HC Deb 03 April 1969 vol 781 cc721-39

3.2 p.m.

Mr. William Price (Rugby)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the sad and, in many ways, tragic case of Ronald Avard, a man now 26 years old, who was recently released after spending nearly four years in Rampton Institution for offences which he did not commit. That is not my conclusion alone. It was the view of the Home Secretary, who ordered Mr. Avard's release after a top level police investigation. He is now to get compensation, and, somewhat belatedly, justice is being done.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the time, trouble and work he has put into this case. He has throughout given me every possible assistance, and I suspect that this matter has caused him some anguish. I wish that to be on the record, because, while I have no intention of conducting a witch hunt against anybody, I shall raise the manner in which the matter was treated by the Home Office in the earlier stages.

The circumstances which led to Mr. Avard going to Rampton are very simple. He was charged with attempting to rape a six-year-old girl and with indecent assault on an 11-year-old girl. He made a complete confession of both offences in considerable detail and he duly appeared at the Rugby Magistrates' Court. A prima facie case was established, and he was sent to Birmingham Assizes.

This man is mentally retarded. His age is given at between 7 and 10 years. The assize court took the view, quite properly, that he was unfit to plead. He was committed to Rampton and the matter was forgotten. The worrying feature of this case is that in all probability he would have stayed there for the rest of his life had it not been for the efforts of one man, Mr. Frank Coughlan, wh is a co-operative society employee. During his rounds he called on the Avard family and the family of the 11-year-old girl and a young boy who was with her at the time of the attack. Mr. Coughlan convinced himself over a lengthly period that the wrong man was being detained, and eventually he persuaded Mr. Avard to bring the matter to my attention.

The first letter which I received from Mr. Avard was on 26th February, 1968. It was by coincidence, the morning of 26th February, 1969, that Ronald Avard returned home. It took dozens of letters, a long series of interviews and a police investigation before we could establish his innocence.

I became satisfied that an injustice had been done a long time ago, from the moment that the 11-year-old girl made a statement to me. Obviously I would not wish to identify her because she is covered by the law. She said: The man who committed the offence was not Ronald Avard. I had known Ronald Avard for seven or eight years and I could not have made any mistake with his identity. I saw a policeman that evening and was also interviewed by a policewoman. I was not asked about Ronald Avard and I did not at any time say that it was him. The police asked me to look at a number of pictures of men but I could not identify anyone as the man who attacked me. The man who attacked me was much older and taller than Ronald Avard. The girl's mother said in a statement: I have read the statement just made by my daughter and I can confirm that what she says is true. She has not changed her story—she has said from the beginning that the man who attacked her was not Ronald Avard. I tried to make it clear to the police officers that my daughter was satisfied that it was not Ronald Avard but they did not appear to be interested. My daughter has satisfied me that the man who committed this offence was not Ronald Avard. The statement of the boy, who at that time was aged eight and is now aged 12, was as follows: I was with the girl when the man came up. I had seen Ronnie Avard in the recreation ground many times so I would have recognised him. The man who came up to Linda was not Ronnie Avard This man was older and taller. When the police saw me Ronnie Avard was not mentioned. That boy's mother made a statement which said, quite simply: My son has said all along that the man who attacked the girl was not Ronnie Avard. David was asked by the police to look at pictures of a number of men, including Ronnie Avard, and he was unable to identify anyone as the man who committed this offence". The crucial factor in this case was that these children had known Ronald Avard for a long time. In any community the simple person—and we must face the fact that Ronald Avard is a simple person—is known. Everybody knew Ronald Avard and his dog. In those circumstances, one is entitled to ask why these facts did not come out in court. In my submission, the answer is because the children never gave evidence, and that was due to Section 27 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963.

I was a High Court reporter at the time that that Act was passed. It allows the evidence of a child to be given in committal proceedings involving sexual offences by way of a written statement if the defence raises no objection. I support that Act, and even if the rules of debate allowed me to do so—and obviously they do not—I have no intention of arguing here or anywhere else that it should be changed. I have a young family, and I have no wish for my children to be dragged through the courts in cases of this nature.

However, I am bound to suggest that this case has spotlighted a possible loophole in Section 27 of that Act—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is being fair, but he cannot in this debate close the loophole.

Mr. Price

I hope to proceed without incurring any further displeasure, Mr. Speaker. You have been kind to me already.

