Orders of the Day — Claire Oldfield-Hampson

– in the House of Commons at 12:51 am on 8th January 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 1:07 am, 8th January 2001

For a moment, I was rather worried that the press would not be able to report this very important debate. Many of my constituents, like many people across the country, would be very interested to learn about and to follow the issue. I am therefore pleased that the motion to sit in private has been defeated.

As the Minister knows, and as the title of the debate indicates, the purpose of this debate is to promote consideration of the way in which victims are treated by the courts. I have been provoked to initiate the debate by reading the transcripts of the two trials on the manslaughter of Claire Oldfield-Hampson. Before I deal with some of the details of the case, I assure the Minister that I do not intend to seek a 30-minutes Commons retrial of it. I simply want to make the case for greater consideration in the courts of victims and their families, especially in cases involving capital offences in which victims cannot be present in person to defend themselves against accusations that may be made against them.

When a defendant attacks the character or reputation of his or her victim, that victim—or the family of that victim—should have the opportunity to defend himself or herself. Such an opportunity should be a fundamental right enshrined in both our law and our court procedure. Even when a defendant is pleading guilty, if he or she chooses to mount a defence in mitigation based on claims against the victim, he or she should expect to have any and all aspects of his or her claims against the victim subjected to rigorous scrutiny and cross-examination. Not to do so would result in the type of travesty that occurred in the case of Claire Oldfield-Hampson.

I did not know Claire Oldfield-Hampson, or her husband or mother. They did not live in my constituency; nor did the killing or the trial take place there. However, Claire's sister and brother-in-law, Joanne and Alex Bryce, have lived in my constituency for many years and I have known them for many years. Claire's mother moved to my constituency recently.

The bald facts of the case are that Claire Oldfield-Hampson was born on 14 November 1954. She married David Adrian Hampson on 14 September 1985. They lived in March in Cambridgeshire and had a daughter, Felicity, who was born on 30 September 1988.

The life of the family was not easy. Claire, who was formerly a civil servant, had to go back to the job market when her daughter was seven to do unskilled work for Tesco. Her husband had a poor employment record and there were allegations that he had been sacked from most of his jobs. Claire stood by him despite his continual and obvious failure to establish any kind of permanent, secure job. For prolonged periods he was unemployed.

Claire loved her daughter Felicity very much. The testimonies that I have received from family and friends and the letters that I have seen, in which Claire talks only about her daughter and not herself, clearly demonstrate that that was the case. It is important that I tell the Minister that. Claire took her daughter to many events, such as riding, drama, opera and swimming, and was saving for her future by buying children's bonds.

Claire Oldfield-Hampson was, according to the courts, unlawfully killed by her husband with a hammer on 25 September 1996. He buried her body in a shallow grave in the garden in the early hours of the following day and, within two days, was using her bank accounts and leading a life of deception involving their child Felicity—who was then seven—who provided excuses about her mother's whereabouts.

The deception was perpetuated for two years, while calls in person and by telephone were received by Hampson and further excuses were given. Regular contact was maintained between Felicity and her grandmother, Mary Oldfield, who lived only five miles away. Mary met the child on a fortnightly basis, baked cakes to send to Claire, knitted for her and exchanged Christmas, birthday and wedding anniversary cards; they were very close. Mary Oldfield gave a cheque for £3,000 to David Hampson to give to Claire to help them through some difficult times, and she offered them a car. There were many ways in which the family were supporting the Hampsons.

The deception continued until the family—largely through their own efforts and persistence—encouraged the commencement of police investigations. Hampson confessed to killing his wife only when it became absolutely clear that there was no other possible explanation. Hampson was tried at Northampton Crown court in October 1999, when he pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the ground of diminished responsibility because, he alleged, he was depressively ill as a result of his wife's constant nagging.

The judge—His Honour Judge Francis Allen—concluded by accepting that Hampson's wife behaved to Hampson in a way which was calculated to impact on his mind. The judge gave Hampson a six-year prison sentence, which was then reduced on appeal in July last year to just four years. He was released last month, only 14 months after the original trial.

During the two-year deception, Hampson plundered Claire's personal bank account, shares and insurances to the tune of —11,000 and fraudulently claimed benefit. The intention of seeking a conviction for fraud was dropped on the ground that Hampson would ultimately be tried for a more serious capital offence. The Crown Prosecution Service accepted just four days before the original trial the plea for manslaughter. No witnesses were called, there was no jury and the trial took under an hour.

