HL Deb 14 March 1991 vol 527 cc309-17

4.40 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a Statement about the Government's response to the decision today by the Court of Appeal to quash the convictions for murder of Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Hill, Robert Hunter, Richard Mcllkenny, William Power and John Walker arising from the two bomb explosions in public houses in Birmingham in November 1974. A similar Statement is being made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary today in another place.

We will arrange for a copy of the court's judgment to be placed in the Library of both Houses as soon as it is available. This case, together with others which have occurred, raises a number of serious issues which must be a cause of concern to us all. It is of fundamental importance that the arrangements for criminal justice should secure the speedy conviction of the guilty and the acquittal of the innocent. When that is not achieved public confidence is undermined.

Under the provisions of Section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, any person whose conviction has been quashed on the basis of a new or newly discovered fact following a reference by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary of the case to the Court of Appeal is entitled to apply to the Home Secretary for compensation. The amount will be decided on the basis of advice from an independent assessor. The Home Secretary will of course give careful consideration to any application that is made to him by the six men.

We recognise fully the seriousness of the issues raised by these cases and the Government are resolved to ensure that they are properly addressed. However, it is important to recognise that the Government have already taken a wide variety of measures which ensure the conviction of those who have committed criminal offences and protect innocent suspects. These include the codification of police powers to investigate crime; controls over police interrogations, including the tape-recording of interviews; the reform of the law of evidence as it affects confessions: the setting up of the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office; extension of the Court of Appeal's power to order retrials; and improved quality controls over forensic science work.

Many of the cases that have given cause for concern pre-date these developments. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary and his predecessors have demonstrated their willingness to look hard and seriously at any evidence presented to them about alleged miscarriages of justice and their readiness when necessary to refer that evidence to the Court of Appeal.

Our criminal justice system deals perfectly well with the overwhelming majority of cases. This should never be forgotten. The cases which are now the cause of our concern represent only a tiny proportion of the work which is carried out to very high standards. I would wish this to be clearly understood so that we do not get carried away with the quite erroneous belief that everything in our current arrangements is flawed.

We believe, however, that it is now necessary to undertake a review of the criminal justice process as it at present stands, taking full account of recent reforms. The aim of such a review will he to minimise so far as possible the likelihood of such events happening again.

The review will embrace all stages of the criminal process. It will consider the investigation and pre-trial stages. That will include the management of the investigation by the police and the role of the prosecutor. It will also include the role of expert witnesses and, in particular, that of forensic scientists and the reliability of scientific evidence. It will review the place of the right to silence in criminal proceedings. It will consider a possible role for investigating magistrates, the conduct of criminal trials and the duties and powers of the courts. In addition, the review will examine appeals procedures, the powers of the Court of Appeal and the investigation of alleged miscarriages of justice once appeal rights have been exhausted, including the functions at present carried out by the Home Secretary.

This review, extending as it does over the work of the criminal courts in England and Wales, is of such importance that we believe that it should be undertaken by a Royal Commission. Her Majesty has accepted this recommendation. We have placed a copy of its terms of reference in the Library of both Houses.

Her Majesty has appointed the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman of Doxford, to be chairman of the Royal Commission. We shall announce the members as soon as possible.

The Government's decision to establish a Royal Commission is an indication of the importance we attach to the work of this review. It is our intention that it should be wide ranging and thorough. It must also be carried out as soon as possible. We have therefore asked its chairman to make every effort to complete its work within two years.

The House will of course be aware that in October 1989 Sir John May was appointed to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the convictions of the Guildford Four and the Maguires. In July 1990 he submitted an interim report which led my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal, the then Home Secretary, to refer the convictions of the Maguires to the Court of Appeal. The court has yet to hear the case and I would not wish to make any further comment on it while it remains sub judice.

We have asked Sir John May to complete his inquiry into the Guildford Four and Maguire cases. The appointment of the wider inquiry we have announced today is not intended to inhibit him in any way. We think it right, however, to ask him to confine his inquiry to the circumstances of the cases themselves and to contribute his views on the wider issues to the Royal Commission, of which he has agreed to be a member.

