Criminal Justice Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 30th October 2003.

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Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour 5:45 pm, 30th October 2003

My Lords, I had the honour of chairing the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place, which was invited to consider the proposition that the law on double jeopardy should in certain narrow circumstances be changed. I have to say to your Lordships that every one of the criticisms and concerns that have been voiced on this issue in this Chamber this afternoon were expressed in the course of that inquiry.

I started from the point of view that I needed to be persuaded that the change was justified. That is where the committee ended up, I have to say. We started on the basis of two principles. The first is that it is the duty of our criminal justice system as best and fairly as it can to see that the guilty are convicted and that the innocent are acquitted. I believe that the question in front of your Lordships' House this afternoon in considering the amendment moved by the noble and learned Lord is whether it gives justice to the family or relatives of a victim where, following an acquittal, new and compelling evidence comes to light which, despite the rigour of the investigations, was not available at the first trial, and where the person who is acquitted of murder is able to go away scot-free even if—and I can think of two or three such cases—they have subsequently boasted of that. I think the answer to that is that people out there, victims and the relatives of victims, would think your Lordships' House had gone mad if it said that after a certain date that could happen but before that date it could not.

I certainly understand the fear of the hand on the shoulder referred to by my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. However, I want those wrongly acquitted to feel the hand of justice on their shoulder where new and compelling evidence persuades the court to set aside the original acquittal, because that is what must happen, where the police have to demonstrate that they were not idle or negligent in the collation and the presentation of evidence at the first trial, and where it is in the public interest to order a second trial. Those are big hurdles. It is not simply a case of plod saying with respect to this or that person who was acquitted, "Let us have another go at this guy; we want him behind bars". It does not happen that way. Those are very stringent and important tests.

As I say, I believe that the measure would constitute a gross injustice. I defy anyone to explain the concept of an arbitrary date on a calendar to the relative of a victim and to explain that despite new and compelling evidence having been accepted by the courts to set aside the acquittal, someone with or without a wig may say, "Sorry about that, but the calendar is showing the wrong date". It simply does not make sense and I hope that your Lordships will accept that argument.