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House of Commons Hansard
Information Disclosure: Pre-trial Abuse of Process Hearings
22 May 2019
Volume 660

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the disclosure of information in pre-trial abuse of process hearings.

As usual, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am pleased to welcome the Minister, who will respond. I am very pleased to have secured this debate, to raise a matter that concerns a constituent of mine, Mr Tom Perry.

The Minister will be aware of the problems arising from failures of disclosure that continue to confront the criminal justice system. Those problems received the attention of the Attorney General in his 11 December 2017 review, which reported on 15 November last year. One of the worst cases, which was reported in The Times on 21 May last year, concerned five defendants who spent seven years in jail after being wrongly convicted of the murder of Mohammed Afsar. Unfortunately, there is another aspect to that disclosure problem, which, despite repeated requests from my constituent, the Attorney General has so far refused to examine to his satisfaction. I applied for this debate to try elicit a response to the concerns of my constituent, who is in the Public Gallery.

Although my constituent’s case is long since over, the abiding issue is the dual and interconnected problem of a non-disclosure by the defence in criminal proceedings in situations where a duty of disclosure rests on the defendant and his or her legal team, and the apparent impossibility of procuring corrections by solicitors and counsel of such failures of disclosure and of erroneous submissions consequently made by them to the court. The procurement of such corrections is part of the professional disclosure obligations that counsel must make to prevent the possibility of a court being misled.

Generally, in criminal proceedings, the duty of disclosure rests not on the defendant but on the prosecution. Exceptionally, however, in cases where the defendant wishes to make an application for an indictment against him to be stayed on permissible grounds under our criminal law and procedure—principally, that to allow the indictment to proceed to trial would amount to an abuse of process—a duty of disclosure rests on the defendant and their legal team to make a full disclosure of all relevant matters, whether or not they are entitled to such an order being made for their benefit.

One class of case in which that frequently occurs is that of non-recent child abuse. Applications for stay indictments in those cases are most often heard in non-evidential proceedings, in which oral submissions are made to the judge only, without any evidence actually being given. As the judge is wholly dependent on the oral submissions made to him, the absence of the production of evidence makes it easier to mislead a court than would otherwise be the case. I am told that there is growing evidence of malpractice arising from this procedure.

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I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way—I spoke to her beforehand to seek her permission to intervene. Does she agree that, although the courts have an overriding duty to promote justice and prevent injustice, the duty to stay an indictment must be used only in extreme and clear circumstances, to ensure that there is no abuse of the judicial process?

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In the context of the debate, the hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point.

My constituent, Mr Perry, was heavily involved in the case of Caldicott School, which was heard in Aylesbury Crown court. As a pupil there in the ’60s, he and many other boys suffered very considerable and grave child abuse that has been the subject of criminal proceedings. The Minister may recall that in that case, the defendant, former headmaster Mr Wright, was eventually tried and convicted on 17 December 2013, and was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment on 6 February 2014.

I say “eventually”, because there were two indictments brought in this case. The first was in 2003 and the second in 2012—tried in May and June 2013 and re-tried in November 2013. Of the two indictments, only the second proceeded to trial. The first was stayed by an order made by his honour Judge Connor, following the application of the defendant and his legal team, at a non-evidential pre-trial abuse of process hearing in Aylesbury Crown court on 26 September 2003.

In criminal proceedings, an order to stay an indictment results in the termination of that indictment. The counts that related to the extensive abuse suffered at Caldicott School by my constituent, as well as by four other former pupils, were contained in the first indictment, which was stayed. That meant that the history of abuse suffered at the school by my constituent and the other former pupils was never heard in open court. Not unnaturally, my constituent and the other former pupils were deeply unhappy with that outcome.

My constituent was even more unhappy about that negative outcome because it later emerged that the court had been gravely misled by the failure of the defence, which applied for the stay, to disclose relevant information to the court. With that information, his honour Judge Connor might not have considered the stay of the indictment justified. My constituent tells me that all the details of that were set out in correspondence with the Crown Prosecution Service at the time and copied to the office of the Attorney General.

It emerged in particular that before the hearing in September 2003, the defence solicitors, Blaser Mills, had engaged in private correspondence with the school on the subject of the availability of the school pupil records to the defence. Had that correspondence been disclosed to the court, it could have assisted the prosecution in opposing the application for the stay and, in all probability, would have undermined the grounds of the application to stay the proceedings on the indictment. However, neither the judge nor the prosecuting counsel ever saw the correspondence because it was never produced in open court, even though, according to the transcript of the proceedings, the counsel for the defendant, AJ Bright, QC, had it with him in court and was aware of its contents.

