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Miscarriages of Justice

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2006

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department (1) what steps are taken to examine why serious miscarriage of justice cases which occurred were not rectified earlier in cases where his Department and the police had the opportunity to do so; (94411)

(2) what steps are taken to learn any necessary lessons from miscarriage of justice cases, with particular reference to cases in which the miscarriage of justice has arisen from impropriety and criminal conduct of the police;

(3) what steps are taken to ensure that communications relating to miscarriage of justice cases that involve the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Attorney-General’s office are passed onto them for their observations and proposals.

We recognise that on occasions miscarriages of justice do occur and that is, of course, a matter for regret. Miscarriages of justice arise for reasons other than errors, omissions or misconduct. For example, developments in science such as DNA, may provide evidence which was not available at the trial, or a new witness may come forward.

Where a miscarriage of justice arises as a result of misconduct by the police, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) can investigate and make recommendations. The IPCC sets standards for the way the police handle complaints and, when something has gone wrong, they help them learn lessons and improve the way they work. Where criminal activity is involved, police officers are subject to the law in the same way as everyone else.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), and the accompanying codes of practice are vital parts of the framework of legislation, setting out the statutory approach and procedures required in the exercise of enforcement powers and the investigation of crime, while providing safeguards and protections for the individual. The recommendations of the Runciman Royal Commission Report in 1993 relating to police investigations and safeguards for suspects were incorporated into the PACE framework with a major revision of the PACE codes in 1995. The codes remain subject to review and update in the light of experience, improved knowledge and evidence-based approaches to effective good practice.

In the event that there was a miscarriage case where the conviction was quashed because of something a prosecuting authority had or had not done, then the Attorney-General and the relevant head of the prosecuting authority ensure there is an investigation and that any lessons are learnt.

Judges are accountable for their judicial decisions via the appeal system. Where the Court of Appeal criticises the conduct of the trial judge, it is always a matter of public record. In any event, the judgment is always sent to the judge concerned so he is fully aware of it. Where the criticism is of a serious nature, the papers, including the judgment, are sent by the judge presiding in the Court of Appeal to a Lord Justice of Appeal, designated by the Lord Chief Justice, for a full investigation. Thereafter, if the case is one for disciplinary proceedings these would be undertaken in accordance with the regulatory framework introduced by the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. Where the problem is less serious, the judge may be given advice and guidance by the senior presiding judge or presiding judges of his or her circuit.

The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 introduced a regulatory framework for handling complaints about the personal conduct of judicial office holders. A new body, the Office for Judicial Complaints (OJC), was established in April 2006 to support the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice in their responsibilities for judicial conduct and discipline. The new process followed by the OJC is outlined in full on their website The OJC do not look into judicial decisions—the appeals system performs that role. If a complaint is upheld, the Lord Chief Justice and Lord Chancellor may decide to take disciplinary action; for example, a reprimand or a requirement to undertake additional training. The ultimate sanction would be removal from judicial office.