HL Deb 11 February 1998 vol 585 cc1139-40

3.2 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any proposals to amend the law in Scotland to allow a search warrant to be accepted in a case where inconsequential errors have been made in the completion of the warrant.

The Lord Advocate (Lord Hardie)

No my Lords. The Government have no proposals to amend the law. Inconsequential errors do not render a search warrant invalid.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful for, and slightly surprised by, the Answer. Perhaps I may draw the noble and learned Lord's attention to two recent High Court cases in Scotland where the accused walked away without the proceedings actually being heard. In both cases that was due to problems with the warrant. Indeed, does the noble and learned Lord recall that in one case an alleged heroin dealer walked free because the justice of the peace had signed in the margins of the warrant and not in the appropriate place? Is he also aware that in the other case, someone in whose house had been found £150,000 worth of cannabis, a gun and ammunition walked free because of a minor error in the search warrant? Is the noble and learned Lord really happy about such situations? Alternatively, does he agree with me and Mr. David Macauley of Scotland Against Drugs that this is the law being an ass? Indeed, it has nothing to do with the fight against drugs; it is all to do with officiousness.

Lord Hardie

My Lords, I can confirm that the Government are committed to the war against drugs. Indeed, no one is more committed in that fight than I am. I take issue with the noble Lord in what he said. The second case to which he referred was not a minor issue. As the noble Lord will be aware, after the search warrant had been completed, signed and sworn in front of a justice, it was subsequently altered to change the address. That was quite a significant matter and, quite properly, the court decided, after consideration, that it should not be permitted. As regards the first case, again the irregularity was such that the authorisation of the warrant was not properly authenticated. It must be realised that search warrants are there to permit an intrusion into what would otherwise be private matters.

Lord Selkirk of Douglas

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord consider issuing guidance to the police and also to justices of the peace with a view to avoiding inconsequential errors of this kind?

Lord Hardie

My Lords, I have already taken on board the concerns to which these cases gave rise. I immediately requested information not only from the fiscals concerned but also from fiscals throughout Scotland. I have also issued instructions to regional procurators fiscal to take up the matter. Further, I have expressed my serious concerns about these matters to the relevant chief constables. I intend to give further consideration to what guidance is necessary both to the police and to the justices.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am at least pleased that the noble and learned Lord has said that he will issue guidance. However, I really cannot allow him off the hook with the idea that the address was completely wrong. In the case where the warrant had already been signed, a change was made from Leperstone Avenue to Leperstone Road. However, because of that small change, someone in whose house £150,000 worth of cannabis had been found, together with ammunition and a gun, presumably illegally held, walked free. I understand the point that the noble and learned Lord is making. But does he understand that those of us who are not lawyers—namely, the great bulk of the British people—think that that makes the law look an ass?

Lord Hardie

My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's point. However, we cannot permit police officers or anyone else to alter properly authenticated search warrants. There was no urgency in this case. The police were aware of the difficulty and they chose to alter the search warrant. What they ought to have done was go back and obtain a proper warrant. The fact is that the warrant identified an address which existed and the justice authorised the search of that address. The police, without authority, altered that address changing the wording from avenue to road.