I intend to dwell primarily on the quality of justice and the procedures at the trial. I am not a lawyer and I have no experience of criminal law. I speak as a lay person seeking justice for victims. The Minister will understand how deeply aggrieved a victim's family might be if they experienced the kind of justice meted out in this case.

Most of us have a shrewd idea of what most normal people consider to be fairness and natural justice, and this case clearly does not represent that. The trial consisted basically of a chronological description of the facts by the Crown Prosecution Service, followed by an outrageous denigration of the character of the deceased by the defence. Claire Oldfield-Hampson had her reputation defamed, her character assassinated and her memory vilified. No one defended her and the CPS could not even get some of its basic facts right. It got wrong the wedding day and the date when the police first made contact with Hampson.

The court heard a one-sided case with a litany of uncorroborated claims and accusations made without scrutiny, cross-examination or questioning. The reduced plea was propped up solely on the flimsy science of retrospective psychiatry. Psychiatrists have an honourable profession, but to say that one can know the state of mind two to three years earlier of someone who was capable of deception for two years should be open to question. The fact, however, is that the CPS accepted that that was sufficient to reduce the charge from murder to manslaughter. That should have been fully tested in the court, but unfortunately it was not.

I know that the Minister is not responsible for the CPS and that these questions should really go to the Attorney-General, but we must ask what performance targets the service is trying to achieve. Is it simply seeking to secure any conviction with the minimum cost and use of court time, irrespective of the cost to the family and their reputation?

There were several travesties in the court, beginning with the opening words of the defence counsel, who said that Hampson was a man of good character. Hampson killed his wife, buried her in the garden, took money from her, deceived the family and the world, involved the child, attempted to defraud the benefit system, fraudulently accepted money from his mother-in-law, accepted guilt only at the 11th hour and had a less than impressive and rather dubious employment record; but apart from all that, perhaps he was a man of good character—but those matters should be taken into account first.

We were told that Hampson was depressively ill and that there was a causal link with the killing, but we were also told in the court that he was last seen by a psychiatrist on 28 August 1996, one month before the date of the killing, and was said to have improved and appeared to be stable. We were told that he was well and that his symptoms had settled. We were also told that he miraculously recovered from his illness following the killing of his wife, and that that proved the causal link, but we were not told the history of the depressive illness before he met Claire.

We were asked to show sympathy for a man who had been so depressed that he attempted suicide in 1996. We were told that it was a genuine suicide attempt and not just pathetic attention seeking, yet a letter from a friend of Claire's says that he went to the north of England to attempt suicide because he had been caught at work—on the railway—for fiddling and … he should have attended a tribunal which Claire knew nothing about until somebody from the railway contacted her for his whereabouts. We were told that Claire was "constantly nagging" Hampson, making him depressively ill, but once again there was little corroborative evidence and no opportunity for proper cross-examination. Perhaps most hurtful of all were the claims that Felicity received very little love or affection from her mother and turned very much more to her father who was a warm, kind and loving parent to her. Again, there was little corroboration. The defence counsel says that it was confirmed by statements served as part of the prosecution case … What part? A big part or a small part? Was it corroborated? We are not given the information.

We are also told that Claire was not on speaking terms with the family and quarrelled with them all, but even the most cursory cross-examination would bring that claim into serious question. The family are criticised for having failed even to raise a query about her apparent disappearance for two years … However, they had no reason to believe that she had disappeared for that period, and the accusation was wrong, particularly since, as I said earlier, they were still exchanging Christmas cards and wedding anniversary cards.

The court was told that at the time of the killing, Hampson was doing DIY in the kitchen, and approached Claire from behind and hit her on the back of the head with a club hammer. Why did he need to do DIY in the kitchen, when his mother-in-law had only just bought a whole new kitchen suite for them? Why did he use a club hammer for DIY in the kitchen? It might be used to smash plates, but not to do DIY. Hampson was left-handed, so why did he bludgeon his wife on the right side of her head?

Finally, as I have already said, there is the propping up of the case with the flimsy science of retrospective psychiatry. Sympathy was shown for the perpetrator, although it should have been shown to the victim. Perhaps she was going through some kind of stress. We certainly know that she saw her GP the day before she was killed, and was given a prescription, which was never made out. We do not know what state of mind she may have been in.

When the case came to appeal in July last year, the family received a letter from the registrar of criminal appeals two working days before the appeal took place. They were given no advice, as they should have been, about what was admissible and what was inadmissible evidence. They were given no help whatever.

