20-22 November 2001 Royal Courts Justice, London – Five traders, the “Metric Martyrs”, previously convicted of selling goods in imperial measures (lbs and oz) appealed against their convictions in the High Court in London.

The heart of their appeal was that the 1985 Weights and Measures Act was still in force and gave equal legal status to metric and imperial measures in trade. The prosecution argument is that that Act was amended by government ministers using administrative orders in 1994, thereby abolishing our system of measures. This to comply with European Community directives. The ministers claimed the power to overturn an Act of Parliament (the 1985 Weights and Measures Act) derived from the 1972 European Communities Act, the Act of Britain’s accession to the European Common Market.

Mr Michael Shrimpton, representing the five Metric Martyrs, said that Parliament, in passing the 1985 Weights and Measures Act must have done so in the knowledge of the earlier European Directive – 80/181/EEC, which purported to abolish the imperial system. He said the Courts were obliged to assume that Parliament knew. Following the recent disbandment of the “Metrication Board” parliament, expressly, had no intention of doing away with the imperial system. The 1985 Act was simply a demonstration by parliament that it had decided to re-occupy the field of weights and measures from European Community law. It was heading for an obvious clash between the two jurisdictions.

The court agreed early on that no British Act of Parliament had superiority over any other Act of Parliament. Nevertheless, Miss Eleanor Sharpston QC, representing the prosecuting local authorities, tried to persuade the court that the 1972 European Communities Act was special, a new legal order; powerful enough to break the fundamental constitutional rule that no Parliament could bind its successor; exceptional enough to break the canon that in a clash of legislation: the later Act overrides the earlier Act; extraordinary enough to empower a minister to overturn future primary legislation by means of secondary legislation.

Mr Shrimpton demonstrated that it is impossible for our Parliament to give itself a power projected into the future to bind Parliaments yet to come. Although the court heard many arguments by Miss Sharpston, this fundamental element of our constitution was not overturned. Mr Shrimpton convincingly demolished the assertion that the 1972 European Communities Act gave ministers the power to overturn any future Act of Parliament by means of administrative orders, i.e. Statutory Instruments.

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The court rejected the contention that the abolition of the imperial system of measures contravened our fundamental rights to free speech contained in the Human Rights Act, October 2000. It said this is because traders were still allowed to use imperial units as supplementary pricing indicators. The court ignored the fact that shoppers, confronted by metric units on weighing machines, had a very poor understanding of the actual quantities shown – they are disadvantaged and can be easily deceived. The court acknowledged that in 2010, when any use of imperial is prohibited in trade, there could be an appeal on these grounds.

Although the two eminent judges, Lord Justice Laws, sitting with Mr Justice Crane, reserved their judgement for a few weeks, the British Weights and Measures Association is confident that they will have to declare the 1985 Weights and Measures Act, which permits the use of metric and imperial measures, is still the law of the land. Therefore, the convictions of the five Metric Martyrs must fail and our constitution remains intact.