Moved by Lord Thomas of Gresford
3: Clause 1, page 1, line 20, at end insert—“(c) where a Newton hearing took place before the trial judge prior to the prisoner’s sentencing, any findings of the judge as to the reasons for the non-disclosure, including the mental capacity of the prisoner.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment requires the Parole Board to take into account the findings of a Newton hearing (a short hearing held before a judge without a jury to resolve disputed facts before sentencing) regarding the prisoner’s reasons for non-disclosure, if one was held after a verdict or plea of guilty.
My Lords, the issue that my amendments seek to address is to determine how the withholding of information is to be judged a factor mitigating against the release of a prisoner on parole. The Parole Board makes a public protection order and, as the noble and learned Lord the Minister reminded us a moment ago, it must not give a direction for release unless it is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the person should be confined.
This Bill requires the Parole Board, in making a public protection decision, to take into account, first, the prisoner’s non-disclosure of the whereabouts of the remains of a victim in murder and manslaughter cases or the identity of victims in the case of indecent images and, secondly, the reasons, in the view of the Parole Board, for the prisoner’s non-disclosure. The Parole Board must take on the difficult task of investigating the reasons for non-disclosure many years after the event, after the tariff period has expired—which, typically in murder cases, is 15 to 20 years. This lapse of time makes it unsatisfactory from the board’s point of view and, I would suggest, from the public’s point of view. But it is also unsatisfactory from the prisoner’s point of view because, although the proceedings affect his liberty, the onus is on him to satisfy the board that he has a proper reason, no doubt on a balance of probabilities.
Secondly, he will probably not be represented. He is entitled to have representation by a solicitor, but legal aid is very limited. He is of course required to set out his case in writing in advance of a hearing on reading the dossier that is sent to him, with or without the help of a solicitor or a friend. Thirdly, if the issue is one of mental capacity, he will of course have great difficulty in representing himself and he has no appeal, save for the discretionary and difficult route of judicial review.
It is highly unsatisfactory also from the point of view of the victim or the victim’s family. First, the prosecution is not represented. Unless the board itself steps into the arena at a hearing, assertions made by the prisoner will not be subject to proper challenge. Secondly, the victim or the victim’s family have a very limited role—nothing save to supply either in writing or orally a victim statement of the impact of the crime on them. Thirdly, the proceedings are, for good policy reasons, held in private—but that means that the issues which are discussed do not receive the light of day.
These difficulties were highlighted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, at Second Reading. I am sorry to see that he has now found his way to the moon. His proposed solution, of having a second jury to investigate the reasons for non-disclosure post trial, was impractical, as I think he himself has admitted. He was suggesting that a consecutive sentence should be imposed which would come into effect at some indeterminate future date, presumably after the Parole Board had made a decision to release the prisoner. A consecutive sentence after a mandatory life sentence would not by definition be appropriate. However, although he has resiled from his position, his suggestion that the reasons for non-disclosure of information should be investigated at the time of the trial is obviously very sensible. At that moment, the judge is apprised of the circumstances of the case, as are both the prosecution and the defence.
What is the appropriate mechanism? I have suggested a Newton hearing. My amendments do not make the holding of a Newton hearing mandatory, but they do encourage the holding of such a hearing if there is a dispute about the reasons for non-disclosure at the time of the trial. For example, it might be the mental capacity of the accused or, as I suggested in Committee, where the defence is, “Well, I was part of a group and I do not know what happened to the body; I was not party to its disposal.” They also deal with the situation where a prisoner might seek to argue a subsequent loss of mental capacity: “I cannot remember now why I could not remember at the time of the trial.” That is not a very persuasive argument for meriting release in any event. I suggest that, before sentencing, the judge should inform the defendant, if it be so, that he is sentencing on the basis that critical information is deliberately being withheld, unless the prisoner wishes to contest that assumption. If the prisoner does not, that is the end of the matter. Fifteen years later the prisoner can hardly with success raise reasons for his non-disclosure which he was not prepared to adduce before sentence. However, if he does contest the basis of his sentence that the judge has indicated, a Newton hearing is entirely appropriate.