The contents of the hidden correspondence only became known publicly five years later, when in November 2008, the school released it into the public domain. It then became apparent to everyone involved in those proceedings how the non-disclosure meant that the court had been misled and, in effect, deceived into making the order for the stay of the original indictment. That situation was bad enough, but according to my constituent, what followed was arguably worse still.

With the trial on the second indictment looming, my constituent and his co-complainants, who had resigned themselves to the impossibility of their cases ever being heard in open court, were naturally concerned about the position of the other five former pupils whose abuse at Caldicott School was the subject of the second indictment. Their concerns grew when it became known that the defence intended to argue that the second indictment should be stayed on the same grounds as had applied to the first indictment. Accordingly, they repeatedly pressed the CPS to ensure that those submissions made to the judge and accepted by him in the September 2003 abuse of process hearing should be formally corrected to the court.

Their argument was that those submissions, which the defence already knew to be false at the 2003 hearing, were now known to be wrong by all parties and the public at large following the release into the public domain of the correspondence between Caldicott School and the defence solicitors, Blaser Mills. Formal correction of those false submissions was needed to prevent the possibility of the court being misled in the same way that it had been in 2003.

Attention was drawn to the explicit wording of both the Solicitors Regulation Authority handbook and the Bar Standards Board handbook—I have made the relevant sections of both available to the Minister—and to the professional obligation resting on all solicitors and counsel, as officers of the court, to correct submissions of fact made to the court once they are known to be erroneous, to prevent the court from being misled further. It was noted that no one, not even those responsible for making the wrongful submissions in the first place, has been heard to deny that false submissions had been made at the September 2003 hearing or that the effect of that was that the court was misled and proceeded to rule on the basis of false information.

To my constituent’s complete and abiding astonishment, the CPS did absolutely nothing. While not disagreeing that the defence had acted improperly by telling the judge that the pupil records could not be obtained from the school, or even tacitly accepting that the court had been misled by that, it took no action at all. However, not only were the records available but, in the hidden correspondence that the judge never saw, the defence had actually relinquished its request to be given them.

In addition, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board took no action. Likewise, the Office of the Attorney General, from which at least my constituent might have expected some intervention, given the failure of the regulatory bodies to deal with the situation, did nothing. Only at a much later stage, when the defendant, following his conviction and sentence, applied for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal, did the CPS finally agree with the complainants that, if leave to appeal conviction were granted and if the defence were to argue that the grounds of the imposition of the stay of the indictment in September 2003 were relevant to the appeal—in fact, it transpired that the defence did intend to argue exactly that—it would finally take action. It would require corrections to be made to the false submissions made in 2003 by counsel and solicitors for the defence in order to ensure that the Court of Appeal would not be misled in 2014. However, the appeal did not proceed and in the event, therefore, those corrections were never made.

At the request of my constituent, I have referred to what he considers—as I do—the embarrassing irregularities that unexpectedly and unusually came to light in the Caldicott School case, and those have a public profile. I have been led to believe, however, that similar problems were experienced in a number of other cases of lesser profile. My constituent has generously offered to provide the Minister with the details, if she so wishes.

It is too late now for the complainants in the Caldicott School case to be accorded the simple justice of the correction of known false submissions that were made to the court, that derailed the first indictment and that they believe denied them justice in 2003.

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Will my right hon. Friend give way?

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I would like to make progress.

The abiding concern of those complainants, however, is that to their knowledge nothing has been done to prevent the distressing situation in which they found themselves recurring in other cases, concerning other abused children. The men involved feel rightly aggrieved about the wrongfulness of the Law Society and the Bar, and their respective regulators, holding out to the public the existence of certain published professional standards intended for the protection of the public, while at the same time appearing in this case to have had no intention of taking any action at all, even when the published professional standards were found unarguably to have been breached. Throughout this case, those men have felt that they have been stonewalled. They have now lost faith in the so-called professional standards.

Such matters are the responsibility of the Office of the Attorney General. That can be seen clearly in the “Protocol between the Attorney General and the Prosecuting Departments”, at page 7, under the heading “4(d) Superintendence of casework”:

“The Attorney General’s responsibilities for superintendence and accountability to Parliament mean that he or she, acting in the wider public interest, needs occasionally to engage with a Director”—

the Director of Public Prosecutions—

“about a case because it…has implications for prosecution or criminal justice policy or practice; and/or reveals some systemic issues for the framework of the law, or the operation of the criminal justice system.”

