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Criminal Convictions

Volume 486: debated on Monday 12 January 2009

The Petition of Phil Faber and others,

Declares that too many people are wrongly convicted because the law allows too much weight to be given to the word of one or more people, without other more tangible evidence to support the conviction; believes it is wrong that the jury only have to be persuaded that the defendant is guilty, and that this leaves the system open to abuse and puts people at risk of being convicted because someone has lied to the court or is innocently wrong in their assertions, and the person who tells the lie and secures the conviction can then claim compensation from the Criminal Injury Compensation Board.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to ensure that people are not normally convicted when the only evidence is the word of one or more persons.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.—[Presented by Bob Spink, Official Report, 22 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 416.]

[P000278]

Observations from the Secretary of State for Justice:

The Government is satisfied that the law provides adequate safeguards for those accused of an offence where the evidence is uncorroborated and has the following observations to make.

Burden and standard of Proof

One of the key features of a criminal trial is that the defence have the opportunity to test the prosecution’s evidence by cross-examination. Furthermore, in criminal proceedings the prosecution must prove that the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt—a very high standard of proof. Additionally the judge has the discretion, where the evidence is uncorroborated and there are concerns that it is unreliable, to warn the jury to exercise caution whenever he or she considers it appropriate to do so, whether in respect of an accomplice or a complainant or any other witness.

Charging Decision

The Crown Prosecution Service takes decisions to prosecute with great care. When prosecutors make charging decisions they must apply the test in the Code for Crown Prosecutors. The evidential stage of the test requires that Crown Prosecutors must be satisfied that there is enough evidence to provide a “realistic prospect of conviction” against each defendant on each charge. Also when deciding whether there is enough evidence to prosecute, Crown Prosecutors must consider whether the evidence can be used and is reliable. Amongst the questions that they should consider is whether there are concerns over the accuracy or credibility of a witness.

Uncorroborated Evidence Care Warnings

Section 32 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 abolished the rule that a trial judge must warn the jury of the dangers of acting on the uncorroborated evidence of an alleged accomplice or victim of a sexual offence. However judges still retain the discretion to warn the jury to exercise caution whenever they consider it appropriate to do so, whether in respect of an accomplice or a complainant or any other witness.