Our family was ruined over a crime my nephew did not commit: 'Allo Allo' star Vicki Michelle's fight for justice

Vicki Michelle fought the courts to get justice for her nephew

Vicki Michelle fought the courts to get justice for her nephew

I have spent much of my professional life playing comic roles, most famously that of Yvette in the BBC's wartime comedy 'Allo 'Allo.

On stage and on set, I have come across many grim-faced officials and pantomime fools. But never did I expect to see the British justice system turned into the farce that I have just witnessed.

It started with a case of mistaken identity. A company called London Eastern Railway wrote to my nephew David Hayes in February 2010 asking if he was a mixed-race man who had dodged a £2.60 fare from Manor Park in East London to Goodmayes in Essex. Enclosed was a scruffily written witness statement from an inspector.

Few people have ever heard of London Eastern Railway but this is what the National Express East Anglia franchise calls itself when it takes people to court.

David is not of mixed race. He's never used the railway in question. The birth date on the accusation was wrong. I presume the real offender gave a false name and address, an act of petty spite but one with serious consequences.

David, a rather vulnerable young man with learning difficulties, made the mistake of throwing the letter in the bin. Although he holds down a labouring job, anything beyond the simplest problem fills him with anxiety.

A court summons, a conviction in his absence and a fine of £292.60 followed rapidly. When a debt-collecting firm began sending threatening letters, he finally told his mother, my sister June, what was going on.

So began the task of clearing his name. The error was so obvious, this should have been accomplished with a phone call and a letter. No one meeting David could ever have believed he was the man stopped by ticket inspectors.

Yet it was a task that involved a year of crippling worry and the collapse of my sister's marriage. And all because no one in authority seemed willing to act with an ounce of common sense.

Actress Vicki Michelle with sister June, left mum Joan and nephew David, front

Vicki with sister June, left mum Joan and nephew David, front

June did as the debt collection firm asked and wrote explaining the full circumstances, enclosing a copy of her son's passport. By way of reply, David received letters from a different bunch of debt collectors, this time threatening to send round the bailiffs.

So June, a teacher, went through the process again. In November, she sent the new firm a letter of explanation, with another copy of David's passport. The firm's response was to ask for David's permission for June to speak for him. She sent yet another letter.

But the flow of threatening correspondence continued until finally, the debt collectors told David and his mother that they needed to contact Havering Magistrates' Court, Essex  -  because he was going to be prosecuted for non-payment of the fine, which had now escalated to £567.60.

Reaching someone at the court was easier said than done. It took at least 30 calls before June got through and, once she did, the advice was depressingly familiar: she had to write yet another letter explaining everything.

At least there was a reply  -  of sorts  -  this time. David received a letter addressed to someone called Darren Mayes, explaining he must go to court and swear a statutory declaration. June had no idea what this was; Heaven knows what David made of it.

The case was taking over June's life. Tempers were fraying at home and she was arguing with her husband. David was bubbling over with frustration, his mental state clearly getting worse.

But in February of this year, June and David took a day off work to go to Havering. David stood up in court and was sworn in. June thought the court would accept the conviction was a mistake and the officials might even apologise. Instead, she and David were told they must appeal against the original conviction. No one, it seemed, was willing either to pay attention or take responsibility. So they went back to reception and filled out another form.

By now, David was terrified, blaming himself and asking why he was 'so bad'. June was scared too, adrift in a sea of legal jargon.

month later, she received a letter telling them the appeal would be heard at Snaresbrook Crown Court. I suggested they get a lawyer, but they were told it would cost at least £500.

With mounting anxiety, June rang the prosecution department of London Eastern Railway (actually an arm of National Express), in another attempt to make it see sense. She also wanted it to send a copy of the original summons and a description of the fare-dodger.

Despite two conversations and three calls, no documents were sent, even though they were vital to David's defence. It was only after June's fourth call to the rail operator that anyone listened.

Once again she went through the details  -  and persuaded the official on the end of the line to read out the description of the faredodger over the phone, word by word. Finally, the penny dropped.

This time the response was: 'Of course we'll drop the case. David clearly had nothing to do with it.'

As simple as that! After scores of letters and hundreds of phone calls, this was the first time anyone had acknowledged the obvious injustice.

So David's conviction has been overturned and, more than a year after he was first accused, everything should be back to normal.

Except it isn't. David, who was a sweet young man, might never be the same again. He remains unpredictable and angry. My sister has separated from her husband. There has been no apology.

Thousands of pounds have been wasted  -  money which could have been spent tackling genuine criminals. But perhaps the most worrying thing to me is the way that ordinary people and their views were just waved aside.

How many other innocent people have suffered in this way  -  trapped in a legal labyrinth that wastes time, destroys lives and gives justice a bad name?