In the Minister’s response, I trust that she will provide the reassurance that is sought by my constituent, together with many of his former school colleagues, who were the subject of such appalling abuse at Caldicott School. I trust that she will now agree to include in her review the dual problem: first, non-disclosure of relevant facts and matters by the defence in criminal proceedings in situations in which a duty of disclosure rests on the defendant and his legal team; and, secondly, the apparent impossibility my constituent faced in attempting to procure corrections of the records of the court to solicitors and counsel, and the refusal of the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board to assist him in any way.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on those failures to disclose and on the misleading of the court consequent to the erroneous submissions made to it. The formal confirmation of the Minister is needed to reassure my constituent that solicitors and counsel are professionally obligated to make such corrections as soon as possible, and that in future, where necessary, robust and firm action will be taken by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board in order to prevent the possibility of any court being misled in that way in the future.

I hope that the Minister, in responding, will bear in mind that I have known my constituent, Mr Perry, for 20 years. I have been dealing with his case and other matters pertaining to him for a long time. He is a man of great honour and integrity, and he has come forward to speak out in public about some horrendous abuse he suffered in childhood, thereby hoping to prevent something similar happening to other children in the future. This is just part of that pattern. I hope that the Minister will give a positive response in this debate.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) for raising these important issues. I acknowledge the hurt and anger of her constituent, and how he feels as a result of what happened to him at school many years ago. Sexual abuse of children by those in positions of authority or power who abuse their position of trust is a devastating crime.

I cannot imagine what Mr Perry has been through, but I commend him—as my right hon. Friend has done —for his courage in continuing to speak out about his experiences so as to contribute to the debate on how we improve the criminal justice system for victims. I also understand what she says about her relationship with him, and I am pleased that he has been able to contribute to improvements and to the future of those who have suffered as he has. I am pleased that we have the opportunity today to discuss the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend about disclosure of information in pre-trial abuse of process hearings.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham spoke about the broader issues in relation to disclosure. Like her, we are concerned about the broad issue. It is imperative that disclosure in a case is made properly. She correctly identified the fact that last year the Attorney General published a review of disclosure, and will be publishing further guidelines in due course.

My right hon. Friend referred in some detail to the case of her constituent, Mr Perry. As she knows, it is not appropriate for me as Solicitor General to comment on decisions made by members of the independent judiciary in the two prosecutions of Peter Wright. I understand, however, that the allegations made about the conduct of those representing Peter Wright during the original criminal proceedings in 2003 have been considered by the police, as she said, the Bar Standards Board and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Those are the correct bodies to look at allegations of that nature.

Furthermore, in 2012, one of my predecessors as Solicitor General personally considered whether to bring contempt proceedings arising from what the judge was told in 2003, but he concluded that there was insufficient evidence to do so. I understand that the trial judge in the proceedings that led to Peter Wright’s conviction in 2013, as my right hon. Friend said, also considered the arguments that had been employed in the abuse of process application in 2003 but declined to lift the stay on proceedings.

I am not aware of any adverse findings made against any lawyers involved in the criminal proceedings arising out of the abuse at Caldicott School between 1959 and 1970. None of that is in any way designed to diminish the profound effect that those crimes must have had on Mr Perry’s life, or to detract from our commitment as Law Officers superintending the prosecuting departments to promote best practice in the care that victims of sexual abuse receive from the criminal justice system. However, the issues that Mr Perry continues to raise have not been ignored and have received serious consideration in the past.

As Members know, it is open to a defendant to argue that a prosecution is an abuse of process—for example, because of the effect of delay on the fairness of the trial—and that proceedings should therefore be stayed. That arises from the overriding duty on courts to promote justice and to prevent injustice. In these cases, the burden lies on the defendant to prove on the balance of probabilities that there has been an abuse and that a fair trial is no longer possible.

There is clear authority from the Court of Appeal that there is a strong public interest in the prosecution of crime, and that ordering a stay of proceedings is a remedy of last resort, even where there has been significant delay in bringing proceedings. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, the bar for a stay is very high. Even when a judge imposes a stay of proceedings, the prosecution can apply to lift the stay in future. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham mentioned, such an application was made in Mr Perry’s case in 2012. Although the judge declined the prosecution application to lift the stay on the 2003 proceedings, she allowed the fresh allegations against Peter Wright to be tried by a jury, and also allowed details of the abuse that Mr Perry suffered to be admitted as bad character evidence during the trial. As a result, the jury found Peter Wright guilty of abusing five pupils during the 1960s and he was sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment.

