TV drama ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ tells the story of the Post Office ‘Horizon’ scandal and the lives torn apart by 700 “successful” private prosecutions of entirely innocent self-employed subpostmasters.
After the miniseries was seen by millions earlier this month, private prosecutions – which allow alleged victims of crime to prosecute their own criminal cases – are now a topic of national debate. As a result, the government is under pressure to act against what some believe is an emerging two-tier justice system.
Where the state lacks prosecution resources, capability, or both, and in fraud cases in particular, those with significant financial resources can obtain justice privately. Regular citizens, on the other hand, can not.
Private prosecutions are known for their high conviction rates; cases brought by the Federation Against Copyright Theft, the Premier League, and those involving Sky, are certainly no exception. While still controversial, Post Office-style scandals are largely avoided due to the nature of the cases; that doesn’t mean they always go to plan, however.
Serial ‘Entrepreneur’ Tests Out Piracy Market
A MEN report claims that 42-year-old Jordan Longbottom ran a ‘successful’ business selling pirate TV devices from his static caravan in Wales. By the time the case got to court, exactly how successful his venture had been was met with a significant difference of opinion.
A private prosecution brought by the Federation Against Copyright Theft alleged that Longbottom’s operation ran from August 2015 to May 2017. Using Facebook to attract customers, it was claimed he sold pirate TV boxes to “thousands” of customers at prices ranging from £100 to £175 each. At Manchester’s Minshull Street Crown Court, the prosecution claimed that Longbottom’s venture brought in up to £1 million; he disputed that with his own estimate of roughly £300,000.
Caravan Static, Longbottom On the Move
Officers from Greater Manchester Police raided Longbottom’s caravan in January 2017, but the entrepreneur wasn’t home, or even in the UK. The Brit was on holiday in Florida and didn’t return to the UK for another three months. When his plane touched down in March 2017, police welcomed him back onto British soil by placing him under arrest.
Successful private prosecutions in piracy cases are often reported in the tabloid media partly as a deterrent. Whether he read the stories, read them but didn’t believe them, or was simply indifferent, Longbottom’s March 2017 arrest had no effect on his pirate TV sales. With assistance from others that allowed him to take more of a back seat, sales continued until at least May 2017.
Guilty Plea, Plea For Leniency
Whether Longbottom’s business scheme generated £1 million or £300,000 or not; private prosecutions brought by FACT, including those involving in the Premier League, have seen people go to prison for much less than that. According to the defense, Longbottom was ‘terrified’ at the prospect of prison, but all things considered, this wasn’t actually the most serious of cases in the current climate, his lawyer argued.
Just as police funding cutbacks and a failure to invest in fraud-specific training has led to a rapid rise in fraud and a rise in private prosecutions, failure to invest means Britain’s prisons are full. As a result, prisoners are being released early and courts are being advised to only hand down immediate custodial sentences in the “most serious of cases.”
The judge’s comments suggest that he believed the conditions had still been met for a custodial sentence, but another factor tipped fortune in Longbottom’s favor. Having been arrested in 2017, it would be another five years before Longbottom was eventually summoned in June 2022.
The explanation for the “significant delay” was partly down to the “small legal team” behind the FACT prosecution having other casework, the court heard. The judge concluded that Longbottom would likely have been sentenced to prison if the case had been brought in a “more timely fashion” but that wasn’t the case here.
After pleading guilty to two offenses under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, and one offense under the Fraud Act, Longbottom was sentenced to 22 months in prison, suspended for 24 months, a Rehabilitation Activity Requirement (RAR) of 15 days under the Offender Rehabilitation Act, and 150 hours of unpaid work.
For a reality check, the Daily Mail’s latest scare story, part of a campaign that’s produced a series of stories since early December, claims that those who simply use illegal streaming platforms “could even face time behind bars.”
Citing Section 11 of the Fraud Act 2006 which covers ‘obtaining services dishonestly’, a conviction could mean 12 months in prison, the article warns, adding that if the offense “is a serious one”, those involved “could face a maximum sentence of five years.”
Scare Story? Yes. But Consider the Big Picture
Surprisingly, the Daily Mail is correct; that’s exactly what the law says, and it could happen, at least in theory. In practice, there’s some terminology to review first.
A ‘serious’ offense isn’t enough to warrant prison under the current advice, since only “the most serious” of cases qualify. Interestingly the judge had already noted that whether Longbottom had generated £1 million or £300K, the amount wouldn’t have made any difference to the sentence handed down.
It would be extremely foolish to replicate in a real-life scenario, but the standard set here is surprising. Apparently, it’s possible to sell thousands of pirate boxes and generate up to a million, get arrested but carry on for another three months regardless, hope for a delay on the prosecution side, and then just stay out of trouble for a while.
That being said, staying on the straight and narrow can be a challenge for some people.
New Beginning, New Piracy
In March 2017, the same month Longbottom was arrested, the self-professed entrepreneur launched a brand-new company. Companies House records reveal that Sat Tech UK (NW) Ltd was born on March 14, 2017, but just three months later was renamed to Smarterbuyz Ltd. After no accounts were ever filed for the company, it was dissolved via compulsory strike-off in April 2019 but not without controversy.
Longbottom’s new venture saw him enter the retro-gaming market, selling video game consoles pre-loaded with up to 50,000 ROMs containing games from Nintendo, Sega, and Sony, among others, under the brand Pi Retro Gaming. According to Trust Pilot reviews, it’s reasonable to conclude that some expectations were not met.
From: TF, for the latest news on copyright battles, piracy and more.