HC Deb 01 March 1984 vol 55 cc279-80W
Mr. Ashley

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will publish in the Official Report the guidance that he has given, following the Parliamentary Commissioner's report on Mr. John Preece; and what action he is taking to ensure that that guidance is followed in the long term and that it is consistently and persistently adhered to.

Mr. Brittan

[pursuant to his reply, 17 February 1984, c. 334]: The following instructions have been issued to all Home Office staff today:

Possible miscarriages of justice In his recent report to Parliament on a complaint from a person whose conviction for murder was quashed following the suspension from duty of a Home Office forensic scientist the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (PCA) criticised the Home Office for what he described as "a serious failure of liaison between the Forensic Science Service, the Establishment Department and the Criminal Justice Department". In the case which gave rise to the complaint there was a failure on the part of the Home Office as a whole fully to appreciate that the forensic scientist's shortcomings could call into question convictions obtained in criminal cases in which he had given evidence for the prosecution. The case in question was further complicated by the fact that the conviction had been in Scotland whereas the forensic evidence came from a scientist employed in an English laboratory. The instructions which follow are concerned with possible miscarriages of justice in the sense of wrongful convictions. But it should be borne in mind that similar considerations to those set out in the following paragraphs apply wherever one part of the office acquires information which may have a bearing on the activities or interests of another part of the office or on their dealings with a member of the public. This is particularly important in a Department such as the Home Office so many of whose responsibilities have a direct impact on the liberty of the subject. The primary responsibility within the Home Office for considering and investigating suggestions that miscarriages of justice have occurred in England and Wales lies with the Criminal Department (C3 Division), which advises the Home Secretary on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy and on the use of his power to refer cases to the Court of Appeal under section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968. The normal case is one in which the convicted person or his representative makes a request for a review of his conviction direct to the Home Office: the procedure for dealing with such requests was reviewed last year, as explained in the Government's reply (Cmnd. 8856) to the report from the Select Committee on Home Affairs on Miscarriages of Justice. Responsibility does not, however, rest on the Criminal Department alone. Staff in any other part of the Home Office who in the course of their duties receive information which suggests that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred should bring that information to the notice of the Criminal Department; and any further enquiries which are necessary in order to explore the possibility that a wrongful conviction has occurred should be undertaken urgently, as well as diligently and carefully.

Enquiries In a case where a convicted person makes representations to the Home Office about his conviction, the material which is considered will, in the first instance, be the material supplied by him or on his behalf. There are, however, cases which do not and must not rest there. If, for example, new evidence of an alibi is produced, it may be necessary to make further enquiries in order to determine all the relevant facts. If significant questions are raised about the validity of expert evidence, it will be essential to examine the evidence, calling upon any professional assistance which may be needed. Having regard to the Home Secretary's responsibility for the Forensic Science Service it is particularly important that any significant doubt about evidence given by a member the Service should be fully explored.

Information from sources other than representations Enquiries must not be confined to cases in which representations have been made by or on behalf of the accused person. Attention must be given to any case in which there are grounds for supposing that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred. Thus any part of the Home Office—including, for example, the Police Department, the Forensic Science Service, the Prison Service and the Fire Department—which learns that evidence given at a trial has been in any way unsound must bring the case promptly to the attention of the Criminal Department, and take immediate steps to preserve any records within its control, or ask those responsible to preserve them; and there must be full and close liaison between Departments of the Office in the consideration of the case. A watch must always he kept for instances in which expert evidence has been shown to have some major flaw which not only invalidates it in the particular case under consideration but suggests that it would be prudent to consider the quality of the evidence given in other cases. It may be necessary to warn the prosecuting authorities by whom the person concerned is liable to be invited to give evidence that his evidence may be unreliable; and to consider the possibility of wrongful convictions arising from past cases. When this arises outside the Criminal Department, they should be informed at the outset. Again, all relevant records must be preserved.

Liaison with other Government Departments and agencies There are a number of circumstances in which both the Home Office and another Government Department may be concerned with a case. A person may have been convicted in Scotland on evidence supplied in England, or vice versa. A prisoner convicted in another jurisdiction may be serving his sentence in England or Wales. The Director of Public Prosecutions may bring to notice a case in which he has been considering a complaint against the police. In all such cases it is essential that, wherever and whenever a significant doubt arises about evidence given at a Trial, there should be the closest liaison between the Government Departments and agencies involved. Any request from another Department for information about or an appraisal of evidence given by an expert for whom the Home Office is responsible must be met in full. But the need goes further than that. If another Department is responsible for any action in relation to a wrongful conviction, any doubt must be volunteered to them and the results of any enquiries sent to them. It should never be assumed that they will ask for what they need.

Urgency Consideration of a possible miscarriage of justice is not a light matter; close scrutiny is required, and documents may take time to obtain. But a sense of urgency is also required. Anyone who has supplied or asked for information in connection with a possible miscarriage of justice and believes that action is not being taken with sufficient urgency should bring the matter to the attention of a senior officer without delay.