East London's Ms. Devers Snubs the Metric System; Selling by the Bowl Is Alleged
By CASSELL BRYAN-LOW
January 22, 2008; Page A1
LONDON -- London's East End is notorious for its criminals, from serial murderer Jack the Ripper to mobsters the Kray twins.
The latest candidate for this rogue's gallery is Janet Devers, a 63-year-old woman who runs a vegetable stall at Ridley Road market. Her alleged crime: selling goods only by the pound and the ounce.
Ms. Devers, whose stall has been in the family for 60 years, faces 13 criminal charges stemming from not selling her produce by the kilogram and the gram. She stands accused of breaking a European Union-instigated rule that countries must use metric measures to standardize trade. The rest of Europe is metric.
But Brits drink their milk and beer by the pint. On the road they rack up miles. Imperial measurement "is what we know, how we are. Who's to tell us to change?" said Scott Lomax, a fellow vegetable-stall owner.
Ms. Devers, who pleaded not guilty in a court appearance on Friday, is being lionized for her stand in Britain's feisty tabloids. If convicted, she could be fined as much as $130,000.
"It's disgusting," said Ms. Devers of the charges. "We have knifings. We have killings," she said. "And they're taking me to court because I'm selling in pounds and ounces."
And, equally illegally, in bowls. Ten of the counts against her relate to purveying produce, such as hot Scotch-bonnet peppers, by the bowl.
The United Kingdom wrote an exemption into its measurements law to meet the EU metric requirement in 2000, as Brussels allowed. It stated that traders must use metric weights, but they could use imperial measures as well. The problem is that Ms. Devers allegedly didn't have metric prices on all of her produce when she was charged late last year, and two of her scales only measured in pounds and ounces.
The British imperial system dates back at least to medieval times. Notable holdouts still using it are Britain and the U.S. It doesn't help that the metric system was created over 200 years ago across the Channel in France, England's ancient archrival.
Aversion to the metric system is one of many signs of the U.K.'s lingering reluctance to integrate with its continental neighbors. Britain shuns the euro in favor of the pound sterling, drives on the left-hand side of the road and has a tradition of "euroskeptic'' politicians who thrill some sections of the public by bashing the Continent.
One recent overcast Thursday afternoon at Ridley Road market in Hackney, a low-income district in East London, shoppers from Turkish, Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities browsed the stalls. Shouts from traders touting deals like "50p a basket of mangoes" mingled with reggae music blasting from a stall that sells posters and T-shirts.
Insulated from the chilly January day in a faux-fur- trimmed hat, Ms. Devers chatted up customers from behind her covered stall piled with eggplant, ginger, green beans (£1 a pound for the beans). Though her signs currently carry prices in pounds as well as the equivalent in kilograms, she said her customers prefer pounds -- and sometimes complain when she uses kilos that she's trying to cheat them.
"I always shop in pounds," said Sophia Levicki, a 60-year-old part-time shop clerk and a regular at Ms. Devers's stall. "If it's good enough and cheap enough, I'll buy it," she added, as she asked for two pounds of shiny, purple-skinned eggplant.
Nearby stall owner Mr. Lomax added prices in kilos as well as pounds to his signs after warnings from local authorities in recent years. "The customers don't understand kilos," he said. Like many stall owners he uses metric scales, which he got after the EU metric directive was introduced into U.K. law in 2000.
Ms. Devers's trouble with the law began one Thursday this September, when two representatives from the local government council, accompanied by two policemen, came up to her stall and seized her imperial scales. They told Ms. Devers she was using illegal scales and that she wasn't allowed to weigh in pounds and ounces, she said. "I was furious," said Ms. Devers, who asked the police officers if the council was allowed to do that, to which they responded that it was.
Around Christmas, a 67-page letter landed in her mail. It outlined 13 criminal charges against her, including one charge of improper pricing of goods and two charges related to using imperial scales. She also faces 10 counts related to selling by the bowl.
"I think it's so ridiculous," she said, noting that pricing per bowl is common practice because customers perceive it as good value. "If they're going to do me for bowls, they have to do the whole country."
Alan Laing, an official with the local authority that is prosecuting Ms. Devers, said that "making sure traders comply with weights-and-measures legislation is also part of the job."
Ms. Devers wouldn't be the first to be pounded down by the metric law. Four market-stall owners -- including her brother -- lost an appeal to the High Court in 2002 for not using metric measurements. They received conditional discharge -- which means no further action is taken as long as they don't break the law again within a specific period of time. A group campaigning to pardon them is helping coordinate financing for Ms. Devers's case and calls them "metric martyrs."
It's about "who governs Britain," says campaigner Neil Herron, from Sunderland, England.
With the help of her brother, Ms. Devers found lawyers willing to take on the case for a nominal fee. Their planned legal strategy is to argue various technicalities such as a loophole for imperial scales that predate the law. They plan to lean on what they see as a recent softening in Brussels. After pressure from U.K. companies as well as others that trade with Britain and the U.S., the European parliament recently adopted legislation that would let the U.K. continue to use imperial alongside metric measures indefinitely, instead of phasing it out by next year. The measure is awaiting European Council approval.
Her legal team may also call customers as witnesses to say that they like paying pounds for pounds, one of the lawyers involved said.
'It Would Ruin Me'
Ms. Devers faces fines of up to $10,000 per charge, or a total of about $130,000. "It would ruin me," said Ms. Devers, who declined to detail her earnings. She says she canceled a planned trip to New York with her twin sister, because having a criminal record could make entering the U.S. difficult.
On Friday afternoon, Ms. Devers appeared in Thames Magistrates Court in East London. She pleaded not guilty.
Her barrister, Nicholas Bowen, mocked the nature of her alleged crimes. "If somebody sells a punnet of strawberries at Wimbledon is that a criminal offense?" he asked. A punnet, as all Britons know, is roughly the equivalent of a couple of handfuls -- or about half a liter.
Ms. Devers and her legal team won a victory of sorts. The magistrate granted their request that the case be tried by a jury. Jurors, with perhaps some shoppers among them, will likely be sympathetic, Mr. Herron says.
Ms. Devers smiled as she left the courthouse to go back to her stall. The scales of justice sit, she said, "in the hands of the people."
Write to Cassell Bryan-Low at email@example.com
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