every detail of what happened, I was there!). She said that as they had that bloody admission form that was reason enough to take me to court and they won't give me compensation. She offered me £75 to say sorry for the appalling customer service. I have replied saying I do not accept that, and that £200 is a nominal amount considering for how long this has been going on. I'm escalating my complaint further to Anne Bulford, the BBC Executive Board Member responsible for Licence Fee collection. I doubt they're going to give me anything to be honest but I'm not going away. Bloody bastards have mucked me around long enough, I'm going to keep making a nuisance of myself. Watch this space.
What Maddy didn't realise is that when she was found not guilty of the offence, she could have asked the court to make an order for her costs. That certainly would have covered the cost of her taking time off work and travelling to Weston-super-Mare.
We are very grateful to Maddy for allowing us to publish her story in her real name.
We hope it will embolden other people in a similar situation - do not automatically assume that TV Licensing has a viable case against you, because it probably doesn't. TV Licensing court proceedings, in common with its idle threat letters, are often more a case of bluff than legal substance.
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