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Wrongful Imprisonment (Compensation)

Volume 929: debated on Friday 1 April 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Graham.]

4.1 p.m.

In this short debate I wish to raise the cases of two of my constituents who are seeking compensation from the Home Office for terms of wrongful imprisonment.

I wish to make it abundantly clear at the outset that the cases are not connected or related in any way, other than through the fact that the two gentlemen concerned are my constituents.

The first case that I wish to raise—I know that my hon. Friend will be aware of both cases and of my interest in the matter—is that of Police Constable William Glastonbury, of Beeches Road, in my constituency, a member of the Birmingham Police Force—now the West Midlands Police Force—since 1954.

In the matter of a few sentences it is worth describing the situation that occurred, over the period of four years, to PC Glastonbury before I come to the points of his claim.

In January 1973 PC Glastonbury was the subject of certain allegations regarding offences relating to traffic tickets. In October 1973 the then Attorney-General granted his fiat for conspiracy charges to be brought. In September 1974—that is, almost two years after the original allegations—the police constable was suspended from duty. He was brought to trial with a colleague in July 1975. The trial lasted for about three weeks. He was found guilty of conspiracy and corruption and was sentenced to serve a term of 15 months in prison.

Police Constable Glastonbury served two-thirds of that sentence. He was released in May 1976, having gained remission of one-third of his sentence, which is normal for a person of good behaviour. On 16th December 1976, seven or eight months after he had been released from serving his term of imprisonment, his appeal was heard at the Court of Appeal and his conviction quashed. In January 1977 he was reinstated in the West Midlands Police.

So in sum total we are talking of a period from January 1973 to January 1977—four years of what can be described as sheer hell for this man and his family. His appeal was not heard until long after PC Glastonbury had been released from prison. I was in the Court of Appeal on the morning that the appeal was heard and I know that my constituent was put on the spot when Lord Justice Lawton said to him "Have you any complaint about the length of time it has taken for your appeal to be heard?" Of course PC Glastonbury said that he had not, because he was depending on what the court would say later that day in reaching its verdict. I had a complaint, because I had been in touch with my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor several months before.

It is little wonder that the prisons are overcrowded when cases such as this occur—of a man sentenced to a relatively short term of imprisonment having served his sentence completely and having been released months before his appeal was heard. This does not show the British legal system in a very good light and it is a disgrace to the concept of British justice, particularly as the prison population early this year reached the intolerable level of over 42,000.

During his three-week trial in July 1975, 26 prosecution witnesses were called against PC Glastonbury, notwithstanding the fact, as I have said, that he was subsequently found not guilty of the offence with which he was charged. Then, in September 1975, after he had started to serve his sentence, one judge sitting alone refused him leave to appeal, and that judge did not even have all the relevant papers before him to reach a decision.

Thus, all the way through this sorry tale, of the administration of British justice we find mistakes. The bureaucrats might say that there was no mistake, that this sort of thing is quite normal, but I cannot believe that my constituents or the British public as a whole would accept that. They would say that there were mistakes.

When the appeal was allowed and the conviction quashed on 16th December, Lord Justice Lawton said, in the Court of Appeal, that the charges were not sufficient for the indictment to have been brought in the first place. I know that my constituent is taking quite separate action, as he is entitled to do, under the Police Act, and that has nothing to do with the matter that I am raising today, namely, the fact that he served a term of imprisonment that he should not have served, since he was subsequently found not guilty, and that in the prosecution the police themselves were guilty of breaking rules laid down by the Home Office, making use of PC Glastonbury's personal file in the police department.

The police have been specifically instructed by the Home Office not to use the personal files of police officers or, for example, to use photographs to show to people who make complaints or allegations against members of a police force. That specific instruction has been issued by the Home Office after representations from the Police Federation. Yet it was broken in this case, and there was misconduct or negligence on the part of the police themselves.

I fully realise that the Home Office will not hand out taxpayers' money to people in circumstances of this kind, even when they have been found not guilty, unless it can be satisfied that something went wrong along the way. It is, of course, a tragedy that anyone should serve a period in prison for an offence that he did not commit and of which he is subsequently found not guilty, but under the law there is no way by which he can obtain any compensation. That is why it falls to the Home Office to correct and make good any such gross injustice with a generous ex gratia payment.

