This article gives you my version (Richard Howard’s) of the shenanigans between my company UK Services & Support Ltd, the industry appointed Advertising Standards Authority regulator, National Trading Standards and how everything concluded at Leeds Crown Court in June 2018 with me paying a £150,000 fine, £50,000 to Leeds Council for the privilege of being prosecuted, receiving a 5 and 7 month suspended prison sentence & given 200hrs work at my local Oxfam as punishment.
I started using my company UK Services & Support Ltd in December 2013 along with a website offering UK consumers optional third party assistance with their passport application or renewal.
Because the passport industry (unlike visas/immigration) is not subject to regulation these accompanying services could be provided without any specific license/accreditation. We simply needed to make it clear we were not affiliated/accredited by HM Passport Office and that our services were optional.
Call Centre Model
Whilst consumers could purchase online through the website the business model was that of an inbound call centre. Any interested applicants in the UK or overseas could call our 0203 number to speak with one of our agents within 60 seconds on average.
This was a standard landline number and so free to call from almost all mobile/landline call packages. My staff were located alongside me in a 10 person office in South Wimbledon and we soon had an average of 6-8 people on site taking calls Monday to Sunday. We also had a back office in the Philippines assisting us with the admin work.
The model was simple. Offer a free general passport advice line to the public answering their standard questions regarding what sections on the passport form to complete, how long the process takes, what to do if the passport is lost or stolen, what the passport fees are etc and then off the back of that offer our third party services to those who it was clear we could help if they were interested. The majority would want the cheapest route and get advice from us for free and then do it all themselves but that was expected. But enough really valued our time and hassle saving services and so became clients.
Third Party Services
The most popular / valuable third party assistance we provided were as follows…
Passport Lodging & Collection – To secure an urgent passport within 1 week or 1 day you needed to attend an in-person appointment with one of the seven regional Passport Offices in the UK. This is fine for those who can get the day off work, do not have children or elderly parents to take care of and live close to a Passport Office (if you’re based in Cornwall, Devon your nearest Passport Office is in Wales!) but clearly impractical for many. Not to mention £100’s for a return train fare…
Therefore we would go on the applicants behalf saving them a huge amount of time, travel and inconvenience. Applicants simply needed to send us their documents via secure next day courier, we’d then send an agent to attend the London Passport Office, lodge the application and wait the 4hrs for the new passport to be printed. The value of this “done for you” service speaks for itself.
Queue Jumping – HM Passport Office offer a “first come, first serve” policy when it comes to urgent passport appointments at their seven offices and so someone who is routinely renewing their expired passport is given the same priority as someone who needs a new passport by the weekend to go on their annual 2 week holiday with their partner and two kids or someone who has a once in a life time interview in New York and cannot find their passport and so needs an urgent replacement.
So you have to take what is given to you. You can call back and see if there is a cancellation but this is a clunky time consuming process with the on hold time alone often exceeding 30 minutes on the phone. Therefore because we were booking multiple passport applicants every single day some of which did not need their new passport urgently we were able to offer a “Queue Jumping Service”.
Whereby we would re-shuffle our calendar to help those who needed a passport urgently as a priority, we would also block book appointments ahead of time to ensure we could always help those who needed it and because we had a call centre operation agents would call HM Passport Office routinely throughout the day (often waiting 20-40 minutes on hold each time).
This service also speaks for itself in volumes and we saved many, many individuals from missing their family holiday, that once in a life time job interview, missing the last days of a loved or attending a funeral by offering a “needs based” appointment service vs a “first come, first serve” one offered by HM Passport Office. Some of the thank you messages were truly heart warming.
30 Minute Consultation – Some passport applications and renewals are exceptionally complicated. Especially for those who were not British from birth, do not have all of their parents details, their last passport has been lost or stolen etc. Many more sections of the passport form need completing plus usually a number of accompanying documents to support the application.
Therefore we offered clients a telephone appointment of up to 30 minutes where we could answer any questions they had, confirm that the form had been completed correctly, advise them on what to bring to their Passport Office appointment and if they wanted complete the paper form over the phone step by step. Guiding them from Section 1 all the way to Section 10.
Whilst HM Passport Office have a helpline, as anyone knows who calls it, the hold time is typically 20-30 minutes long and even when you are connected you quite often speak to someone who is not the best trained and will fob you off to an article on Gov.uk or the passport guide book for your answer and so this dedicated 30 minute slot had significant value to many.
Document & Photo Compliance Checking – Because my staff knew the application and renewal process just as well as anyone at HM Passport Office applicants could post or email over a few photographs of their completed passport application form, photographs etc and we could manually check it for errors, omissions and non-compliant issues i.e the wrong background on the photograph or a missing accompanying document for a first ever or name change application.
Passport Photo Editing / Cropping – Clients could email over a photograph from their mobile phone and we would crop, re-size and edit the photo to ensure compliance before printing it on high quality photo paper and posting it out to them. This service of course saving them the time, travel and £6 – £10 from trying to locate a working photo booth in their area.
In hindsight I can see now this was my first mistake in that instead of offering a cafeteria style pick and choose what services you’d like model we offered two packages one at £52 + VAT (£62.40) and another at £98 + VAT (£117.60). The more expensive package of course including the Passport Lodging Service (such as the agents return ticket, time spent queueing, waiting 4hrs etc). Besides that there was no pay for one service at a time, you received access to all of them for a fee and were of course encouraged to us them all to get your moneys worth. Many clients of which did.
Use Now, Pay Later
Another mistake in hindsight was that when clients came on board and requested our help we would be willing to start work in advance of payment so long as they paid us within 3 days. Some clients did not have the funds in their account, wanted to first confirm that we can in fact Queue Jump them to an ideal appointment and confirm that our compliance checking services were on point were likely hesitant to trust this a new company they’ve never heard of and so were open to this model. Some however did not follow through on their commitment to make payment…
Whilst the call centre agents were incentivised via commission to encourage callers to use our services there were NOT permitted to sign clients up over the phone to ensure that critical information such as they can sort their passport application out without our assistance, that our fees are separate and of course to avoid any suggestion that any caller felt pressured or charmed into handing over their credit card details. Agents could only send callers and email with details of our range of services, pricing and a link to the online web form and contract.
Things were going well. Our compliance checking, Queue Jumping and “done for you” service were growing in popularity so much so that by July 2014 the company had 20 staff members! Something I was proud to share with my friends on my Facebook profile…
The means to cancel were incredibly simple. Clients could click on the “Cancellation Request >” link on the bottom of every web page, email a dedicated cancellation email address of call a 24hrs a day automated phone service which simply asked them for their 5 digit account number in order to cancel and whilst less frequent we did also accept cancellations via the post and even fax.
Another mistake was to have rather bold no refund policy. We abided by the Consumer Contract Regulations 2013 to the letter in that ALL clients were advised prior to completing the online form and making payment via a bold statement and un ticked checkmark box making it clear that once we had provided all of the paid for services then no refund would be possible.
In line with the law if they cancelled their order part way through they’d only pay for what they received and if the cancelled their order before any work had begun they’d receive a full refund. It was a policy that I considered firm but fair.
As mentioned earlier there were some who requested and received our service but did not pay within the 3 day window they were provided and did not settle the invoice after receiving follow up emails or a phone call from a call centre agent. Those who we had not provided our services to and those who could show that they used one of our five easy to use cancellation methods of course had the status on our system updated, their invoice voided & details removed from our database.
After a few weeks of not receiving payment and after the payment reminder emails and a phone call had been made reminding the client of their commitment the collection process would begin.
This would give a two week deadline and include a single phone call, single letter and around 4 reminder emails over the 14 day period. That was there was to it, there was no threatening, intimating phone calls or we’re sending the boys round over this unpaid hundred quid invoice.
