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Servitude conviction upheld for forced detention and work

12 February 2019

Two men who forced a vulnerable 20 year old man to live under their control and work at their piggery for little or no pay, have failed in their appeals against conviction for holding him in servitude contrary to the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015, s 4(1)(a).

John Miller and his father in law Robert McPhee were convicted at the High Court in Glasgow on that charge and a charge of abduction of the complainer, K, from York where he had attempted to escape them, by forcing him into a car and taking him back to Curryside Piggery.

At the time K had recently been released from detention. He suffered mental instability. He said he went to work with the accused but then found he was slapped about or locked in a shed if his work was not satisfactory. He was threatened that he would be skinned alive if he left. He was paid erratically, £20 a day, but sometimes not at all. He was put up in a caravan. He had got away and travelled to York but the accused had found out where he was, threatened him and then went to bring him back against his will. The defence evidence was that nothing had been done against K's will.

Due to an unrelated charge the judge had had to define "slavery or servitude". She directed that the evidence did not support K having been held in a state of slavery, which involved rights of ownership, but that the evidence could support servitude, which involved an obligation to provide services imposed by coercion, including an obligation to live on another person's property, and the feeling on the part of the person being kept that their situation was permanent and they could not change it.

On appeal it was argued that the directions were inadequate, and the situation was more akin to forced labour; and that the judge wrongly advised that K's vulnerability was relevant without stating that the accused had to have known of it. Servitude "embraced the totality of the status or condition of a person".

Delivering the opinion of the court, Lord Justice General Carloway, who sat with Lords Menzies and Drummond Young, said that the Act distinguished slavery, servitude and forced labour, which were to be construed in accordance with article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was difficult to conceive of a person not being in a state of servitude if the jury found established that they were forced to live under the accused's control at the piggery, they were held against their will and they were forced to carry out work for little or no pay. "A simple direction to that effect may have sufficed."

He added: "The point was not that [K] could not leave, it was that he was compelled to come back, live on site and perform the required labour. That was presumably the economic motivation behind keeping him in serfdom. His ability to wander about the local village and countryside did not change his servitude status. The jury’s deletion of the words “refuse to allow him to leave” was not fatal in a situation where the person considered that he had no option but to stay or that, if he left, he would, as occurred in this case, be found and brought back."

On the second point, "in circumstances in which the Crown were not founding upon an abuse of a vulnerable person (a fact which would have to have been libelled) there was no need for a specific direction on the point. Whether, at the time, the complainer had mental health difficulties was not a material part of the case, although it might be ventured that without the existence of some vulnerabilities it is difficult to conceive of a situation where keeping a person in servitude could persist for long".

The appeals against conviction were refused, but seven years' imprisonment for Miller on the servitude charge was reduced to six, given the two month timescale, K's relative freedom of movement and the lack of evidence of the accused's awareness of his mental health problems.

Click here to view the opinion of the court.

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