In PC Glastonbury's case, that ex gratia payment must at the very least take into account the fact that he and his family had to cash in a police insurance policy, thereby losing £5,000 in bonuses. They had to do that because between May 1976, when PC Glastonbury was released from prison, and December that year, when his appeal was heard and allowed, the police authority tried to evict him and his family from their police home. Although the appeal had not been heard, I understand that the police authority went ahead in court on two occasions. As a result, this man and his wife had to cash in their policies, because they had to think about finding a home somewhere else, and they lost £5,000 in bonuses.

Again, I am not sure whether all PC Glastonbury's wages have been made up since he was suspended and then reinstated, but even if his wages have been made up I am willing to bet that they have been made up at the basic rate, and he estimates that he has lost over £2,000 in overtime during his period of suspension and imprisonment and subsequent unemployment before his appeal.

The ex gratia payment should take account also of the fact that my constituent was a policeman. I accept entirely that society expects very high standards from the police. Perhaps those standards are too high in some respects, but a police officer knows all about it when he joins the force. If a "bad 'un" is found, retribution should be tough, but the other side of the coin is that if society makes a mistake in a case involving a policeman the compensation should be that much greater because he is a policeman. It can be no sinecure for a policeman to serve a term of imprisonment. He is an ex-policeman, the prisoners and the prison officers will know it, and if his appeal is pending that will be merely by the way.

The very fact that this case has come to an end in this way after four years is bad for British justice. In my view, the Home Office should make very large recompense. It will be no answer for my hon. Friend the Minister to say that justice was done in the Court of Appeal. It seems to me that our legal system is not, as it were, attuned to our modern society and means of communication. Years ago, if such a case occurred, the circumstances might not be widely known. Today, however, everyone knows what is happening, and it is no good saying that a mistake was made, we have to accept it, and justice was done in the end. The Home Office must not give that sort of answer.

I hope that my hon. Friend will make a positive offer today, or at least give a commitment that there will be an ex gratia payment. I do not expect her to specify an amount. It would be stretching credibility for any Member of Parliament to expect specific answers from any Minister or Department in an Adjournment debate. But let her give an assurance that my constituent can take good note of. Let her announce in this Chamber that there will be a payment and proper settlement from the Home Office.

Time is short, and I wish to give my hon. Friend plenty of time to reply so that it cannot be said that she was not able to say all she wished to say. I turn at once, therefore, to the case of another constituent, about which also the Home Office will know from my correspondence, and probably his.

This constituent is Mr. Leslie Long, of Rockford Road, Perry Bar, whose case has nothing to do with that of PC Glastonbury. In March 1974 Mr. Long was sentenced to four years' imprisonment for conspiracy to rob and burglary. He served two years of his sentence and then, in April 1976—once again we note the great speed of justice—the Appeal Court quashed his conviction, and he has been out of prison since then.

Mr. Long's solicitors made a claim for compensation, which was followed by a claim that I made on Mr. Long's behalf. In answer to the solicitors the Home Office said:
"Such payments"
—that is, compensation—
"are not made unless there has been misconduct or negligence on the part of the police or some other public authority"
I understand that the Home Office has its own rules, but I think that there was negligence in this case, and the Home Office should reconsider its refusal of Mr. Long's claim.

In February 1975, after Mr. Long had been in prison for nearly a year, the solicitors who acted for the prosecution—Messrs. Addison, Cooper, Jesson and Co.—infrmed Mr. Long's solicitors:
"It has come to the notice of the Chief Constable of Staffordshire"
—where the offence and trial took place—
"that incorrect evidence was given by a Sergeant Roberts to the jury at the trial."
The fact is that, by and large, it was only the evidence of that sergeant that placed my constituent in a certain place at a certain time and led to his conviction. Therefore, that letter shows that there was negligence by the police, when it was known that Sergeant Roberts gave incorrect evidence.

It was known at the time that another sergeant—Sergeant Newbon—had driven the police van or had been in charge of it on the day, and that he expected to be called but was not. His superior officers were informed that he had the necessary evidence, but he was not called. Therefore, I think that the police made a mistake.

In about September 1975 Mr. Long applied for parole. When the Parole Board assessed his claim a medical report belonging to another prisoner with the same name was placed before it. There was negligence by a public authority, the Prison Service. It is no good to my constituent to say that the board considered the matter again with the correct report.