The purpose, principles and procedure of such a hearing were thoroughly explored by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, then Deputy Chief Justice, in 2003 in the case of Underwood and others. That case has been followed in a recent case in the Divisional Court last July. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said:
“The … principle is that the sentencing judge must do justice. So far as possible the offender should be sentenced on the basis which accurately reflects the facts of the individual case.”
He said of the 1983 Newton case, which gave rise to this procedure, that it was
“a classic example of an imperative need to establish the facts. To proceed to sentence without doing so, would have been productive of injustice.”
It may be said—the Minister may say it—that the issue could be resolved before a jury by charging an accused in addition to murder or manslaughter with the common law offence of preventing the lawful and decent burial of a body. There is no point in so doing. Any sentence for such a common law offence would be bound to be of a lesser magnitude and would run concurrently from the day it was imposed. It might very well prevent the judge increasing the tariff on the main charge by reason of the aggravating factor of concealing the body, for which he has just imposed a sentence of imprisonment.
I recall the “mummy in the cupboard” murder case in Rhyl in 1960, which drew international attention. The defendant, a boarding house landlady, had stored the body of a tenant of hers in a cupboard. It was 20 years before it was discovered in a mummified condition. The issue at trial at Ruthin assizes was whether the stocking around the deceased’s neck had been used to strangle her. There is no evidence that the material was stretched. The ferociously intense cross-examination of Andrew Rankin QC is etched on my memory as one of the most dramatic court scenes I ever witnessed. Andrew was then a Liverpool junior—perhaps he was the Rumpole of the north—and the expert Crown pathologist he was questioning passed out completely and ended up in a crumpled heap on the floor of the witness box. The defendant was acquitted of murder but convicted, not of the common law offence of preventing a lawful burial—which had not been brought but of which she was clearly guilty—but of collecting the £2 a week that the deceased’s husband had posted to her in the belief that she was alive. That was just over £2,000 over 20 years. She received 15 months’ imprisonment.
As for failing to disclose the identity of children pictured in indecent images, there is no separate offence. No criminal offence is committed by such failure and the accused is not obliged to say anything unless he or she wishes to do so, so that is not an appropriate alternative route. However, in any event, such an argument of adding an additional count cannot be made where there is a plea of guilty: if there is no trial, there is no jury. Where there is serious disagreement between prosecution and defence as to the basis of a plea, a Newton hearing is essential and commonly held.
I have looked at the current sentencing guidelines. There are listed four statutory aggravating factors, such as offences against emergency workers or those committed because of homophobia. I have also looked at the list of 21 other aggravating factors in the sentencing guidelines, none of which includes the concealment of information of the nature with which the Bill deals. The list is said to be non-exhaustive, but it illustrates the importance of the Bill. The campaigns have found a chink, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said, which deserves to be filled.
I therefore commend these amendments as providing a sensible, contemporary—at the time of trial—resolution of issues which would be difficult for the Parole Board to determine 15 or 20 years later. Of course, I pay tribute to the Parole Board’s experience and to the discretion which it frequently exercises. Nevertheless, it is difficult for it to determine something after such a lengthy time.
I propose to test the opinion of the House on these amendments but, whatever the result of the vote, I hope that the Government will reflect upon the issues which they raise and that they will introduce these or similar provisions in the other place, which will provide a sensible solution to the problems we are discussing and ensure a justice for all the parties in which the public will have great confidence. I beg to move.
My Lords, I find difficulty with these amendments, and I will look carefully at the detail to understand exactly what is involved. As a Scottish lawyer, I was brought up in the Scottish system, where Newton decisions are utterly unknown. Since training in the law of Scotland, I have acquired a certain amount of familiarity with the law of England and Wales, and I have come across these Newton hearings, and indeed the judgment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in the case which has been cited, and the explanation he gives for having them.
