Pensioner given criminal record for weeds

For the past year, we have been in touch with an elderly lady in north London who has received a series of council CPNs for Japanese knotweed. Her case is tragic and perverse – and shows perhaps better than any the counterproductive nature of Community Protection Notices, and why they badly need to be reformed.

The justification for CPNs was that these provide quick and easy redress for ‘victims’ of anti-social behaviour. However, the extremely low standards of evidence and procedure (requiring no production of evidence, and no formal process or proof of guilt) have yielded instead a system that is arbitrary, unjust, irrational.

The lady in north London is in her late 70s, Jewish, with poor English; she lives alone with her daughter in a house with a relatively large area of land. Her first contact with the council came when four council officers came to her house, and in an aggressive manner threatened to break down her door if she did not open it. She was issued first with a Community Protection Warning for having Japanese knotweed on her property, then on a subsequent visit with a Community Protection Notice.

The lady does not know where the Japanese knotweed is, or what it looks like. This was not explained to her by the council. She appealed the CPN at the Magistrate’s Court, but received no response from the court. Instead, she received another CPW, and then another CPN. When she appealed this second CPN, there was again no response – but instead another CPW and CPN were issued. She repeated the appeal.

Finally, she obtained a court hearing and her daughter submitted papers to appeal the CPN. Yet the stress of the case was too much for the lady, and she became ill, and was unable to attend the hearing. In her absence, the CPN was upheld. The council filed for her to pay £4000 legal costs.

The lady and her daughter attended the costs hearing, and appealed the costs, which they were unable to pay. The magistrate asked the lady if she understood the CPN. She said that all she knew was that some men were trying to break into her house. The court spent much of the hearing trying to find her a suitable hearing amplification because she was unable to hear proceedings.

Here, the council has invested thousands of pounds investigating and prosecuting a pensioner, who has limited English and limited physical mobility, when she does not know where the knotweed is or how to get rid of it.

This is an irrational use of public resources: the lady’s knotweed would have been better tackled with an hour or two of helpful assistance with some weedkiller.

The complaints over the Japanese knotweed appear to have been initiated by a neighbour of the lady, who claims that the weed is threatening his adjoining land. The council has taken his complaints at face value, deciding that he is the victim, and the elderly lady the perpetrator. Yet, if they had bothered to talk to the lady rather than threaten her, they would have discovered that the reality is more complicated. The last text message I received from the daughter read:

Our neighbour is blocking our driveway with his car, and he came on our land videoing me and my mum and wouldn’t leave then he continued to video all our land and house whilst we were inside calling the police. It’s all to much at the moment! Can’t sleep at night!

When there is no requirement for due process or evidence, and the recipients of CPNs are not listened to or even talked to, then councils will not get a full impression of events. Indeed, although the system is designed to protect ‘victims’, we have encountered many cases where the CPN becomes a means of persecuting vulnerable, elderly or single women, wielded by neighbours who have gripes against them.

CPNs can ruin lives, because loose legal procedure ruins lives. CPNs can mean elderly ladies so stressed they cannot attend their court case, to appeal a CPN they do not understand, for weeds they do not know where they are. CPNs can mean massive council resources used to prosecute somebody for a problem that could be simply solved with a bit of assistance. CPNs mean confusing and long-running legal procedures, where orders are issued then reissued, and the process of threats and confusion goes on for months or years, with the ensuing stress and worry.

This is not justice. This is not solving problems, and it is not protecting ‘victims’. It does not make any sense, and does not help anyone.

This is why CPNs must be reformed – because they are not fit for purpose. CPN recipients must have a right of reply; there must be proper and accessible systems of appeal; there should be evidence to back up allegations. CPNs should be a last, not a first resort. Councils should explore all other avenues before issuing CPNs to their residents.

Sometimes, a bit of weedkiller is all that is necessary; sometimes, all that is necessary is to talk to someone and to try to understand their situation. Instead, this London council sent four burly men to deliver a legal order, then dragged an elderly lady through the courts, ruined her with legal costs, and left her stressed and unable to sleep at night. Meanwhile, after all this, the Japanese knotweed remains standing.

  • The Manifesto Club is working with other groups to reform CPNs, to ensure that people’s rights are protected, and that basic due process is followed. If you would like to be involved, or have received an unjust CPN, get in touch.