Criminal Justice Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 30th October 2003.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat 6:15 pm, 30th October 2003

My Lords, we on these Benches support the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, concerning retrospectivity. After all, what are we seeking? We on these Benches have conceded that, in very limited and narrow circumstances, there should be the opportunity to re-open an acquittal at some future time. But, in reaching that conclusion, one is trying to find a balance. Where is the public interest of balance between the interests of the victim and his or her family, the interest of the acquitted person, the use of judicial resources and the use of police investigative resources? We cannot re-open everything.

The noble Lords, Lord Corbett and Lord Borrie, asked how one can justify the retrospective, or the prevention of retrospective, consideration. My answer is that not every acquitted person is actually guilty. That seems to be something that is sometimes forgotten. There are a great many acquitted people who are innocent. The day after this Bill is passed, the day after that dividing line in time, those people will wake up to understand that from now on they have to look over their shoulder. There is a possibility that the acquittal on which they have relied and on which they have rebuilt their family and their world no longer counts for what it did.

So, it is one thing to say to a person who is to be acquitted in 2004, "Well, you must realise that there is a possibility that at some future date your acquittal will be re-opened", and a totally different matter to say to people who have rebuilt their lives, "I am sorry, as from 1st January 2004, your life may be shattered by an investigation and by a possible prosecution, even though you are actually innocent".

I want to make another point. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, talked about finality. I think that was in the sense of finality for the defendant, that he knows where he is. But none of us who practise in the criminal courts can avoid the scene in the public gallery of the family of the accused—very concerned and worried—and also the family of the victim, or the victim himself or herself. They are under considerable strain. It may take a year or 18 months for a trial to come to a hearing and for there to be a conclusion.

At the end of that time there is a decision and people come to terms with that decision. The families of victims and the victims themselves have to come to terms with that decision and to rebuild their lives. What I fear from these provisions, if they are retrospective, is not so much the media hounding a particular person who has been acquitted, but the victim and the families of the victims continuing to press for more investigation, more evidence to be gathered and for the person to be brought once more before a jury. The fact that they will not receive finality in their lives is also a matter which has to be put into the equation when considering public interest.

So, whereas on the one hand it may seem wrong that we should ignore those well-publicised cases where people have boasted of the fact that they were guilty when they were acquitted, nevertheless, taking the whole picture in terms of where the public interest truly lies, we must, in our submission, accept this amendment.