My case is that if those two children had gone into court they would presumably have been asked whether the man in the dock committed the offences. If their story is true—and it now appears that it is—they would have said "No". Surely that would have meant Ronald Avard's instant discharge. But that did not happen. The magistrates were satisfied with the confession, and so was the higher court where the only evidence was of a medical nature. Everything in this case revolves around that confession and I am bound to question the manner in which it was taken and the circumstances which led to it.

One issue remains in dispute between the Under-Secretary and myself. He is convinced that the confession was made in the presence of the father. Mr. Avard is adamant that he was present only to witness it being signed. Whether that is so or not—I have to admit that memory can play tricks after so long a period—one fact is not in dispute. Ronald Avard spent nearly four hours at the police station before his father arrived.

I am not in a position to make allegations against the two police officers who conducted this inquiry, and I am by no means sure that I would wish to do so, but I must say that they were dealing with a child—a child whose mental age was seven. I leave it there.

What happened then was fairly straightforward. After seeing the witnesses on three occasions—I wanted to give them plenty of chance to retract if they so wished—I took statements from them and sent them to the Home Office. I received a reply in August which said: From the inquiries I have made I have no reason to think that Avard was wrongly accused. In September I had a long interview with the Under-Secretary and his officials at the Home Office, but made no progress, except that he was kind enough to explain to me in detail my rights under the Police Act, 1964. After making a number of further inquiries, I sent the file to the Chief Constable of Warwickshire who quickly instituted an investigation and called in Detective Superintendent Saunders of the Leicester Police Force. Both the Chief Constable and Mr. Saunders operated in the best traditions of the British police force.

The investigation was brilliantly carried out—and I say this not merely because I won; I may even have said it if I had lost. It was rapid and thorough. The outcome within days of the report being received by the Home Office was an announcement that Ronald Avard must be regarded as innocent of the offences with which he was charged. Very shortly after that came the decision to pay compensation, and the question of the sum involved is still under discussion.

That is the case of Ronald Avard, a man who, in my view, lost his liberty because of a set of serious and unfortunate circumstances. The police investigation, in my view, was inadequate; the lawyers failed to do their homework and the 1963 Act worked against him. The question one has to ask is this. How can we be certain that someone else is not wrongly detained under similar circumstances? I obviously cannot say that this is so. Equally the Home Office can only hope that this case is unique.

I should like briefly to raise several points which I believe to be of vital public interest and on which I should like the Under-Secretary's advice. First, is he satisfied that the 1963 Act as it applied in this case is working in the way that Parliament had intended? There was in the case of Ronald Avard no identification parade. I should have thought that was the obvious alternative to the child actually appearing in court. So far as I know, the children were not—certainly the elder girl was not—even shown photographs. Their statements produced in court merely dealt with the attack and attempted to describe the man involved. I suspect that the police, armed with a confession, rested on their laurels, and that, I am bound to suggest is not sufficient.

This brings me to the second point that I wish to raise, the treatment of confessions made by mentally retarded people where there is little or no corroborative evidence. That is certainly the position in this case. Leading medical people who have written to me since this case became public tell me that there is a real danger of a young man like Ronald Avard, perhaps motivated by bravado, confessing to offences, particularly those involving sex. I must put this question to the Under-Secretary, because it is of paramount importance to me: why does the law, which says a man is unfit to plead at his trial, say in effect that he is fit to go to Rugby Police Station, spend four hours there before his father arrives and then make a statement which costs him his liberty for a very long time?

I understand that the term "unfit to plead" means that a person does not know what is happening in court. Is there any reason to believe that Ronnie Avard knew what was happening in that police station? Even with the best will in the world towards the police force, what evidence is there that this boy who did not know what was happening in court was able to look after himself in front of two experienced police officers?

At very best, this is an illogical situation made worse by the fact that the consultant psychiatrist, Dr. Clifford Tetlow, of the Central Hospital, Warwick, produced this report after examining Ronald Avard at Winson Green Prison. Birmingham: Examination showed him to be mentally dull, unable to read, or to do the simplest arithmetic, and able to write his name only with great difficulty. He was not aware of the capital of England, or of the reigning Sovereign, and was able to give the days of the week only after much hesitation. He was hardly aware of the nature of what he had done, and was not even aware that he was in prison. He was quite unable to understand the meaning of the word 'guilty', or to understand that his case would be tried in court. Yet here is a case of a man who was able to give a full and detailed confession which was taken at face value by the police, by the defence lawyers, and by the court, and that is not good enough.

