HC Deb 20 November 2000 vol 357 cc16-7
10. Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

What estimate he has made of the number of cases that resulted in an acquittal that would be the subject of a new trial were the double jeopardy rule relaxed in line with the Law Commission's current proposals; and how many of them would result from the application of DNA testing. [137455]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

It is not possible to make an informed estimate. That is because the existing doctrine of autre fois acquit means that the police do not generally seek fresh evidence in relation to someone acquitted of an offence.

Dr. Ladyman

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his attempt to answer my question. Does he agree that protection against being tried twice for the same crime is a fundamental protection in our law that has existed for many centuries, and that it exists to safeguard the individual against the power of the state? Before we tamper with such a safeguard, we ought to have answers to the sort of question that I have put today. Until we have detailed evidence, we should go no further in considering a change to our law.

Mr. Boateng

I must resist the temptation either to agree or to disagree with my hon. Friend, bearing in mind that the matter is being considered by the Law Commission. We have promised to reflect on its final submissions; when we have done so, I shall be able to give my hon. Friend some satisfaction, one way or the other.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

Can the Minister confirm that the Government are not merely considering relaxing the protection against double jeopardy, but contemplating doing so retrospectively? Given that the Government have now attacked most of the spheres in which people know there are protections in the law and care about them—the right to trial by jury, the presumption of innocence and now the relaxation of the rule against double jeopardy—is not justice being put in jeopardy and people's confidence in the law being undermined?

Mr. Boateng

The criminal law, rightly, takes a dim view of retrospectivity. The Government will, of course, consider the recommendation of the Law Commission, when it comes, but I should be extremely surprised if the Law Commission recommended retrospectivity.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Would it not be useful for the critics to study the recent publication by the Select Committee on Home Affairs on the subject? I recognise that the issue cannot be lightly decided, but let me illustrate the essence of the matter. If a person has been acquitted of murder, but DNA evidence later demonstrates that there can be hardly any doubt that that person was involved in that serious crime, what consideration are we giving the victim of that terrible crime if we proceed on the basis that, regardless of any evidence, an individual who has been acquitted should not be brought before a court again?

Mr. Boateng

We had a good debate on the issue in Westminster Hall. The House has now heard the two sides of the argument. The recommendations and conclusions of the Home Affairs Committee, of which my hon. Friend is a member, were well argued and highly persuasive. No doubt the Law Commission will take them into account when reaching its final opinion.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Does the Minister agree that the Lawrence report recommended that there should be a change in the law because in exceptional cases where there is overwhelming evidence—for example, from DNA testing—it is wrong that someone cannot be tried because of the current law on double jeopardy?

Mr. Boateng

The hon. Gentleman, like my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who sits on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, makes a powerful point on behalf of the victim, a point that the Government will surely take into account when reflecting on the Law Commission's final recommendations.