It may be wise just to look a little bit further into the detail which is required or which requires a Newton hearing. In the law of Scotland, the indictment of a serious offence requires the detail of the offence to be set out. If the accused wishes to plead guilty, he has the option to plead guilty to the indictment as served, or to plead guilty with items in the indictment which are matters of detail deleted. The prosecutor then has the option either to accept that plea, which will be of the offence with the details as agreed by the accused, or to proceed to trial. However, there is no room then for difference of opinion at the sentencing hearing about what the detail of the offence was, so there is no need for anything resembling a Newton hearing.
In England and Wales, the situation is somewhat different in that an indictment requires a description of the offence which does not, or may not, involve the same degree of detail. Therefore, the Crown may accept a plea of guilty from the accused when there is in fact quite a difference between them as to the detail of the offence, and that difference may make all the difference in the world to the seriousness of the offence. Therefore, when the question comes up for sentence, the exact amount of detail and what the details were becomes utterly relevant, but there is no way of resolving that, because there is no jury trial. Accordingly, the judge has to have a hearing when he determines what in his or her view actually happened. The result of that is that the accused has come to accept in effect a plea which has the effect not of being what he wanted but of something that the judge decided he should have wanted.
This is the reason for the Newton hearings. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said, to make the matter just, you have to know what happened. That is because the plea has not been sufficiently detailed to determine that. That is why these hearings have to be held. I once thought that it might be possible to get to a better solution by making it a requirement of an indictment to have more detail in it, but that has not so far happened. Who knows what may happen yet?
That is the situation of the Newton hearings. I understand the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford —with his great experience of both English and Welsh law on this subject—to suggest that if there is a dispute between the accused and the Crown about whether the accused has, justifiably or otherwise, refused to disclose what has happened to the body, the matter would be subject to a Newton hearing. I think that, if that happens, a Newton hearing is inevitable. Fortunately, I think that the noble and learned Lord who will follow me explained that that circumstance is usually taken into account at the conclusion of a hearing, including of course the jury trial, if the matter has become an issue between the parties at that stage. On the whole, it seems likely that this kind of question would be resolved without difficulty. It must be pretty much a matter of clear fact at the time of the trial and, therefore, the judge would usually take account of the situation agreed between the parties as to whether the accused has disclosed where the body went. This is on the assumption that the accused accepts that he committed the murder. I believe that the consequence of all that is that the number of Newton hearings with this subject matter will be relatively small.
I have to say that I speak on this matter subject to the observations of those learned in the law of England who will follow me. This is a matter of course only for the Crown Court, and therefore does not involve the magistrates’ court in which the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is so experienced. In my view, accordingly, there are a very limited number of circumstances in which this arises at all but, if it does arise, it is obvious that the decision of the judge in the Newton hearing will take place before he commits sentence. Therefore, Rule 5 of the Parole Board Rules requires that if the observations of the judge at trial before sentence are available, they are to be considered. The rules already take account of the exceptional cases, if any, in which a Newton hearing has taken place in relation to this matter. I therefore cannot see that it is at all right to modify the Bill by such an exceptional circumstance, which in any case illustrates a possible need for improvement in the law of England and Wales.
It is a pleasure and privilege to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in this debate. It is important to observe at the outset that I consider this amendment the kind of amendment that shows the danger of trying to make piecemeal amendments to a very limited-purpose Bill.
