HC Deb 08 April 1974 vol 872 cc45-52
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the case of Mr. Laszlo Virag, which I regret to say has involved a grave miscarriage of justice.

At the Gloucestershire Assizes on 11th July 1969 Mr. Virag was convicted of a number of serious offences. For two offences of theft of parking meter coin boxes in Liverpool and for using a firearm to resist arrest, he was sentenced to concurrent terms of imprisonment amounting to three years; and for two offences of theft of parking meter coin boxes committed some weeks later in Bristol and for wounding a police officer with intent to cause grievous bodily harm or resist arrest, he was sentenced to concurrent terms amounting to seven years. The two groups of sentences were ordered to run consecutively, making 10 years in all.

Mr. Virag appealed to the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) for leave to appeal against his conviction and sentence, but his application was refused by the Full Court in March 1970.

No representations were received by the Home Office from or on behalf of Mr. Virag, but in September 1971 the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions wrote to the Department drawing attention to certain similar offences committed in the London area by another man and to evidence which suggested that he might have been involved in the offences in Liverpool and Bristol. Most regrettably the view taken at that time was that the new information was not inconsistent with Mr. Virag's having been rightfully convicted. The matter rested there until August 1973, when the case was brought to the attention of a more senior official, who decided to institute further inquiries. At the request of the Home Office, the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire and Liverpool arranged for a thorough reinvestigation to be undertaken by a senior officer of the Thames Valley Police.

In the light of this investigation I was satisfied that Mr. Virag was innocent beyond reasonable doubt of the offences of which he was convicted. I accordingly decided to recommend a free pardon and directed the immediate release of Mr. Virag. which took place on Friday 5th April.

I have also given authority for an ex-gratia payment to be made from public funds in reparation for the injustice he has suffered. In accordance with the normal practice where such payments are made, I shall invite an experienced and independent assessor to advise me on the sum to be paid.

There are a number of aspects of this case about which the House will be seriously concerned and I am urgently considering its implications. Clearly there was unacceptable delay within the Home Office. I am reviewing the procedures for dealing with such cases in order to try to avoid any repetition of such a course of events.

I am also concerned about the serious questions that the case, following the recent case of Mr. Dougherty, must raise about the present law and procedures relating to identification.

The case against Mr. Virag rested on identification evidence. On the face of it this was substantial—he was picked out on properly conducted identification parades by no fewer than eight witnesses: three officers of the Gloucestershire Police, two officers of the Liverpool Police, and three civilian witnesses. However a number of witnesses did not so identify him, and it is now apparent that those witnesses who did were most unfortunately mistaken.

The case of Mr. Dougherty has already given cause for concern about the efficacy of identification procedures and there have been other cases where doubts have been felt. I am convinced that this is an area of the criminal law and police procedure which needs urgent review, and I have therefore decided to appoint a small committee to examine it, in the light of Mr. Virag's and Mr. Dougherty's convictions, and of any other relevant cases. The committee will be asked to report as quickly as possible, and I shall make a further and early announcement about its membership and terms of reference.

Mr. Prior

I should like to comment, first, on the Home Secretary's statement. It is a strength of our system, both our legal system and our police procedures, that in serious cases where justice has gone awry, as it has in this case, the Home Secretary should make a statement to the House. We are all grateful to him for his statement.

I have two questions to ask the right hon. Gentleman. First, it appears from what he said—it is bound to give cause for anxiety—that Mr. Virag was picked out by no fewer than eight witnesses at a properly conducted identification parade. Does not the fact that eight witnesses wrongly identified this man give some cause for anxiety as to the procedures adopted?

Second, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for a small committee urgently to examine the whole procedure. The Criminal Law Revision Committee recommended that further steps should be taken, certainly in disputed identification cases. Therefore, why do we need this small committee? Could not the report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee on Evidence be used in order to make speedy changes where necessary?

Mr. Jenkins

The fact that eight witnesses did so identify the man and, as it now appears, mistakenly did so, is a cause for concern, which is why I have made the statement and am proceeding as I am.

What the Criminal Law Revision Committee recommended, as I understand it, was that the judge should warn the jury of the caution which it should apply—I use "caution" in a non-technical sense —in dealing with identification evidence. However, I understand that this was done in the case of Mr. Virag.

Mr. Bagier

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the case of Luke Dougherty is just as important as that of Virag and raises grave issues as to how our system of justice works. Does he agree that the identification procedure which was adopted left a tremendous amount to be desired, inasmuch as two witnesses, against whose honesty I cast no imputation, were shown photographs and in fact an identification parade was never held? The accused was placed in a jury and the witnesses were then asked to identify the man. It later came to light that the witnesses concerned could see the man being placed amongst the jury. In other words, does my right hon. Friend agree that the whole procedure of how the police carry out identification parades must be very closely examined?

Does my right hon. Friend agree further that an aspect which the committee should consider is that, although 20 witnesses were prepared to swear that Luke Dougherty was on a bus trip at the appropriate time, because of a desire to save costs only five witnesses were called and the other 15 who could and should have been called were not called? Does my right hon. Friend agree, therefore, that the desire to save costs has helped to lead to this miscarriage of justice?

Does my right hon. Friend agree further that the astounding situation arose later in the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) that, because of rules which prevent witnesses from being called on appeal who were available to be called at the time of trial but were not called then, the 15 witnesses who could and should have been called were not called even then? That is as I understand the reason, even though I am not a lawyer.