After the debt collection deadline had passed we reviewed each unpaid invoice and either decided to void it if we’d only provided part of the service or not done much in the way of providing a compliance check or Queue Jumping them and so not really providing a service of value but for those who we’d really helped i.e. those we’d lodged their passport for and waited the 4hrs for a new one we would then send them a Pre-Action Conduct letter stating that if payment was not made within 14 days then we’d be looking to have the matter resolved via the small claims court.
This formal pre-action letter before legal proceedings letter and follow up reminder emails were in no way threatening. Nor did they contain any falsehoods i.e. you’ll get a criminal record, bailiffs are coming to bash down your door etc. It just gave the facts that we had an unpaid invoice of £98 + VAT and that if legal proceedings were issued and we won the case they’d likely be ordered to reimburse us the £25 court fee for issuing the proceedings and the £25 fee for the court hearing itself. We were not adding the permitted 8% interest on the claim or the £50 legal fee. The claim amount was for what we were owed plus some modest reimbursement to cover the follow up costs to date which was around twenty quid.
The tone of the letter was purely factual, breaking down a time line of the events and providing them another copy of their contract. Furthermore whilst we were under no obligation to do so our letter stated that if they were unsure of what to do / their consumer rights / wished to get the validity of our claim and contract checked they should reach out to their local Citizens Advice Bureau or contact them via their telephone / website.
In addition this the consumer champion Which? were offering consumers free legal advice on their consumer rights via their monthly subscription service and so we stated in our letter that we’d be willing to pay for 1 months subscription so that they could speak with an impartial legal team regarding the dispute if they wished.
Anyone who has been involved in a small claim whether as the Defendant or the Claimant knows that it is straight forward process that anyone can follow. The Defendant receives the claim in the post along with a few paragraphs description of the Claimants side of the story and they amount they are claiming. The Court requests that the Defendant fill in a form either pay up / agree the amount is due, partially agree or claim £0 is due and defend the whole claim.
We always ticked the YES box to mediation where an impartial mediator would act as the middleman to try and resolve the matter without a court hearing and the Defendant could choose to opt for this as well.
Those who were not interested in negotiation would mean that the case would continue to a court hearing. The Defendant would not pay a penny for this, we would pay all the court fees and only recover them should we win the case and the Judge chooses to award them.
Whilst understandably going to a real court room with a Judge peering down at you may well seem like a daunting process as anyone who knows even the most basic information about money claims knows, you can simply post a letter explaining your version of events (called a Witness Statement) and your exhibits to the Court and the Judge will accept that as just as valid as the Defendant was there in person on the day of the hearing.
We used this process as the average claim was for around £150 and so even the travel and wages for even a non-legally qualified individual to go to what could be the other end of the country (as claims are held at the closest court to the Defendant) meant attending in person was not feasible.
So there is nothing “scary” about writing down your version of events and posting off some screen shots, receipts or whatever else supports your claim then getting on with life. No time off work is needed, no travel expenses incurred. Just a few pennies to print a few pages and buy a single stamp. Then that’s it until the Judge’s letter arrives stating who won and who owes what.
Whilst the majority of companies (I now know wisely) simply write off small amounts from unpaid invoices at the time I was far to focused on holding people to account for committing to pay for a service they had requested & we had provided. But this firm policy produced some resistance.
At the time I considered this to be expected from those who perhaps were accustomed to complaining, shouting, stomping their feet, threatening to write bad reviews, report the company to so and so only to be baffled to see the tactics of shaming and bullying were not effective in having us write off the amount due.
As far I as was concerned an adult should be responsible for their actions and pay their dues. I’ve had meals out that were average, received parking tickets and racked up other bills that I was not particularly jumping with joy to clear but if I owed the money for a product or service I’d always clear my debt. I’ve always been proud that I’ve never had any suppliers chasing my company or I for unpaid bills and that even though I’ve had my own businesses for 17yrs now not one of my companies has gone bust and so no staff, suppliers, investors etc have ever been financially stiffed.
Because their usual tactics of wriggling out of a financial commitment were not working those being pursued for a £100 quid invoice started grouping together & posting on an online forum.
They shared strategies on how to cause disruption/undermine the collections process including trying to have the company who hosts our website to take it down and complain to the Advertising Standards Authority about our advertising and to Trading Standards about our collections process.
Unbelievably they even conspired with each other on how to write their Witness Statement to the court. Basically a fill in the blanks document that claimed: The advert wasn’t clear… the agent on the phone said zyz… I was told the cancellation policy was… I called them to cancel on [Fill in Time & Date]. Virtually guaranteeing that the Judge sides with them based on a winning template rather then the facts which of course vary on each and every case. Our claim was always unique and based on the factual circumstances of each & every client. Their defence should have been too.
Advertising Standards Authority
Part of the discussion on the public forum was that they agreed that on mass they would all complain to the advertising regulator in the UK known as the Advertising Standards Authority now claiming that they were misled. Hoping to disrupt the business and if they were able to get the ASA to find against 1 of the advertisements on 1 of the websites they could conveniently claim in their court defence that it was THAT advert they saw too and they too were coincidentally misled and convince the Judge their invoice should be voided and the services they received provided for free. Those on the forum openly stated: get your friends and family (yes those who were not even clients) to also complain to the ASA about us.
In short order the ASA contacted us and stated that an investigation was being launched. The documents arrived a week or so later. Their paperwork revealed that the ASA had received just 1 complaint over 7 months between December 2013 and June 2014 but in July 2014 this sky rocketed to a total of 17 complaints. Being that our websites received tens of thousands of visitors each month and it’s clear this complaint number was artificially inflated it really speaks for itself on how clear our advertisements were.
IPSOS Mori Research
Between 2013-14 there was a real issue with a handful of unscrupulous individuals who were setting up websites that were basically clones of Gov.uk, the driving authority the DVLA, HMRC and others.
These were not the fraudulent websites that use the HMRC logo and claim to be the authority which we’ve all seen via spam emails / text messages and are there just to secure your personal and payment information these were websites which were modelled on the official government website, often charged the exact same fee as the government document itself and just had a little greyed out font at the bottom of their website and buried in their terms and conditions that said: oh by the way you’re paying for a document check and a submission only.
Here are some of the website designs that deliberately mimick the layout, colour scheme, font style, presentation of the official channels. A Gov.uk clone here > a DVLA one here > a HMRC one here >. Unsurprisingly those behind these sites were charged and convicted of fraudulently presenting themselves to be a government website and were later jailed for years. Details >
Whereas my third party passport services website has its own design, look, fonts and is totally different to Gov.uk in every way. The design is the same as when it was setup in 2013 and you can find it here > Nether the less the authorities and those in the forum I mentioned earlier were happy to group my website and the services it offered (which HAD value) with those of the fraudsters under the same blanket term: “copycat websites“.
The Advertising Standards Authority commissioned the reputable IPSOS Mori research firm to extensively survey 1,000 random consumers in the UK on how they interacted with third party websites or “copycat websites”. The findings which you can find here > confirm the obvious.
That websites that look and feel like Gov.uk are had to distinguish against / are misleading but those which use a different design, colour scheme, font, wording and use a logo and not the an icon of a crown for example, operate on .co.uk or .com can easily be told apart.
Furthermore the findings confirmed that consumers saw the value in optional third party services and did not see the need for an outright ban or even government regulation. The findings also elaborated on the most commons Do’s and Don’ts that participants suggested. I incorporated all of them for good measure not that there was any legal requirement to do so.
Find IPSOS Mori’s full research here >
Response to ASA Investigation
The crux of the ASA’s investigation was that they were alleging that one of the three websites that we operated had a single misleading advert, claiming that it was not clear enough that we were an independent company and not HM Passport Office.
This of course based on the stories of many of copy and paste complaints from those who were being pursued for an unpaid invoice and from their friends and family who were not even clients.
