HC Deb 11 December 1967 vol 756 cc150-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Howie.]

9.5 p.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I wish to make it clear at the outset that I raise this subject not because I am dissatisfied in any way with the attitude of the Home Office in the case of Mr. Riley's father or that I am at all dissatisfied with the attitude of the police towards the accident which occasioned the late Mr. Riley's death. Rather I raise the matter tonight because I am incensed that the law as it stands makes it impossible for the local constabulary in Leicestershire successfully to bring any prosecution against those responsible for Mr. Riley's death.

The House may wonder why I should seek to bring before it at this fairly early hour for an Adjournment debate the case of a hit-and-run accident. After all, these are occurring every day and, as our traffic laws get more and more stringent, hit-and-run accidents are likely to be more and more severely penalised. In this case there is one special aspect. It was a hit-and-run accident and the victim, the late Mr. Riley, died, having languished in hospital for a few weeks, after he had been knocked off his bicycle. But the significance of the case is that no police prosecution has followed against the driver of the vehicle responsible.

Hon. Members may say that obviously the police do not know who was responsible for the accident and who was driving the vehicle. What makes the case unique is that the county constabulary know who was in the car at the time of the accident when Mr. Riley was killed. The House may say, if that is the case there can surely be only one answer to the question why there has been no police prosecution against the car driver: it must be that the vehicle was a corps diplomatique vehicle. I can assure the House that that is not the answer. The only reason why the county constabulary are unable to proceed against the person in charge of the vehicle is that they cannot positively identify which of three known occupants of the vehicle had his hands in the wheel at the time of the accident. They know without a shadow of a doubt the names of the three occupants, who were witnessed by many people. But simply because these three people have wilfully conspired together to deny that any of them was driving, the constabulary are powerless to act. It is for that reason alone that I have felt obliged to bring the case before the House tonight.

I have received some very courteous, full and informative letters from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, for which I am most grateful. He has explained exactly how the hands of the constabulary are tied, and I make it clear to him that I fully appreciate that they are powerless to act. Before I conclude I shall, I hope, suggest one or two ways in which possible future repetitions of this type of accident can be avoided so that the driver cannot get away scot free.

The story of this accident begins on 23rd December when the late Mr. Riley was bicycling to work in the morning. He was hit by a vehicle driven at a fairly fast speed—according to a witness, 40–45 m.p.h.—and travelling on the wrong side of the road. His bicycle was thrown to one side. Mr. Riley was seen to fly through the air. As I have described, after languishing in hospital for a few weeks, he died.

The vehicle carried on and did not stop for a moment. It was not until midday that the vehicle was traced. Traced it was without a shadow of doubt because there were eye witnesses who jotted its number down on cigarette packets. One eye witness actually identified the three occupants of the vehicle. According to the coroner's report, he happened to know them all and was so exact as to identify the position in which each of the occupants was sitting. There were plenty of eye witnesses, and at midday the vehicle was traced and police proceedings commenced.

It came out at the coroner's inquest early this year that a number of witnesses had been traced. One person who gave evidence was not an actual witness of the accident but he was the foreman in charge of the three men seen to get into this vehicle and drive away. They finished their nightshift in a Leicester factory at 5 o'clock in the morning and started drinking whisky. Just before 7 o'clock they were warned by their foreman that none of the three of them was fit to be in charge of a vehicle. He advised them not to drive, to which they made some unidentifiable reply and he saw no more of them. Those three men got into the vehicle and shorly afterwards it came up against Mr. George Riley, who was bicycling to work in the other direction, and hit him with the fatal result I have described.

One would think that when there is an incident such as this with three men positively identified and named by a person who happened to know them all, there would be no difficulty whatever in the law taking its proper course, a course which I am quite sure when it was enacted in this House hon. Members on both sides intended it to have—that the driver responsible should be prosecuted for this lethal crime, and, if he could not be pinpointed, surely that the three of them should be prosecuted for conspiring together to deflect the course of justice.

I first came into this case as a result of a visit from my constituent, the late Mr. George Riley's son. He came to see me and placed this sorry chapter of incidents before me together with letters from the Chief Constable of Leicestershire explaining that the police were powerless to act because they could not definitely pinpoint the driver. Mr. Riley's sail, to put it bluntly, wanted blood. Sympathy was no good to him.

