A former prisoner at the forefront of prison law advocacy has overturned a TV licensing conviction on appeal. John Hirst said that he used his television only for watching videos, DVDs and CCTV footage of his own house but was found 'technically guilty'.
Hirst, who tells this week's OUT-LAW Radio about the case, represented himself at Hull Magistrates' Court despite suffering from Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. Again representing himself, he won his case on appeal to the Hull Crown Court when the TV Licensing Authority decided not to defend the case.
Hirst claimed that the interview on which his conviction was based was improperly carried out when representatives of TV Licensing visited his home. An unusual verdict at the Magistrates' Court found him 'technically guilty' but gave him a complete discharge.
Hirst said that he thinks that is because the court believed him that he did not view television broadcasts on his set. "That was when I knew they believed I was telling the truth," he said.
Despite the fact that Hirst was discharged, he took the appeal on a point of principle. "The TV Licencing Authority assume if you say that you don't watch your TV for live broadcasts you're a liar," Hirst told OUT-LAW Radio. "It's still down to the prosecution to prove guilt, not for the assumption to be there that you are guilty and you need to prove innocence."
"As far as I am concerned there is nothing such as 'technically guilty' in English law, you are either innocent or you are guilty," he said.
Hirst is an expert in prison reform. Convicted for manslaughter in 1979 he was a violent prisoner who was moved from prison to prison. In the late 1980s he applied for an experimental educational programme and learned that prisoners had the right to air their grievances through official channels that he said prisoners were never told about.
Diverting his energy to legitimate protest he successfully used the Human Rights Act to challenge the governments' attempts to ban prisoners from speaking to the media and in 2000 formed the first prisoners' representative group, the Association of Prisoners.
Hirst believes that if more prisoners knew about their legal rights they would not have to conduct riots to voice their objections to their treatment. "I realised that I could now start complaining and receiving responses to complaints rather than start throwing the desk around and being violent," he said.
It was a sense of injustice that led him to take his TV licence case as far as he did. "It began with a whole lot of letters that came, each letter got more and more threatening as it went along," he said. "It was a whole lot of assumptions that I was doing something wrong."
"I have admitted to offences as sever as manslaughter and arson, so I'm not going to lie on something as piddling as a TV Licence," he said. "They got that wrong, they picked on the wrong person."
When contacted, the TV Licensing Authority did not say why they did not defend the Crown Court appeal.