In our response we made it clear that the complaints that the ASA had received were inflated/false, that in the header, footer and body of every web page on our websites we made it clear we were independent, not affiliated with HM Passport Office / the government, that our services were optional (this was also stated during the welcome message when calling us), that there was nothing “misleading” about the advert, it was in line ASA guidelines. There being just 1 presumably real complainant spoke volumes to that.
To support our case we referenced again and again the IPSOS Mori research that supported our case and that the consumer recommendations for operating in a transparent manner were voluntarily incorporated.
Reference was also made to a previous intervention from another Advertising Standards Authority investigator who opened an informal investigation (A13-245485) into one of our adverts and said if you change this, that and the other I’m happy to close the case.
This advert was basically identical and obviously not causing consumer harm otherwise it would have warranted a full / formal investigation.
Our response also said that whilst not legally obliged to do so we voluntarily chose to incorporate the Executives’ suggestions from the one website to all three of ours in addition to those outlined in the IPSOS Mori consumer research.
ASA Adjudication Finding
The matter went before the ASA “Council” (who are made up of 12 randomers most of which if not all are not legally trained) on 17th September 2014.
They found the advert in its current form misleading and issued sanctions on what needed changing. It was clear from their finding there were not using the legal definition of the “average consumer” correctly whatsoever that being that the “average consumer” is defined as “informed, observant and reasonably circumspect person“.
They had heavily watered down the intelligence and observation capabilities of the average joe on the street just so they could find against my company. Also remarkably the Council did NOT even incorporate the IPSOS Mori research whatsoever into their decision making.
This is research the ASA had commissioned itself and was no doubt hugely expensive & as reputable and through into consumers behaviour as you can get. It was clearly excluded as it did not support their position.
Appeal of ASA Adjudication
Therefore I hired a legal firm who prepared the appeal documents and submitted them to the “Independent Reviewer” of ASA investigations. This is an individual who is on the ASA payroll and so hardly independent. Perhaps that job title should be reviewed by the Advertising Standards Authority as potentially misleading?!
In 18th November 2014 he came back agreeing that the ASA Tribunal was wrong to include the IPSOS Mori findings in their decision making however he chose to sit on the fence regarding the other issues stating “I’m am not necessarily disagreeing with their finding that it was a misleading advertisement“. To me it was an arse saving way of not going into their overall conclusion. Why not just give your opinion and say they were right or wrong in their overall conclusion?
I was highly dubious that the ASA Council would ever not uphold the ASA Executives “breaches” of the advertising code for three primary reasons (1) They had investigated another so called “copycat” website operated previously and because the claims of the ASA Executive were NOT upheld by the Council on this occasion it sparked an outcry from The Mail on Sunday.
Secondly two other third party passport websites that I did not operate, provided very little of value and one was a Gov.uk clone had both featured in their “Top 10 complained about adverts of 2014” list (found here >) and so there was a clear agenda to clamp down on any and all third party sites regardless of their advertisement and services they offered.
One of these websites received 188 complaints and another 177 complaints where as my advertisement was in receipt of 1 single legitimate complaint.
Thirdly at the same time of this investigation / appeal in 2014-15 we were operating no-nonsense debt collection process where those being pursued for their unpaid hundred quid invoice were doing what they could to make noise: complain to the ASA, to Trading Standards, posting on forums, writing reviews ++ and so the ASA wanting to be the consumer hero was under pressure to sanction us and give those being pursued a rubber stamped “misleading advert” adjudication so that debtors could show the court this document and claim they were conveniently misled so win the court case and get out of paying for the services they had ordered and we had provided.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Even though the Independent Reviewer had stated that the ASA’s decision making process and adjudication was quote “substantially flawed” and the case needed re-opening and re-adjudicating unbelievably in the ASA’s mind you are guilty until proven innocent.
Their substantially flawed finding was STILL active it wasn’t withdrawn or set aside to use legal language. Nor was there any notice on the web page of the adjudication or release on their blog stating that (1) they had hugely messed up (2) x investigation is being re-investigated so the finding cannot be relied upon.
Due to this those who were being taken to court by us were successfully showing the Court this adjudication page and for some Judges it was enough to void the contract / monies due.
Potential Judicial Review
I made it clear in my emails to the ASA Executive that I did not have confidence that the second tribunal finding would be conducted fairly and that they would give the “average consumer” the respect that they deserved with the “informed, observant and reasonably circumspect person together” definition properly applied and so I made it clear that should the ASA find against tthe advertisement again then I would be willing to instruct my solicitor and barrister to apply for a Judicial Review where a highly competent Judge at the High Court will rule on this matter.
The preparation, pre-trial work, court costs, hourly fees for a swanky pants solicitor from Fleet Street and a barrister who is a QC was horrendous as you can imagine. I was quoted between £60,000 to £70,000. Which in theory would be refunded in full if they lost entirely and the Judge was in a good mood to award 100% of the costs. Never the less I was willing to pay it.
This of course undoubtedly concerned the Advertising Standards Authority as their breaches, decision making process and conclusions would be put under intense scrutiny via a High Court Judge and his judgement could be damning and lead to huge embarrassment should the Judge conclude the ASA did not follow their own Code of Practice or English Law.
Not to mention any commentary from the Judge in the publicly available High Court judgement regarding how they had repeatedly patronised the intelligence, common sense and observation skills of the average joe on the street. Some at the ASA could well lose their job over it.
Second ASA Adjudication Ruling
Things were going very slow on the ASA’s front. This hardly surprised me as I was sure they were digging their teeth into rogue companies and corporations who state untruths in their advertising or create misleading promotions regarding their product or service however it was the middle of November 2014 when the case was ordered to be re-opened and it dragged on for 7 months. I was finally advised that in June 2015 the finding from the ASA Council would be made any day now.
Trading Standards Raid & Arrest
On Thursday 25th June 2015 our Wimbledon office was raided by Trading Standards officers accompanied by the police. They took paperwork, laptops, mobile phones, hard drives and paperwork as well as placing myself and my call centre staff under arrest and taking us to the local police station.
To my utter surprise during my recorded interview with two Trading Standards officers at Sutton Police Station on the Thursday afternoon they referenced the outcome of the second Tribunal decision from the Advertising Standards Authority which I found out later had been emailed to me at exactly 4:59pm the day before (so technically just within the working day of the day before).
They of course basically claimed that it was outrageous I had not implemented the ASA’s recommendations and clearly did not give any weight to my position that I genuinely believed them to be wrong, had some hope that ASA Council would overcome their bias, see sense and confirm the advertisement was in order and nothing needed changing. Nor did they seem to want to mention the fact the advertisement had received just 1 legitimate complaint in seven months even though the website generates tens of thousands of visitors each month.
After questioning, my colleagues and I were all released on bail whilst they continued their investigation and went through the computers, mobile phones and paperwork hoping to find a smoking gun I guess.
We were all confident we were operating within the law, were not lying to callers to secure sales etc and so Trading Standards were welcome to investigate away. We all returned to work on the Friday.
Bank Account Freeze
Around two weeks later I received a formal letter from York Crown Court that had granted a Restraint Order against myself personally and all of my assets. That meant all personal and business bank accounts, savings, inheritance and also meant I could not “dispose of any assets”. So not sell my £2,000 car or even a mobile phone to raise a few quid.
Furthermore I was only permitted to spend £1,000 per month to survive. That was for London rent, food, utility bills, phone bills and other living expenses. There would be £0 allowance for the business. I also received letters from the banks I had an account with confirming that x account was frozen and that I would not be able to use the debit card and all direct debits and standing orders were cancelled.
Perhaps they waited two weeks after the arrest to send me this Restraint Order to see if I’d start money laundering i.e. making huge cash withdrawals, wiring money to Switzerland or buying a bunch of crypto-currency. I’m sure they got excited a week after the arrest a £20,000 wire transfer was made but it quickly faded when they saw the recipient was HMRC with us paying our VAT / tax bill.
