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Corporal Leighton (Quashed Conviction)

Volume 526: debated on Thursday 15 April 1954

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3.45 p.m.

On 29th March, I raised a number of Questions in the House about the case of Corporal George Henry Leighton. I think the House felt that the replies given on that occasion by the Solicitor-General were highly unsatisfactory, and I propose, in the short time available this afternoon, to ask the War Office, which is principally concerned in this case, a number of further questions about it. I do so because I think, first, that in a case of this kind there is a moral obligation on the part of the Service Department to make an ex gratia payment in compensation to the man affected and, second, because I think the case of Corporal Leighton has revealed some defect in the judicial procedure in the Armed Forces.

Corporal Leighton was convicted by an Aldershot court-martial on the charge of assault on 17th September last year, and the findings of the court-martial were promulgated a week later on 24tb September. His petition to the Secretary of State for War, which is provided for in a case of this kind by the Courts-Martial Appeals Courts Act, was presented on 12th December, we were told by the Solicitor-General—a delay of 11 weeks from the promulgation of the findings of the court-martial. The application of Corporal Leighton to appeal to the appeals court was made on 19th January this year, a further delay of five and a half weeks from the time of the presentation of his petition. Leave to appeal to the court was granted on 15th March, which was a period of another eight weeks from the time he applied for the leave to appeal, and his appeal was finally heard one week later on 22nd March.

That was a period of 26½ weeks from the time of his conviction by the court-martial to the time of his successful appeal to the Courts-Martial Appeals Court, and the Lord Chief Justice who heard the case in the court made the following comment which I take from "The Times" report:
"Where there were short sentences it should be borne in mind that in many cases the sentence would be served before the appeal was heard. It was not pleasant for the court to think that when they quashed the appellant's conviction, he had already served his sentence."
That was the fact in this case. Corporal Leighton had served the sentence of nine months' imprisonment by the court-martial on 24th September by the time that his appeal was heard on 22nd March, 1954. Therefore I assent in the first place that, because of that fact, Corporal Leighton is entitled morally to some compensation.

The Solicitor-General on 29th March stated that the War Office was making good his pay, which he had lost from the time of his conviction, but it cannot be suggested that this is in any way compensation, because Corporal Leighton was legally entitled to get his pay back, having appealed successfully and having his conviction and sentence quashed by the Courts-Martial Appeals Court. The moral obligation which, I assert, rests on the War Office in this case arises from the long delay which occurred between the original court-martial and the hearing of the appeal and the fact that Corporal Leighton had served his sentence before the Court of Appeal had the opportunity of quashing it on the ground that the court-martial finding could not be supported having regard to the evidence.

This is not the first occasion when this kind of question has been raised. On 17th November, 1952, the case of Regina versus Grant was raised in the House. It is interesting to note that on that occasion my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) raised precisely the question which I am raising today. He asked the Attorney-General:
"Is it a fact that, while waiting for the appeal to be heard, the prisoner is actually undergoing a sentence and, if that is the case, is it possible for the hon. and learned Gentleman to do something in order that a man should not serve a sentence pending the hearing of the appeal?"
To which the Attorney-General replied:
"That is another matter, of which I should like to have notice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th December, 1952; Vol. 507, c. 1386.]
This is an important matter. It should be absolutely clear that a man who suffers a wrong of this kind, because, by the Appeal Court's judgment, Corporal Leighton was wrongfully imprisoned, is entitled to compensation.

The first question which I want to put to the representative of the War Office is, why was there such a long delay in the presentation of Leighton's petition? There was a delay, of which the Solicitor-General made much in his answers on 29th March, of 11 weeks between the promulgation of the findings of the court-martial and the presentation of the petition which has to be made under the terms of the Act before leave to appeal can be entered. My information is that the delay was caused by Southern Command Headquarters, who sat on the petition for many weeks, thus causing its delay in presentation to the Secretary of State for War and, therefore, the prolongation of the period of Corporal Leighton's imprisonment.

My second question is to ask what legal advice was available to Corporal Leighton so that he should be thoroughly informed of the procedure under the Acts governing courts-martial. The Solicitor-General was quite unable to answer that question on 29th March. He tried to brush us off with the reply that when the Bill setting up the Appeal Court was considered by the House, general assurances were given that legal advice would be available to soldiers. He was not able to tell the House anything about the legal advice that was available to Corporal Leighton in this case. It seems quite clear that had proper legal advice been given to Corporal Leighton, there would not have been a delay of 11 weeks between his conviction by court-martial and the presentation of his petition, any more than there should have been such long delays between his leave to appeal and the presentation of his appeal.