The Minister may kindly point out that it is not possible for me, as a lay person, properly to understand the complexity of the legal processes that surround such a trial. However, even if it were possible—I am sure that it is—to take me round the labyrinth of small steps of tortured logic that end up with the way in which such trials are conducted, that detailed understanding fails to recognise the big picture that we see out there in the public domain.

That picture is that, from a victim's point of view, such trials provide an horrific phantom of justice. What kind of message do they send to potentially violent men? It is that if their wives or partners nag them enough, and they feel a bit mentally unwell, it is okay to bludgeon them to death and dump them in the garden until the crime is found out. When the case comes to court the court will show such men sympathy, while showing only contempt for their victims.

Victims deserve justice, not to be cast as perpetrators, without any opportunity for defence. On a superficial level, reading the transcript of the case, one could not help coming to the conclusion that there was only one victim and one perpetrator—that the victim was the perpetrator, and the perpetrator was himself the victim, for whom we should show sympathy.

That is a contortion of justice. To the victim, the courtroom shows a world turned upside down. If this is what our country calls justice, we should be ashamed of what we are doing for victims. Claire Oldfield-Hampson was first unlawfully killed by her husband and dumped in the garden; then she was exhumed by the state, taken to court and slaughtered again.

Our courts are supposed to be courts of justice, not courts of compromise—hideous and appalling compromise, at that. From the public's point of view, justice should not only be done, but be seen to be done. First and foremost, our justice system should consider the victims and their families. After all, it is primarily on their behalf that our society seeks to uphold the law and administer justice. Victims are already grieving and aggrieved parties. The process should not leave them more aggrieved.

The family have further complaints about the way in which the police and social services have dealt with the case—but I shall now draw my conclusions, which I hope the Minister will take on board. First, Claire Oldfield-Hampson deserves an apology for the way in which the state has treated her and her memory. If that is normal practice, we need to learn lessons and an urgent review of the treatment of victims in courts is needed. Victims should have the right of automatic reply during the trial to respond to the case for mitigation. Defendants should be fully aware, even if they accede to a guilty plea, that any claims that they make against their victims will be open to full and proper scrutiny.

The Lord Chancellor's Department should undertake a full assessment of the appropriate weight given to psychiatric reports, especially in circumstances in which assessments of mental state are made years after the event. The Department should consider whether it is appropriate to give sole weight for a decision on whether a charge for murder should be commuted to manslaughter if the primary source of evidence is a retrospective psychiatric report. Even where a victim is not attacked in seeking mitigation, the judge and the jury should hear a statement from the victim, or his or her family, before the consideration of sentence. I believe that the Government intend to do that in due course, and I welcome that.

Finally, victims and their families should be given at least a month's notice, state-sponsored legal advice, and support on how to present admissible evidence in cases where a convicted killer appeals for a reduced sentence. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department 1:26 am, 8th January 2001

The case that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) raises is genuinely most distressing, and I read with much sadness the papers, the transcripts of the court case and the letters that his constituents have written to him and others. I wish to begin my comments by extending my sincere sympathy to Claire Oldfield-Hampson's family.

I shall try to address the points that the hon. Gentleman made, especially as he was kind enough to give me a preview of the conclusions at which he had arrived, but I should like to make one or two points first. He will be aware that the judiciary is independent of Government and that I am unable to comment on individual judicial decisions. He used the word "travesty" several times during his comments. He opened his speech by explaining that, in fact, the family in this case lived in another part of the country, although his constituents are Claire Oldfield-Hampson's relatives. The case was heard in a court in Northampton—distant from the hon. Gentleman.

When hearing about court decisions, all of us who are not lawyers—like the hon. Gentleman, I am not one—must bear in mind the fact that we do not hear the full case, or the full arguments. As he said, we should not retry the case here tonight; we certainly would not do it justice. It is right and proper that the judicial process is separate from and beyond the influence of politicians such as ourselves.

