HC Deb 27 May 1935 vol 302 cc919-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Captain, Margesson.]


I desire to call attention to the case of Lawrence Smith, in accordance with notice that I gave earlier to-day. This Lawrence Smith's sentence has been quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal, but unfortunately the man had already been in custody for six weeks on remand and had served 10 weeks of the sentence pronounced on him; in other words, he had been in prison ever since January until the 5th May. I do not wish to make any remarks about the legal aspect of the case, but I think it might be right for me to repeat the words of the Lord Chief Justice, who said that the case was both unfortunate and unsatisfactory, that it had been misconceived and the jury misdirected, and that there was really no evidence to support the conviction. I think the case is especially hard, because the man has lost everything. He has lost his character, his business, and his health. He is almost destitute. If he had been convicted for murder or something of that sort, it would not necessarily have been so hard for him, because at least there would have been some mystery or some romance about it, but in this case the man's whole character has been called in. question and his trustworthiness has been challenged, and irreparable damage has been done which will prevent him resorting to the business he has followed, because no one will ever wish to have business transactions with him, and he now finds himself through a mistake in dire poverty

There are cases of this sort which have been assisted in the past. For instance, there is the case of Adolf Beck, who was compensated and received, I believe, something like £5,000 after he had been five years in prison. One would hardly 'suggest that a grave case of injustice of this sort, in which a. man has been kept in prison for over four months, should not in some way be compensated. Adolf Beck apparently got £1,000 for every year he was in prison. Then there was also the case of Oscar Slater. I mention this point, because I want to show that these two people at least when they came out found a sympathetic world waiting to soothe their wounds. This is a poor man. He comes out, and there is nothing done for him, unless the Minister will be so kind as to consider this question. I am sure he will judge the question on its merits, because I know he is 'anxious to uphold everything that is right. I am confident that in this particular case he will blend mercy with understanding, and will realise something of the unfortunate position in which this man finds himself. It is on these grounds that I venture to bring forward the case. I do hope he will look at it on its merits. I 'am not going to press him for a reply to-night. I hope he will kindly consider it. Lastly, it is said that England is the last home of liberty. Is it not a little hard if a man can be deprived for four months of his liberty, his character, his health wad business—everything taken away from him—and then nothing be done in the way of compensation I I do hope that the Minister will consider the case and will see what can be done about it.

11.12 p.m.

The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Captain Crookshank)

I think I owe an apology to the hon. Lady. Unfortunately at Question Time neither the Secretary of State nor I happened to be here when we might have dealt with the matter. It is really due to her own zeal for her constituents, because we tried on Friday to get into touch with her, but she had already gone to be among them. I hope, therefore, she does not take it amiss that we were not here this afternoon. With regard to this particular case, from such inquiries as I have been able to make in the short time since the matter was raised, I find no reason to think, and. I hope she will agree with me thus far, that in the conduct of the case there was any reason to find fault with the action of the police—that is one of the points with which my right hon. Friend is concerned—in preferring a charge against Mr. Smith on the complaint that had been made to them. I cannot say any more with reference to the police than the fact that the particulars in my possession appear to have justified them at the time with charging Mr. Smith with fraudulent conversion and, what is more, they appear to have satisfied the stipendiary magistrate in the court before whom he was brought that there was a prima facie case that justified his committal for trial. Having brought the defendant before the Court, the police have no responsibility for what courts either lower or higher may decide in the case. It really would not be proper for me or for the House to comment on that aspect of the case at all.

So I come back to the fundamental principles. The hon. Lady said she had no remarks to make on the legal aspects of the case, because she was not fitted to deal with them. It does largely turn on the legal aspects. The hon. Lady said it was a, very sad case, because the man had lost his character. As the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed the verdict, there is no loss of character. He has not been convicted of anything. From the point of view of general principle there is really nothing in this case to distinguish it, as far as I can see, from the numerous cases which occur from day to day, in which a defendant is arrested and brought before a. court of summary jurisdiction and is discharged, or else where a defendant is committed for trial and eventually acquitted by a jury.

It seems to be unnecessary for me to remind the House that the fundamental principle of our law is that an accused person should not have to prove his innocence and that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the charge. Of course, the accused person is entitled to acquittal unless that duty is performed to the satisfaction of the jury. This case went to the jury and they decided that Mr. Smith was guilty. That decision was afterwards quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. It follows, there fore, I think, really as a corollary, that there must be a number of cases in which, if there is grave suspicion, it warrants every kind of investigation and the jury eventually decide that they are not satisfied with the prisoner's guilt. I cannot see that this particular case is materially different from that, except that instead of being found innocent by the lower court it was the Court of Criminal Appeal which quashed the conviction. That is really only moving it one step higher. If the principle is going to be admitted that a person whose application to the Court of Criminal Appeal is successful is automatically entitled to compensation, it follows that you will have to provide some means of compensating everyone who is acquitted in all the lower courts. In fact, everybody who was brought before any court would, because he was not convicted, feel himself entitled to compensation. That would indeed be something very novel in our judicial procedure.

I would take it further. The hon. Lady is aware that the Court of Criminal Appeal has not been established very long in this country, and that when it was established Parliament must presumably have contemplated that from time to time it would quash convictions, but Parliament did nothing on the subject of compensation at that time. It never opened that question. I have not had time to read through all the Debates, but there is nothing in the Act to show there was any indication that Parliament thought there should be compensation in these cases. When one comes to think it out—as I am sure the hon. Lady would agree if she went into it—it is difficult to arrive at any principle on which compensation, generally speaking, can be based because the grounds on which convictions are quashed are very varied. They are sometimes quashed because fresh evidence has come to light since the original trial, or they may be quashed on some difficult question of the interpretation of the law. But if you once admitted that because the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed a conviction there were grounds of compensation, it would be in practice difficult to differentiate between the different scales of compensation which would be required in each case. In any event, it would cut across the principles that have been found to be fundamental not only by my right hon. Friend, but by every Secretary of State who has had responsibility to the House on this subject.

