HC Deb 03 February 1986 vol 91 cc55-6W
Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

asked the Attorney-General if he has any plans to modify his guidelines on jury checking; and if he will make a statement.

The Attorney-General

In July 1980 I issued amended guidelines on jury checks. A copy was placed in the Library. As stated in that document, there are certain exceptional types of cases on public importance for which the provisions as to majority verdicts and the diqualification of jurors may not be sufficient to ensure the proper administration of justice. In such cases it is in the interests both of justice and the public that there should be further safeguards against the possibility of bias and in such cases checks which go beyond the investigation of criminal records may be necessary.

There are two classes of case in which jury checks are now carried out, with my personal authority. Terrorist cases form the first class, and the second comprises cases in which national security is involved and part of the evidence is likely to be heard in camera. In each class of case extra precautions are desirable because of the risk that a juror's political beliefs may be so biased as to reflect the extreme views of a sectarian interest or a pressure group, so as to interfere with his fair assessment of the facts of the case or lead him to exert improper pressure on his fellow jurors.

In national security cases, however, extra precautions may be desirable because of the danger that a juror, either voluntarily or under pressure, may make an improper use of evidence which due to its sensitivity has been given in camera. Where a terrorist offence is being prosecuted the extra checks on records to which I have referred, extending beyond criminal records, are carried out only by police from police special branch records.

In security cases, however, where evidence might have to be given in camera, checks may be made additionally by the security service. In October 1978 guidelines on jury checks were issued by the then Attorney-General, now the right hon. Lord Silkin. While they referred in terms to both the classes of case which I have described, the only procedure which they described was the procedure applicable to cases where there is a risk of bias, that is to say, checking by police special branches. They accordingly might have conveyed the impression that even in Official Secrets Acts cases jury checking was confined to police special branches, whereas it was then additionally done, and was intended to continue to be done, by the security services as well. Having looked into the antecedents of the 1978 guidelines I am quite satisfied that this incomplete impression was given by inadvertence.

In 1980 I decided to narrow the range of cases in which jury checks for bias should be carried out, restricting them to terrorist cases only. (Under the 1978 guidelines they had also embraced certain other cases of serious organised crime.) I issued an amendment of the 1978 guidelines accordingly. The incomplete nature of the description of procedures contained in the original guidelines was, unfortunately, not noticed, and was accordingly readopted. From time to time hon. and right hon. Members have since received replies which have reflected it.

When my Department noticed the discrepancy and brought it to my attention, I directed a full examination and I now express to the House my regret that a misleading impression was inadvertently created. I have written to each of the right hon. and hon. Members to whom I have referred correcting the mistake.

As to the future, the procedures which Ministers of successive Administrations since 1974 have agreed to be necessary in the interests of national security must continue. In cases where it may be necessary to disclose in camera information of the highest sensitivity, it is essential that the security service should be able to check that potential jurors are persons who can be trusted with that information.

I therefore propose to review the guidelines at once and to publish a corrected version in the near future.