All of us in this House must be disturbed by what has occurred in these cases. The objective of the criminal justice system must always be to ensure that those who commit criminal offences are brought to justice, that the guilty are punished and that the innocent, including those wrongly charged with offences, are protected. Valuable reforms have already been introduced in recent years. I believe our present arrangements work well in the overwhelming majority of cases. I pay tribute to all those who endeavour to achieve that. The time is right, nevertheless, to take a fresh look at the existing arrangements to see whether further improvements can be made; and that is why the Government have decided to establish the Royal Commission which we have announced today.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for making a Statement which may be of an historical nature in regard to our procedures in the criminal law. It was just about one-and-a-half hours ago that I ventured to put a Question to the noble and learned Lord regarding whether the Government had any intention to legislate to reform the law or to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into these matters in view of the grave concern expressed by leading lawyers, and indeed the public at large, at certain aspects of our appeal procedures in the criminal law; I referred especially to the Court of Appeal. The noble and learned Lord answered me with his usual courtesy and said that the matter would be considered at the termination of the Court of Appeal's decision in the case of which we are all aware. I do not suppose that he knew at the time that he would be making a Statement quite literally, as I said, one-and-a-half hours later in answer to that Question and that he would also be saying that a Royal Commission is in fact to be set up. That is very welcome news.

However, I believe that I am possibly echoing the views of many Members from all sides of the House when I emphasise the deep concern which has been felt over the past few years about the miscarriages of justice which have taken place. That is not meant to be a castigation of judges. No one has more respect for Her Majesty's judges than I; indeed, that respect is shared by Members on these Benches whom I have the privilege to represent. Nevertheless, we have seen inadequacies in regard to the powers of the Court of Appeal. We have seen that not enough investigatory or inquisitorial powers are given to our courts in order to probe what appear to be miscarriages of justice. The result of that inadequacy is that such miscarriages of justice continue to occur. I should like to pay tribute to the worthy fighters both in this House and in another place who have over the years been prominent in their calls for investigations into such cases and for the righting of what appear to be wrongs.

In his Statement the noble and learned Lord made it clear that he would not comment in any detail upon what was happening in the Maguire case which is being considered by the Court of Appeal. I should like to point out that I made a plea from these Benches in regard to the Maguire case that the Home Secretary should ensure that an obvious attempt was made to prevent a miscarriage of justice taking place by appointing an independent scientist to look into the scientific evidence in the case. Instead of that, the junior Minister, with his usual courtesy, said that he would consult with his right honourable friend. I was told it was the job of the defendants in the case, or people on their behalf, to produce the scientific evidence to upset what had been admitted by the Court of Appeal as being reliable evidence.

What will this Royal Commission inquire into? I ask the noble and learned Lord, whether we are certain that the terms of reference of the Royal Commission will be broad enough to see whether it is right that there should be a separate body consisting in the main—and I stress in the main—of our judges, who will look into questions of miscarriage of justice and have powers to call evidence before them and to inquire into these matters, instead of having merely to look at the evidence produced in a lower court?

Also, will the Royal Commission have the power to say that confessions are not admissible in our courts unless a confession was made before or in the presence of a solicitor, or there was strong corroborative evidence or indeed a video was taken showing the circumstances in which the so-called confession had taken place'? I ask whether the Royal Commission will have powers to consider these matters.

I owe the following observation to my noble friend Lord Richard. I inquire whether it is right and proper that we should consider at this moment various provisions in the Criminal Justice Bill which relate to the powers of the courts and to similar matters, and whether it would be wise to see whether the findings of this commission receive echoes in what ought to be the full criminal justice Bill that we would want to see in the light of its findings. As the noble and learned Lord well knows, it is not often that he is able to find a little nook or corner in the Government's programme in order to bring matters relating to our criminal law before Parliament.

As I said, this is an historic moment. In many ways it is a sad moment: in other ways it is a hopeful moment, because all of us who want to have confidence in the criminal law that has been our pride and heritage have been very upset at what has occurred in recent years. We want to make sure that these happenings do not recur.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, I too thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his speedy and wide-ranging response to the conclusion of the Birmingham case. Such speed, it might be said, is indeed appropriate after the 16 years which have gone by since the sentences were passed. I will come shortly to the welcome I am able to give to much of what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said, but first I should like to make one or two other points.