My last point is this. Even if there had been no doubt about his guilt, why did this man go to Rampton, an institution for the criminally insane, for the violent, and for the dangerous? Dr. Tetlow told us in his report to the Assize Court: He is quiet and docile but is in need of hospital care and supervision which could well be given at a local hospital for the mentally subnormal, there being no need for him to be in a maximum security hospital. That advice came from a man with long experience in these matters, and it was ignored. I should be grateful to know the basis on which these matters are decided.

I appreciate all the help that I have been given particularly by Mr. Coughlan and significantly by the parents of the children involved in the case of indecent assault. At no stage did I trouble the younger girl. I thought it wrong to resurrect a matter four years old which she has in all probability forgotten, and I hope that she has. I took the view that if I could establish innocence on one charge, the other was bound to follow.

I admire the British system of justice and those who implement it. There are those on this side of the House who think that I am to the right of the Home Secretary. I do not know whether that is true or not, but what I do say is that none of us is beyond making a mistake, and no one any longer doubts that in this case a grievous mistake was made. It is the duty of this House to ensure that it does not happen again.

3.20 p.m.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham)

I intervene briefly for two reasons. First, I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) for the great dedication to duty, persistence and terrier-like qualities he has shown in pursuing this matter. I am sure that I speak for all right hon. and hon. Members of this honourable House when I say that we rejoice with him in the fact that his persistence over the years has had the happy result it has in this instance.

My other reason for speaking is that, by one of the quirks of fate, I have in my constituency of Feltham a case of extraordinary similarity to the one raised by my hon. Friend. It would be improper for me to go into detail in discussing that case this afternoon, and I propose not to do so save to say that it concerns an educationally subnormal person of the mental age of about eight who is currently, and has been for 18 months or thereabouts, incarcerated in the Moss Side institution near Liverpool. He is there because he was convicted, after a number of very untoward happenings in relation to the courts—I am not blaming the courts but more the way his case was handled for him—of indecent assault of a sexual nature.

As I say, I do not wish to discuss the merits or demerits of the case. Negotiations for his release are still going on with the Home Office, and I do not wish to say more about it now. However, having come to certain provisional conclusions of a very firm nature—to put it like that—after a detailed consideration of the case, I learned that the B.B.C. research team which provides background information for the television programme "Cause for Concern" had, some nine months ago, undertaken a close investigation of the same case, without any reference to me—indeed, I was not aware until a late stage that it had undertaken the task—and had independently come to conclusions almost identical with mine, namely, that there was the gravest possible doubt about whether the right person had been arrested and about the method of his present treatment.

I give those facts only to introduce the point which gives me great concern. I refer to the factor—I am not sure that my hon. Friend used the word, though he touched on it—the factor of suggestibility. That term was just a noun in the dictionary to me before this case came to my attention. It was not until I went to Moss Side as, so to speak, advocate for this youngster, by this time about 16 years of age, to plead for him before the tribunal which the Home Office sets up to review cases of this kind from time to time, that I appreciated just what the factor of suggestibility can mean.

As I stated the case for this youngster, asking for his early release, subject to certain conditions and so on, it was pathetic to see the way in which, when questions were directed to him, he looked at me to see whether he could get any idea of what I wanted him to say. I had no doubt whatever that, if he had gained the impression that I wanted him to say that black is white, then black would have been white, and no hesitation about it.

The point which I am bringing out relates to what my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby has been saying in the sense that part of the reason—a large part of the reason, I am sure—for the doubts which I acquired and which the B.B.C. research team independently acquired centre on the means by which the confession was obtained. It is not that I am making a serious suggestion that there was grossly improper practice or "stand-over" tactics by the police officers concerned, but what worries me most of all is that they themselves, in gaining the confession, were unaware of the existence and importance of the factor of suggestibility.

I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, with all the force at my command, to take up with the Home Secretary the importance of the factor of suggestibility in the context of our administration of justice. It is something which has frightened me when I have seen the possible ways in which this factor can distort justice as we know it. Again renewing my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby on a splendid job well done, I urge the Under-Secretary of State to pay full regard to the point which I have raised in any further discussions which he may have on the subject.

