Amendment 277

Part of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (10th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 22nd November 2021.

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Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland 6:00 pm, 22nd November 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, for her amendment.

For the victim of a crime to be told that the culprit cannot be prosecuted because a time limit has elapsed would doubtless be the cause of, at the very least, dissatisfaction and, at the very worst, anguish, and may very well lead to a loss of confidence in the criminal justice system. That is why, in respect of offences that are serious enough to be capable of being tried in the Crown Court, such time limits are virtually unknown in our system of criminal law in England and Wales. That differentiates England and Wales from many other jurisdictions, where time limits apply even to the most serious offences.

In England and Wales, the only exceptions are certain customs offences and offences of unlawful but consensual sexual intercourse, which I shall refer to as USI, with a girl aged 13 to 15 years committed before 1 May 2004, when the Sexual Offences Act 2003 came into force. The statute which that Act replaced, the 1956 Act—I extend apologies to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, for yet further legal history here—included a requirement that a prosecution for USI with a girl aged between 13 and 15 must be commenced within 12 months of the offence. That requirement was highly unusual even when it was enacted, and it was duly removed by the 2003 Act. I am sure that members of the Committee will echo the words of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, in relation to the 1956 Act.

That was an anomaly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and other noble Lords have described it in our discussion today. However, when it was removed in 2003 it was done so only prospectively, from the point when the Act came into force; in relation to offences that would fall to be charged under the 1956 Act, the time limit remained.

As your Lordships are aware and have heard again today, Parliament usually acts on the principle of non-retroactivity. Removing the time limit in circumstances where a prosecution was already time-barred, while it would not have amounted to substantive retroactivity in the sense of criminalising conduct that was not previously unlawful, would have exposed a person to criminal liability where there had been none before. Thus, Parliament’s aversion to retroactive legislation also applies to fundamental procedural preconditions for the bringing of charges against an individual. In relation to that—the point was canvassed by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti—I make reference to the case before the European Court of Human Rights called Antia and Khupenia v Georgia. Oh, for a Lord Russell of Georgia, that I might be corrected for any mispronunciation of the names of any plaintiffs in that matter.

For that reason, we do not consider it would be right to disregard the time limit in the increasingly rare cases in which it would apply. Since the changes in the 2003 Act were not made retrospective at that time, I submit that it would be difficult to justify now extending them to cases in which prosecution has been time-barred for at least the intervening 17 years—even allowing for the development in our understanding of sexual crime, as referred to by Members of this Committee who contributed to the debate.

I join the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, and others in acknowledging the skill and humanity with which the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, presented her amendment to the Committee. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for expressing a willingness to meet. I would be delighted to meet her at any time, but I think it would be more convenient for her, for the purposes purely of this amendment, to meet with my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, the Minister in charge. I have taken steps by electronic means during the discussion in the Committee to arrange that my noble friend is made aware of her desire to meet, and an appointment will be fixed.