HC Deb 20 March 1968 vol 761 cc553-64

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)

Mr. Speaker, it is the uncomfortable and inescapable fact that in England innocent people are charged with or convicted of criminal offences more often than hitherto we would have believed possible. This emerges from the spate of mistaken identity cases which have come to light within the past year. I know of at least five cases in the past 12 months, three of them in Bradford alone, in which men have been charged, committed, or convicted on identity evidence alone—evidence which has later proved to be totally wrong.

Harry Wimpress of Bradford, 61 years of age, of good character, but poor health, and with an ailing wife, was charged in March 1967 with robbery with violence of a nurse. A 21-year-old girl positively identified Wimpress on an identification parade. She identified him as her assailant and as a man she had long known. He was committed for trial at Leeds Assizes.

Patrick Crundall was charged with six offences of Larceny in Bradford in October 1967. Six women positively identified him as the thief. He was committed for trial to Bradford Sessions. He realised that the evidence against him was so overwhelming that acquittal was impossible and was contemplating changing his plea to guilty to obtain a lighter sentence.

Albert Edward Chapman of Bradford was charged with using a car knowing it to have been stolen and assaulting the police. He was positively identified by a police officer and a lay driver, neither of whom had any doubt about identification. He was committed to Bradford Sessions and duly convicted by a jury in February of this year and sentenced to nine months' imprisonment.

Albert Powell at Richmond in 1967 was charged with an offence against a girl. He was identified by the victim, her sister and a youth. He was committed to the South-West London Sessions for trial.

Oden Maxim, Newton Campbell and another youth, all of good character, were charged in February of this year at Birmingham with robbery with violence. The victim identified all of them.

There we have five cases and in all 13 witnesses positively identified these seven men. The witnesses were honest people trying to do their best, but they were devastatingly and horrifyingly mistaken. In each of those five cases the men protested their innocence. Certainly the Bradford men were ably represented. In all cases the real culprits later confessed to those crimes in time for all, save Chapman, to be discharged before conviction.

The National Council for Civil Liberties says that it knows of yet other cases and the organisation Justice is anxious about identity cases. These cases constitute a crushing argument against the death penalty. If we still lived in the days when theft was punished by hanging, Chapman might by now have been a dead man. A man, to vindicate another, might volunteer his guilt out of conscience if the offence is not too serious. He would not be prepared to do it in a case of murder. It is an obvious inference, too, that for every case where a guilty man has come forward to assist a man mistakenly accused, there must be many cases when the guilty man has not confessed. This gives rise to the question: how many innocent men must there now be in British prisons?

It cannot begin to be said that these are freak cases. There are too many for that. Anyone could find himself in the position of Harry Wimpress or Albert Edward Chapman.

Some lawyers argue that no person should be convicted solely on identification evidence. It is demanded that there should be some independent piece of corroborative evidence. This may be asking too much—I think it is—but at the very least judges should be instructed to warn juries of the unreliability of identity evidence and should warn them about convicting on such evidence unsupported by other evidence. This is particularly essential in view of the refusal of the Court of Appeal to allow appeals against conviction where there is any credible identity evidence, albeit there is a lack of other corroborative evidence.

The police should be instructed that where the only evidence is identity evidence they must make an immediate and thorough check of any alibi that is offered. It has to be remembered that juries are prone to believe evidence of identity because the witness giving that evidence usually has no ulterior motive, and is trying to tell the truth.

These cases, particularly that of Chapman, give rise to concern over the lack of publicity inherent in lower court proceedings due to the operation of the new Criminal Justice Act. The man who committed the offence for which Chapman was convicted only read of the Sessions trial of Chapman. Had there been publicity in the lower court that man might have known of Chapman's plight earlier, and Chapman might have been spared much misery.

The Government should ensure that whether or not a man is represented by a solicitor he is told by the court clerk of his right to seek publicity. If no journalist is in court, but one is thought to be elsewhere in the building, an adjournment of a few minutes should be granted to enable that journalist to be notified by the solicitor or the clerk of the court.