If I may be permitted, I will first say a little about the law of England and Wales in relation to the role of the judge and of the parties in determining the facts for sentencing. The least common form of determining the facts is a Newton hearing. More commonly, the facts—if there is to be a plea of guilty—are determined on the basis of plea. Both procedures are set out in cases to which reference has been made, but they are now codified in division VII B of the Criminal Practice Directions. By far the most common method of determining the facts is the determination made by the trial judge for the purposes of sentencing. Although a jury determines guilt or innocence, save in a most exceptional circumstance, it is for the judge who has heard all the evidence to determine the facts on which he or she will sentence. If the judge follows the correct approach to this, there can be no dispute before the Court of Appeal in relation to the findings made, as set out in the 2018 judgment of Mr Justice Sweeney in the Queen v King.
Thus, what this amendment seeks to do, on the face of it, is to refer to the least common means of determining facts for the purposes of sentence, leaving out a slightly more common means, but not so common in murder or the other cases covered by the Bill where a life sentence will be involved—that is, a basis of plea agreed with the prosecution—and leaving out of account entirely what would normally happen, which is that the trial judge would have made findings. In the case of murder, this is particularly important because, as I mentioned in Committee, if the body has not been found or has been dismembered so that it cannot be found, this is provided as an aggravating factor under Schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the judge must make findings about it—and, in my experience, they invariably make findings about it—and it would be essential for the Parole Board to take that into account to avoid any risk of double punishment.
I therefore regret to say that, on its face, the amendment, if it seeks to deal with the narrow issue of what the Parole Board should do, is not a good amendment, because it leaves out the most common form of the determination of facts. However, if the wider purpose, as explained by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is to encourage the taking place of Newton hearings after a trial, I venture to suggest that this is a most undesirable process. The trial judge will have heard the evidence; it is plain that, if a body has not been discovered, its whereabouts have not been discovered or the identity of the victim is unknown—as happens often in indecent image cases—this is bound to have been debated at the trial, and the trial judge will, as the law stands, have made the necessary findings. It is to those that the Parole Board should have regard.
If, however, it is thought that there should be a different procedure and that we should look at this matter again, I respectfully suggest that this is not the Bill in which to do it, and that this provision does not achieve what is intended. It illustrates that, if there is a problem with the way in which facts are determined—I believe there is no such problem—this is a matter that should be part of a wider investigation and not undertaken in this limited-purpose Bill.
I therefore propose to vote against this amendment on various completely different grounds. First, it has the potential to impair the discretion of the Parole Board by expressing reference to a particular means of determining the basis of sentencing and leaves out the more important. Secondly, it is unnecessary for the way in which the Parole Board approaches cases for the reasons I gave last time. Thirdly, the Parole Board is under a duty to look at what the judge has found. Fourthly, if there is a wider purpose, this is something that should be examined separately. This amendment achieves none of these purposes and I urge the House to reject it, if the House is divided.
My Lords, the intention behind this group of amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford is to provide the Parole Board with an increased level of relevant information on disclosure by including the issues raised by so-called Newton hearings.
As many noble and learned Lords have said, a Newton hearing may be held when a defendant has been found guilty at trial or entered a guilty plea but the issues in dispute that could affect sentencing were not fully resolved in the trial and therefore not resolved by the jury’s verdict. In the course of a Newton hearing, the prosecution will call evidence and test defence evidence in the usual manner, including calling witnesses to give evidence if required, and the defence will also present its evidence. When the issue is within the exclusive knowledge of the defendant, as is the case in the two situations defined in this Bill, the offender should be prepared to give evidence. When they fail to do so without good reason, the judge may draw such inferences as they think fit.
It is this increased level of information that would become available to the Parole Board when taking into account the issue of disclosure when considering parole. I do not see that increasing the level of information made available in any way fetters the discretion of the Parole Board. It just gives it more information on which it can judge the issue.
In addressing the principle of Newton hearings in Committee, the Minister made two points. He said, first, that invariably the judge would take into account the matter of non-disclosure when sentencing and, secondly, that Newton hearings “are not that common.” Putting these two points together, it is clear that the matter is considered but not guaranteed. Very few Newton hearings probe deeply into the reasons for non-disclosure. I venture that this is particularly so after a guilty plea at trial.