I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for War will be able to give satisfactory replies and assurances on these points this afternoon. The establishment of the Courts-Martial Appeals Court was a great step forward in the reform of the judicial procedure in the Armed Forces. I think it is the desire of all Members that it should work satisfactorily and that as far as possible soldiers should have the same judicial rights as civilians, although necessarily there must be some differences. But when we find that in all the cases which have been heard so far since 1951 there is, on average, delay of more than 20 weeks between court-martial and the hearing of appeal, we are entitled to ask questions and to find out whether something cannot be done to speed up the procedure.

As the Lord Chief Justice said, if that is the average period today, it must necessarily mean that, where a short sentence has been given, very likely the man may have served the whole of the sentence, or the greater part of it, before the appeal is heard and his appeal may be successful. I hope that the Undersecretary can say that something is to be done to speed up the administration of this judicial procedure in the Armed Forces. I hope also that this afternoon he will say that the War Office will give favourable consideration to the application for some compensation to be given to Corporal Leighton.

Is there any reason why sentence should not be suspended pending the hearing of the appeal? As I suggested before, that would be a powerful inducement to whoever is concerned to get on with the arrangements. It should not prejudice anyone. If the sentence were confirmed, it could be reimposed.

3.57 p.m.

Although, of course, I was aware of the general line this debate would take after the slight flurry we had at Questions a few days ago, nevertheless I am indebted to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) for having sent me in detail the points he intended to raise this afternoon.

The hon. Member's case is divided into three main issues; first, the question of delay in the appeal procedure, secondly, the question of legal aid and its availability and, thirdly, and to a certain extent it was linked in the speech of the hon. Member with the question of legal aid, the question of compensation. The best way to treat these points is to consider the programme of events in some detail. The allegations which were made against Corporal Leighton were serious and involved only military personnel and incidents taking place in military barracks. It is generally and almost universally recognised that under the circumstances the trial should be by military law. Accordingly, it was decided that the charges which had been levelled should be investigated by court-martial and, as the hon. Member said, a court-martial was held on 15th September.

During those court-martial proceedings Corporal Leighton had legal aid from a firm of solicitors. The finding and sentence of the court-martial were confirmed and promulgated on 24th September, and the same day Leighton put in what is known as a prerogative petition. It is a little confusing as there are two forms of petition, and this question turns largely on those two forms. He put in what is known as the prerogative petition to his own commander-in-chief under Queen's Regulation No. 695. At this stage, and up to the point of the second petition—which is known as the statutory petition and which has to be made to the Secretary of State before leave to appeal is granted and the use of the whole procedure under the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act can be brought into force—between the period of these two petitions, Corporal Leighton was advised by the officer who assisted in his defence and also by an officer who is a qualified solicitor in private life. He was handed a pamphlet immediately after the court-martial showing all his rights and all the procedures of which he could make use. Indeed, he has since expressed his appreciation of the legal assistance which he got throughout the case.

It is important to note that at this point, the time when he put in his prerogative petition, he could, at the same time, have put in the statutory petition, which is the prerequisite to going to appeal. If he had done so he would, of course, have saved a great deal of time, and it was his decision, after getting advice and discussing the matter, to put in the prerogative petition first. So, as I say, a good deal of delay was caused by the soldier himself. I do not know what his reasons were, I am only guessing, but he may have thought it better to have two strings to his bow.

The prerogative petition was passed to the G.O.C.-in-C. Southern Command, who quashed one conviction and remitted three months' imprisonment. The result was promulgated to Leighton on 26th October. Under the circumstances, I do not think that the delay was excessive, but probably a few days could be cut off. On 29th October, Leighton's further application for legal aid to help him in the statutory petition and the appeals procedure reached the War Office, and this further legal aid was granted on 12th November, and was available throughout the whole of the proceedings. So the hon. Member will see that there was no gap in legal advice being available to the man from the very beginning to the very end. It might be noted indeed that in both forms of petition the grounds of the petition were almost identical.