Harry Wimpress spent 36 hours in prison. He was an ailing man, with a sick wife. He has really never fully recovered from the shock. Patrick Crundall was in custody for four weeks, and he lost his job. Albert Chapman served 17 days of his sentence. Albert Powell spent three days in custody. Mr. Maxim and Mr. Campbell spent ten days in custody, and Mr. Maxim lost his job. All of them, conscious as they were of their innocence, felt themselves drowning in a nightmare sea. The situation, however, is that compensation for such people is not available as of right. It depends on the whim of the Home Secretary of the day, guided by a set of unpublished rules. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Board is a non-statutory body which compensates victims of crimes. Who is more a victim of a crime than a man wrongly charged with it? I urge the Government to announce that in future all claims for compensation by men who have been charged with, or convicted of an offence in respect of which other men have subsequently been convicted, will be dealt with by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. The total annual cost would be small, and I hope, too, that the Board, unlike the situation at present, will be ordered to make public its awards.

A few weeks ago I suggested to my hon. and learned Friend that these cases should be referred to this Board. He called the suggestion ingenious, but he rejected it. He claimed that it would result in injustice to those who, although acquitted, could not so conclusively establish their innocence. His reasoning did not commend itself to me. The civil law grants damages to victims of negligence who can prove it, but not to those who cannot. To proclaim equality of injustice is a novel and unhappy doctrine, and I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will think better of it.

If we are to maintain our proud boast that British justice is as good as the best in the world, we must be exceedingly unhappy with occasional injustice, and the lessons of these cases—and there may be many others—must be taken to heart, and our proceedings of trial and compensation adapted accordingly.

10.10 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

We should all be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) for raising this important topic. When obsessed, as we have been in the last few days, with the lot of millions of people and the subject of hundreds of millions of £s, it is easy to forget that, under the fairest judicial system and the highest police standards in the world, some of our citizens can still suffer the most fearful, frightening and nightmarish experience of all—being charged with and convicted of a crime they did not commit, not because the evidence is corrupt, or the witnesses or police "bent", but because of a genuine mistake in identity, possibly through over-eagerness or confusion.

Many of us may have seen the film "The Wrong Man", directed by Alfred Hitchcock, in which Henry Fonda suffered, in his usual bewildered and bemused manner, just such an experience. I said at the time, "It cannot happen here," but, as my hon. Friend said, it can and does happen here and it may continue to happen. While many of us criticise scientific evidence, in fact fingerprint evidence and so on is usually reliable. It is the human eye which can be unreliable or suspect.

One of my most horrifying experiences in this House was when I was called instead of someone else, when I had not risen, or had intended to speak, in the middle of a most tense debate in which passions were greatly roused on both sides. I regret to say that I had been taking no interest in the debate, and, although the hon. Gentleman who spoke made a reasonably good speech, I do not think that it was quite as good as I would have made. That was a case of mistaken identity.

Victims of wrongful arrest through these mistakes do not get compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board and this is absurd, considering that some of the awards which the Board makes are to say the least, questionable. It seems wrong that there should be compensation for a victim of a fight in a drunken brawl in a pub, and on which the victim may have been in some way responsible, but not as of right for those who face this frightening experience. The damage to a victim convicted of a crime which he did not commit is incalculable: not only does he suffer the indignities of anyone who has to face a court—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman says that such a person cannot get compensation as of right. If he cannot get it as of right, does the hon. Gentleman wish to change the law? If so, I should point out that he cannot argue the case for doing so on the Adjournment.

Mr. Davidson

I appreciate that, Mr. Speaker, and I was only contrasting the awards made by the Board in some cases with the fact that they are not made in others.

One of the damages to such a victim is not only these indignities but also humiliation and mistrust in a previously happy family. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will consider this matter, because it is causing great concern.

10.15 p.m.

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

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) has raised this matter. Sometimes a rather defensive attitude is taken which suggests that no miscarriages of justice can take place in our excellent system of justice. I do not take that view. I do not believe that there is any point in denying that in our system of justice, however good it may be, some miscarriages take place. Indeed, I cannot think of any system of justice that could be foolproof against such miscarriages.