There are two cases in which there was negligence or misconduct by the police or public authorities. This was known to the Home Office when my constituent made his original claim shortly after leaving prison. This man has made complaints against the police that are not matters for this debate. He claims that he has been victimised since his release from prison and has lost at least one job, in the Ansell Brewery in the Midlands, because of police inquiries just before Christmas, several months after his leaving prison and after the Appeal Court had said that lie was not guilty of the original offence.

Therefore, my constituent should have his claim for compensation reconsidered. I hope that my hon. Friend will commit the Home Office to at least reviewing Mr. Long's case. I hope that, above all, she will give positive answers and an assurance to PC Glastonbury and his family, other police officers and the Police Federation, so that police officers know that if they are ever on the receiving end of injustice they can look to the Home Office to correct it.

There is no other body to which the police can go. The chances of taking county court action are very slim. Someone has to find the money and, if things go wrong, the money to pay for the other side. The Police Federation is not full of funds. It is not a tough, thriving, trade union, as it is itself finding out.

My constituents' last long stop and defence—their last plea for some tolerance and justice in this country—lies at the door of the Home Office. I know that the Minister will do herself credit this afternoon by saying "Yes, we shall meet the claims of both of the constituents of my hon. Friend" and I invite her to now give that assurance to the House.

4.16 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) has spoken persuasively on behalf of his constituents. He had previously expressed his concern in correspondence, and by raising these cases in the House today he has provided a useful opportunity to discuss the difficult issues to which they and similar cases give rise.

Before coming to the details of the individual cases, it may be helpful if I say something about the legal position and describe the policy with regard to the payment of compensation to persons acquitted by the courts. The law makes no provision for such payments to persons acquitted in the ordinary process of law, whether at trial or on appeal. If someone thinks that he has grounds for compensation, his legal remedy is to pursue the matter in the civil courts by way of a claim for damages. In exceptional circumstances, however, the Home Secretary may authorise an ex gratia payment from public funds, but this would not normally be done unless there had been some misconduct or negligence on the part of the police or some other public authority.

Therefore, I hope my hon. Friend will agree that it would be unrealistic to contemplate the compensation, as a matter of course, of every acquitted defendant. I say "every acquitted defendant" because the same principle would logically apply to defendants acquitted at trial and to successful appellants. Reasons for acquittal are many and various. Sometimes the decision may depend on the interpretation of a difficult point of law; sometimes it may be a mere legal technicality. More frequently it is because the prosecution has failed to satisfy the jury beyond reasonable doubt.

Our legal system provides that in criminal cases the onus of proof rests upon the prosecution, and as long as an accused person is not required to prove his innocence it is difficult to justify automatic compensation on acquittal. Nor does it seem possible to discriminate between acquitted defendants except on the ground that where there has been public default it is right that the State should make some recompense.

What other criteria for selecting deserving cases could be adopted? Any other procedure for allowing compensation in selected cases only would involve invidious discriminations that might reflect upon those not compensated. The implication would be that the person whose claim was rejected was somehow regarded as being less innocent than the successful claimant. It is for this reason that the Home Secretary confines the making of ex gratia payments to cases in which the circumstances are compelling and where there has been some default by public authority.

The first of the cases mentioned by my hon. Friend, that of Police Constable Glastonbury, is, as he knows, still being considered. Mr. Glastonbury's solicitors submitted a claim on his behalf towards the end of December. They were told that the matter was receiving attention. On 20th February my hon. Friend wrote in support of the claim to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who replied along similar lines on 15th March. I must point out that the Home Office has no information about the details of individual criminal cases, and it is necessary when such a claim is made first to establish the facts. This may involve making inquiries of the police and the courts, which necessarily takes some time.

In this case there is the additional complication that Mr. Glastonbury has, as my hon. Friend explained, complained to his chief constable about the way in which the investigation which led to his conviction was conducted. An officer of another police force has been appointed, in accordance with Section 49 of the Police Act 1964, to inquire into these matters, so I cannot yet say when we shall know the outcome. Since this may have a bearing on Mr. Glastonbury's claim, it would not be in his interests to reach a decision until we have it. When we have it, Mr. Glastonbury's case will be carefully considered in the light of the policy I have outlined. Therefore, I cannot forecast this afternoon what the outcome might be but I can promise my hon. Friend that the points he has made so forcibly on behalf of Mr. Glastonbury will be borne very much in mind when we make the decision.