But looking back I think it was clear that the primary reason for the Restraint Order was that the shock and awe arrest had not been successful in pushing us out of business. We just got right back to work. I didn’t shut everything down, fire the staff and crawl up in a ball begging for mercy.
However you can obviously choke a company to death if you cut off access to it’s bank account. If you cannot pay wages, pay the office rent, utility bills or for any advertising the company is dead.
Restraint Order Abuse
What was so unfair was that Trading Standards had NOT just applied for a Restraint Order against the company they had applied for one that covers ALL of Richard Howard’s assets. This included money I had made in previous years from renting out bouncy castles, from my telecoms company and money I had inherited from my grandfather.
All of these funds were not allegedly “tainted” funds. Trading Standards were not even trying to say this money was from criminal wrongdoing and so my solicitor and I requested I be given access to these funds. They point blank refused.
We were not requesting the funds from passport related services be released at all but after a lot of back and forward we issued an appeal to York Crown Court to have the Restraint Order amended which was listed for a hearing on 17th September 2015.
Due to this I had to make my staff redundant but could not pay them their June 2015 wages or their redundancy entitlement (even if I had the money it would have not been lawful for me to pay them) nor could I pay the office rent any other company bills for months. It goes without saying it was a hugely stressful time.
A Restraint Order is not supposed to be used as a weapon to choke to death a company you don’t like, it is a tool to freeze assets that the prosecution believe may one day be seized should the company be convicted of criminal wrongdoing and the funds are then designated “proceeds of crime”. In my case it was clear that the draconian / catch all order was a huge overreach / abuse. Fine, freeze the monies that make up the basis of your investigation but leave the hell alone my other monies.
ASA Finding & Judicial Review
The timing of their raid / Restraint Order was also perfect timing for my battle with the Advertising Standards Authority as without access to company funds I could not pay my legal team to proceed with the Judicial Review to quash the ASA’s finding.
I will also advised at this time that Lord Chris Smith the Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority was a university buddy of Lord Toby Harris of Trading Standards and with the two regulators working hand in hand with each other on other cases it’s clear to me this perfect timing was no accident.
Whilst I had resisted implementing the changes the ASA Tribunal had ordered on principle as I concerned that I bowed down to them it will show I agreed and undermine my appeal I was advised it was best to do what they had asked under the circumstances and so in early August 2015 I implemented all of the changes that the “Tribunal” had ordered therefore by default, making the advertisement 100% compliant with the ASA rules.
ASA Compliance Advice
The Advertising Standards Authority offer businesses free compliance advice on their advertisements to ensure it complies with their rules which they call the “CAP Code” and so after I revised our advertisement to incorporate every single change the adjudication had ordered I submitted it to the ASA for them to confirm that the tribunals orders had been followed to the letter.
To my utter disbelief instead of the Advertising Standards Authority coming back and saying yes the changes you’ve made comply with our code and the tribunals orders or coming back and saying not quite, you need to add this, change that, move that here then you’re good they came back and said we’re not going to tell you, using the Trading Standards investigation as an excuse.
There was absolutely no restriction on the ASA to hold back guidance and in fact if the Trading Standards narrative was to be believed that there was daily consumer harm being done then compliance advice from the ASA which I was willing to incorporate to the letter was needed now more then ever.
It was clear to me that their refusal to do their job was that they just wanted to send the subtle message: we’re not going to help you with a compliant advert, you’ve been a pain in the bum for us and so hopefully leaving you in the dark as to whether your advertisement is compliant or misleading will eat you up and your company will just go bankrupt.
The Advertising Standards Authority is supposed to be impartial and not take sides and so when a business such as mine (who contributes financially to the ASA) asks for help and for them just to do their damn job they should!
Restraint Order Appeal Hearing
As mentioned before I had no access to any money beyond the money for the most basic living expenses and there was no law firm that I could find that would work on a: pay us later / success only basis and so I was very fortunate that my mother offered to loan me £5,000 to afford the solicitor and barrister to go from London all the way to York in challenge their position.
Whilst they had declined all offers to release at least some of the money, with one being as reasonable as just enough to pay my poor staff their June 2015 wages and redundancy money, on the steps of court on 17th September 2015 before the hearing had taken place Trading Standards legal team conceded that they’d release all monies that were not related to the passport business.
Yes you’re right that’s what I’d been asking for for 2.5 months now and their last minute concession proved to me that they were seeing what I was made of / seeing what they could get away with as they knew as well as I they had no right to seize unrelated funds that were not part of the business they were investigating. I never got a refund on my £5,000 of unnecessary legal costs.
As soon as some of my accounts were unfrozen I’m proud to say the first thing I did was re-pay my mother her £5,000. I then paid ALL staff all the monies they were owed and paid all the backlogged bills including 3 months rent for the office.
I had the perfect excuse for not paying any of these bills by correctly saying that the company, UK Services & Support Ltd still had all of it’s assets frozen and so I could easily have said you’ll all need to wait / your money may be lost and to bad.
But instead of giving my former staff and suppliers the finger and enriching myself I am proud to say paid all of these bills out of my own pocket and continued to support the company financially. So much so that it remained solvent and never went into administration / liquidation.
Re-Interview (October 2015)
At the same time as the Restraint Order hearing Trading Standards advised my solicitor they would like to conduct another interview with me at Sutton Police Station.
This was expected and I was rather keen to meet them again as I was still confident that now they’d had access to all of our computers, emails, paperwork for 3.5 months now and would see everything was in order.
The whole interview was pretty much a repeat of the original in June 2015. They did not reference any email they’d found and say explain this, allege any tax or VAT dodging, or reference any communication when a client was lied to or threatened.
Furthermore at the end of the interview they informed my solicitor and I that I would not be required to answer for bail any more (a process of reporting to your local police station every month or so) and so whilst they did not say case closed / no further action all the signs were there to say that was the case.
I know now that this impression was their intention as they wanted me to think why bother spending all that money challenging the ASA at the High Court?
Staff Cases Dropped Entirely
Over the coming weeks each and every staff member who was arrested received a letter from Trading Standards confirming that they would not be re-interviewed and that the case against them were being formally closed and they would not be charged with any criminal offences. None seemed surprised and neither was I as they’d done nothing wrong so it was inevitable.
Complete Staff Support
It was very cute to receive a wide range of loving support from my former staff. They all wished me well and I’m happy to say each and every one advised Trading Standards to go fornacate with themselves when they were asked if they’d like to give evidence against me at trial. A few drinks and reminiscing about the good old days really did buck up my spirits I must say.
ASA Matter in the High Court
Even if the Trading Standards matter was over as I was led to believe I none the less paid my law firm to challenge the Advertising Standards Authority’s finding in the High Court on the basis that they had watered down the intelligence of the “average consumer” to that of a water melon and that no reasonable regulator would have come to such a finding that the advert was misleading.
The ASA did everything they could to stop the hearing being listed where we could dissect every single breach raised, go through the transcript on what they said and how they came to the decision they did with a very basic yet what turned out to be very effective argument which was: we’re entitled to our own opinion. Both a High Court Judge and the Judge at the Court of Appeal agreed with that stance and so they successfully prevented the matter ever proceeding to a full hearing.
I was never advised by my own legal team that this was a possible escape hatch and I do feel I was certainly entitled to know that. However that was the end of the matter. To this day I still believe they were wrong, the lack of complaints demonstrates that, the fact that most of the 16 complaints were artificially made and the fact that I spent around £70,000 on a lawyer, standard barrister and QC barrister all planned BEFORE the Trading Standards arrest/raid proves my sincerity in this matter.
For as everyone knows, if you’re a crook, you take all the chips off the table. You’d pocket seventy grand not stand up for yourself. Nevertheless as mentioned earlier in early August 2015 I made all the revisions the ASA Council ordered and implemented them on our other two websites too.
It is now March 2022 and we’ve now gone almost 7yrs without the ASA coming back saying oi you are running another advertisement we do not think complies with the Code of Practice. Seven years speaks volumes.