3.25 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Elystan Morgan)

When I wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. William Price) on 6th March this year, I referred to the sympathy which we are all bound to feel for Mr. Avard in the situation which led to his being detained in Rampton Hospital as a result of charges which we now know to have been mistaken. I am glad to have this opportunity of repeating in the House that expression of the sincere sympathy felt by myself and by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for both Mr. Avard and his family and our recognition of the distress and hardship caused to them a long period of time.

Action has now been taken to correct the injustice in so far as it is possible to do so retrospectively. In the light of the fresh information brought to light by the further police inquiry, I advised my right hon. Friend to order Mr. Avard's immediate discharge from Rampton, and this advice he immediately accepted. Since Mr. Avard was never tried and convicted, it was not possible to demonstrate his innocence by the grant of a free pardon, but steps were taken to make clear publicly that he must be regarded as innocent of the offences with which he was charged. In addition, the Home Secretary has authorised an ex gratia payment to Mr. Avard from public funds in consideration of the hardship which he has suffered.

My hon. Friend will, I hope, agree that we have done as much as it is now possible to do to make amends to Mr. Avard for the injustice which he has suffered. It is right, however, that we should look closely at the circumstances of this case in order to see how this unfortunate situation could have arisen and what lessons are to be learned to help us to prevent a similar situation arising again.

My hon. Friend has already dealt with the history of the case in some detail, but I shall take the House over the main facts once again, and I am sure that this is what the House would wish me to do in a matter of such importance.

For this purpose, we must go back as far as 1965. On 20th May that year, a little girl of six was playing with her younger sister in a field in the Lower Hillmorton area of Rugby, when she saw what she described as a "big boy" who called her over to him. He took her behind a hut, where he took her dress off, behaved indecently with her and tried to have sexual intercourse. When she started to cry the "big boy" went off. A week later, in the same area, an 11-year old girl and a boy of eight went to gather wild flowers for school. The girl was approached by a man who gave her some money to go and buy him some cigarettes. She went off, but then realised that he was similar to the man described to her at school that morning as having interfered with a little girl, the police having circulated a warning to schools following the previous assualt. She thought something might happen to the little boy, so she went back. When she got to the man, the boy was no longer with him, but he made the girl walk in front of him for some distance. He then pushed her over, squeezed her nose and face so that she could not breathe properly, and lifted her skirt up. When she screamed the man ran off towards Rugby.

Intensive police inquiries followed the reports of these two incidents. A police-woman obtained details of the incidents from the two girls concerned. The little girl of six gave a very simple description of the man; the older was able to describe him in rather more detail. The little boy of eight also was seen; he had not seen the assault or heard the girl scream, but he was able to give a description of the man who had spoken to them. In accordance with police procedure, the older girl and the boy were shown photographs of men known to be given to this kind of offence but neither child made any identification from these. This set of photographs did not include one of Ronald Avard, who was not at that time suspected.

On 31st May, 1965, it was decided to question Ronald Avard about his movements, because he was thought to bear some resemblance to the children's description of the man responsible. Knowing of his mental handicap, the police arranged for the questioning to be done by the local beat officer for the area where Ronald Avard lived. This officer knew him well, and had often given him friendly advice and help, and they had an amicable understanding.

In the course of this questioning, which lasted about half an hour, Ronald Avard made an oral admission to the effect that he had committed both offences. Because of his mental capacity, it was decided that no written statement should be taken from him until his father was present. When Mr. Avard, senior, came to the police station later in the day, he saw his son in the presence of two police officers. I am aware—and this his been corroborated in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby—that Mr. Avard, senior, has disputed the police evidence of what then occurred, but in the light of the independent investigation of this complaint I believe that his recollection is at fault. I have found nothing whatsoever to support the very serious allegation that the police officers misrepresented what occurred.

The next part of my narrative follows the evidence of the police officers concerned, and having examined all the evidence, I entirely accept it. When Mr. Avard senior came to the police station, Ronald repeated his story to his father, who questioned him at some length. Ronald insisted to his father and to the police officers that he was telling the truth, and his father agreed that a statement should be written down. One of the police officers wrote the usual caution on the top of the statement form, and its meaning was explained to Ronald by the officer and his father. The whole statement was taken down in the presence of Mr. Avard, senior, and a question put to Ronald by his father was recorded in the statement. The completed statement was signed by Ronald Avard and then by his father and finally by the two police officers present.