My right hon. Friend makes some important observations about disclosure in the criminal justice system. Hon. Members will be aware that the Attorney General recently carried out a review of disclosure and made recommendations to improve performance across the criminal justice system. In our criminal justice system there is a statutory duty on prosecutors to disclose to the defence any material or information that may assist the defence or undermine the prosecution case. That duty applies to abuse of process hearings as well as trials. There is also a residual duty on the prosecution at common law to disclose any information that would assist the accused in the preparation of the defence case. That duty applies from the outset in criminal proceedings and requires the disclosure of material that might enable an accused to make an early application to stay the proceedings as an abuse of process.

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The Minister is quite properly setting out the duties on the prosecution entirely accurately and fairly. Does she agree that there is a duty, however, on all parties to ensure that what they submit does not in any way mislead the court, and that applies to the defence just as it does to the Crown?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point that I will come on to. It is absolutely right that counsel or solicitor must not mislead the court, as officers of the court with a primary duty to the court and not to their client, but the disclosure of evidence is a different obligation on the defence. There is no corresponding legal duty on the defence to disclose information that is harmful to its case, because that is consistent with the fundamental principle that it is for the prosecution to prove its case and not for a defendant to prove their innocence.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham rightly identified, there is an important duty on counsel and barristers; they have a professional code of conduct that includes the requirement to act ethically and with integrity at all times. That includes a prohibition on knowingly or recklessly misleading anyone, including a court, and a positive duty to behave in a way that maintains public trust and confidence in the proper administration of justice. My right hon. Friend mentioned that her constituent may have details of other cases where a court has been misled; I strongly encourage her to share those details with the CPS and the professional bodies responsible for barristers and solicitors.

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I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which she is responding. She mentioned that it is important to maintain trust in the regulatory bodies. In the light of the circumstances of this case, does she agreed that trust has been shaken? I will provide her with those details once my constituent provides them, so she may pass them on to the relevant authorities or look at them herself, because it is from her office that I believe my constituent wishes to have a response.

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I appreciate that my right hon. Friend’s constituent feels that trust in the criminal justice system has been shaken. That is of concern. I reiterate that as far as I am aware no misconduct has been found by the Bar Standards Board in relation to the case, but I would be very happy—as I am sure it would—to receive any further information that she can provide.

I would like to underline the additional safeguards that exist for defendants and victims when a stay application is brought. There are a number of rules and regulations that ensure that the hearing should be conducted with due notice and in the interests of justice. The Criminal Procedure Rules 2015 set out clearly the timetable that the defence and prosecution should adhere to when preparing for the hearing. For example, the defence application must be in writing and provided to the prosecution and court as soon as practicable after becoming aware of the grounds for applying. The application must include or identify all supporting material, specify all relevant events and identify any witnesses the defendant wishes to call in support of the application. The prosecution must do likewise within 14 days of receiving the application. Both parties must serve skeleton arguments on each other and the court in advance of the actual hearing, so that everyone knows the issues to be determined at the hearing.

Victim care is important in cases of sexual abuse. Mr Perry’s experience demonstrates why it is so important that we continue to make victim care priority in our criminal justice system.

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I agree with the Minister that victims should have priority in our criminal justice system—that is most important. She mentioned at the beginning of her response that she is working on new guidelines that will come out shortly. Could she give us a greater indication of when we can expect those new guidelines? Would there be any possibility of looking at the draft guidelines before they are finalised and published?

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A review of disclosure has already taken place. Further guidance will come out in due course. I am happy to update my right hon. Friend on any further details on that and will take on board any points that she might like to make.

We are not just focusing on disclosure, although that is very important. The CPS has almost doubled the number of specialist prosecutors in its dedicated rape and serious sexual offence units, and is working with the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office to revise the victims code, to improve the support and care offered to victims. It is important to remember that these issues do not just affect the Attorney General’s office but are cross-departmental, and we are working together with Departments on those. Debates on this area make an important contribution to the ongoing work to improve the experience of victims in the criminal justice system. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham and her constituent for raising important issues that affect our criminal justice system.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.