Of course, that is not to say that we do not all feel the greatest possible sympathy with the hon. Lady's constituent, or with anyone else who may unfortunately fall under perfectly reasonable suspicion; and, after all, the jury convicted in the first instance, so that presumably they thought there was sufficient evidence. Every time this particular question has come up for consideration, Secretaries of State have unfailingly said that they did not see their way to grant or recommend any form of compensation just because the Court of Criminal Appeal or any other superior Court had quashed the conviction of a lower Court. I am afraid I have not in my head at the moment the details of the Beck case or the Slater case which the hon. Lady quoted, but I am certain that if compensation was given in those cases it was given because the men had been convicted and after their conviction something occurred, such as the production of fresh evidence, which caused the case to be reopened. There is no question of that in this instance. This is merely what one might call something in the routine nature of an appeal which quashed an earlier conviction. I have not been able to ascertain that there was any fresh evidence, which was the predominating feature in the cases which the hon. Lady specifically quoted.

To give compensation in a case of this kind would create a precedent which would lead us into very strange fields, and while we cannot but feel great sympathy—everybody must—with any individual in circumstances of this kind, I can only repeat that it is not the case that this man has lost his character through having his conviction by the lower court quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. He has retained his character, and I hope, as I am sure the hon. Lady does, that he will find employment again and will realise that he has the sympathy of us all; but there is no grounds at all, for the reasons which I hope I have made clear to the House, on which he should receive compensation.

11.23 p.m.


I quite appreciate the difficulty of the hon. Gentleman. It impossible under any system of law that everybody who is acquitted of a crime should get compensation for having been prosecuted. I think what the hon. Lady probably had in mind in this case, and it is a matter which I would ask the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friend to take into account, is the question of imprisonment. This man, never having been proved guilty—at least not eventually proved guilty—nevertheless suffered imprisonment, and it is on that basis that compensation was paid in the cases of Beck and Slater—that they had suffered imprisonment for a long period and that subsequently something turned up to show that they had never been guilty and never ought to have been in prison.

This subject raises also, although I do not know how far it affects this actual case, the question of the unwillingness to grant bail. People who have subsequently been proved not guilty have in many cases suffered a period in prison during remand.


The hon. and learned Gentleman realises that a remand prisoner is not treated in the same way as a convicted prisoner.


But I also realise that I would rather not be even a remand prisoner, and that until a person is guilty, however grave the suspicion, it is extremely desirable, if possible, that he should be allowed his liberty. I do not know what, occurred in this case, but there are many cases in which comments have been made on the difficulty of getting bail and on the number of persons who go to prison as remand prisoners who ought not to be prisoners at all, because they have not yet been proved guilty. They are assumed to be innocent people. It is highly undesirable that innocent people should be kept in prison in any circumstances.

In this case the claim which the hon. Lady makes is, I understand, that this man, who was subsequently proved innocent, had to spend 10 weeks in prison. Her point is not that he was acquitted after being prosecuted, but that he had to spend 10 weeks in gaol. I understand that if your next-door neighbour spends 10 weeks in gaol, it is not always easy to distinguish whether he has spent them there as a remand prisoner or as an ordinary prisoner, and there is a, liability for people's character to disappear. Although it is argued with perfect justice by the Under-Secretary that this man has as good a character as he ever had, his next-door neighbour does not always understand that, when a man has spent 10 weeks in prison.

11.27 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel LLEWELLIN

I listened with interest to what the hon. and learned Member for East Bristol (Sir S. Cripps) said. I do not think there are many instances in which a man who has been convicted by a jury is released upon bail before coming up before the Court of Criminal Appeal. He is in a different position from the person who is committed for trial, who, in all reasonable cases ought, of course, to be granted bail, because he has never been convicted. But the man, for whom I think we all have sympathy in this case, was of course convicted before a Court—I think it was a recorder and a. jury—and was ultimately released on a point of law by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

I think that if we in this House were to try to insist that all those people who were similarly released by the Court of Criminal Appeal should be automatically granted compensation, we should be doing a bad thing for the administration of law in this country, because we should put a kind of onus on the police force rather to press cases in the Court of Criminal Appeal in a way in which I think prosecutions should not be pressed. There would be that kind of incentive behind them, in every case brought before the Court of Criminal Appeal, that when the sentence was quashed compensation ought automatically to follow. I think it would be a very bad principle if we tried to insist upon that in this House, and would not conduce to the fair administration of the criminal law in this country. All that I think we can do for this man is to congratulate him on his subsequent acquittal, and, as my hon. and gallant Friend has said, hope that he will soon get reinstated in work, and that the fact that the hon. Lady has raised this matter will, by giving publicity to it, show to the whole of those people who are his neighbours that this man was completely acquitted, and is worthy of employment in the future just as he was in the past.

11.28 p.m.


I rise only to point out to the Under-Secretary when he says that this man, when he was a remand prisoner, received different treatment from that which he would have received had he been an ordinary prisoner, that it is more than probable that half the time he spent in gaol was spent as an ordinary prisoner pending the appeal. That ought to be taken into account in reviewing the case.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.