One further point of the pre-trial investigation remains to be mentioned. After Ronald Avard had been arrested and photographed the boy witness was again shown photographs, this time including one of Ronald Avard. He was given no indication whatsoever that the photographs were in any way different from the ones he had seen on a previous occasion, and he was not told at that stage that anyone had been arrested. The boy did not make a positive identification of Ronald Avard but he did remove his photograph from the others and say that it was similar to the man he had seen with the girl. It is impossible, of course, to say what went on in the mind of this young boy at the time, and one cannot attach very much significance to this. It is possible that he picked out his photograph because it was of the one person he knew, but he did not at that time say—as one might perhaps have expected, "I know this man—it is Ron Avard, and he is not the man you want".

Ronald Avard appeared at Rugby Magistrates' Court in June, 1965. His statement was put in evidence as well as the statements of the two girls who had been assaulted. In accordance with the procedure allowed under Section 27 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963, the two children were not required, on the decision of the defending solicitor, to give evidence in person before the examining justices. Under the statutory provisions the defending solicitor could have insisted that they should attend to be examined and cross-examined in person, but he did not do so, and this I think is understandable. The solicitor has told the police that he had no reason at that time to think that there were any grounds for challenging the prosecution evidence. At the conclusion of the committal proceedings the justices found a prima facie case to answer and Ronald Avard was committed for trial.

When the case came for hearing at the Birmingham Assizes on 2nd July, 1965, the court had medical reports showing that Ronald Avard was suffering from severe subnormality, and, in accordance with the procedure set out in the Criminal Procedure (Insanity) Act, 1964, a jury was empanelled to try the preliminary issue of his fitness to plead. Not surprisingly, the jury found him to be suffering from mental disability to such a degree as to be unfit to be tried, and the court then made the only order which was open to it under Section 5 of the 1964 Act, that is, it ordered that Mr. Avard be admitted to such hospital as might be specified by the Secretary of State.

The action open to the Home Secretary was equally circumscribed. In accordance with the statutory provisions he is required to specify a hospital to which the person concerned must be removed within two months, where he is detained as if the court had made a hospital order under Section 60 of the Mental Health Act, 1959, together with an order under Section 65 of that Act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby asked why Rampton was chosen in the circumstances, and why Mr. Avard was detained without limitation of time. In view of the nature of the offences involved, it was thought advisable that Mr. Avard should be detained in the security of a special hospital, and a warrant was issued for his admission to Rampton. One must look at the state of the case as it was in 1965, and the knowledge which the then Secretary of State had then.

All such cases are kept under regular review after admission to hospital. This is where I take issue with my hon. Friend, who said that there was a danger that Mr. Avard might have been left there for the rest of his life. In view of Mr. Avard's severe subnormality and the severe nature of the offences he was believed to have committed, it was considered that he would need treatment and training in hospital for some time.

I come now to the events which led to the reconsideration of the facts of the case, and I readily acknowledge that it was the active concern of my hon. Friend which brought further crucial facts to light. He will recollect the conversation he had with me in the Division Lobby last May, when he intimated to me his intention to write to me on the matter. I advised him to take direct statements from the witnesses concerned, so that we would better be able to judge the exact representations made by them.

In June last year, some three years after the events I have described, my hon. Friend sent me statements he had obtained from the older girl who had been the victim of the second indecent assault, from the boy who was with her, and from their parents. These showed that the two children knew Ronald Avard and were quite sure that he was not the man who had accosted them, and they alleged that they had told their parents so at the time of the trial.

There was no doubt of the importance of this new evidence, but careful consideration of the facts as then known left a number of puzzling questions which could not then be satisfactorily answered. Although it was said that the police had been told at the time that the children knew it was not Ronald Avard, there was no confirmation of this in police records; and it was difficult to understand how Mr. Avard's innocence could have been known to the families concerned without its being effectively brought to notice before the trial or during the three years after it.

Mr. William Price

It is hardly likely that the police would have included in their records a reference to the fact that they had been told something but chose to ignore it.

Mr. Morgan

That depends on the view a person takes of the integrity of the police. My hon. Friend has said that he does not impugn their integrity. He cannot at the same time say that they would deliberately ignore such material information as that.

