I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on raising this important matter which gives me the opportunity, first, to set out in general terms the basis on which charges may from time to time be altered, and then to deal with the specific case that she raised.
Justice is not blind. One can peer at virtually any statue of justice—in particular the one on top of the Old Bailey—and there is no blindfold around the eyes of justice. Justice has very sharp eyes and ears.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I were deeply concerned for the family in their sad and tragic loss. I have spent most of my life in the courts, principally in the criminal courts, and I am only too familiar with the anguish of parents in circumstances such as this. Ryan Keen had a most promising life ahead of him and it was a tragedy of the highest order that it was so dreadfully and wastefully cut short, as my right hon. and learned Friend said when he wrote to the hon. Lady on 16 November.
As I promised, I shall first deal with the general principles which the Crown Prosecution Service adopts in its selection of charges in criminal cases. They are not just plucked out of a hat. They are not just a matter of convenience. They are not based on the concept of cost. They are based on the principle of seeing that justice is done on the particular facts revealed by the evidence in the case.
Section 7 of the code for Crown prosecutors sets out the three principal criteria which are applied. First, the charge or charges must reflect the seriousness of the offending. Secondly, they must give the court adequate sentencing powers. Thirdly, they must enable the case to be presented in a clear and simple way. That latter factor is of special importance in cases of trial by jury, which this was.
In an ideal world it would be possible for the custody officer, who initiates the process of prosecution when a suspect is brought to a police station, to alight on a charge which remains the charge throughout the life of the prosecution until a verdict is returned either by the magistrates, if it is a summary offence, or by a jury, if it is a case tried on indictment.
But in the nature of things, that is not always possible. The custody officer may have only a limited account of what took place from the arresting officer who may have been unable to contact a number of important witnesses at that time. The custody officer must do his best on the facts as they are known to him to prefer an appropriate charge.
I have had the advantage in recent months of going to police stations throughout the country to observe custody officers dealing with suspects in the lively environment of custody suites at police stations. It is an instructive experience. On two recent occasions, I witnessed one in south Wales and another in Manchester.
The custody suite is not a place for peace and quiet or reflection. There may be tearful suspects, friends and relatives wanting their say, property to be gathered up and accounted for and other matters of a pressing nature with which the custody officer must deal. But he selects the charge at that stage on the basis of the facts as they are recounted to him. The astonishing thing is that so often the custody officer's sensing of the true charge is subsequently borne out when more facts come to hand. That is the first step in the prosecution process—the preferring of the charge by the custody officer.
The next stage is the consideration of the case by a lawyer in the CPS, usually a few weeks later when more evidence has been gathered together. It is hoped at that stage that the case will be complete or near complete. There may be much more evidence than that which the custody officer had the advantage of considering at the first stage.
It is not surprising that at that stage, which I shall call stage two, the charge preferred by the police may need to be withdrawn, substituted or added to. But the purpose of that is to comply with the three criteria in section 7 of the code which I outlined at the beginning of my speech. That in turn is designed to ensure that justice, according to law, is done in each case as it proceeds on its way through the courts.
Let me give a number of examples which may occur in the life of a case. It does not ossify after the lawyer in the CPS or after counsel has drafted the indictment, if he does, or if he approves the indictment drafted by a lawyer in the CPS. In the life of a case, sometimes the evidence changes dramatically.
The defence may submit medical reports or medical reports may come to hand as the result of an initiative taken by the CPS or the barrister instructed in the case. That evidence might tend to show that a defendant is not capable of forming a specific intent which is an essential ingredient in the offence. A witness may become too ill to testify, leave the country or die.
All those matters might put a different complexion on the case from that which originally appeared. It would be obtuse if those responsible for the prosecuting process did not take those changes in the evidential base into consideration in their framing of the charges or in their subsequent decisions on whether to accept a plea.