Standing up for victims of miscarriages of justice

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): I am grateful to be called, Mr Speaker. Thank you for letting me speak in the debate. I appreciate that my role as a shadow law Minister means that it is an indulgence to allow me to speak. I appreciate it.

I have been in the House for eight years and I thought that I was unshockable, but the way in which the Government are seeking to amend section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 to redefine a miscarriage of justice is truly shocking. They wish to change it so that, if and only if newly discovered facts show beyond reasonable doubt that the person is innocent, there has been a miscarriage of justice. Nothing less than that will do. Only in those circumstances can someone be given compensation.

I am sure that the Minister will have noted, as anyone else watching the debate will have done, that no one has yet spoken in favour of clause 143, not even the Minister himself yet. If the matter is not dealt with this afternoon, I hope that there will be the opportunity to deal with it in another place. We need to marshal our forces, because the essence of our liberal society is threatened.

The Government’s arguments for introducing an innocence test—there are many arguments; I want to concentrate on the Government’s justification—are, first, that it is needed for the sake of clarity; and, secondly, that it will save money. Neither of those arguments is remotely convincing. Let me turn to the first, about clarity.

The law at the moment is perfectly clear. Three recent authoritative judgments have rejected the innocence test as an affront to the presumption of innocence. The Supreme Court did so in the case of Adams in 2011, in which Lady Hale said: “a person is only guilty if the state can prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt...He does not have to prove his innocence at his trial and it seems wrong in principle that he should be required to prove his innocence now.”

That was reiterated in the High Court in the case of Ali earlier this year. There was an attempt to widen the definition, but that attempt was well and truly quashed by the High Court. This summer, moreover, the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of Allen v. the UK, made it perfectly clear that any legislation that calls into question the innocence of an acquitted person would be a breach of article 6(2) of the European convention on human rights on the presumption of innocence.

Therefore, the law is clear. That law has been reiterated by our own Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has been able to assert that “it is now clear beyond doubt” that the proposed new test in clause 143 is incompatible with the right to be presumed innocent in article 6(2). Therefore, rather than clarifying the law, it seems that the Government are having a pitched battle with the settled, established law.

The second argument is about saving money. The Bill’s own impact assessment reveals the expected savings to be negligible. According to that MOJ assessment—the Minister looks puzzled; it is on page 4—the effect of the clause will be to reduce by two per annum the number of judicial reviews of Secretary of State decisions, which it estimates will save around £100,000 per annum. Therefore, for the sake of saving £100,000 per annum, we will be trading in the centuries-old principle of the presumption of innocence. The courts have rejected an innocence test not out of some quibbling legalistic technicality. They have rejected it because it is a cornerstone of a fair justice system. We have a fair justice system and a free society where it is for the state to prove guilt, not for the individual to prove innocence.

The reason for that is obvious. Proving a negative is very difficult and the burden of proof it would place on the individual is extremely onerous. It is for the state with all its resources to make the case of a person’s guilt. The presumption of innocence applies before an acquittal. As Lord Phillips said in the Adams case, any test that requires innocence “will deprive some defendants who are in fact innocent and who succeed in having their convictions quashed on the grounds of fresh evidence from obtaining compensation. It will exclude from entitlement to compensation those who no longer seem likely to be guilty, but whose innocence is not established beyond reasonable doubt. This is a heavy price to pay for ensuring that no guilty person is ever the recipient of compensation”.

It is unfair and unreasonable to demand that, after years of being wrongfully imprisoned, an acquitted person should produce some evidential rabbit out of a hat that proves beyond doubt their innocence. They should be able to seek redress for the years of their lives that have been wasted and the years in which they have been the victim of abuse of state power. It is wrong for them to be expected to come out of prison after 16 years, turn into some sort of Inspector Clouseau and find some nugget that will prove beyond doubt that they are innocent. In most cases, that will be a technical impossibility, given the amount of time that will have elapsed since their imprisonment. That means that it will often be the most deserving and the longest suffering who are denied compensation. The point has already been made that the Birmingham Six would not have been able to get justice and compensation under the test that the Government are proposing.

This proposed change is wrong and we need to ensure, either in this place or in the other place, that it does not pass into law. There seems to be general agreement on both sides of the House among those who are against the change that another place may be the best place to deal with it. We wish Members in another place the best of luck.

Damian Green: This has been a serious debate, appropriately, because these are serious issues. Having listened carefully to the views of Members on both sides of the House, I believe that there are some genuine misunderstandings about what is proposed and what its effect will be. I will seek to deal with those as briefly as I can. It is a complex issue.

As we have heard, amendment 95 seeks to maintain the current definition of a “miscarriage of justice” derived from case law, which is therefore subject to ongoing litigation. Amendment 184 goes further and would prevent us from creating a statutory definition of a “miscarriage of justice” at all, leaving the definition subject to the shifting view of the courts. Over the years, the courts have provided complicated definitions of a miscarriage of justice, which are often confusing to a lay person and are by definition subject to change over time. In this instance, it is unlikely that an applicant for compensation would know what “properly directed as to the law” means in a particular case. That would have disadvantages for applicants, who will find it difficult to know whether they have a valid claim, or to understand the Secretary of State’s decision on their case.

Emily Thornberry: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, although there has been a challenge in respect of the case of Adams in the Supreme Court, the position has not moved and the law on the definition of miscarriage of justice has been settled since 2011?


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