At the Home Office I have to review a great many cases. Most of them are totally unmeritorious, but it occasionally happens that one feels a terrifying doubt about the verdict of the jury. We cannot substitute our view for that of the jury or the Court of Appeal, but, nevertheless, one has doubts. Occasionally a case comes to light—my hon. Friend mentioned five—where it is shown that the system of justice has gone wrong. I do not believe that any system, however carefully prepared, can be foolproof, but clearly one must see what possible safeguards one can provide to prevent these horrifying cases from happening because each is horrifying and one must have complete and utter sympathy for those who are affected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East and my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Arthur Davidson) have between them raised four issues. The first is the cases to which they referred. The second is the approach which we must have towards identification evidence. The third is the question of committal proceedings and their reports. The fourth is the issue of compensation.

I will refer to some of these cases, and particularly the Bradford ones, since I assume that my hon. Friend wishes to concentrate on that issue. There have, unfortunately, been several cases in Bradford. In the most recent case, that of Mr. Chapman, I unfortunately cannot say very much because the case is to come before the Court of Appeal and it is, therefore, sub judice. It would not be proper for me to go into the details of that case and I will, therefore, mention only one or two features of it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It would not be proper for the Minister to go into it at all, would it?

Mr. Taverne

It would not, Mr. Speaker. I stand corrected. I cannot deal with the Chapman case because it is still sub judice.

However, as for the earlier cases, it is natural to assume that there must have been some default or carelessness, to say the least, on the part of the police and the prosecution, and the first thing to which the House is entitled is some reassurance on this point. As regards the first case, Mr. Wimpress was accused of attacking and robbing a nurse. The victim was unable to identify her assailant—and on this point my hon. Friend was somewhat wrong—but another nurse, who was a witness, thought that she recognised the assailant and thought that she recognised him as a man whom she had known some years before. She was able to give sufficient information to the police to enable them to trace the man to whom she thought she was referring. He was put on an identification parade, which was perfectly properly conducted, and she picked him out.

Here is a quite astonishing case in which an independent witness, with no question of malice whatever and with no question of dishonesty arising, made a quite extraordinary mistake in thinking that the man who was the assailant was a 60-year-old man when, in fact, it later transpired that the man concerned was aged 20. There was certainly here no question of default on the part of the prosecuting authority or the police.

Mr. Crundall's case arose from a series of incidents in which women were approached in the street or in a shop by a man who asked for change and who then grabbed the money offered and ran off. Mr. Crundall was charged with six offences of larceny arising from five separate incidents, and it will be agreed that the identification evidence against him was exceptionally strong. Indeed, I am not surprised because I have seen photographs of Mr. Crundall and the man who later admitted committing the crime. The resemblance is quite astonishing. I should like to show the photographs to my hon. Friend. One might even pass from certain angles as the double of the other. There was no question here of the police being at fault. Mr. Crundall was separately identified by no fewer than five of the women concerned, either from photographs or identification parade. Those shown the photographs of course did not attend an identification parade.

I cannot go into Mr. Chapman's case because an appeal is pending. As my hon. Friend said, identification evidence is particularly difficult to assess. It is essentially subjective. People's memories for faces vary particularly if a face was seen at a time of stress. In so far as in these circumstances witnesses can make mistakes there is no absolute safeguard against error. My hon. Friend suggested that there might perhaps be further safeguards. In so far as that involves a change in the law it would be out of order for me to discuss it on the Adjournment, but in so far as it might involve a question of practice the Criminal Law Revision Committee is looking at the whole of the evidence rules and law in criminal cases and this is one of the aspects on which we look forward to seeing the report from the Committee.