In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said that Newton hearings provide a route to
“achieving the best possible result”—[
This would provide some comfort to victims. The offender’s refusal to provide the information will be public. The “I can’t remember” or “I can’t deal with the situation” answers will have been examined. Victims will see the questioning and cross-examining of the prisoner, hear the answers given and be able to see any signs of remorse. They will see the judge’s skills in tackling the defensive screen that offenders may build around themselves. This public record will be of immense use to the Parole Board in its consideration of the disclosure issue for many years into the future. It will be able to examine and probe the answers given at the time of sentencing with a much greater armoury of knowledge than the original court case might provide, especially if the Newton hearing were to take place following a guilty plea.
The trial judge will have presided over the original trial, and for the same judge to carry out the Newton trial before sentencing is a real help for victims. They know that the judge will have heard all the arguments and is in the best place to discover reasons for non-disclosure. Most importantly, it would provide reassurance to victims that this matter had been dealt with fully and properly and that the justice system was aware of their concerns.
Newton hearings are a fairly recent legal procedure and, as we have heard, only in England and Wales, but in the matters relating to the purposes of this Bill, such a hearing could have profound effects on the outcome for victims. Justice is not just a point in time for them; it can last a long time, and a lifetime for some. For victims coming to terms with their grief, anguish and hurt, it can last for ever. That is why the justice system has to do everything in its power to fully investigate non-disclosure at the earliest possible stage in the process.
These amendments, in this tightly drawn Bill, do not determine that there shall be a Newton hearing but simply that, if one has taken place, the Parole Board shall take note of its proceedings, particularly if the hearing had determined whether there was remorse and whether the perpetrator had knowledge of the victims that he or she had chosen not to disclose.
However, although the amendments do not place a requirement on the judicial system that there be Newton hearings, their passing would send a powerful message to prosecutors of the significance of such a hearing, particularly for its impact on victims. I commend these amendments to the Minister and look forward to a positive response.
My Lords, this is an interesting group of amendments, and my party will abstain if a vote is called. I listened carefully to the argument from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble and learned Lords who have spoken in this debate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, summarised the situation clearly from my perspective: Newton hearings are, in any event, the least common form of determining facts. The determining of facts is most often done by judges when summing up the case and, if there is a basis of plea, that would be the basis on which the sentence is made. If it is not accepted, there could be room for moving to a Newton hearing.
As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said, Newton hearings occur throughout the whole of the English and Welsh system. As noble Lords may know, I sit as a magistrate in London and we occasionally do Newton hearings. They are used as a method of resolving the seriousness of the offence in some cases, but it seems we are talking about a very narrow set of circumstances here. In particular, the judge will have sat through the whole trial in the first place, and it will be for the lawyers on both sides to go through all the aggravating and mitigating factors, including the non-disclosure of a body. Of course, if the judge is not satisfied that that has been gone into sufficiently, they themselves can ask questions of clarification, if I can put it like that, of any witnesses giving evidence. It seems unlikely that this procedure would ever be used, and as such it should not be in the Bill.
A number of noble Lords spoke about calling witnesses again. It could be an extremely traumatic event for some people to have to be called twice to establish the facts of the case. Surely, it would be far better if all the facts—including the reason for the non-disclosure of the body or of the identity of children who have had sexual images made of them—were established in the trial itself, rather than elements of the trial being repeated in a Newton hearing. I will abstain on this amendment for the reasons I have given.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. The Government remain of the view that these amendments would place too much emphasis on findings of mental capacity at a Newton hearing, particularly the findings made for the purposes of sentence.
In sentencing an offender, it is for the court to consider the punitive element of an offender’s sentence and, in doing so, to take into account the failure to disclose information in setting the tariff. By reflecting this in the sentencing remarks, victims can be assured that due consideration has been given to the non-disclosure. Tariffs must be served in their entirety and irrespective of any disclosure of information after a trial, so the tariff cannot be reduced because of subsequent disclosures. This is an entirely sensible approach, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, acknowledged when we discussed this matter in Committee. The trial judge is more able to determine the appropriate weighting with regard to non-disclosure when setting the tariff.
