Nilgun Canver trial: What the jurors were not told

10:45 31 January 2014

Cllr Nilgun Canver arriving at Highbury Corner Magistrates

Cllr Nilgun Canver arriving at Highbury Corner Magistrates' Court when the case began last year. Picture: Dieter Perry

Dieter Perry

Was Nilgun Canver the subject of a police witch-hunt or fairly charged? Why did officers take nearly seven months to charge her? We look at the evidence that was kept from jurors in the Cllr Canver case.

What do you mean, ‘a police witch-hunt’?

Cllr Canver’s supporters believe there was a political motivation behind her prosecution. There was a delay of almost seven months between the crash on January 24 and her being charged - a delay which was not explained or explored before the jury.

Marguerite Russell, defending, tried to have the trial ‘stayed’ – or stopped - on the grounds of abuse of process.

She argued that neither the police officer the councillor lied to, nor two senior officers who advised him on the night, thought it worth arresting or even cautioning Cllr Canver.

Then, seven months later she is charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice.

Hang on, why not just charge her with obstructing a police officer - a much less serious offence?

Good question. CPS guidelines on charging give an example of this that would seem to fit the bill: “A partner who falsely claims that he/she was driving at the time of the accident but relents before the breathalyser procedure is undertaken.”

Even the judge noted that Cllr Canver misled police for, at most, seven minutes. The maximum sentence for obstruction is a month in prison and/or a £1,000 fine. It would have been heard in a magistrates’ court, too.

So why perverting the course of justice?

Police can only charge someone with the lesser offence within six months of the crime. The only option open to them by August was the more serious charge, which has to be tried in a crown court. The sentencing guidelines start at a minimum of four years behind bars. The maximum is life.

In this case, given the severity of the charge, Cllr Canver got off extremely lightly. The judge himself noted the “wholly exceptional circumstances” when handing her a one year conditional discharge.

Given how long it took them to charge her, was it really still in the public interest?

During the hearing before the jury were sworn in, Miss Russell argued that it was not. As he claimed in his statement, “the officer at the time saw it only as an obstruction and possibly perverting,” she said. “It is quite clear that two senior police officers, who would both have had the authority to caution someone, took the view that it didn’t merit a caution.”

She added: “If everyone who, for a few moments, didn’t immediately tell the truth is then charged with perverting the course of justice, this court would be overrun.”

And yet Cllr Canver was charged. In contrast, just two days ago the Chief Crown Prosecutor for CPS London announced it was no longer in the public interest to prosecute the students caught taking food from Iceland supermarket’s bins - despite there being enough evidence to secure conviction - having given “particular regard to the seriousness of the alleged offence and the level of harm done”.

Brendon Morris, for the Crown, said the charge was proportionate because the decision on the night not to arrest or caution Cllr Canver was only “based on the limited amount of information at the time,” without the benefit of witness statements.

Did she even know she was being investigated for a crime?

Miss Russell said Cllr Canver had no idea police were mounting a case against her as well as her son - although the jury heard that police had warned her that she may have committed an offence if it turned out she had let him drive the car uninsured.

...But not that she might have perverted the course of justice?

No. A month after the crash, on February 26, Cllr Canver is interviewed - “in relation to her son’s case,” she is told - and gives a prepared statement to police, again pointing to her son as the driver.

By then, police had “ample evidence” to charge her son, said Miss Russell - two statements from his mother, forensic evidence, a positive video ID and a description from a witness at the scene. But he is not charged until June 18 - an “inexplicable” delay of almost five months, said Miss Russell.

So what were police doing all this time?

We don’t know. The police were not obliged to explain themselves. As for Cllr Canver’s case, it was only a week earlier - June 11 - that a CPS lawyer tells police they don’t have enough evidence to charge her and asks for “more information”. Officers resubmitted the file and on June 18 a second lawyer rejects it for the same reason.

A Detective Chief Inspector then appeals the CPS decision and on June 20 a third CPS lawyer finally agrees there is a realistic prospect of prosecution. But still they did not charge her.

Why not?

Again, we don’t know. But Miss Russell pointed out that Cllr Canver was referred to as a “witness” and not a “suspect” throughout the police investigation into her son. Her supporters believe police kept it that way in case they needed her to testify against her son at his trial.

In the end he pleaded guilty and was convicted on August 12. And Cllr Canver was summonsed on August 13.

So who was pushing for her to be charged?

Well, Miss Russell offered her thoughts to the judge. “Is she being treated differently because the police knew of her position as a councillor?” she asked, adding: “The court is entitled to see whether or not that was a proper review and a proper decision [by the CPS].”

Mr Morris, for the Crown, said a Detective Chief Inspector did “make reference to the defendant as a councillor” in her representation to the CPS, but he made no further comment.

But the jury didn’t hear any of this?

No. Judge Morrison ruled this evidence inadmissible before the jury, asking Miss Russell several times how any of it would help jurors decide on the specific matter of Cllr Canver’s intent to mislead a police officer.

He said: “[The CPS] were invited to review [the evidence] by the police, which the police are entitled to do, and they then decided to prosecute. Are you arguing that the decision to prosecute was unreasonable?”

“Yes,” she said, adding that police were guilty of an abuse of process and the case should be stayed.

But Judge Morrison said: “I see nothing in this case which amounts to an abuse of proceedings and I therefore decline a stay.”

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