Criminal Charges Arrive
In Spring 2016 I receive formal notice that my company UK Services & Support Ltd and myself personally were being charged with a whopping 12 different alleged criminal offences.
Interestingly the indictment period of alleged “criminal” activity on all charges started on 1st December 2013 (when the company started trading) and ended on 31st August 2015.
So Trading Standards were confirming that everything was perfectly fine, compliant with in their rules, the ASA’s, English Law as soon as (1) the suggestions the ASA ordered were put into place (2) we stopped pursuing individuals for the £100 quid or so they owed through the small claims court.
Charges include “fraud by false representation” remarkably alleging my third website was passing off as Gov.uk / HM Passport Office and a range of Consumer Protection Regulations such as lesser charge of having misleading advertisements, not having the proper cancellation methods in place and alleging that taking clients who had an outstanding invoice of just over £100 quid to their local court to have an impartial judge resolve the dispute was “an aggressive commercial practice“. It’s hardly on par with threatening to send the boys around to break their legs style debt collection…
I of course entered not guilty pleas to all charges at the plea hearing at the Magistrates Court.
Trial Date Set
Both my solicitors and Trading Standards agreed that the trial would need around 5-6 weeks and so the earliest that Leeds Crown Court could accommodate a trial of such length was the first week of June 2018. Exactly, three whole years after the raid of my office and arrest in June 2015.
Evidence Starts to Arrive
As time went on Trading Standards would send my solicitor and I more and more evidence that they claimed backed up their charges this process is called “disclosure”.
The crux of their argument that criminal wrongdoing had taken place was unsurprisingly that the Advertising Standards Authority had ruled that one advertisement one on our three websites was “misleading” therefore that applied to everything we did, every sale we made and that in their mind 100% of consumers were mugged off. They also alleged the contracts were invalid and so enforcement of them via the courts was an “aggressive commercial practice” and so criminal too.
Zero Evidence of Deception
One thing that Trading Standards never even alleged let alone were willing to prove in a court of law was that they processed call recording evidence of consumers being lied to / deceived on the phone, on email responses or via live chat.
As stated before my staff were incentivised via sales commission to convince callers to use our third party services and so you would think that if this was some criminal enterprise out mug consumers of their money that Trading Standards would be presenting a huge range of emails, internal conversations between staff and call recordings showing agents lying and saying things like “We are government accredited“, “That’s right, you’re through to Her Majesty’s Passport Office” or “You have to go through us to renew your passport“.
Yet they did not even present a single call recording demonstrating that my agents were lying to or misleading callers. Not one.
I’m of course exceptionally proud of that and I think it speaks volumes to the kind of operation we actually ran. My agents were paid a very modest salary with much of their income derived from sales commission yet they followed their training and did not cut corners by lying or misleading callers to boost their earnings at the consumers expense.
Spying / Mystery Shopping
Looking back I can see why as since at least January 2015 until the arrest in June 2015 we were receiving often on a daily basis some very… strange questions from some callers from what seemed like a small group of individuals contacting us using again and again different names, different email addresses but asking the same kind of questions. Questions like..
- I’m Through to Her Majesty’s Passport Office Right?
- Is there any other way to renew my passport without paying you?
- How Much for You to Counter Sign my Application Saying You’ve Known me for 2yrs?
- My Friend’s Italian I’ll Pay You Whatever You Ask to Get him a British Passport
Some of these callers were also attempting to get my agents to play along with their deception by saying things like “So I have an appointment tomorrow to come and see you at the London Passport Office” or “How long will it take you to print my passport when I send you my documents?” or one final example “The cost to renew my passport is so high but I know I have no choice but to pay you” (incorrectly stating that our third party services were mandatory).
It is now abundantly clear that these individuals were a mix of those from the online forum vehemently committed to have the business shut down / punished and Trading Standards officers with a bunch of pay as you go mobile phones and email addresses to try and get my call centre agents to lie to them to secure a sale or at least go along with a misleading conversation that they are trying to get the agent to follow i.e. the callers making it clear they “think” they are speaking with the Passport Office and the agent not stepping in and saying no babe, we’re a private company.
ASA & Trading Standards Collaboration
One fascinating document that had to be disclosed was the court document where the York Crown Court judge approved the raid on my office and the arrest of my staff and I.
The date of this document was 19th June 2015 with the judge signing off on the order at 9:30am. When I cross referenced this with the date the Advertising Standards Authority had their second Council meeting to re-adjudicate on our advertisement (where they could well have found my advert “not guilty”) it was on the same date that Trading Standards secured the warrant BUT the ASA “Council” met at 10:30am let alone came to a finding on the matter which presuming there were many other advertisements under adjudication was at least 1-2hrs later.
Funny that, the Advertising Standards Authority claims their Council is completely independent, free to make up their own mind yet unless Trading Standards had a crystal ball that KNEW in advance that their finding would be the same as the first time it stinks of a fix to me.
As mentioned earlier the ASA finding was front row centre during my interview at the police station and during the whole prosecution.
Furthermore as anyone with even the smallest experience with the court system knows when requesting a hearing at a criminal or civil court you don’t just file paperwork and turn up the same day for a hearing, you wait WEEKS for your hearing date and so it is without doubt that Trading Standards made request for an arrest warrant hearing weeks before the ASA Councils second meeting and adjudication.
Absurd Witness Statements
To strengthen their case Trading Standards presented Witness Statements from 35 consumers who had approached them between 2014 and 2015 to complain.
Unsurprisingly the names of those who complained were almost all the same ones participating and sharing notes in the online forum that had an organised campaign against the company and/or those in receipt of a court case to settle the invoice dispute between us and so highly motivated to do and say whatever necessary to see Trading Standards case against me/the company succeed.
As I expected the version of events they gave followed the same formula, wording and made many of the exact same references reinforcing my belief that they’d shared notes with others in the online forum to make their story as damning and sensational as possible.
One common theme in the individual Witness Statements was a lack of responsibility. It was our fault they were not happy, it wasn’t fair they had to pay for a service they requested, received and promised to pay for. It’s not their fault that they were not listening to the call centre agent explain our services to them, it wasn’t their fault they did not read the website let alone contract, they should still be allowed to cancel and not pay us even though a bold, un ticked check box made it clear that once the service is provided there are no refunds +++
Some even claimed that X agent told them on the phone this and that which was either misleading or an outright lie i.e. that we were HM Passport Office. Total nonsense.
Others came up with the most ridiculous story about how they were “misled” and a “victim” such as one stated that he knew the price was £127 for a passport and claimed he thought he was paying us £117 (£98 + VAT) towards the passport on our website and then would pay £10 on the day of his appointment at his local Passport Office. Huh?!
With at least 2 others saying that they were on Gov.uk and somehow we “hacked” the government website or their internet browser to get them to complete the form on our website and make payment to us.
Whilst I was confident that if the Jury read each and every one and/or the witness attended trial for cross-examination the jury would not be convinced by their story. It was nonetheless concerning to have 35 individuals in one way or another saying you’re a scumbag and your business is swindle. I mean its 35 to 1 in voices… Plus it’s hard to disprove a negative.
Would the jury believe me if x person firmly asserted that on the phone they were told x by one of my call centre agents? Even without a SINGLE call recording proving this, if multiple witnesses (who like I said earlier I believe where sharing notes on what to say in the online forum) assured the jury they were misled/lied to would that be enough to convince them to come to a guilty verdict?…
It’s all the pity that they did not exhibit at least a handful of call recordings as I let my agents choose their own name whilst taking calls. The only rule was that they use one inoffensive name so that should there be any complaints about their conduct then I know who the caller spoke with and so could easily and effectively investigate.