When the dreadful incidents took place which gave rise to these convictions and the long false sentences, as it turned out, I was Home Secretary. Indeed, during the period when the investigations were carried out, that was equally so. A number of years ago I began to feel a general sense of perhaps slightly intuitive unease which I expressed to the then Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary. That was nearly six years ago.

was a little worried as to whether the climate of the time had led to a range of unsafe convictions on a scale which could deal a grave blow to our confidence in the judicial system. I have never since thought it wise to make public pronouncements on these matters, but I did collaborate with a group which was led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and which also included the noble and learned Lords, Lord Devlin and Lord Scarman, with their great intellectual reputations, and Mr. Merlyn Rees, who followed me as Home Secretary.

I played only a small part in the work of that group, and other groups outside were also working. But I am bound to note what I am convinced is the case, that without the dedicated conviction and moral authority of Cardinal Hume, it is very doubtful whether these miscarriages of justice would ever have been corrected. That is a disturbing thought, which is made all the more disturbing by the wall of judicial complacency which was totally unshakeable until it collapsed under the facts.

Having made those points, I now say that I welcome very strongly the appointment of a Royal Commission. We have been too loath to use Royal Commissions in recent years, and perhaps as a result we have rushed into taking some rather foolish decisions on a range of matters which might have been avoided with a more considered application to the problems. I welcome this Royal Commission and the range of its remit, which seems to me about as wide as it could be. I also welcome the appointment of the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman, as its chairman. In my view, that is an imaginative and admirable choice.

One cannot feel other than a great sense of concern and disturbance about what has occurred. There is a good deal to be put right. There was point in what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said about reconsidering what should he in a criminal justice Bill at this stage. It may be that we have too many criminal justice Bills and they are not always too clearly thought out: each Home Secretary has to have a criminal justice Bill. There will be need for a very important one probably following this Royal Commission, but I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for having, after this long and disturbing delay, responded so swiftly today.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken for their general welcome of this Statement. I do not wish of course to say anything at all about the facts in connection with any of these cases because what I understand has occurred today is that the convictions of the men have been quashed but the reasons will not be given until later. Therefore I would think it quite inappropriate for me to say anything about that. However, I wish to say that I believe that all the judges who have participated at any stage in these cases have done their very best to carry out their judicial duties having regard to the evidence before them. They have exercised the powers given to them by Parliament to the best of their ability and in accordance with their judicial oath.

As regards the terms of reference, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, has said they are about as wide as they could be. That would be my impression also. There are general words opening the description of the terms of reference and in particular there are two paragraphs which perhaps I might quote in answer to the questions which were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. The subject matter that the Royal Commission is directed particularly to consider, among other things, is, the opportunities available for an accused person to state his position on the matters charged and the extent to which the courts might draw proper inferences from primary facts, the conduct of the accused, and any failure on his part to take advantage of an opportunity to state his position".

That is the fifth in the numeration. The eighth is, the arrangements for considering and investigating allegations of miscarriages of justice when appeal rights have been exhausted".

I believe that these particularly encompass the matters that the noble Lord asked me about. Of course, as I said, there is a more general introduction.

As regards the Criminal Justice Bill, that is before your Lordships and stands on its own proposals and on the merits of the proposals included in it. We hope that the Royal Commission will consider its remit speedily, but that does not seem to me—and the matter is of course for others rather than for me—to mean that we should not continue to consider the Criminal Justice Bill presently before us.

5 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I wonder whether I might ask my noble and learned friend one question. Has he had the opportunity to see the transcript of the observations made yesterday by counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions? He probably has not. When I read in the newspaper today the somewhat surprising account of what occurred I managed to obtain from the Criminal Division a copy of that transcript, which I have had very little time to read. However, I inquire only for the reason that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, referred to a wall of judicial complacency.

On page 2 of the transcript of yesterday's proceedings Mr. Boal, QC, for the Director of Public Prosecutions, made three numbered points, which I can read out quite shortly. They seem to me to have great relevance in view of that really rather acid criticism.

