It wasn't me, guv - I'm just the office cat

Times Online, March 9, 2007

There are many ways to avoid legal liability. The best is not to do anything wrong in the first place. Or, perhaps, not to do anything at all. This strategy has been tried and tested by accountants and works for some of them. The rest of us, however, are only human. We do things. We make our mistakes. We cross the line. And once on the other side, we have to think of an excuse.

Excuses take many and varied forms. We try to convince the authorities that “it wasn’t me, guv” with stratagems that are by turns breathtakingly creative and mind-numbingly crass. The ways by which people try to avoid the loss of their driving licence once they have accrued too many points often lie somewhere between these two extremes. The speed camera flashes, the driver thinks “Oh God, that’s another three points and my licence has gone” and then, unless he is a celebrity and can afford to call Mr Loophole, the excuse mechanism goes into overdrive.

The simple expedient by which personal liability is often avoided is to ask a friend or even, in dire circumstances, one’s partner, to take the points in one’s stead. After all, the speed camera does not peer inside one’s vehicle. The notice of intended prosecution comes through the post and you tick the line saying you weren’t the driver. Your friend or partner agrees to confess to a crime not of their making and run up three points on their inevitably pristine licence. Job done.

Some of us, however, blanche at so blatant a perversion of the course of justice. Instead we rehearse our pleas in mitigation even as we continue our now-within-the-speed-limit journeys. “My wife was giving birth” is a popular refrain. “She rang me to tell me that she was about to pop, so I drove like a bat out of hell to be by her side,” goes the letter to the court. This is a good excuse and one likely to result in a fine rather than an outright ban, so long as one’s wife really was about to pop (and, indeed, that one has a wife). Another oft-seen mea culpa is the call of nature. “I know that I was driving too fast, but I was desperate to relieve myself. I hope the court will understand my distress and sympathise with my disinclination to avail myself of the crummy services on the motorway. I simply had to get home as fast as I could.”

Surprisingly, this excuse does not engender much by way of sympathy. Perhaps because she was aware of this, Glenda Askew, of Swansea, decided to take avoidance of legal censure to a new level. When caught driving at 41mph on a 30mph road in February last year she conceived the notion of claiming that she was dead. She persuaded her daughter, Tracy Richards, to write to the court saying: “My mother will not be able to attend as she passed away on September 17, 2006. I am going through her personal effects and dealing with her correspondence.”

Fortunately the sleuths of Swansea smelled a rat and Askew’s remarkable ruse was rumbled. She was discovered alive and well in her home. Askew has now admitted a charge of perverting the course of justice, and has been sentenced to a six-month jail term, suspended for 12 months.

Perhaps, then, there is a limit to creativity when it comes to evading the law, although the best defence I have yet encountered comes in not being of human form. An old acquaintance was sued when he walked away from a famous publisher to start afresh. He published his own magazines and, on the masthead, listed himself, his editors and “Fee Line”. My acquaintance was later sued by his former employer for allegedly infringing intellectual property, who for good measure sued everyone on the masthead, including Fee Line. It turned out, however, that Fee Line was the office cat. To this day, he has not acknowledged service.