HL Deb 09 April 1968 vol 291 cc163-4

2.48 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether in their view it is consistent with the public interest that an accused should be sentenced to life imprisonment for the crime of murder without any of the evidence against him becoming available to the public at any stage of the proceedings.]


My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary suggested in a circular to chief constables of November, 1967, and as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice made clear in his Practice Direction last week, the prosecution should state the facts in open court before sentence is passed on a person who has pleaded guilty to murder, or to any other offence, after being committed for trial, under Section 1 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967, without consideration of the evidence.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for that reply. Does not the recent case at the Leeds Assizes, and the fact that it was necessary for the Lord Chief Justice to issue this Direction following that case, indicate that there are some anomalies in the operation of the Criminal Justice Act 1967? Secondly, may I ask the noble Lord whether Her Majesty's Government have received any representations from the Institute of Journalists or other bodies on this subject, and on the closely related subject of the ban on Press reporting of committal proceedings and, if so, what has been the outcome?


My Lords, I do not accept that an anomaly has been disclosed in the Sokol case, to which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Wade, is referring. Prosecuting counsel wished to give the facts, and both he and counsel for the defence drew the attention of the judge to the Home Office circular, but the judge considered a statement of the facts to be unnecessary. What happened in this case did not arise from a defect in the provision of the law, but because guidance as to its implementation was disregarded.

With regard to the inquiry about representations, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has received a letter from the Institute of Journalists asking for immediate revision of the Criminal Justice Act. The letter was sent on April 1, which was the date on which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice issued the Practice Direction. I am convinced that my right honourable friend's advice in this matter and the Practice Direction of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice are entirely sufficient.

With regard to the noble Lord's third question on the reporting of proceedings, this arises entirely from a misconception. The Sokol case arose over Section 1 of the 1967 Act, and there was therefore nothing to report other than the man's name, the nature of the offence and the fact that he was committed. Even if there had been no Section 3 in the Criminal Justice Act there would have been nothing to report in the newspapers.


My Lords, is it not conceivable that an innocent person might be persuaded to plead guilty by some criminal gang through threats to life and limb, and that such a gang would be encouraged in taking that course if it were thought that no part of the proceedings would be reported or even that the committal proceedings would not be reported?


My Lords, it is possible to devise theoretical and hypothetical cases which conceivably could get round the law. But I do not find it conceivable, even if such an unfortunate person under threats pleaded guilty in such circumstances, that he would not disclose the true facts between the committal proceedings in the magistrates' court and the actual trial in a higher court.