Information Disclosure: Pre-trial Abuse of Process Hearings

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:15 am on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Solicitor-General 11:15 am, 22nd May 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.

I thank my right hon. Friend Dame Cheryl Gillan for raising these important issues. I acknowledge the hurt and anger of her constituent, and how he feels as a result of what happened to him at school many years ago. Sexual abuse of children by those in positions of authority or power who abuse their position of trust is a devastating crime.

I cannot imagine what Mr Perry has been through, but I commend him—as my right hon. Friend has done —for his courage in continuing to speak out about his experiences so as to contribute to the debate on how we improve the criminal justice system for victims. I also understand what she says about her relationship with him, and I am pleased that he has been able to contribute to improvements and to the future of those who have suffered as he has. I am pleased that we have the opportunity today to discuss the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend about disclosure of information in pre-trial abuse of process hearings.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham spoke about the broader issues in relation to disclosure. Like her, we are concerned about the broad issue. It is imperative that disclosure in a case is made properly. She correctly identified the fact that last year the Attorney General published a review of disclosure, and will be publishing further guidelines in due course.

My right hon. Friend referred in some detail to the case of her constituent, Mr Perry. As she knows, it is not appropriate for me as Solicitor General to comment on decisions made by members of the independent judiciary in the two prosecutions of Peter Wright. I understand, however, that the allegations made about the conduct of those representing Peter Wright during the original criminal proceedings in 2003 have been considered by the police, as she said, the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Those are the correct bodies to look at allegations of that nature.

Furthermore, in 2012, one of my predecessors as Solicitor General personally considered whether to bring contempt proceedings arising from what the judge was told in 2003, but he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to do so. I understand that the trial judge in the proceedings that led to Peter Wright’s conviction in 2013, as my right hon. Friend said, also considered the arguments that had been employed in the abuse of process application in 2003 but declined to lift the stay on proceedings.

I am not aware of any adverse findings made against any lawyers involved in the criminal proceedings arising out of the abuse at Caldicott School between 1959 and 1970. None of that is in any way designed to diminish the profound effect that those crimes must have had on Mr Perry’s life, or to detract from our commitment as Law Officers superintending the prosecuting departments to promote best practice in the care that victims of sexual abuse receive from the criminal justice system. However, the issues that Mr Perry continues to raise have not been ignored and have received serious consideration in the past.

As Members know, it is open to a defendant to argue that a prosecution is an abuse of process—for example, because of the effect of delay on the fairness of the trial—and that proceedings should therefore be stayed. That arises from the overriding duty on courts to promote justice and to prevent injustice. In these cases, the burden lies on the defendant to prove on the balance of probabilities that there has been an abuse and that a fair trial is no longer possible.

There is clear authority from the Court of Appeal that there is a strong public interest in the prosecution of crime, and that ordering a stay of proceedings is a remedy of last resort, even where there has been significant delay in bringing proceedings. As Jim Shannon pointed out, the bar for a stay is very high. Even when a judge imposes a stay of proceedings, the prosecution can apply to lift the stay in future. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned, such an application was made in Mr Perry’s case in 2012. Although the judge declined the prosecution application to lift the stay on the 2003 proceedings, she allowed the fresh allegations against Peter Wright to be tried by a jury, and also allowed details of the abuse that Mr Perry suffered to be admitted as bad character evidence during the trial. As a result, the jury found Peter Wright guilty of abusing five pupils during the 1960s and he was sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment.

My right hon. Friend makes some important observations about disclosure in the criminal justice system. Hon. Members will be aware that the Attorney General recently carried out a review of disclosure and made recommendations to improve performance across the criminal justice system. In our criminal justice system there is a statutory duty on prosecutors to disclose to the defence any material or information that may assist the defence or undermine the prosecution case. That duty applies to abuse of process hearings as well as trials. There is also a residual duty on the prosecution at common law to disclose any information that would assist the accused in the preparation of the defence case. That duty applies from the outset in criminal proceedings and requires the disclosure of material that might enable an accused to make an early application to stay the proceedings as an abuse of process.