I took the case up by writing to the Under-Secretary of State to the Home Department and to the Lord Chancellor, bath of whom corresponded in a very sympathetic vein. The Lord Chancellor was good enough to say that, although the police were powerless to act, it might be that Mr. Riley's son might wish to initiate private proceedings. Mr. Riley's son is not a wealthy man. He cannot go to great expense in initiating private proceedings with a problematical outcome. The Under-Secretary gave me advice, which I fully accept, that under the law as it stands at the moment the police are powerless to act.

The reason, as I said earlier, I have brought this case forward for debate on the Adjournment tonight is that this must be a loophole in the law. If it is the case that three known and positively identified occupants of a motor vehicle can get away with a hit-and-run accident involving the death of an innocent party and get away with it simply because the driver whose hands were actually on the wheel at the time cannot positively be identified surely there is no reason whatsoever why this sort of thing should not spread—once it is seen that this is a way of avoiding the proper course of justice, that two or more people involved in a hit-and-run accident can get together and say, "Let none of us admit he was driving, and provided we keep mum and nobody positively identifies us we shall get away with it". If this were to become widespread it would be a quite improper avenue of escape for those who take charge of a vehicle when they are not fit to do so and use it as a lethal weapon to strike down some innocent victim.

I do not wish to conclude my remarks by being over fulsome, because the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite knows very well my views about the case. I want to conclude by putting to him a comparison which I think is fair in this instance. If a gang of criminals in the course of armed robbery kill the person they are robbing, or kill an innocent passerby or bystander, every one of the members of that gang is liable to be charged, on being apprehended, with the crime of murder. I most strongly feel that if two—or, as in this case, three—occupants of a motor vehicle which is involved in a hit-and-run accident causing the death of an innocent person conspire together to maintain silence, each of those two or three should be charged with the offence which would be pinned upon the driver were he known.

I am not a lawyer. I am only concerned in a simple way with trying to obtain justice for my constituents and those who come to see me. There is, without shadow of doubt, a gross injustice here. Mr. Riley remembers his father and wishes to see that those who were responsible for his death are brought to book. I hope that, as I have raised this matter tonight, even though the hon. and learned Gentleman assures me, as I know he is going to do, that there is nothing he can do about it now, he will at least recognise the gravity of this case and give me a promise that he will seek to have amending legislation introduced—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is just across the border at this moment.

Mr. Farr

—at the next proper opportunity available.

9.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) for raising this case in the way he has done, and I certainly have every sympathy with Mr. Riley's son in this tragic accident in which his father, Mr. George Riley, was killed. The hon. Member has described the circumstances of the accident. Perhaps I could add a little more about the background.

Mr. Amriki Singh had the use of a motor car belonging to Mr. Hardhajan Singh, who was at that time in India and had given permission to Mr. Amriki Singh to use the car while he was away. The car was driven to work by Mr. Amriki Singh on 22nd December, with a Mr. Sohan Singh and a Mr. Jarnail Singh. As the hon. Member has said, early the next morning those three got drunk. At about 7.20 on 23rd December a Mr. Cassidy saw the accident in which Mr. George Riley was thrown off his bike. He took the number of the car, incorrectly as it turned out, though it was later traced, but he did not see who was the driver.

Another witness, Mr. Freestone, told the police that he heard the collision and saw someone flying through the air after being struck by the car. Again, he could not identify any of the occupants. A Mr. Crowe heard the collision and saw the body of a man flying through the air. He, again, could not identify any of the occupants of the car. So far, one has a number of people who saw the accident but could not identify the person driving the car nor any of the occupants.

Then there was a Mr. Ram Prokash, who told the police that at about 7.30 a.m. on the day in question he heard someone knocking on the front door of his house. He opened the door and saw Mr. Jarnail Singh standing near the driver's door of the car, which he knew to be the property of Mr. Hardhajan Singh. He saw Mr. Amriki Singh on the front passenger seat, very drunk and unable to help himself. He also saw Mr. Sohan Singh standing on the pavement near the car.

A further witness, Mr. Majhor Singh, was near the place in question and saw a car coming towards him. It was this car, and he saw the occupants. He said that the driver was Mr. Amriki Singh, so there one has an identification. However, he says that Mr. Jarnail Singh was sitting in the back and that Mr. Sohan Singh was sitting next to the driver. A further witness, Mr. Kewal Singh, again saw the car in question and saw Mr. Jarnail Singh sitting in the back. However, he did not know who was driving the car, or how many people were in it.

