Criminal Justice Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 30th October 2003.

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Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 7:00 pm, 30th October 2003

My Lords, I should like to follow on exactly what my noble friend has just said because she is a colleague for whom I have a particular warmth and respect. I simply ask her to reflect that probably nothing will do more to build public confidence in our system of the administration of justice than to ensure that we have first-class police, properly resourced, doing their job well; that court proceedings are effectively handled; and that convincing results are reached in the courts. Again, I understand the pressures under which the Government are working. However, I suspect that if we were to succumb to what we are being invited to endorse by the Government, it would perversely undermine public confidence. There would be a feeling that it does not really matter what happens in a given case, there is always a chance of another case being brought.

The police force is a very big organisation. I think that we have a very fine police force in this country, but it is not a perfect police force in many respects. Some players are stronger than others. I am worried that the provision might inadvertently encourage the career-minded opportunist policeman to go for a quick conviction without doing the work as thoroughly as it should be done in the knowledge that if a conviction was not secured the case could be pursued at a later stage.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen, made a most important point. All this would not be happening in a vacuum. It would very often be happening in the context of a great deal of media attention and media agendas. I think that it would be very unwise to ignore that.

The main point that I want to make is to take up a comment that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, made on a previous amendment. He very wisely spoke about the importance of balance and recognising that we had to balance different considerations in this context. Of course we must feel for the victims. Of course we must feel for the relatives, families and friends of the victims. We would be a pretty sick society if we did not. All of us have that responsibility. However, if we believe that a fundamental principle of our society is a presumption of innocence unless one is proved guilty, one of our most important responsibilities as legislators is to protect the innocent.

As those of us who have been engaged in one way or another in social work know, very frequently those who end up in courts are inadequate and vulnerable people. They are very fearful and anxious people. If we are looking at the balance, we have to weigh against the need to be able to secure a guilty verdict against those who very clearly and beyond doubt committed a crime about which new evidence has become available—all of which is a very powerful and persuasive argument which of course I do not dismiss out of hand—the very considerable number of people who are innocent but who will for the rest of their lives never feel that a line has been drawn under their innocence. At any stage, because some journalist worked up interest or some vindictive policeman—God forbid that we have many—decided to pursue a case or vindicate a position that he or she may have held earlier, the case could be reopened.

The question is what kind of society we want to live in. If we really do see the presumption of innocence as a fundamental pillar of the free society in which we wish to live, we have to be prepared to pay some price for it. I really believe that if we move into the other situation—this is what I meant about the whole culture of our legal system and society beginning to be changed by this Bill—we move into a much more uncertain, anxious kind of society; the kind of society I never want to see the United Kingdom become.