On 12th December the petition was submitted. I wish to point out to the hon. Member, because the question of delay is one which is worrying to him and to everyone else, that a good deal of this delay was due to Corporal Leighton himself: first, his decision to have two separate petitions running; also he took a month after he had got legal aid before he sent on that second petition. That is to say, legal aid was granted on 12th November for the statutory petition—I see the hon. Member looking puzzled—and the petition only reached us on 12th December.

I think the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is a little difficult to believe that if Corporal Leighton had really proper expert legal advice there was a delay of a month between the time when he was granted legal aid—12th November—after the prerogative petition before his petition actually came to the Secretary of State.

Be that what it may, these are the facts. He had legal advice from a firm of solicitors—indeed, one of the solicitors helped in his defence in the court-martial—thoroughly qualified people. This petition to the Secretary of State was rejected on 18th January. On 21st January, he applied for leave to appeal and the application was granted on 15th March. That application was considered in the first instance by a single judge and then had to be referred to a full court.

I would point out that at that point—21st January—any question of delay passed out of the hands of the War Department, and I have no doubt at all, from what my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General tells me, that this problem is being noted in the proper quarters. The appeal was heard on 22nd March and the conviction was quashed. The whole question of delay is under consideration in the War Office in so far as it is their responsibility, and is also under consideration by the Lord Chancellor in respect of the time limits laid down in the Act.

It must be recognised, however, that if a man waits until the end of the period of 90 days within which he may submit a petition under the Act it may be impossible for the procedure to be finished and his appeal heard before the sentence has been served. It is true that the period within which a petition can be presented can be reduced, but I think we have to be very careful that we do not do something which, in fact, restricts the rights of a man. These periods were carefully considered at the time the Act was going through Parliament.

Due weight was given to the question of delay, and to the question of a man being able to exercise all his rights and have time to think things over and discuss them. I can assure the hon. Member that every effort will be made to ensure that there is no undue delay. Cases like this require careful consideration, and I am sure that the hon. Member, and the House, would not want, for the sake of hurrying the thing on, that a case should be skimped or not given proper consideration.

After the conviction was quashed Leighton's discharge from the Army was, of course, cancelled and, with his consent, he has rejoined the Army. The hon. Member has said the restoration of pay and allowances in such a case is automatic, and to this extent, I should point out that Leighton is better placed than a civilian, who would have had no claim for the wages he would have lost under similar circumstances. In this connection the hon. Member should—and no doubt has—taken note of the answers given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary in this House about a recent civil case.

We must, of course, expect that from time to time—though I hope rarely—the Appeal Court will reverse the decisions of lower courts, otherwise there would be no point in having an Appeal Court at all. On the question of compensation, neither under civil nor military law is compensation automatic, indeed, it is rare So far as military law is concerned, we judge each case separately on its own merits. In this case I must tell the hon. Member that, taking all the relevant facts into account, we have come to the conclusion that no compensation should be made.

The hon. and gallant Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) referred to the question of a man whose case was under appeal being allowed bail, or at any rate, some provision being made. As that enters into the realms of the Lord Chancellor's jurisdiction, I will ask my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General to give the hon. Member a reply on that specific point.

4.8 p.m.

I may say to my hon. Friend that I do not think that the question of bail—if one can use that expression in relation to a serving soldier—really falls within the province of the Lord Chancellor's Department. But I think I can answer the question put by the hon. and learned Member for Brixton (Lieut.-Colonel Lipton) from my recollection of the course of the debates on the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House tried to make it the best Measure possible, and they were alive to the great difficulties which might ensue because of the time factor in getting a petition home from abroad and getting on with the hearing of the appeal. I remember that serious consideration was given to the problem which could obviously arise in the case of a soldier, who was with his unit and was convicted of an offence, pending the hearing of an appeal.

I can tell the hon. and gallant Gentleman that my recollection is that hon. Members on both sides of the House directed their attention to these problems. The answer is not quite so simple as the hon. and gallant Gentleman suggests. Every step is being taken, so far as the Lord Chancellor's Department is concerned, to ensure that in these cases there shall be no avoidable delay. I said, when answering a Question, that I did not think that there was an undue delay, but if the time can be shortened that is all to the good. I am sure everyone would desire to see that done so far as it may be done consistent with due consideration being given to a case.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) chided me because I was not able to give him precise information about what legal aid had been given to Corporal Leighton in relation to the court-martial proceedings. I am sure that on reflection the hon. Gentleman will realise that there were no Questions on the Order Paper directed to that matter which falls more within the province of the War Department than of the Lord Chancellor's Department.