Head of Mormon Church summonsed to court, accused of fraud

Head of Mormon Church summonsed to court, accused of fraud

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Image from The Telegraph/Getty 2009
Image from The Telegraph/Getty 2009

The Telegraph and Times amongst others report today that the head of the Mormon Church, Thomas Monson, has been summonsed to appear before Westminster Magistrates’ Court accused of fraud (6 February 2014). The Telegraph called the summons signed by District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe, ‘one of the most unusual documents ever issued by a British court.’

Tom Phillips, a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, laid the information before the magistrates’ court alleging that by promoting the teachings of the Mormon church that may be untrue, Mr Monson commits fraud. The allegation of fraud relies on making the claims enumerated for gain. As the court is seized of this matter, I shall say no more. The ethics of a criminal court adjudicating on moral or religious issues is considered by Frank Cranmer on his Law & Religion blog, here.

Readers may wonder how this even came about. Some have expressed surprise, but without commenting further the Judicial Office has confirmed the authenticity of the summons.

[tweet https://twitter.com/JudiciaryUK/status/431105697938276353 align=’center’]

The law

Prosecutions in England and Wales are usually brought either by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service, and increasingly by the RSPCA. The police will often arrest and charge, but prior to 2006 minor offences were ‘non-arrestable’. For instance, a person alleged to have committed a common assault or littering would have had to be summonsed to appear before the court. In a similar way, private individuals, such as Mr Phillips or you or I, can commence a prosecution in the magistrates’ court by laying an information. If the offence alleged is an either way offence, it may end up before a judge and jury in the Crown Court. An indictable offence will always end up before the Crown Court. It is unusual for a serious offence such as fraud to be commenced by way of summons, but that is because alleged fraudsters are usually arrested by the police and charged, and released on bail to appear before the court.

Anyone who has been prosecuted for speeding or using their mobile phone whilst driving will be familiar with the process of being summonsed to court. A summons is simply a way of compelling a person to attend the court so that the charge can be put to them. It all starts with an information. The information will be considered by a legal advisor (or ‘clerk’ in old money) or by a magistrate. The presumption is that a summons will be issued, subject to satisfying the following conditions:

  1. the information alleges an actual (as opposed to made up) offence – such as fraud
  2. the information was served within time
  3. that the court has jurisdiction to hear the matter
  4. that the complainant has authority to prosecute (not an issue in this case)

The Telegraph reported,

Malcolm Adcock, the church’s public affairs director for Europe, said: “The Church occasionally receives documents like this that seek to draw attention to an individual’s personal grievance or embarrass church leaders. These bizarre allegations fit into that category.”

But Mr Phillips said: “The head of the Mormon Church has been summoned to a court to answer allegations of fraud – I don’t think a judge at Westminster Magistrates’ Court would sign off on ‘bizarre allegations’ – I certainly hope they never would. This has been a very serious matter that has been looked at in extreme detail.”

Well, yes and no. Issuing a summons is a judicial function (R v Brentford Justices ex parte Catlin [1975] QB 455). The court must not ‘sign off on’ and issue a summons that would amount to an abuse of the court’s process (R (Mayor of Newham) v Stratford Magistrates’ Court [2004] EWHC 2506 (Admin)) or is simply vexatious. There is no requirement that the judge must think about the content of the summons beyond the above four points (R (Sykes) v Clerk to Bradford Justices [1999] EWHC Admin 24). We simply don’t know whether DJ Roscoe considered the strength of the allegation prior to issuing the summons.

Can he go to prison?

Whether Mr Monson answers his summons is a matter for him – The Times reports that he has ‘no plans to attend’. Clearly he knows about the summons, so it must have been served. If he does not attend court, the court may issue a warrant for his arrest under Section 1 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980. In this respect he is no different position to that which anyone who receives a summons for an imprisonable offence. Were a warrant to be issued for non-attendance, in practice it would wait for Mr Monson to come into the UK, and he would be arrested probably at an airport on the way into the UK.

What might happen?

Finally, it’s possible that the Director of Public Prosecutions (i.e.: the CPS) could take over the prosecution, if she considers there are ‘substantial reasons in the public interest for not pursuing a prosecution privately commenced.’ (Raymond v Attorney-General [1982] QB 839). So, whether this prosecution will get much further is far from certain. Which perhaps brings us full circle to the question of whether it is in the public interest to being the machinery of the criminal justice system to bear in a case such as this.

Guest post, written by Jon Mack, barrister, Blackfriars Chambers

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Lyndon is the General Editor of Current Sentencing Practice and the Criminal Appeal Reports (Sentencing)

13 COMMENTS

  1. Hmmm….
    Maybe too early to comment, but if this proceeds, and is taken seriously by the Court, it could open a way for atheist groups to summons all religions, or religions to summons each other. Reminds me a bit of The Man Who Sued God.
    An interesting one to follow. A pity A.P.Herbert is dead, he’d have loved it.

  2. it’s about time these “churches and religious organisations” were investigated and exposed. I know of a so called leader of a modern church in Devon that has gone from a one bed rented flat to a 5 bedroomed house

    • I don’t know where you are, UK or US… The US doesn’t extradite for financial crimes, so the chance Monson will get extradited for this is zero. Moreover, dragging any church into court and attempting to “judge” their beliefs or belief systems is a really bad idea. A concept, which if allowed to spread could suck up every religion in the country and challenge their belief systems. Until there are no churches in the country.

      I agree with Justice Robert Jackson’s dissent in United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78 (1944), “Prosecutions of this character easily could degenerate into religious persecution.
      I would dismiss the indictment and have done with this business of judicially examining other people’s faiths.

    • Why? CPS have the power to take over and discontinue, applying the full code test. That operates as a check on how they are used and ensures they are not misused.

  3. Why? Because public resources should not be wasted on allowing crackpottery like this to be issued and then referred to the CPS.

    I would have a secondary list of allowed prosecutors: Local authorities (but they need to stop claiming squillions of pounds for costs from people scraping by on benefits – it’s not good telling a Chair of a Bench like me that that’s what they’ve spent, Sir!) and the NSPCC; transport authorities; TV Licensing; there may be others. Not the RSPCA who are obsessed with Our Dumb Friends and have no sense of proportion.

  4. All religions have things that you cant prove cand people come back from the dead, turn water into wine, tancend to higher plane or prove any belife. There for you have to prove they dont belive it, good luck it like asking the pope or the grand mufdi of mecca it was they belive is true. Also i think this could be seen as religious persecution

  5. Is the case impacted by the fact that the LDS is not a church, but a corporation, with Monson as it’s President and sole director and shareholder? What if it can be shown they are teaching things that are very different than typical elements of basic Christian faith, but things specifically verifiable. Ie all English people came from a Jewish family that left Jerusalem in 600bc? What if it can be shown the leaders of this church knew this was not true, but still made their sales people (missionaries) teach it? What I’d, to join this church, you had to agree to paying 10% of your income? Would you have joined, and paid that 10%, if you knew the truth, and that they knew they were teaching_proven_falsehoods?. Remember, this isnt a religion, it is a registered corporation, albeitcwirh tax exempt status. Never mind the UK govt topping up donations to the charity 20p for every pound.

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