HL Deb 05 April 1989 vol 505 cc1094-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Grimond asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is the result of the inquiry by the Lord Advocate into the case of William Trimble.

The Lord Advocate (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, William Trimble was charged with and convicted of assaulting Mary Jane McGhee, aged seven months, by striking her about the head, body, arms and legs, all to her injury. He had admitted to the police that he had slapped the child on various occasions but made no admission beyond that. Having regard to the requirement of corroboration, I have concluded that no more serious charge could have been proved against him. The forensic evidence available to the Crown could not establish a connection between the admitted assaults and her death on 25th May 1988.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, if it is in order, may I ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate whether he is aware of how glad we all are to see him answering Questions for the first time?

However, may I then pass on to ask whether he really considers that this is a satisfactory outcome to the case? Will he bear in mind that the child died by choking in blood while being beaten up? It was found that both her legs and her arm had been broken over the previous month and that pins had been driven into her stomach and the soles of her feet. For this Trimble was sentenced to three months. If he was guilty of that, why was he not guilty of murder? If the Crown could prove that he so assaulted the child that she died, why was he not accused of murder, as he certainly would have been had she been an adult?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, with reference to the first part of the noble Lord's supplementary question, I am very grateful to him for his remarks. However, I am unenthusiastic about making too frequent an appearance at Question Time. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord that his summary of what was proved against Trimble is wholly inaccurate. All that was established against him, and indeed could be established against him, followed an admission that he had on a number of occasions slapped the child; he was then charged with the assault. There was certainly no evidence that would have linked the injuries that he caused to her death.

Perhaps I may assure the noble Lord that had there been such evidence which would have allowed a charge of murder to be brought against him, it would have been done. This certainly was not a case of the Crown exercising its discretion to restrict the charge in any way.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar

My Lords, as I understand the position in this case, the learned sheriff who presided over the proceedings reached the conclusion of guilt on the part of the accused by a process of elimination. It could only have been the man or woman living with the child who caused the injuries. Can the noble and learned Lord explain to your Lordships' House why that principle of law could not have been applied in a jury trial where the sentence would have been considerably higher than three months?

I ask your Lordships to bear with me slightly longer than the House might expect for a question. This is an important case in Scotland. It has evoked considerable press and public reaction. I wish to ask the noble and learned Lord whether he agrees that, on what was a charge of simple assault with no specifically attributable injury, evidence was led by the Crown, albeit with no objection from the defence, of severe and appalling injuries to the child, including the injuries to which the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, has already referred. They caused the presiding judge to complain that the sentence of three months was inadequate.

Will the noble and learned Lord comment on three specific matters? First, what specific injuries did the Crown hope to prove in relation to the phrase "all to her injury" in the complaint? If it was more than simple assault, why was the case taken in the form it was rather than by a jury trial? Secondly, does the noble and learned Lord agree that in cases such as this which cause understandable public outrage and indignation, prosecutors should exercise great care in presenting evidence to ensure that as far as possible only evidence relevant to the complaint should be presented to the court and the public, whether the defence objects or not? Thirdly, was the decision to take the case in this form sanctioned by a Law Officer?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I shall try to answer those points as briefly as possible. First, the noble Lord has my assurance that in future the most careful consideration will be given when a member of the Scottish judiciary indicates that he believes the mode of trial selected by the Crown has been wrong. I confirm that, in order to establish the slapping which had been admitted to by Trimble, the procurator fiscal, as the noble Lord appreciates, led evidence of the autopsy report which detailed injuries. That indicated the slapping, but also included evidence of more serious injuries. It may be surprising that that evidence was allowed by the defence to be led without objection. I can only emphasise that there was no corroborative evidence, which the noble Lord will appreciate is necessary in Scotland, to show that these further injuries were caused by Trimble. If they had been, they would have been included in the charge against him. That would have allowed the court, if necessary, the opportunity of satisfying beyond reasonable doubt the need to convict him.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that while we fully recognise the importance of this matter, it would be far better raised in an Unstarred Question when more time could be given to develop it?

Lord Grimond

My Lords, in view of that intervention, I ask the Lord Advocate whether this does not seem a perfectly proper Question to raise in Parliament. Is it not the case that there was enough evidence before the court for the sheriff to convict Trimble for killing the child? If an adult had hit or slapped another adult so hard that the person died, the adult who committed the assault would unquestionably have been accused of something more than a common assault. I ask again why a higher charge was not brought.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I must say briefly to the noble Lord that on the basis of the forensic evidence there was no causal connection available to the Crown which would have established that the injuries he caused—namely, those due to slapping—brought about this unfortunate child's death on 25th May. But I certainly do not take exception to his raising this matter with me. He is quite right that the case has caused grave concern in Scotland. I hope that what I have said has at least in part allayed those anxieties.