I come next to the question of committal proceedings and reports of committal proceedings. In one of these cases the person who actually committed the crime came forward and confessed to it when he read of the committal. So a full report of the proceedings was irrelevant in that instance but in another case it was not until the report of the actual trial was published that the person who committed the crime came forward. I agree completely and utterly with what my hon. Friend said about the implications of this kind of case on the whole issue of capital punishment. He has produced an unanswerable argument. These particular errors can be rectified—obviously they cannot be wholly rectified, but to some extent they obviously can be—but if capital punishment existed they could not be rectified and a wrongful identification could result in a man being hanged.

I must stress that Section 3 of the new Act does not prevent the reporting of committal proceedings. It only restricts what can be reported to essential facts, the identity of the courts, the names of the justices, names and addresses of the parties and the witnesses, the defence or a summary of the defence, the decision of the court to commit and one or two other items. All the facts reported in the Wimpress case could have been reported if Section 3 of the Criminal Justice Act had been in force at the time. There are of course very good reasons for restricting the reporting of committal proceedings as a whole. I shall not go into the law as that would be out of order but they were fully explained at the time of the passing of the Criminal Justice Bill.

The defendant can opt for reporting. My hon. Friend has asked that in all cases it must be made clear to a defendant even when he is represented that this right exists. There is certainly a rule requiring magistrates' courts to inform unrepresented defendants of their right of having their cases reported. We did not think it necessary to require a represented defendant to be informed of this right because his legal representative should be aware of it but in the light of the representations my hon. Friend has made vie shall certainly consider whether or not this rule should be applied even to cases where the defendant is represented. We should certainly like to look at the suggestion that there should be a short adjournment if someone elects for his case to be reported so that a journalist can be informed that someone is opting for publicity.

The last point made by my hon. Friend was on the question of compensation. I must confess that he put his argument in a very attractive light. He said in effect that these persons were victims of crimes of violence. In the light of the way in which my hon. Friend puts it the arguments he advanced I should like very seriously to consider them. I also take the opportunity of explaining more fully the reasons why the issue of compensation so far has been treated differently.

In very exceptional circumstances the Home Secretary can and does authorise an ex gratia payment from public funds, but it has been the policy that this exceptional payment should normally be made only if there has been some negligence or misconduct on the part of the police or some other public authority or official, because, if it is the State which has been to some extent at fault, it is clearly right that the State should make recompense.

I do not think that the analogy my hon. Friend produced about negligence is a good one, because the person who cannot prove negligence does not suffer, except by losing his compensation. When it comes to the question of recompense for those who have been acquitted, those who may be innocent and do not get compensation may well suffer if my hon. Friend's scheme were adopted, because two classes of innocent people would be created—those who recovered compensation and who were therefore accepted publicly as being innocent, and those who did not recover compensation and who did not merely fail to recover compensation but also had a slight element of stigma attaching to them, in the sense that they were people who were in a class of lesser innocence.

This is a very difficult dilemma to escape from. After all, in criminal cases the onus of proof remains on the prosecution and as long as an accused person is not required to prove his innocence—I hope that it never will be required of an accused person that he should prove his innocence—it is very difficult to justify automatic compensation on acquittal or to distinguish between those who are more innocent than others.

I know that my hon. Friend will say that this is sharing injustice, but it is not. To some extent, if some are singled out for justice the injustice of the others is being added to: it would not be a sharing out. It would definitely be a greater degree of injustice to some who are acquitted than to others.

The case which my hon. Friend mentioned of someone who is proved to have been innocent because someone else is subsequently convicted is one where the proving of innocence depends on a haphazard event over which the person who is innocent has no control. Others may be equally deserving. Others may be equally innocent. The difficulty we face is that we do not wish in any way to suggest that there are some who are shown to be innocent, who get compensation, and who are therefore specially innocent, and others who may be innocent but who cannot be shown in the same way to be innocent and who are therefore regarded in some way as less innocent.

However, I think that the way in which my hon. Friend presented his argument warrants second thought being given to this question. I will carefully consider this, though obviously I cannot promise any compensation to any persons involved. As I said earlier, compensation is paid only in exceptional cases. I can promise neither that these individuals will get compensation nor that the other difficulties which I have mentioned can be overcome on the lines which my hon. Friend suggested.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.