As for the occupants of the car, obviously their statements were highly relevant as to whether there was any conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice. Mr. Sohan Singh said that, when he left the factory with the other two, he sat in the rear seat of the car, Mr. Amriki Singh sat in the front passenger seat, and Mr. Jarnail Singh was driving. He does not remember which way the car travelled and does not remember being involved in the accident.

Mr. Jarnail Singh told the police that Mr. Amriki Singh drove the car to work on the day before the accident. He said that, at five o'clock on the morning of the accident, they started to drink. The foreman shouted to them, "Are you going to drive home?" and he replied, "No, we are going on the bus." They drank a lot more, but he could not remember how they left the factory or how he got home.

Mr. Amriki Singh agreed that he had a lot to drink. He did not remember leaving work and knew nothing about an accident. He was not aware that the car had been involved in an accident until he was told by the police.

A newspaper report of the coroner's inquest states that Mr. M. Singh, who must have been Mr. Majhor, reported that he was walking down Mere Road when he saw the car strike a pedal cyclist. However, he told the police that he did not see the impact take place and did not hear the sound of any crash.

What were the police to do, in those circumstances? As the hon. Gentleman recognises, they were in great difficulties because, although there were three witnesses of the accident, none could identify the driver. Another witness would say that Mr. Amriki Singh was the driver but that he did not see the accident. Then there was Mr. Sohan Singh, who stated that Mr. Jarnail Singh was the driver, and then there was Mr. Ram Prokash, who said that, some ten minutes or so after the accident, Mr. Amriki Singh was sitting in the passenger seat and that Mr. Jarnail Singh was standing by the driver's door.

There was no evidence to identify the driver, and it is a well-established principle that the police ought not to prosecute unless there is evidence which pinpoints the person whom they intend to charge. This would have been a very serious prosecution for causing death by dangerous driving, they had to prove their case beyond all reasonable doubt, and there was no indication of who was the driver.

It was not only the view of the police that there was no evidence against anyone; it was also the view formed by the solicitors consulted by Mr. Riley's son. They took the same view: that there was not enough evidence to justify criminal proceedings against any particular person. As the hon. Member has recognised, ft ere is, in any event, no question of the Home Secretary interfering in the decision of the police not to prosecute.

The question then raised by the hon. Member was whether perhaps there could not be a prosecution for conspiracy. The charge here would be one of conspiracy by the alleged occupants to obstruct the course of justice—again a question for the. Chief Constable concerned—and, on the information the Chief Constable had, there was no evidence to justify any sort of prosecution on the ground of conspiracy. Most of them did not know what had happened.

It is true that under Section 232 of the Road Traffic Act the owner of the car has to give the police the information that is required and other persons have to give any information in their possession about the driver at the material time when certain offences, of the kind obviously involved here, have been committed. But in this case the owner was in India, and it may well be doubted whether it could have been proved to the satisfaction of any court that anyone else was deliberately refusing to provide information. It did not seem to arise.

It is a tragic case. It is a shocking warning of the worst of the sort of cases which led to the introduction of the Road Safety Act this year. I can understand the utter feeling of frustration on the part of Mr. Riley's son, and I can understand the feelings of the hon. Member, but this kind of situation not uncommonly happens under the traffic and general criminal laws and one cannot go arounds saying that in that case, whoever is guilty, the law must prosecute innocent and guilty alike.

I remember a case a long time ago of a judge who, in the course of a trial, gave a very graphic example of the difficulties which the law sometimes faces. The example he gave was of two people who were in a room with a third person who was murdered, and it could not be established which of the two had actually struck the blows, nor could it be proved that they had acted together. The judge said that it was the duty of the jury to acquit in the circumstances, because the worst of all possible things would be for an innocent man to be convicted.

We are faced with a similar situation here. We know that there were three people in the car, but the police could not establish who the driver was, so there was no alternative but, in effect, not to prosecute anyone. It is very sad when someone who is clearly guilty evades justice, but it would be even more sad if someone who was not the guilty party was prosecuted and convicted. This could not be called a case of deliberate evasion of justice when no one could remember what happened.

As the hon. Member conceded, this case was thoroughly investigated. It is a sad and tragic case, but there was no other alternative for the police to pursue.

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