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.
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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:
- the information alleges an actual (as opposed to made up) offence – such as fraud
- the information was served within time
- that the court has jurisdiction to hear the matter
- 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  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  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  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  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