HL Deb 12 March 1992 vol 536 cc1433-4

3.16 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in advance of the report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, they will act to prevent accused persons being convicted solely on uncorroborated confession evidence.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

No, my Lords.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware of the considerable concern in the country at the number of wrongful convictions in recent years? Is there not a remedy which does not require legislation? Should not the Director of Public Prosecutions stop prosecuting in cases where there is a confession but a lack of corroborative evidence?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I share the noble Lord's concern about miscarriages of justice. That is why we have established a Royal Commission with wide-ranging terms of reference to see what changes should be made. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that miscarriages of justice are not confined to wrongful convictions. It is also a miscarriage of justice if a guilty person walks free. The task of the Royal Commission is to consider proposals, such as the one which the noble Lord suggests, in their proper context and in the light of the need to convict the guilty as well as to acquit the innocent of crime.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, can my noble friend explain to my noble kinsman that we all deplore miscarriages of justice? Cases where conviction has depended in part on confession and cases where it has not have always been such that there was bags of corroboration. Is that not worth pointing out to my noble friend?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend. I shall now point it out to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, if he has not already heard it.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, will the Minister agree that wrongful convictions represent a great tragedy? The innocent suffer wrongful imprisonment; the guilty escape. The police and legal services are discredited. In view of that, can the Minister give a reason why interim measures cannot be taken prior to the publication of the Royal Commission's report?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is simply because this is a serious matter. Uncorroborated evidence has been available in the past. If we wish to change that, we need to make certain that we change it in such a way that the guilty are convicted and the innocent are not convicted. We need to ensure that the innocent are not put in gaol and guilty people allowed to walk free. It is a difficult matter. That is why we have asked the Royal Commission specifically to examine it. To take action in advance of the report would be quite wrong.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there have been numerous cases where defendants committed serious criminal offences, made a confession which was totally uncorroborated, pleaded guilty at their trial and never for one moment suggested that they were not guilty of the offence with which they were charged? Would not this rather over-simple proposal mean that such people could not be charged at all?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, is absolutely right. An even simpler example one could use is that of a case of murder where the principal prosecution witness is dead. If one is unable to convict on the uncorroborated confession of a person who has committed the murder, the person who has committed the murder would go free.