Mr. Jenkins

I fully take into account what my hon. Friend said. I will not in any way attempt to judge the relative significance of these two cases. They were both cases of miscarriage of justice. This is always serious whenever it occurs and whatever length of prison sentence is involved. There is, however, an important difference between the two cases. One is that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, it appears that the identification procedure was not correctly followed in the Dougherty case, whereas it was as far as I am aware, correctly followed in the Virag case but still led to a result which causes great concern and which is the reason I have made the statement to the House this afternoon. It will be fully for the committee which is to be appointed to inquire into both aspects of this matter.

Mr. Crowder

Does the Home Secretary agree that in cases of identity it is essential in future that the trial judge should direct the jury on the same basis as in cases where accomplices arc involved, namely, that there should be corroboration—in other words, some independent testimony which supports the actual identification?

Mr. Jenkins

I think that this is very much a matter for the committee. However, I take note of what the hon. and learned Gentleman said and the committee, when appointed, will no doubt do so, too.

Mr. Tomney

This is a sorry experience which must not be repeated by the Crown prosecutors. Is my right hon. Friend aware that in future in all cases where the police are directly involved there should be another identification parade at not more than a month's interval? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that in this case the fingerprints of a known criminal were found in the car which was used by Virag? Why was not this man found and interrogated?

Why were the papers left on my right hon. Friend's predecessor's table for so long before action was taken? This has left a very sorry taste in the mouth as regards the Director of Public Prosecutions. It must not be repeated. When the police go after a criminal with a record it is essential that the right man is nailed and that he stays nailed if there is to be any respect for the law. My right hon. Friend must give his attention to the question of identification parades where the police are directly involved.

Mr. Jenkins

I will certainly bear all relevant facts in mind. I will also bear in mind the delay to which my hon. Friend drew attention and, indeed, to which I draw attention in the course of my statement. I am anxious—this is why I made the fullest statement that I could at the earliest opportunity following Mr. Virag's having been released on Friday —that nothing should be concealed about this case or any other case and that we should endeavour to learn from it in every possible way and should ensure, so far as this is humanly possible, that there will be no repetition.

Mr. Pardoe

The House will be appalled by the matter of the Home Secretary's statement but will have welcomed the seriousness with which he regards the case. First, can the Home Secretary confirm that there is no statutory limit to the ex-gratia payment that can be made? Secondly, does he not think that the whole question of identification procedure and the review of it is a proper matter of concern for the House and that it might therefore be looked at by a Select Committee of the House? Thirdly, if the right hon. Gentleman decides against that and proceeds to set up the committee that he suggested, can he say that a majority of that committee will be lay members and not members of the legal profession and certainly not members of the police? Lastly, does the Home Secretary intend to set up a procedure to review the cases of all those who are now in prison as a result of a conviction on identity alone?

Mr. Jenkins

I will take account of what the hon. Gentleman said. There is no statutory limit to the amount of compensation. This matter will fall to be determined by the independent assessor. I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that my intention is that it will be Sir Walker Carter, the Chairman of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. who has normally been involved and who I think has attracted great commendation for his work in this field.

As for the composition of the committee, I think that an outside independent committee is correct and that is why I have decided to appoint such a committee. It will be open to the House to discuss the committee's report in any way which it thinks proper. I will, as I have indicated, certainly endeavour to ensure that our procedures are reviewed, but I think that it would be a mistake to say that it would be possible to review every case in which there has been conviction upon the basis of identification. Indeed I think that it would be a grave disservice to the cause of justice were one to suggest that, because of this case, even following upon the case of Mr. Dougherty—after all, it has been many years since there has been a case of similar importance and gravity—there was any doubt about the guilt of all those convicted on identification.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the speed with which he has brought this matter before the House and upon the steps he is taking. Will he suggest to the committee that it should investigate any cases in which the police officers concerned have subsequently been found guilty of serious offences such as perjury and attempting the planting of evidence or have confessed to that? Will my right hon. Friend look up in his files the case of Brett, who is one such case?

Mr. Jenkins

I will certainly look up the case of Brett as my hon. Friend requests me to do. The committee, when its terms of reference are announced, will no doubt be able to inquire as widely as it thinks proper within its terms of reference and it will certainly meet with no resistance from me.

I have linked the case of Dougherty with the case of Virag for the purposes of the inquiry. It was the two together that made it clear to me that we needed an inquiry into the matter. However, my statement this afternoon was about the case of Mr. Virag and I should make it clear that there is not the slighest suggestion of any improper behaviour by the police in the case of Virag. Indeed, the police and prosecuting authorities played a notable part in uncovering this miscarriage of justice. It was perhaps one of the relatively rare cases of doubt where no representations were received from outside or from any hon. Member of this House. It came from inside—not from inside the Home Office exactly but from inside the processes of law and of justice.

Mr. Carlisle

Would the right hon. Gentleman say whether in this particular case there was any other evidence against Mr. Virag or whether it was merely evidence of identification? Secondly, on the question of delay, without in any way disagreeing with what the right hon. Gentleman said about this case, may I ask him whether he would agree that the vital matter in the interests of an accused is that any such investigation at a later stage of a man's conviction should be thorough so as to allay any public concern, that investigations of this kind carried out by the Home Office are extremely thorough, which is one of the strengths of our system, and that when new evidence comes to light he can review evidence of what has occurred several years before?

Mr. Jenkins

On the first point, I will stand on what I said in my statement. The case against Mr. Virag rested on identification evidence. I think that is the fairest statement that I can make. I would rather not add to or subtract from that. As I indicated in reply to a previous supplementary, the injustice here was uncovered by internal processes, but I regret, as I am sure the hon. and learned Member for Runcorn (Mr. Carlisle) does, that there was this delay which led to Mr. Virag's period in gaol which was very long—longer than we would all have wished it to be.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is private Members' time.