They Punished Us for Being Middle-Class; When a Hard-Working Couple Went to Court, They Thought They Should Be Honest, Responsible and Neatly Dressed. What a Terrible Mistake

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), March 22, 2009 | Go to article overview

They Punished Us for Being Middle-Class; When a Hard-Working Couple Went to Court, They Thought They Should Be Honest, Responsible and Neatly Dressed. What a Terrible Mistake


Byline: Jonathan Hartman

Equal Justice Under Law' are the words chiselled in stone above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court building in Washington. I did not notice whether any similarly stirring sentiment adorns the somewhat less impressive frontage of a certain magistrates' court in East London but I rather suspect that it does not.

My wife and I are three months behind with our council tax payments to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and as a result we had to appear in court.

We hoped that if we promised to clear our debt of [pounds sterling]549 by March 31, the end of the fiscal year, the magistrates would waive the additional [pounds sterling]75 cost of our summons. As most of our food shopping involves the 'Last Day Of Sale' shelf - we walk a fine line between nourishment and food poisoning - that sum represents more than two weeks' worth of groceries for us.

We felt we had a chance. After all, the two magistrates on the bench had been magnanimously lenient in the four cases that preceded ours.

However, it was not to be.

Our financial troubles had started when the credit crunch began to affect our already irregular incomes, necessitating the selective paying of bills. My wife, Vahni, is a sporadically employed ballet dancer and I am a sporadically employed actor. We have always resorted to various day jobs to get by between engagements: market stalls, telesales, product demonstration and a host of other badly paid, short- term posts ranging from the boring to the unbearable. Now even those were becoming few and far between. One firm we had worked for had closed its doors without notice, owing us money.

So our cardinal rule has been never to sign on or to claim any form of social assistance. I'm Canadian, naturalised British, Vahni is American, and although we've lived here for many years and are eligible for benefits, we would find it embarrassing and presumptuous burdening a 'foreign' country with the responsibility of subsidising our artistic ambitions.

I suppose it is a legacy from our forefathers. At the turn of the last century, our respective families left Europe for the New World.

Vahni's ancestors emigrated to San Francisco from Northern Italy, leaving behind a farm notable for its bountiful yield of rocks. My ancestors went to Toronto from a stagnant backwater of the Austro- Hungarian Empire.

The ethos in both Canada and America when our families got off the boat was: 'If you don't like it here, go back to where you came from.' So they worked at menial jobs, learned the language, endured prejudice, raised families, tightened their belts during the Great Depression, sent sons off to war when needed, then into the professions, paid their taxes and did their best to assimilate.

They were grateful to live in a society that asked only for loyalty in return for the chance of freedom from want..

On our day in court, the magistrates, both of whom had publicschool accents, worked slowly and carefully through each case preceding ours and were punctiliously fair to all the defaulters, who were of many different nationalities.

Interpreters were provided, all sorts of holy books were made available for oath-taking and a lawyer was present to explain the finer points of the law.

In two instances, the magistrates gently admonished those before them for obvious lies and evasions. …

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