1. We will submit that when one analyses the evidence as it was in 1975, which I will seek to do today, there was a formidable case, justifiably described as overwhelming. 2. We suggest that on the material before the Court of Appeal in 1987, it cannot be regarded as in any way surprising that the appeals were dismissed, nor was it surprising that the judgment ended with the oft quoted words of the Lord Chief Justice.

Your Lordships may remember that those final words were: The longer the hearing has gone on the more convinced this court has become that the verdict of the jury was correct.

His third numbered statement was that, there remains today, on one view, and upon close analysis, a formidable case against these appellants.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the copy of the transcript has arrived at my office (I think through the courtesy of one of my noble and learned friends) but, as your Lordships will appreciate, I have had my attention devoted to other matters for the past two hours or so and I have not had an opportunity of reading it. I would just say that my response to what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, said on that matter was contained in the reply that I gave a little while ago.

I think it would be quite inappropriate for me, in the circumstances of the present case and the way in which it stands in the Court of Appeal, Criminal Division, to make any reference whatever to the facts about it or the submissions that were made. My noble and learned friend has brought these to the attention of the House.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor on his last few remarks. I do not think that this is the time for us to be looking at discussions or debates on a transcript that none of us has seen, and particularly on selected passages. There may well he other passages that could be equally forceful on other points of view, and this is not the time or the place to discuss them.

I fully endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, said about the part played by the Archbishop of Westminster and all those people, both in this House and the other place as well as organisations outside, who since 1974 and onwards have steadfastly defended the demand for justice in this and other cases. Does not the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor agree that it is now time seriously to consider the presence of a lay person in these appeal cases? How much consideration will be given to that kind of lay presence in the Royal Commission? Will there be scope for lay members on that commission? How much will they be involved, rather than just referring it back to the same people who have been involved for all these years?

I do not want to quote any statements at this stage, but there have been a number of important statements that need examination. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, spoke about a wall of judicial complacency, to which the noble and learned Lord referred. Of course, that has happened. We seem to have spent a lot more time and energy in trying to maintain the guilt, or the original verdict—almost as a kind of cover-up—rather than spending a lot more time and energy on pursuing the guilty people who are still at large. We ought to be concerned about that. While we have been going through all this process and spent all this time and these years on it, now we are convinced—and most people have been convinced since the beginning—that we did not have the right people. Does not that concern us? Of course it does.

There has to be some method of speeding up this process so that justice can be done. We must not cover up what is known might have been a mistaken case so that people do not say nasty things about the judiciary. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor can tell me that there will be scope for some lay representation; certainly from those people who have been involved with these cases—there are a number of them, and some still going on —who are as well versed in the pros and cons of the cases as any judicial mind. Will there be any scope for those people to be represented or heard at the Royal Commission?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as I said, it would not be right for me to make any comment on the facts of the case. I have said already in somewhat different words, and I say again, that I believe that all the judges concerned with these cases at their various stages did their best to dispense justice on the evidence before them, in accordance with their judicial oath and having regard to the powers that Parliament gave them.

As regards lay persons on the Royal Commission, I have mentioned the name of the chairman, who is not a lawyer. The noble Viscount, Lord Runciman of Doxford, is not a lawyer or a judge. Therefore, the chairman is a layman in the sense that the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, used that expression. Clearly the Royal Commission will decide precisely how it will conduct its affairs, but I feel satisfied that it will give ample opportunities to anyone who has anything useful to contribute to its inquiries.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, I welcome the Government's appointment of the noble Viscount, Lord Runciman, as chairman of the Royal Commission. Anyone who has read his works will admire not only their brilliance, intellectually, but also their judicial quality. I am certain that the Royal Commission will be in excellent hands.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his endorsement of our judgment in that matter.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead had to say about the Royal Commission. Will the terms of reference include the funding of forensic science laboratories?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the matter is expressed in general terms. There is a general opening, but paragraph iv states: the arrangements for the defence of accused persons, access to legal advice, and access to expert evidence".

That would obviously include the evidence of forensic scientists of an expert character and many other types of expert evidence.