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Protection Of Mentally Retarded Persons (Evidence)

Volume 887: debated on Wednesday 5 March 1975

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3.40 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the admissibility of statements in evidence of mentally retarded persons.
I should like to thank right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House for making a last minute change in the guillotine procedure to enable my Ten-Minute Bill to be taken today. I hope that all Ten-Minute Bills will be brought in in the same way when guillotines operate in future. I should also like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your help.

The object of the Bill is simple. It is to accord to someone, for example with a mental age of eight, both in interviews with the police and subsequently before the courts, that protection and consideration that a child with a chronological age of eight would normally be given, according to the rules by which we proceed.

The Bill's underlying message, which is not yet sufficiently understood and recognised by the public and the courts, is that it is unfair and leads to error to accord to many statements of the mentally retarded that degree of reliability which the courts properly and rigorously attach to those of the mentally normal. I know that judges at present have wide discretion as to admissibility in this area, but it is a discretion that they do not exercise with sufficient frequency. If one reads, say, "Cross on Evidence", one sees that it is a discretion which they exercise with less and less frequency as the years go by. At the least my Bill aims to ensure that they do so more often, since the absence of a statutory provision of this kind can lead the courts into seriously erroneous verdicts.

If the measure that I seek to introduce had been in force in 1950, Timothy Evans, for example, would be alive and free today. The same would have been true of Derek Bentley. These disturbing cases do not abate.

My interest in this matter stems from what was called the Confait case in 1972 in which an 18-year-old mentally retarded constituent of mine, Colin Lattimore, was convicted of murdering a homosexual prostitute in Catford on the basis alone of his confession to the police. Since then, Britain's most eminent forensic pathologist, Donald Teare, has pronounced Lattimore's confession to be wholly irreconcilable with the agreed alibi and the scientific facts about the onset of rigor mortis. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been reconsidering all the facts about the case for over nine months. I hope that he will be able either to release Lattimore and the other two boys convicted with him, or to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal shortly.

The Bill requires that before any statement by a mentally retarded person is admissible, either a solicitor must have been present throughout the interview when it was made, or the prosecution must satisfy stringent requirements to the court about the fairness of the interview and the voluntariness and reliability of the statement. I know that definitions in this area are difficult, especially regarding mental health. I propose that two of the four well-established categories of the Mental Health Act 1959, subnormality and severe subnormaility, should be covered by the Bill. They are well understood, and, because they apply to assessments for special schools, they are often undisputed matters of fact in court.

I realise that this area is being looked into by Lord Butler's Committee on mentally abnormal offenders, but it does not consider police interviews to come within its terms of reference. Therefore, my Bill should not clash with any recommendations that that comimttee makes. In any event, I am keeping in close touch with the Butler Committee during the preparation of the Bill.

I understand that the Home Office has set up a committee to experiment with the use of tape recorders during police interviews, and I hope that this experiment will lead to a situation similar to that which now obtains in the United States of America, where all citizens are accorded greater protection than here during police interviews. However, I believe that the mentally retarded need special protection over and above this, partly because the reliability of their statements is liable not to be on a par with that of the statements of others, and partly because they stand in greater jeopardy of losing their liberty and their civic rights than do others who are sent to prison.

If a person ends up in Broadmoor, Rampton, where Colin Lattimore now is, or Moss Side, under Section 65 of the Mental Health Act, he is to all intents and purposes a potential "lifer". It is very difficult to get out. If an error has been made and these people continue to plead their innocence, that inhibits rather than assists their case for release.

I believe that the majority of the police will welcome a Bill of this kind, because the police do not like the allegations occasionally made about a small proportion of police interviews, any more than do hon. Members. I believe that the provisions of the Bill will, quite properly, cut down the number of such allegations as the habit grows of calling in a solicitor to listen to such interviews.

I have already had discussions about the Bill with the Minister of State at the Home Office. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and to the Minster of State at the Department of Health for their interest. I hope after further discussion to persuade them to smile upon the Bill during its later stages.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones, Mrs. Lynda Chalker, Mr. Bryan Davies, Mr. Eric Moonman, Mr. Anthony Steen, Mr. D. E. Thomas and Mr. Christopher Price.