Parish officials in court over rates-money use

ST John Constable Chris Taylor and two parish officials have appeared in the Royal Court regarding the use of parish funds to cover the politician’s legal fees after he was charged with dangerous driving.

St John Procureur du Bien Public Stephen Hewlett (left) and Constable Chris Taylor (right) on their way into the Royal Court. Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30253679)
St John Procureur du Bien Public Stephen Hewlett (left) and Constable Chris Taylor (right) on their way into the Royal Court. Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30253679)

Following a trial in the Magistrate’s Court last year, Mr Taylor was convicted of dangerous driving and fined £4,000 and banned from driving for 18 months. The Constable maintains his innocence.

Before his trial Mr Taylor secured the backing of a parish assembly to use more than £7,000 of St John funds to cover his legal costs. At the time the JEP reported that 13 parishioners attended the meeting amid calls for greater openness in local democracy.

The Constable said he was eligible to claim the funds, as he was carrying out parish duties at the time of the offence and that the money would be reimbursed by insurers. He subsequently agreed to return the money and to cover his own legal costs.

Yesterday in the Royal Court he and Procureurs du Bien Public Stephen Hewlett and Michel Larose, who are responsible for parish finances, attended a hearing to decide whether they had ‘fallen short’ of their oaths of office through the initial use of parish funds to cover the expenses.

St John Procureur du Bien Public Michel Larose coming out of the Royal Court. Picture: ROB CURRIE. (30253687)

Yesterday’s hearing was not a criminal case. The parties were told it was in the civil-law arena and that they had been required to attend the Royal Court because the court had supervisory jurisdiction in regards such parish matters. The Attorney General asked the court to decide whether due process had been followed.

The court heard that there had been a series of queries about whether St John’s insurance policy would cover Mr Taylor’s legal expenses, which totalled £7,431.

Solicitor General Matthew Jowitt said that the insurance company had initially stipulated that Mr Taylor must use a solicitor of the company’s choosing but that there had then been an indication that the company would cover bills of up to £100 per hour for legal advice.

The parish had agreed to cover the legal expenses in the expectation that some or all of the cost would be reclaimed through the insurance, but Mr Jowitt questioned this approach, saying that ‘at best, the position was manifestly uncertain’.

Mr Jowitt also told the court that there had been doubt over whether Mr Taylor had been acting in an official capacity at the time of the incident that had led to his dangerous-driving conviction.

Comments made by Relief Magistrate Sarah Fitz at Mr Taylor’s trial about the Constable’s ‘inconsistent’ and ‘contradictory’ evidence were quoted by Mr Jowitt, who questioned whether these comments illustrated that the procureurs had been ‘far too accepting’ of Mr Taylor’s version of events.

‘The court may think that, at the very least, Mr Hewlett and Mr Larose should have kept an open mind and that this was a lack of adequate care regarding the use of funds,’ Mr Jowitt said.

Beverley Sproats, Rector of St John, appeared as a witness and was asked about a meeting of parish officials in July, which was followed by a parish assembly a week later.

Mrs Sproats said she recalled churchwarden Nicholas Crocker asking the Procureurs whether legal advice on the question of Mr Taylor’s legal expenses had been sought and that Mr Hewlett had said that advice had been taken from the Attorney General.

The court heard that the exact details of the meetings had not officially been placed on record because they were in draft form.

Mrs Sproats added that the minutes should have been signed off at a subsequent parish assembly in November, but were withdrawn as a result of ongoing legal proceedings scheduled for the Royal Court.

Advocate Hiren Mistry, representing Mr Hewlett, questioned another churchwarden, Stuart Langhorn, who also gave evidence.

While Advocate Mistry argued that Mr Hewlett had merely said that the parish had ‘taken advice’, with no reference to whom it had come from, Mr Langhorn said he was clear that Mr Hewlett had made a reference to the Attorney General.

Mr Langhorn referred to a ‘bullying’ atmosphere during the meeting and said that it was not the responsibility of an elected official to use public money for private matters.

Advocate David Steenson, representing Mr Taylor, said his client had not been the subject of specific allegations.

‘There is no allegation that what [Mr Taylor] said in his affidavit is untrue so why would he subject himself to a “fishing expedition”?’ asked Mr Steenson.

During the hearing, Mr Hewlett was asked by Mr Jowitt about the first payment of legal expenses, with a cheque of £2,921 being sent on 9 March 2020.

Mr Hewlett said he had not read the parish’s insurance policy before co-signing the cheque owing to ‘sheer pressure of work’.

‘There were an awful lot of emails and I couldn’t keep tabs,’ he said.

Paying the first instalment of the legal expenses was a legitimate move, Mr Hewlett added, as he knew from his time working in the insurance industry that it was standard practice for a client to foot a bill in the expectation of being reimbursed later. He added that Mr Taylor had confirmed that he would make up any shortfall.

The court heard that the parish meeting on 7 July was an ‘intemperate’ affair with considerable ‘ill-will’, according to Mr Hewlett. Asked whether he had considered taking legal advice at the time, Mr Hewlett said that he did not think that was necessary.

‘I would have felt ashamed to be asking the Royal Court’s advice on such a simple matter,’ he said.

When he took the stand, Mr Larose said that he had been visited at home by Mr Taylor and asked to sign the cheque for the first instalment of legal expenses but had initially declined to do so because he felt ‘uneasy’.

The court heard that both Procureurs had subsequently signed the cheque after assurances were given by Mr Taylor that he would cover any shortfall, although this assurance had not been given in writing.

‘We should have contacted the Attorney General’s office before going ahead with it,’ Mr Larose said.

Commissioner Sir William Bailhache is presiding with Jurats Jane Ronge, Charles Blampied and Jerry Ramsden sitting. The case, scheduled for two days, continues.

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