My manager Paul chose the name “Arthur Orin” which is the name of Aquaman (details >) although not widely known. I will confess it did tickle us both that Paul was answering the phone and cryptically saying “Good afternoon UK Services & Support, Aquaman speaking how can I help?” and shamefully I know, it does give me tickle me a little bit that a few of the Witness Statements that Trading Standards exhibited alleged that it was Aquaman who was the one giving them passport advice and he was “rude” or “threatening” to take them to court etc.
In addition to everything already said about how complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority were inflated Lord Toby Harris the chairman of Trading Standards in 2014 stated in numerous articles and press releases: “Anyone who spots a copycat website should report it to the trading standards via the Citizens Advice consumer service by calling 03454 04 05 06“.
Because my website was grouped in the same “copycat” category even though it did not “imitate” or “closely mimic” Gov.uk in anyway Trading Standards from 2014 onwards were categorically telling the public that just if you SEE a third party website to make a complaint to them. It doesn’t matter if it was clear, you benefited from the services you should report it.
So as you can imagine based on that criteria complaint numbers are going to be much higher as it’s clearly saying all third party service providers are there to mug you off and even if you’ve used one and were happy with what you received you shouldn’t be as you were “scammed”.
Change of Name
Based on how things were playing out, it really did seem like these two agencies were using heavy handed tactics and at best stretching the law / their rules to breaking point if not abusing them. To me it did feel like a persecution and so I decided I to legally change my name from Richard John Howard to George Orwell. My British passport at the time can be found below…
This did not frustrate their investigation in anyway. There was no need to re-issue paperwork, have another court hearing or anything like that. As you can imagine name changes happen all the time i.e. Ms Jane Smith marries and becomes Mrs Jane Anderson. Nothing needs changing with the exception of the next set of paperwork in my face saying “George Orwell (formerly known as Richard John Howard)”.
There was no master strategy or attempted get out of jail free play here. It was done out of frustration and to make it clear how I was feeling. Although alas I must say I did find it rather amusing to be referred to as “Mr Orwell” at the Magistrates Court and then later the Crown Court. One Magistrate certainly gave me a death stare at the hearing but the other judges handling the pre-trial procedures were either indifferent to it or perhaps found it amusing.
End of Year Accounts
Because my passport company was a subsidiary of another one of companies I was legally able to vent my frustration by manipulating the balance sheet of my company that assisted consumers with their passport applications/renewals to show a total net worth in the 2014 and then again in the 2015 end of year accounts as £19,840.
Change of Number
I also decided to discard our other inbound phone numbers and just use 0203 600 1984
Birthday Present (“cakegate”)
There was one complainant in particular who seemed to make it his lifes mission to see my downfall. So much so that he was one of the most active individuals in the forum, started posting article after article about me on his personal website and even went to the media when the judge ruled in his favour in the county court over the unpaid £100 quid invoice he owed us.
Whilst he openly admitted he’d received our services his claim that he wasn’t paying attention / was misled and so the contract should be void was accepted by the judge as good enough for him getting out services for free.
Therefore in September 2016 on the day of his 30th birthday I posted him a cake… of a passport.
Alas I never received a thank you from him but I did receive a call a few weeks later from a police officer from Cambridge Police Station requesting an interview with me after they had received a formal complaint of “witness intimidation” Ha!.
The appointment was arranged for 31st October 2016. After confirming with the officer that it would not be appropriate for me to attend the Sutton Police station my Halloween costume we met and he outlined that the complainant had felt “intimidated” by receiving this… dessert (now referred to as “Exhibit A”) and basically alleged that this was a ploy to “scare” him into not testifying at my trial… In true form he was went onto sensationalise cakegate, claiming he was petrified and it was clear he was more then willing to wear the oppressed victim hat.
The two police officers in attendance giving every sign that they had better things to do said the matter would be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for a decision on whether to charge George Orwell with “witness intimidation”. A serious offence that would end up with a jury considering whether cake can be considered a weapon of intimidation and asking themselves whether had they received a cake from someone there were about to give evidence against at a criminal trial whether it would terrify them into no longer doing so?…
Crown Prosecution Service Decision
When the Police refer a case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for saying yay or nay to approve criminal charges they factor in two primary questions (1) Is their a reasonable likelihood of conviction? and (2) Is it in the public interest to issue charges?. I received a phone call from the police offer in late November 2016 stating that the CPS had decided not to charge me with any criminal offence. Alas to bad, for we could have made history were there a guilty verdict with birthday cake being added to the list of recognised weapons used to intimidate.
Change to Bail Conditions
At the new court hearing to prepare for trial the barrister for Trading Standards made motion to the judge to change my bail conditions. Since the time of the arrest I was on “unconditional bail”. I could go about my life as normal, even travel abroad on holiday. However no more. Due to cakegate my bail conditions were changed where going forward it would be a criminal offence of me or directing someone I know to contact any of the 35 witnesses in anyway.
The deer in headlights view that the Crown Court Judge gave me peering over his glasses when he heard what George Orwell had done is a memory I will treasure forever. Why Trading Standards requested this change is open to speculation. Whether it was because they considered their witnesses to be so very delicate mentally and emotionally or it was because they found out that the cakes I bake can be rather sweet / sugar heavy and so threaten these individuals with instant diabetes is something I presume we’ll never know.
None the less I abided by this new bail condition and that was the end of the matter.
My Disclosure Request
During this time I was reading up on “Witness Intimidation” quite a lot and remembered that in one of the safes at the room I was renting at my house share which was seized by Trading Standards contained a ten inch dildo (I was dating a funky girl at the time…).
I was also reading up on how to make a formal “Disclosure Request” to the prosecution which as you can imagine requires them to disclosure documents, them to answer questions etc providing the request is relevant to the investigation.
So I sent a formal disclosure request to their barrister that asked “Does Trading Standards believe that any items found in my safe were used to intimidate consumers? and if so do they intend to enter these items into evidence?”
Alas we will never know their position as I never received a response to the question beyond an email that said that all disclosure requests needed to be made via my solicitor/barrister. To bad.
Day of The Trial (June 2018)
As outlined above incredibly the trial happened almost 3yrs after the arrest. It was due to start on Monday 4th June 2018. As stated my company UK Services & Support Ltd and I were collectively facing 12 different criminal charges of which I considered absurd and so all of which had “not guilty” pleas lodged against them meaning that I was fully committed to face down each and every one of the 12 allegations at trial and expect to receive 12 “not guilty” verdicts from the jury at the end.
I wasn’t planning on winning by having a huge, swanky legal team help me wriggle out of each charge on technicalities or anything, in fact my whole team consisted of me and 1 barrister. I was planning on receiving twelve acquittals based on the evidence. Facts, “the truth will set you free!“.
It was obvious that the Leeds Crown Court Judge who had read the summary of the case, the charges and skimmed through the Witness Statements and evidence was in no mood to try the case. I was told throughout that by my legal team that if they were to try the case they’d keep it simple 2-3 charges, with 1-2 clear points and keeping trying to hit them home to the jury.
Furthermore the Judge seemed very unimpressed that Trading Standards wanted to give each juror a 1,200 page bundle of documents and exhibits to demonstrate their 12 charges. He directed their barrister to “cut it down” wanting it to be no more then 600-700 pages.
It was refreshing to see a crown court judge who see’s scumbags each and every day clearly not see me as the anti-Christ like some of Trading Standards witnesses did. For surely if I was a complete shit that needed locking up he’d relish having the opportunity oversea a trial that could certainly bankrupt me and see me put away for many, many years.
Huge Witness Drop Off
Because we did not agree with ANY of the Witness Statements from the 35 individuals and wanted to exercise the legal right to have my barrister cross-examine each and every one at trial so they can have their version of events challenged with the bright light of reality we requested Trading Standards summon all 35 individuals to attend their own allocated day of trial.
Trading Standards finally had to show their hand and advised the Judge and us that 21 of the 35 were either refusing to attend, were not returning their calls or stated that they wished to withdraw their Witness Statement.