On the other hand, the Parole Board’s role is in relation to the preventive element of the sentence. The consideration that the Parole Board must make is whether there should be a continuation of custody or a release on licence if the offender’s risk can be safely managed in the community. The Bill places a statutory duty on the board, when making that wider assessment, to consider the non-disclosure of information by an offender and the possible reasons for it. The board will take a subjective view of what those reasons might be, and what bearing this information may have on the subsequent assessment of suitability for release. When it comes to consider these matters, it must of course take account of the judge’s sentencing remarks. Those, in turn, will be informed by such issues as non-disclosure. I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, for his detailed analysis of how the court approaches these matters in practice and why, in the context of the Bill, it would not be appropriate to simply import the notion of the Newton hearing for the purposes of the Parole Board’s determination.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has correctly identified that a prisoner’s mental state may be a significant reason for non-disclosure—a point made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, when she spoke to her own amendments. But to limit this to the specific context of a Newton hearing, and to place that in the Bill, appears to us to be too narrow an approach. The Parole Board should be free to consider all reasons, including those that may arise as a result of a Newton hearing—unusual though they may be—and we should therefore avoid any specific delineation in the Bill.
As new subsection (3) in Clause 1 makes clear, the breadth of matters which the board may take into account is, essentially, as wide as possible. In addition, the board is bound by public law principles to act reasonably in all decisions, so a decision where a relevant Newton hearing or an issue of mental capacity was not taken into account could be subject to judicial review. I venture that this is not the Bill in which to approach the whole issue of sentencing guidelines or findings of fact for the purposes of those guidelines. That is already accommodated, and it is in these circumstances that I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, it is clear that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, does not like the system of Newton hearings, but the fact that the defendant has refused to disclose is not necessarily part of the offence. The reasons for his refusal to disclose the whereabouts of a body, or the identity of a child involved in indecent images, may not emerge in the course of a trial and may not be discussed before the jury. A jury listening to a case may not investigate the mental capacity of the defendant before them. If that is not an issue in the trial, examined on both sides, then the judge would have difficulty in forming a view of his own without hearing evidence.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, referred to the basis of plea as being the more usual way in which these matters are sorted out. I am completely familiar with the formation of the basis of plea, and the arguments that go on as to whether an agreement can be reached between the defence and the prosecution. However, if a person pleads guilty to murder or manslaughter and there is no trial, and there is a disagreement between prosecution and defence, how is the judge to come to a conclusion as to the degree to which the refusal to identify where a body is buried is to be part of his sentencing process—that it is an aggravating factor which he is to take into account? He has not heard any witnesses. He has just heard that the counsel disagree on what the basis of a plea would be.
Consequently, in those circumstances there would be bound to be a Newton hearing along the principles outlined by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I feel that I am facing considerable senior opposition from the noble and learned Lords, Lord Thomas and Lord Mackay, but I am fortified by the considerable support given to these proposals in Committee by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, as your Lordships will recall.
As for what the Minister has said, I make it clear that I am not limiting the Parole Board to the findings of a Newton hearing that has taken place some 15 years before. The Parole Board is bound to look at a whole amount of evidence, particularly reports from the prison, medical reports or the victim’s statement. There are all sorts of factors and issues that the Parole Board is to take into account. I suggest not that it should be bound by the findings of a Newton hearing but that it is another factor that ought to be taken into account. For that to happen, it is necessary that there is a Newton hearing in the first place where there is an issue about whether there is an acceptable reason—I will not say a proper reason—for a failure to disclose in the circumstances that we have been discussing on the Bill. More thought ought to be given to this and, for that reason, I will press my amendment.
Ayes 142, Noes 266.