Orders of the Day — Crown Prosecution Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:49 pm on 12th January 1995.

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Photo of Mr Derek Spencer Mr Derek Spencer , Brighton, Pavilion 7:49 pm, 12th January 1995

The hon. Lady has a powerful crystal ball. I made a note of what I would say on that subject before I came into the Chamber: I wrote that the procedure adopted by the judge in this case was not unusual. It is with no disrespect to the officials who briefed me that I tell the hon. Lady that I do not need to ask them whether the procedure was unusual; having spent more than 30 years in the courts, I know from my own experience that it happens from time to time. I have been personally involved—both as prosecuting and as defending counsel—in cases in which such a procedure has taken place.

I hope that I can satisfy both the hon. Lady and the wider public that the procedure is not contrary to the interests of justice in the slightest; indeed, in appropriate cases it is very much in those interests. The objective is to ensure that justice is done—that a defendant is convicted of an offence of which the evidence shows him and no other to be guilty, and that that defendant is given a proper and appropriate sentence for that offence. Those are the twin purposes of accepting pleas in such circumstances.

The case of Card and Oliver did not last for three or four days, as the hon. Lady said. In fact, it started on 5 October and continued until 14 October—the Crown case alone, that is. On Monday 17 October, the defence made a submission that the murder case should not go to a jury. On that day the judge gave counsel an indication of his view, having rejected the submission.

On Tuesday 18 October, the judge gave a further indication. The defendants pleaded guilty to manslaughter, a plea accepted by the Crown, on Wednesday 19 October. The case lasted from 5 October until 19 October. Most of that time was occupied by the hearing of the Crown case in full and subsequently by the first defendant, Oliver, giving evidence in chief, being cross-examined by leading counsel for the Crown and then being re-examined. It was at that stage that the judge gave his final view.

There was no question of secret justice or consideration of matters that were not ventilated to the public. All the evidence from those whom it was intended to call—with the exception of two minor witnesses—was given. I can tell the hon. Lady, if she does not already know, that although the first defendant—Oliver—gave evidence, it was not the intention of the second defendant—Card—to give evidence, so no additional light would have been thrown on the case by his evidence. If memory serves me aright, the hon. Lady raised that point in one of the letters that she sent to us.

Let me make another correction to set the case in its proper context. The sentences were not as the hon. Lady described them; they were of an entirely different order of magnitude. The principal defendant, Oliver, was sent to prison for eight years, and the defendant Card for six years. I venture to suggest that that framework is rather different from the account given by the hon. Lady, doubtless in entirely good faith.

Let me explain in a little more detail how the case evolved. As the hon. Lady rightly said, the prosecution did not take the initiative in substituting a lesser charge or in any way seeking to compromise the case. The defendants were initially charged with murder and committed for trial on that basis; the Crown opened its case as a joint charge of murder, and conducted it in that way throughout. As I have said, at the end of the Crown case certain submissions were made.

The hon. Lady asked how, if a jury had been sworn to give a true verdict according to the evidence, a judge could express his view of the facts—which was then accepted by the Crown—and the jury could never complete their hearing of the case.

What took place was not unusual: I shall explain why it was entirely proper. The trial judge's function is to ensure that the quality of the evidence that is called justifies conviction. If, as in this case, the judge concludes that the nature and quality of the evidence are such that they do not justify conviction, he can convey that view to Crown counsel and defending counsel. Far from being improper, that is quite appropriate and the judge's duty as part of his supervisory power is to do just that.

The judge heard virtually all the evidence before expressing the view that in his judgment it would be inappropriate for the Crown to press for a conviction for murder and that such a conviction would be contrary to the justice of the case as he had heard it.

Leading counsel for the Crown was Mr. Anthony Evans QC, who is an experienced and robust counsel, and he did not rubber-stamp the judge's view. It would have been quite wrong for him to do that. He took the view into account and consulted those in the CPS who were instructing him. They concluded that in the circumstances of the case, it was right to accept pleas of manslaughter and not to continue to invite the jury to convict for murder because that would be contrary to the justice of the case.

The hon. Lady says that the trial should have continued. However, that would surely have been quite improper. The Farquharson guidelines indicate that, at that stage, Crown counsel is in charge of the prosecuting process. He had heard all the evidence and in consultation with the CPS he was of the view, as was Mr. Justice Waterhouse, who is an extremely experienced Queen's Bench judge, that it would have been calculated to lead to a miscarriage of justice if prosecuting counsel had allowed the case to go on. Quite properly, he adopted a course which is not unusual and decided to accept the pleas of manslaughter. The jury acquitted the defendants of murder and convicted them of manslaughter. The defendants were in charge of the jury on counts of murder and that was the only process by which the case could be terminated. In the circumstances that I have outlined, it was the jury's verdict.