Pfft. Says to me that they did not have confidence in what they wrote and for some reason were reluctant to back up their accusations with the evidence or perhaps some were not willing to perjure themselves under oath or that they would make a fool of themselves in open court by opening admitting they were not listening / reading at least some parts of the website.
It’s not as though they did not have the notice. The trial date of 4th June 2018 was set in May 2017 and so there was plenty of time to ensure they could be available to attend court.
Furthermore their train fare is refunded and they receive compensation for missing a day’s work and so there is little reason why someone could not attend. In fact if I was the complete shit that some of these witnesses were alleging then you would think they would move heaven and earth to attend the trial to stick it to me right?
Anyway Trading Standards said they’d now be relying on the evidence of just 14 individuals.
Plea Deal Offer
But once again outside the court room Trading Standards approached us before the trial began and the jury was impanelled and offered a deal. They said they would not proceed on 10 of the 12 charges if I pled guilty to two of them.
To me this was just another example of seeing what I was made of and seeing if at any stage the pressure become to much and I changed my pleas to guilty to avoid having the stress of a trial.
Neither of the two charges were fraud / dishonesty related they were two under the Consumer Protection Regulations namely the Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. One related to the advertisement being misleading but NOT factually incorrect/fraudulent and the second required me to agree that the debt collection letters and issuing small claim court cases for the hundred quid debts was an “aggressive commercial practice”.
Plea Deal Consideration
I sincerely believed that nothing against the law had been committed and so was confident that I could receive an acquittal and walk away without a prison sentence or any financial penalties.
Proof of this is on the 12 not guilty verdicts I had entered, the £70,000 spent on challenging the ASA, the fact that Trading Standards confirmed by ending the indictment on 31st August 2015 that when the advert was changed in line with the ASA’s findings and unpaid invoices were no longer pursued via the small claims court not even they were alleging criminality.
Plus the fact that the number of complaints to the ASA, Trading Standards and the sensational Witness Statements was the work of a committed few who had unpaid invoices / were denied a refund and were out for revenge led me to believe that the jury would see this case for what is was and see there was no criminality here just an unpopular guy among the 14 complainants.
However on their side they had the adjudication from a recognised regulator the Advertising Standards Authority which some may hold on a pedestal of the 12 randomers on the ASA Council are all knowing, all seeing beings and so if they say something is misleading it is.
Plus they had 14 die-hard witnesses who based on their Witness Statements were willing to say that xyz was said on the phone to deceive them, that the advert and other correspondence was misleading and who knows maybe even cry on the stand.
If I told them to get stuffed and we proceed to trial with all charges and the jury found me guilty on just 1 of the charges not only would that mean time away (5-7yrs in jail on just one of the fraud charges although they were the most unlikely to stick) it would mean almost certain bankruptcy.
The reason for that is that with a conviction Trading Standards would apply for a “proceeds of crime” order. The way that works is that it looks at the GROSS income the business took and THAT is the benefit figure. In my case over a few short years the money the company took was over £1m with the majority of that being spent on wages, rent, bills, advertising, bonuses and of course the clients passport. So most of that money is long gone. However with a POCA order they would say I owe £1m, take what’s left from me and then I’d still owe the rest for LIFE.
You cannot escape it via bankruptcy and the amount incurs a flat rate of 8% interest per year. So if £600,000 was still due after they’d take everything including the shirt off my back, I’d incur £48,000 per year in INTEREST alone! Forever!.
And so as you can imagine in my mind I really was in-between a rock and a hard place.
It was an incredibly tough decision to come but putting my business mind to good use I concluded that if a compromise be come to then at least this would be the end of it. There wouldn’t need to be a single high risk roll of the dice with winner take all outcome for either side.
Furthermore I could see that me defying the Advertising Standards Authority and not rolling over, being tough on the refund policy which was pretty much: you’re not happy, I’m afraid that’s to bad and pursuing those who didn’t pay their hundred quid invoice via the small claims court were policies that the authorities could not tolerate.
They were indeed absent of a lot of compassion, the company’s profit was to much of a priority and it didn’t take into account the fact the consumer focused “the customer is always right” mindset that we have in the UK.
A lot of what drives the Advertising Standards Authority and Trading Standards decisions on who to focus on is like a reverse popularity contest. Those that get the most attention / create the most amount of noise/complaints are zeroed in for enforcement and so I could appreciate that in the eyes of the authorities and complainants I needed to be punished / make amends.
I therefore instructed my barrister to approach Trading Standards legal team and offer (1) that I would agree to plead guilty on the two charges they requested (2) I would agree to pay a £150,000 fine (3) I would refund all complainants (4) They would not request the Judge ban me as a director (details >) (5) I would advise the County Court that all of those who my company had secured a court judgement against (CCJ) would be updated to “paid” status. Meaning it would no longer weigh down their credit score.
Trading Standards jumped at the offer and the only change they requested was that £50,000 be paid towards their court/legal costs. Something I decided to agree too.
Whilst the above had been agreed between the defence and prosecution the Court has the power to modify any part of the deal if wishes.
As mentioned earlier the Judge really was in no mood to try this case and agreed to Trading Standards dropping 10 of the 12 criminal charges, the £150,000 fine and £50,000 for prosecution costs.
He then scheduled sentencing for Friday 2nd August 2018 so give me time to issue the promised refunds and contact each of the county courts to mark all judgements against individuals as “paid”.
Updating Court Judgements
Much of the Trading Standards argument and those in the forum were that the court judgements we were securing were “invalid or not lawful“. This is because a good chunk of the cases we issued went unchallenged. Defendants received the court claim in the post with our side of the story and had 14 days to write a few paragraphs as a defence if they wanted to dispute the claim.
Remarkably 4/5 did nothing and so default judgement was entered against them in our favour. Their suggestion that these individuals were to “terrified” to write a couple of paragraphs and post the form back is ridiculous. Those that didn’t respond either knew the monies were due and so had no defence, had no intention of paying the amount and didn’t care if an unpaid county court judgement (CCJ) was going to be entered against them (perhaps one of many…) or they were fake names and address.
I know now that a LOT of consumers since Summer 2014 through to the arrest in June 2015 were from those trying to trip us up. Because the names and addresses were fake and they’d never pay our service fee they’d go into the UNPAID section of our database and due to the process at the time issuing court case would be the end result.
Therefore a good chunk of the court claims and amounts won are against ghosts. These were never “intimidated consumers” as they don’t exist. But it doesn’t serve their narrative. The greater the quantity and £ value the better for them.
Furthermore whilst there were court cases that individuals won there were also instances when the County Court Judge reviewed the paperwork, the defendant turned up and the Judge sided with us and instructed them to pay us. Therefore proof that our contract was valid and the outstanding service fee due.
None the less I followed through with what I promised the Leeds Crown Court Judge and contacted each and every County Court and had them mark each and every court judgement as “paid / settled”.
The complainants also received a refund and each and every individual who won at Court and was awarded a lump sum and/or order for us to refund their train fare received their monies.
Sentencing Hearing (August 2018)
After hearing that I had complied with all commitments to the Court in June 2018 the Judge signed off on the £150k fine and £50k costs paperwork. He imposed a £100 victim surcharge and ordered that these monies be paid within 60 days.
In regards to my non-financial penalty of the “criminal” wrongdoing after reviewing the submission from Trading Standards barrister who were of course sensationalising the whole situation and basically encouraging the judge to have no mercy the Judge came to his decision.
He sentenced me to 7 months in prison for the misleading advertisement offence and 5 months for the “aggressive commercial practice” offence which of course is 12 months / 1 year in total.
Being that in England you do have your time inside prison and half out on license this was effectively 6 months in the can. However he stated the sentence can be suspended for 2yrs (meaning that if I do not commit another criminal offence during that period I don’t need to go to prison at all) and ordered I do 200 unpaid hours at my local Oxfam shop. Which is called “community service”.