I had hoped to describe the process that the Crown Prosecution Service undertakes when reaching conclusions about which charges to introduce, but I do not have much time. However, it goes through two stages, the first of which involves an evidential test. The Crown prosecutor must be sure that sufficient evidence exists to provide a realistic prospect of conviction. A realistic prospect of conviction is one in which a jury or bench of magistrates, properly directed in accordance with the law, is more likely than not to convict. If the prosecution is satisfied that that first test is met, it will test whether the prosecution is in the public interest. More often than not, especially in a serious case such as this, the prosecution would take place. Those tests must be met. The CPS will start or continue a prosecution only if those tests are met.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the guilty plea to manslaughter was accepted. He will forgive me if I talk generally, rather than dealing with the specific details of the case. In prosecutions alleging murder, it is normal practice to obtain medical reports about the accused's state of mind. Those reports are disclosed to the CPS and are taken into account when it decides whether and how to proceed. In response to the psychiatric report produced on David Hampson's behalf, the CPS took additional steps to obtain a second report. That second report confirmed that, at the time of the killing, he had been suffering from a moderate to severe depressive illness. The judge is not a medical expert and relies on such a report to inform his view on the way forward. The Crown Prosecution Service has to bear in mind such reports and the two tests that I have described when making its case.

The CPS thought that it had a strong case against Mr. Hampson on the murder charge but, if it had continued to hold that view, the report that it had commissioned would have had to be disclosed to the defence and would have completely undermined the case for a murder charge. The matter was given careful consideration, including clarifying the report with the psychiatrist and obtaining the advice of Queen's counsel. However, following all that, the CPS concluded that it had no choice but to accept a plea of guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

It is important to deal with the point about the judge's acceptance of the points made about the wife's behaviour and the allegation that the court demonstrated more sympathy for the accused than for the deceased and her family. The judge had the benefit of hearing the basic facts set out by the prosecution, of reading the full psychiatric reports and of hearing a statement in mitigation by the defence before passing sentence. The learned judge in question is not a psychiatrist and his comments were drawn from the medical reports that he had before him. He confirmed only that the prosecution had good reasons for accepting the guilty plea.

The judge in a criminal trial has to perform a difficult balancing act and must ensure not only that the necessary evidence is before the court but that the defendant is treated fairly. Far from being sympathetic to Mr. Hampson, the judge said that society has a concern for human life and that such a killing cannot be tolerated. The judge did not accept Mr. Hampson's claim that his responsibility for what had occurred was minimal and imposed a relatively severe sentence in the circumstances. As it turned out, the Court of Appeal felt that the sentence was too severe and that the judge had started from too heavy a sentence. It then reduced the sentence.

I shall try briefly to address the individual conclusions that the hon. Gentleman has reached. On his point about challenging the case made in mitigation, the Government are still considering whether there should be measures additional to victims' personal statements to enable victims' views or those of their families to be presented and, for example, to respond to mitigation statements. There is already scope to do that and the prosecution often takes such an approach. That might be in addition to the prosecution's current duty to challenge factual inaccuracies.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the weight that should be given to psychiatric reports must, like any other evidence, be weighed up carefully on a case-by-case basis. However, it would not be feasible or, I think, sensible to try to draw up rules to define how we do that. Such rules could never be so comprehensive as to cover every possible situation. The hon. Gentleman's conclusion is difficult to make.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the decision about whether a murder charge should be reduced to manslaughter. My view is that such a decision must continue to be made by the prosecution. As I made clear earlier, the decision in this case was inevitable once the CPS received its own psychiatric report. That report undermined completely the case for a murder charge and would have had to be disclosed to the defence. There was no prospect of maintaining the murder charge in those circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say that we are introducing provisions for victims' statements. The unfortunate circumstances of the case meant that because there was a guilty plea, statements from the family were not presented to the court. We intend greatly to extend the use of victim statements throughout the country this year.

The hon. Gentleman's point about victims and families having state-sponsored legal advice on how to present evidence is one for the Home Secretary to consider, and on this occasion I will side-step it, if I may. I know that my right hon. Friend is concerned to do as much as he can to enhance the rights of victims and their families.

The hon. Gentleman asked that the state apologise to the family of Claire Oldfield-Hampson for their experiences. I am not sure that it is my place to give such an apology. I have a great deal of sympathy for the family, the difficulties that they have faced and the tragic circumstances in which they continue to live.

These matters are not easy to arrange. Nobody who is closely involved in such a case is likely to feel satisfied at the end of the process. I can add only that the due process of law was followed in this case. The House might feel that that process is flawed and, as I have made clear, the Government are committed to keeping the whole process under review and to improving it, where appropriate, particularly as it relates to victims.

Everyone is entitled to be treated fairly and properly, including victims and their families, witnesses, jurors and those who are accused of criminal offences. There can be no winners in such circumstances, only losers. It is society's job, and the Government's duty, to ensure that as fair a justice system as possible is in place. We are striving to achieve that. Human institutions being what they are, we may never achieve it, but it is at the heart of our aims.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Two o'clock.