HC Deb 15 December 1937 vol 330 cc1156-7
42. Major Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith

asked the Under-Secretary of State for Air whether he has now received the transcript of the recent court-martial proceedings at Tangmere, in which the defending flight-lieutenant attempted to discredit a woman witness by alleging that her present marriage is bigamous and by suggesting that she had made bogus claims for compensation; whether he is satisfied that there is no foundation for these suggestions; and whether he will give instructions which will, in future, prevent the infliction of unnecessary distress upon people called as witnesses in courts-martial?

Lieut.-Colonel Muirhead

I am advised that the questions in cross-examination referred to, to which exception is taken, were legally permissible and were put with a view to discrediting the testimony of the woman witness by attempting to establish that she had made a false statement on oath at the trial regarding her marriage and that she was a person prone to prefer unfounded claims for compensation. Her explanation in regard to her marriage was subsequently accepted by the defending flight-lieutenant, and I am advised that there was no proof that she was a person prone to prefer unfounded claims for compensation. I do not think it is for me to pronounce on the admissibility of evidence put forward at this general court-martial. If questions had been put which were inadmissible, the Judge-Advocate would have so advised the court. Defending officers have the same rights and duties as appertain to counsel, and I do not think it is desirable to issue any instructions which might embarrass them in acting as they consider best in the interests of an accused.

Sir R. Dorman-Smith

Is my hon. and gallant Friend aware that very great distress has been caused to this lady by reason of these quite unfounded suggestions; and will he try at least to make it compulsory, or anyway give instructions, that people defending officers should try to verify or get some grounds for these suggestions before making them?

Lieut.-Colonel Muirhead

I am afraid it is inevitable in law cases that distress is sometimes caused to other parties, but I hope that the answer I have given to my hon. and gallant Friend does go a good way, perhaps, to meet the distress in this particular case. With regard to the last part of my hon. and gallant Friend's supplementary question, I can only refer to what I have said already, that one has necessarily to be extremely careful how one in any way limits what is legally admissible in defending an accused person.

Mr. Garro Jones

Is the Under-Secretary aware that many of these allegations were made as the result of a telephone communication to the defending officer, which he took no steps to confirm; and is it not desirable that, while defending officers have the same rights as counsel, they should act with the same sense of responsibility as counsel?

Lieut.-Colonel Muirhead

I said in my answer that defending officers have the same rights and duties as counsel.