That was it. The Judge although well versed in the case and in receipt of the prosecutions pre-sentence report which highlighted each and every one of their most damning and unchallenged allegations was happy for this to be my punishment. He chose NOT to ban me as a company director (something a court can order for up to 15yrs) and so was satisfied that I would not be liability to the general public in the capacity of running a business (details >).
What Does the Sentence Say?
There are some in the UK who think the criminal justice system is to “soft” and that the law prevents Judges from giving out a sufficient penalty however the Judge did not have his hands tied in this case whatsoever.
Firstly each of the two offences carried up to 24 months in prison each and so the Judge had within his power of the offences to hand down a 4yr prison term if he wished.
Instead he chose to hand down one that was 25% of the maximum. That of course being 1yr with it entirely suspended providing I fulfilled my 200hrs at Oxfam and stayed out of trouble.
So I hope that gives some real prospective to the whole affair and any propaganda / articles etc that insisted I was the villain of the century.
After Sentencing Hearing
As you can imagine it was HUGE relief to formally be advised in August 2018 the sentence was being suspended that and that the financial penalties were manageable and that I could now finally put everything behind me and get on with my life.
No changes to the business were needed because in early August 2015 I had already changed the adverting to be in line with ASA guidelines, no longer pursued those who did not pay their dues via the courts and since then and to this day offer a not happy, 100% money back guarantee. But there was one last headache still to be overcome…
Problems Paying the £200k
At the sentencing hearing I signed two orders that Trading Standards presented which authorised the bank the company had an account with to debit £150,0000 to HM Courts and Tribunal Services for the fine and a £50,000 debit to York County Council for Trading Standards prosecution costs. Whilst the Judge gave 60 days to pay these funds I understand the logic that Trading Standards wanted these amounts paid before they dropped the Restraint Order against me! I therefore signed both transfer requests using my “George Orwell” name.
However I only remembered when NatWest bank wrote to me that they still had be down as “Richard Howard” on their systems and so one of the transfers was rejected. They wrote to me and I re-signed the replacement documents and posted them straight back. NatWest confirmed that everything was in order but unbelievably said that “the transfer will happen in 2-3 weeks“.
Magistrates Court Hearing
As they were so damn slow the 60 day payment window expired! By default the matter was referred to the Magistrates Court where I submitted evidence saying that while there was a short delay in innocently signing the documents with the wrong name it’s not my bloody fault NatWest took 2-3 weeks to process the bank transfer!
My monies were still frozen and out of my reach so it’s not within my power to pay the amounts any sooner. I also protested against the £800 – £900 of interest at 8% per year that had been incurred on the £150,000 figure since the 60 day window had lapsed.The Magistrates seeing sense did not activate the 12 month prison term and referred it back to the Crown Court.
Leeds Crown Court Hearing
My solicitors had long since lost interest in me after entering a guilty plea before the trial began (I later found out that their fee’s sky rocket the moment a jury is impanelled) and so I thought I’d have a go myself at defending my position in regards to not being sent down due to this and thought I’d also have a go at asking the Crown Court Judge to remove or minimise the interest payable.
I acknowledged responsibility for some of the delay due to the mix up in signing the documents in the wrong name but also made reference to the fact I’d acted promptly to correct it and much of the delay was down to the lazy damn bank. I therefore suggested that the interest should be revised from the £800 – £900 figure to a more appropriate figure of £19.84.
After reading my “Variation Order” submission and after considering the facts of the matter, to my delight and I must say amusement, the Leeds Crown Court Judge agreed with George Orwell’s motion and that he should pay just £19.84 in interest.
Trading Standards who were in receipt of this request and could have challenged it chose not to raise any objection. Clearly agreeing this was appropriate. Copy of the order below…
I was of course chuffed my this result and to be given 28 days to pay the outstanding interest. This was of course paid, on the 27th day naturally.
£300k was Real Penalty
Whilst £200,000 was wired over to them the real penalty was £300,000. Why? Because fines / proceeds of crime monies are not tax deductible and we charged 20% VAT on our sales.
Therefore for there to be £200,000 tax paid left it would have had to have been £250,000 of sales + VAT which is £300,000 and so £50,000 would have been paid to HMRC in VAT.
Plus with £250k left over that would have been hit by 20% Corporation Tax and so leaving £200k remaining. HMRC therefore profited to the tune of £100,000 over these so called bogus / invalid sales.
3yr Headache Concludes
Thankfully the issue with paying the monies was the final headache. As stated a zillion times throughout this article there have been no regulatory issues, pissed off clients etc since August 2015. I write this article in March 2022 and so that speaks for itself.
Frustratingly as the case took forever to reach trial with the arrest being June 2015 and the final court hearing being August 2018 the articles, Trading Standards propaganda makes events seem much more recent then they actually are. I was 27 to 28yrs old during the period of the indictment. A real baby.
I’m now 35 and I like to think a wiser, more mature and better person in many ways. The lack of new clashes with the authorities, grumpy clients and positive reputation of the 2.0 version of the business and myself speaks volumes to that.
What has happened has happened. There are many things that I would have changed about my conduct in my 20’s however I cannot change the past. I do hold my head up high though as unlike some who go through the justice system I have paid 100% of my debt to society.
All monies the Crown ordered have been paid including the HUGE fine and the costs for Trading Standards prosecuting me. Those who complained have been refunded in full and both they and the Advertising Standards Authority got their way in regards to changes to our advertising and a stop to pursuing unpaid invoices via the small claims court.
I also believe the compromise agreement that came out of this shows the reality of the situation. Trading Standards had spent many, many months going through two years worth of emails, the advertising, reading internal Skype messages between staff, our training manuals and I’m sure many call recordings (not that they ever submitted any into evidence).
If I was really a “fraudster” / crook. Why leave me with ANY money? Why not push as hard as they could to at least try and and put me away for 5-7yrs in jail? There was no downside of putting the charges to the jury for they are government funded and so have an unlimited budget. They could also have at least tried to ask the judge ban me as a director or insist as part of the deal that I shut down my websites / business yet they did not.
It’s clear that they just wanted to give me a corrective slap, have me submit to the will of the ASA, forget about the monies from unpaid invoice and not use the small claims court to pursue those who were not going to pay as the complaints and pressure they were getting from these individuals, those on the forum and a few articles was a headache that needed to stop.
Clean Slate Philosophy
I also completed my 200hrs community service at Oxfam and was praised for the effort that I put in whist there. Therefore from my prospective any just society punishes you once. You provide redress to the complainant/s and the State and then you move on with a clean slate.
I do not see these 3yrs as something that should forever be a weight around my neck and haunt me for the rest of my life.
Thankfully we have the internet and so anyone researching me or my company’s can now come to their own conclusion, view my side of the story as well and so decide whether these events define their belief as to who Richard Howard is or whether I deserve to be treated in the present as to who I am and how I behave with them now and in the days to come.
Going Guilty Regrets?
I do wonder at times whether I should have declined to plead guilty and agree to pay any financial penalties and if I should have left it up to the jury to decide the matter.
I had made it clear to Trading Standards that I was very much looking forward to unleashing the full power of my personality onto the jury and finally giving them my side of the story and I think they were concerned that proceeding to trial would be a roll of the dice.
I was hardly over the moon with the outcome and I think its fair to say they were not either. In some ways that’s the definition of a fair deal.
Thank You Reader!
I wrote this article not to win over people to my side of the situation but for balance.
Those who seek going beyond headlines and reading up on both sides of the story are exactly the kind of people that I want to have in my life and so thank you very much for taking the time to read this long arse article!
It was in excess of 14,400 words and so seriously, well bloody done if you’re gone through it all!
I’m more then happy to talk about the above and prove any and all statements that I have made.
Being a critical / let’s see the facts based thinker is incredibly healthy and something that I respect and so please do not worry about offending me or tip toeing around about the above.
If you’d like to know more, just let me know!
Feel free to Contact Me here >