It was difficult, moreover, to reconcile this evidence with Ronald Avard's admission, made in the course of a careful and tactful interrogation by police officers and written down in the presence of his father, that he had committed the two offences. This admission was especially convincing in that he gave quite a detailed and accurate account of what had happened to the two girls. Inquiry of the defending solicitor showed that no information had reached him either before or after the trial suggesting that there was any doubt about Ronald Avard's own admission of the offences. The new evidence did not in any case go directly to his responsibility for the more serious offence on the younger girl.

The House will, I am sure, recognise that before intervening to set aside a court order, even in a case of this kind, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary must be fully satisfied that there are good grounds for so doing. Because of the doubt and uncertainties which remained, it was by no means apparent that Mr. Avard had been wrongly accused, and on the information then available it was impossible for me to be satisfied that my right hon. Friend would be justified in intervening. I came, as I submit, to the only conclusion that was possible in those circumstances. My hon. Friend has already made it clear that his representations did not specifically refer to the more serious of the two offences, which amounted to attempted rape.

I wrote to my hon. Friend explaining the position, and I subsequently went over the facts with him when he came to see me in September. I told him then that any suggestion that Mr. Avard, senior, had not been present—and that seemed to be one of the main planks in the platform at the time—when the statement was taken from his son, or that the police had ignored statements by witnesses that Ronald Avard was not concerned, amounted to serious allegations against the police which, if pressed, would call for investigation by the chief officer of police under Section 49 of the Police Act, 1964. My hon. Friend has very generously told the House how I explained the content of Section 49, and spelt out in detail the three subsections therein.

It was left that my hon. Friend would write to me again making a formal complaint against the police, and that I would then refer it to the Chief Constable for appropriate action. As it was, my hon. Friend did not write to me for about 10 weeks thereafter. That being so, I can only think that in so far as my hon. Friend has been reported in the Press as saying that he left the Home Office not knowing where to turn, he must have been misrepresented, in that he had been told by us very clearly what avenues were open to him at law in that connection.

Mr. William Price

This is an important point. What happened was simple. I took my holiday, and departed from the country for four weeks. When I returned, I went on two subsequent occasions to the witnesses in the case to make absolutely certain, without fear of contradiction, that they were prepared to stand by what they said. These were serious allegations; they were not made lightly.

Mr. Morgan

I am not in any way making a charge of delay against my hon. Friend. What I say is that there would be no substance at all in any allegation that the Home Office had not spelt out all the available courses which could be taken at that juncture.

In due course my hon. Friend did write to me again, and his complaint was—as I had told him it would be—referred to the Chief Constable of Warwickshire who is responsible in law for the investigation of complaints against members of his force. The Chief Constable arranged for the complaint to be investigated by a senior officer from another force, Detective Chief Superintendent Saunders, of the Leicester and Rutland Constabulary. I join in my hon. Friend's very handsome and proper tribute to this officer.

After considering his very fair and lucid report, I want to make it quite clear that there is no ground for believing that the Warwickshire Police acted in any way improperly. I am satisfied that they investigated the case with tact and with due consideration for a mentally retarded person, and that there can be no criticism whatsoever on procedural grounds.

In particular, I must stress that the investigating officer's report did not support the two serious allegations that had been made against members of the force. Superintendent Saunders was satisfied that Ronald Avard's statement was properly taken in the presence of his father and in the manner described by the officers in their evidence. As I have already indicated, I accept that finding. Secondly, the investigating officer found no evidence to confirm that police officers had been told before the committal proceedings that two of the children knew that Ronald Avard was not the man involved.

Despite this finding, however, the investigating officer concluded that Mr. Avard was not responsible for the indecent assault on the older girl, and that no reliance could be placed on his admission of this offence, or of the earlier and more serious offence. I accepted that conclusion, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, as was open to him, agreed to demonstrate Mr. Avard's innocence.

From the detailed account I have given it will be apparent to the House that these charges were originally made, and remained unchallenged for so long, because of a quite extraordinary combination of circumstances: the resemblance to the description originally given by the children; the convincing confession which persuaded not only the interrogating officers but also his own solicitor and, I venture to think, for a time at least his own father, and finally the failure, for whatever reason, to bring effectively to notice the fact that the two older children knew Ronald Avard, and knew that he was not concerned in the second offence he had admitted.