My hon. Friend has pointed out that Mr. Glastonbury's appeal was not heard until seven months after his release from prison—that is, some 17 months after his conviction. Although, as I have indicated, I am not in a position today to discuss the merits of the application for compensation, I should perhaps draw attention to the remarks of the Court of Appeal on the question of delay. The court said in its judgment that it was concerned to discover how it came about that, although the convictions had been as long ago as 10th July 1975, the appeals were not heard until 16th December 1976. It commented:
"We are satisfied that the fault does not lie with the Court. The appellants had their own reasons for delaying the appeals. Mr. Pratt, on behalf of Glastonbury, has informed us that his client makes no complaint about the delay in hearing the appeals".
I turn now to the case of Mr. Long. My hon. Friend has covered a good deal of ground but I should like to refer briefly to a few of the more important facts and some of the background. On 15th March 1974, at Stafford Crown Court, Mr. Long was convicted of conspiracy to rob, in respect of which he was sentenced to one day's imprisonment, and of burglary, in respect of which he was sentenced to four years' imprisonment. Three other people were involved. One was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment, another to five years and the third, who had pleaded not guilty and gave evidence against his codefendants, received a suspended sentence of two years' imprisonment.

Mr. Long and the two others who also received immediate prison sentences applied to the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal against their convictions and sentences. On 7th October 1974 their applications were refused by a judge empowered to consider such applications. They were renewed to the full Court of Appeal but for various reasons were not finally considered until 8th April 1976.

My hon. Friend has commented about the delay—a matter on which, I understand, he has also corresponded with the Lord Chancellor. While we are, of course, very conscious of the hardship caused to acquitted defendants in such circumstances, delay in the hearing of an appeal cannot, of itself, be said to constitute grounds for compensation. As the case of Mr. Glastonbury illustrates, there may be reasons for delay quite beyond the control of the Court of Appeal.

I do not want to take up my hon. Friend's time. However, I accept the fact, as my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor has said, that the administration of justice and the courts were not responsible for the delay in either of these cases. The delay lay with a body for which there is no one answerable in the House except the Solicitor-General and the Attorney General—namely, the shabby British legal profession.

I am sure that the parties concerned will have noted my hon. Friend's remarks.

The case concerned an attempt in 1973 by four men to rob a firm in Birmingham of some £60,000 in staff wages. 'The offences came to light after the man who later gave evidence against his codefendants had been arrested on other charges. He made a full admission which implicated the others. There was circumstantial and forensic evidence against two of them, but the only corroboration of the evidence in respect of Mr. Long was a note by a Detective Sergeant Key of conversations which were said to have taken place between the co-accused on 10th October 1973, when all four occupied cells in a police van in which the officer was deliberately concealed in a separate cell. Police constable Roberts, an escorting officer, gave evidence confirming these arrangements and the sequence in which the prisoners had entered the van.

It subsequently emerged that PC Roberts was not the escorting officer on that date. He had been a week later, when the men were returned to the court having been remanded, but on 10th October the escorting officer was a Sergeant Newbon. At the appeal hearing Mr. Newbon, who was by then no longer in the police, gave evidence which in certain respects was not in accord with Detective Sergeant Key's evidence. The Court of Appeal found that Mr. Newbon's evidence shed some doubt upon the accuracy of Mr. Key's recollection and, having regard to the fact that Mr. Long's alleged answers in the conversations described by Mr. Key were the only corroboration of the other evidence against Mr. Long, the court reached the conclusion that the verdicts were unsafe and unsatisfactory.

Solicitors acting for Mr. Long applied to the Home Office on 5th May 1976 for compensation. After careful consideration of all the circumstances, a letter was sent to them on 17th August informing them that the case was not one in which the Home Secretary would feel justified in authorising an exceptional payment from public funds.

My hon. Friend has argued today that much of the blame for the confusion in relation to the statements made by PC Roberts and Mr. Newbon rested with the prosecution. I do not think that it is as simple as that, but it is clearly impossible, in the time allowed for this debate, for me to review all the relevant circumstances. Nevertheless, I recognise the force of some of the arguments that my hon. Friend has deployed, and I would not be doing them justice if I were to dismiss them out of hand.

I shall therefore arrange for the matter to be looked at afresh in the light of what my hon. Friend has said. That is not to say that I necessarily accept that there was any misconduct or negligence in the sense in which I have spoken, nor do I want to encourage my hon. Friend to think that the outcome will be any different. I do assure him, however, that we shall consider again with great care the plea he has made on Mr. Long's behalf.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock.