Her Majesty’s Advocate v Thomas Sheridan

On Wednesday 23 December 2010 a jury of twelve women and two men found former MSP Tommy Sheridan guilty of perjury.  When they retired to consider their verdict there were only six charges remaining against Mr Sheridan from the nineteen that the Crown had originally indicted him with.  Of the six that remained he was convicted of all but one.  His wife, Gail Sheridan, had all charges against her withdrawn by the Crown during the 12 week proceedings at the High Court of Justiciary sitting in Glasgow.

In the hours following Mr Sheridan’s conviction much was said and written about the result, Mr Sheridan and what the future holds for him.  In the immediate future it is impossible to foresee a situation where the sentence Mr Sheridan receives is anything other than a lengthy custodial sentence.  Indeed the trial judge, Lord Bracadale, advised Mr Sheridan that when he returns to court for sentencing he should expect to begin a prison sentence.  Of course sentencing is entirely a matter for His Lordship, but many have suggested that a sentence in the region of 6 or 7 years is quite probable.

In his summation to the jury at the conclusion of the evidence Mr Sheridan made much of a promise he had made to his daughter that he would be spending Christmas with her.  Despite the guilty verdict Mr Sheridan was able to keep that promise as his bail was continued.  I am sure that he made the most of Christmas 2010 as it will be the last one he will spend at home with his daughter for a number of years (of course, that depends on the outcome of any appeal against conviction).

The perjury trial made history in Scots Law for a number of reasons.  It is the first perjury trial to result from a civil action and is the longest running perjury trial in Scottish legal history.  Never before has anyone stood in the dock at the High Court charged with telling lies in a civil action.  It is rare that anyone is charged with perjury in Scotland and one could probably count the exact number of cases per year on one hand, however where charges of perjury have been brought it has always been, until the case of Her Majesty’s Advocate v Thomas Sheridan, as a result of trials relating to serious criminal offences.

I have many personal views in relation to this case and in relation to Mr Sheridan, but I am going to try and avoid getting into those in this blog entry.  I wish to try and look at the whole situation objectively.

There has been much discussion around why Mr Sheridan was investigated and charged with perjury.  Of course, there are those who argue that there is a political motive behind this and that Rupert Murdoch (or at least people working on behalf of Mr Murdoch) put pressure on the Crown Office and Lothian and Borders police to ensure that Mr Sheridan was indeed indicated for perjury.  Let me be clear, I am not in any way suggesting in this blog post that this is what happened.  Of course the Crown Office reject the idea that they put any pressure was exerted in relation to indicting Mr Sheridan with perjury.

Others would go even further than what was detailed in the previous paragraph and suggest that this is a further example of just how much influence and control Rupert Murdoch has in our political and judicial system and argue that it helps to show that really the world is controlled by a handful of very wealthy and very powerful individuals.  Again, I am not suggesting that this is the case.

There are a number of reasons that do not involve conspiracy theories.  Firstly, Mr Sheridan set about a case against the News of the World on the basis that what they said about him was untrue.  Evidence was later uncovered which suggested that Mr Sheridan based his successful defamation action (Sheridan v News Group Newspapers Ltd) entirely upon lies and blatant ones at that.  Couple this with Mr Sheridan’s public profile and the high profile of his defamation action against the defenders it makes sense that enquiries were made and charges brought.  Indeed the judge who presided over the defamation action, Lord Turnbull, commented during the case that people must have been telling lies in court during the original case, and Tommy Sheridan has been convicted for doing just that.

At the time Mr Sheridan launched, and won his defamation case at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, he was a sitting Member of the Scottish Parliament.  This will no doubt have added further weight to Crown Office considerations as to whether proscuting Mr Sheridan for perjury was in the public interest.

The face of Scottish Politics has changed dramatically as a result of Sheridan’s defamation action.  The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which Mr Sheridan helped found and was leader of for many years has been torn apart due to bitter infighting and a split directly attributable to Mr Sheridan’s defamation action.  In the election of the Scottish Parliament in May 2007 Mr Sheridan lost his seat along with the other 5 SSP MSPs and not a single MSP was elected from either the SSP or the new political party that Mr Sheridan had founded: solidarity.  The ilk of socialists that formed the SSP has all but been wiped out of Scottish Politics.  They needed each other; they were far stronger together than they are apart.  I don’t see this position changing much in next year’s Scottish Parliamentary elections and Mr Sheridan will almost certainly not be a free man to fight in those elections.

Mr Sheridan’s political future looks pretty bleak.  Regardless of what happens in any future appeal against conviction and the News of the World appeal against the original defamation action, Mr Sheridan is almost certainly finished politically.  I doubt we will ever see him elected again at any level of politics.  In saying that, I doubt very much that we will not be seeing anymore of Mr Sheridan.  He comes from a class of people that don’t give up.  This is not by any means his first conviction as a result of the battles he has chosen to fight.  He was famously sent to prison in relation to the poll tax introduced by Margaret Thatcher.

The saga that has been unfolding since 2004 is far from over.  It is almost inevitable that Mr Sheridan will appeal his conviction.  There is also the appeal to the Inner House of the Court of Session by News Group Newspapers Ltd and given that Mr Sheridan now stands convicted of perjury it is almost guaranteed that the appeal will be successful.  There is of course a further appeal to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom in relation to the defamation and I suspect that both sides would be willing to take the case to London were it to come to that.

The next instalment of this long running saga will take place in Edinburgh on Wednesday 26 January 2011 when Mr Sheridan appears before Lord Bracadale once again for sentencing.  Until then, that is all from me on this case.

3 thoughts on “Her Majesty’s Advocate v Thomas Sheridan

  1. For those who opine that the Crown Office prosecuted based on pressure from the Murdoch media empire, it is worth considering the prosecution options. Mr Sheridan raised a defamation action; in any defamation action the legal remedy is a payment of damages. He was successful in an award of damages, in a high profile case, and was awarded a financial payment. It subsequently becomes a public issue that this award was based on false statement – deception – by Mr Sheridan before and during the civil court action.

    On these facts, the Crown Office could take two criminal cases. One was the perjury charge, which is lying under oath/affirmation. The other would be fraud, obtaining “lucre” (in this case order for payment of money) by deception. The two are not necessarily alternatives, both could be charged. The charge that was pursued was that of perjury. However, had the charge of fraud been pursued, there would have been the possibility of the judge issuing a “compensation order” for Mr Sheridan to repay his victim the funds. In a perjury case the “victim” is the state/judicial system, so there is no likelihood of a compensation order.

    Therefore Newgroup Newspapers will require to proceed with their civil case appeal if they wish to recover funds/recall order from Mr Sheridan, rather that being “handed it on a plate” by the Crown.

    No doubt the prosecution & police would investigate the case a little more vigorously when a large business were complaining (directly or indirectly) than if it was wee Mrs McGlumph from Govan, but that would apply to any “important” complainer; and it must be said from experience that in most cases the wee Mrs McGlumphs complaints do eventually get dealt with properly.

    Therefore while the publicity of the case may make it seem important, there was really never any legal doubt before that perjury charges can be brought for giving false information on oath in criminal or civil cases (including affidavits), and therefore this case is purely a question of the particular facts rather than any great novelty of law.

  2. Alistair, you infer that Mr. Sheridan was convicted in relation to the poll tax – however as I understand it, it was a civil imprisonment for deforcement of messengers (i.e. impeding Sheriff Officers from seizing someone’s goods to pay their poll tax arrears – which is akin to contempt of court). This is why he was able to conduct an election campaign from behind bars. He will not be able to do so if imprisoned for more than 12 months on this charge.

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