In this situation we must be cautious about any general inferences we may draw from it. My hon. Friend has referred to the effect in this case of Section 27 of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963, and I am sure that he is right in thinking that if the children had been present to give evidence in the committal proceedings the case might have taken a different course. But that Section refers only to committal proceedings, and not to the far more important trial of the case itself. The point is that even if the Children and Young Persons Act, 1963, were different, and even if the 1964 Act were different and it had been possible in this case for Mr. Avard to plead, since it was the view of those advising him that there was no doubt whatsoever about his guilt, he still would have gone to Rampton in the same way. So it cannot be said that any material difference in the law would substantially have changed the circumstances of this case.

We then move on to the next stage, at the assizes, where we come face to face with the dilemma that Mr. Avard could not be tried in the ordinary way because he was not fit to stand trial. This is not an uncommon situation, and the law provides for it in the only way which has been found practicable which is by requiring that the accused person shall be detained in hospital for treatment as a patient in the same way as if he had been found not guilty by reason of insanity. This has been the general effect of the law since 1800, and although it has been considered by several distinguished committees three times within the last 42 years, no fundamental change has been found possible.

As the House will realise, it involves an acute conflict between the normal requirements of justice and the interests of safety. On the one hand, we must be reluctant to make any breach in the principle that an accused person must be presumed innocent until found guilty: on the other hand, we must have regard to the need to protect the public from the possible danger presented by a mentally disordered person who has, prima facie, committed an offence which may be serious—and I would remind the House that many such cases involve offences even more serious than those involved in the present case.

The statutory procedure was considered in 1923 by the Committee on Insanity and Crime, of which Lord Atkin, then Lord Justice Atkin, was the distinguished Chairman. It was again considered in 1953 in relation to murder cases by the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment. More recently, it was thoroughly investigated in 1963 by the Criminal Law Revision Committee. That Committee again found that there could be no satisfactory resolution of the central dilemma of how to try the issues of fact when the accused is not able to understand the proceedings. For a statement of the problems arising from the mental incapacity of a defendant, hon. Members cannot do better than to refer to paragraphs 13 to 37 of the Law Revision Committee's Report, where the whole matter is argued in detail.

After examining a number of alternative methods of securing some form of modified trial of the evidence, the Committee recommended, albeit by a majority, that the law should be amended to allow the court discretion to postpone consideration of the issue of fitness to plead until after the prosecution case had been presented, thus enabling the strength of the prosecution evidence to be tested if the defence felt that it was in a position to dispute it.

The Committee also recommended that there should be a right of appeal against the finding of unfitness to plead. Both of these recommendations were implemented in the Criminal Procedure (Insanity) Act, which Parliament accepted as recently as 1964 as the best solution of an intractable problem.

As my hon. Friend knows from my Written Answer to his Question of llth March, there are at present 446 persons subject to detention in hospital as a result of being found unfit to plead when they were brought to trial. Many of them, because of their mental condition, have been detained for many years. Of course, all concerned for justice must have a distaste for detention without trial and we would all prefer that these patients should have been properly tried and convicted, if that had been possible.

On the other hand, the House should consider the question that if, as the Criminal Law Revision Committee remarked in 1963, we resorted to what it described as the "absurd and cruel practice" of allowing a person unfit to plead to stand trial—and this links with the question of suggestability raised by my hon. Friend—there would again be the danger of convicting the innocent.

The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, which was considering the most grave cases, commented that it had … found no evidence to suggest that innocent persons, who would have been acquitted by a jury, are in practice likely to be found insane on arraignment; the facts are usually clear and beyond dispute". However, the Commission thought that the cases of indefinite detention as a patient without trial ought to be kept to a minimum.

It is proper to note also that these persons are not being detained under penal conditions, but in a hospital where they are receiving the treatment and training they need, subject only to such restrictions as are necessary for the protection of the public from any danger arising from the patient's mental disorder.

In dealing with these patients, my right hon. Friend has constantly in mind that the offences charged have never been properly proved in a court, and the facts of the case are always closely examined if there is any suggestion that a person may have been wrongly accused. In practice, as I have said, there is not often much doubt or dispute, and I believe that Mr. Avard's unhappy experience was an isolated one.

Nobody can be entirely happy with a system which can give rise to even one case such as this. It is right, therefore, that we should look carefully at the law. Although so much expert attention is already being given to this matter, I would not presume to be optimistic about our being able to find a workable alternative procedure. However, we shall certainly look again for any means that will secure better safeguards for the accused person while, at the same time, seeking to provide due protection for the public.

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