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Miscarriages of Justice

Volume 830: debated on Wednesday 14 June 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to prevent miscarriages of justice.

My Lords, miscarriages of justice occur relatively rarely within our justice system. In criminal cases, the Criminal Cases Review Commission will investigate possible miscarriages of justice and, if necessary, refer the case to the Court of Appeal. The Government have recently increased legal aid for such cases. The Law Commission is also currently conducting an independent and wide-ranging review of our appeals system to ensure that it is operating effectively.

My Lords, I appreciate the Minister’s Answer, but honestly, I am increasingly concerned that, whether through joint enterprise, guilt-by-association sentences or IPP sentences abolished a decade ago but not retrospectively, there are still thousands of prisoners who are rotting away with little or no hope of finding justice. It seems to be going nowhere. So, what is the Minister doing to correct these obvious miscarriages of justice, particularly as the Government have already accepted, at least on joint enterprise, that BAME groups are disproportionately affected?

My Lords, first, on joint enterprise, it is a long-standing principle of the criminal law that persons who go together to commit a crime are jointly liable, irrespective of whoever threw the brick or fired the shot. There is a great deal of jurisprudence on this subject, and it is true that there is some concern that the existing case law does operate in a harsh way on certain young black boys and men. The CPS, to which I would like to pay tribute, is engaged in a six-month pilot, which started in February 2023, to review joint enterprise cases in several CPS areas. It has also established a joint enterprise national scrutiny panel to review the interim findings of the pilot and several finalised joint enterprise cases. At the end of September this year, the results of that review will be published. This, I understand, will also be considered in relation to the Law Commission’s investigation into the appeals process.

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that the Criminal Cases Review Commission, under its excellent new chair Helen Pitcher, will be given sufficient funding efficiently to ensure that miscarriages of justice are dealt with in a timely way? Also, will he consider allowing Professor Cheryl Thomas, who is the leading researcher into juries, to carry out more in-depth research into how juries actually reach their verdicts, in order that prosecutors can be better informed about how to prepare their cases?

My Lords, the functioning of the Criminal Cases Review Commission—its resources, its governance and the test it applies—will be considered in the context of the Law Commission’s current review. The Government would like to thank the Westminster Commission in particular, in which my noble and learned friend Lord Garnier and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, participated, for its work on that. It is of interest, and the Government look forward to hearing the Law Commission’s response to these difficult matters.

My Lords, a grave injustice, which should have been rectified years ago but continues to this day, is the failure to end imprisonment of the nearly 3,000 IPP prisoners. Following on from the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, the number of such prisoners being recalled has now overtaken those being released. The Justice Secretary himself recently described imprisonment for public protection as

“a stain on our justice system”.

The Conservative chair of the Justice Committee recommends resentencing as the only way to end this. Will the Minister look favourably at amendments to this effect when they are considered during the passage of the Victims and Prisoners Bill?

My Lords, on IPP prisoners, the Government have responded to the Select Committee report by promulgating a very detailed action plan alongside a review by the Chief Inspector of Probation of the criteria and operation of the processes of recall. The Government will further consider the matter during the passage of the Victims and Prisoners Bill. This is very difficult because, unlike cases of people who are unfairly convicted, these persons have been fairly convicted; the only reason they are in prison is that the Parole Board does not consider them safe to release.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend the Minister, whose department is seized of the work on the welfare of jurors, who are exposed to traumatic evidence in that peculiar environment where they are cut off from their daily routines and support structures because we do not want them harmed. However, in the context of this Question, could he raise this issue up the list of priorities? We do not want a juror to be so traumatised—I think that contempt of court rules allow them to reveal this —that they begin to question their capacity to deliberate, and then have a question mark over the verdict for that reason.

My noble friend makes a perfectly fair point. It is essential to our system that jurors be properly looked after, and the Government will continue to consider the points raised in her question.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that the easiest way for the Government to reduce miscarriages of justice is to reduce the courts’ backlog? One of the biggest sources of injustice is people—potential appellants—simply dropping out of the system because it is slow and complex and there is a long wait. This is within the Government’s powers to invest in; it is a direct way of reducing miscarriages of justice and is for the benefit of both victims and appellants.

My Lords, with respect, the Government do not entirely agree with the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, that there is a connection between miscarriages of justices and delays in the court system. The Government are doing their very best to reduce those delays, which no one wants. They are partly caused by the longer-term overhang of Covid and are particularly and more recently caused by the barristers’ strike. The Government are doing their very best to reduce those backlogs by introducing further judges and adding resources wherever they can.

My Lords, I recently read the Lammy review. It states that 41% of black defendants who pleaded not guilty opted for their cases to be heard

“in Crown Courts … compared to 31% of white defendants. This means they lose the possibility of reduced sentences and it raises questions about trust in the system”.

It also states that

“for every 100 white women”

given a custodial sentence for drug offences, “227 black women” were given a custodial sentence for the same offence. Is that acceptable to the Government?

Discrimination in the criminal justice system is not acceptable to the Government. The Government are conscious that there are concerns about the way that ethnic minority persons are treated within the system and are determined to ensure that those problems are ameliorated and addressed in the longer run.

My Lords, what justice can there be in retaining on the statute book sections of a statute of 1861, whereby a mother can be sent to prison for procuring an abortion? Surely it is time that we consider the lack of benefit to society, to her family and indeed to all women in retaining such an outdated and barbaric method of punishment.

My Lords, all women have access to safe and legal abortions on the NHS up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. It is not appropriate for the Government to comment on any particular case, although your Lordships will no doubt be aware of the case to which the noble Baroness is referring. This is a contentious issue and the Government maintain a neutral position on possible changes to the relevant criminal law.

My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister cannot comment on individual cases, and I need to declare my interest as chief executive of Cerebral Palsy Scotland, but I am very concerned by the case of Auriol Grey, a woman from Peterborough with cerebral palsy and potentially other disabilities, who has received a custodial sentence and been refused leave to appeal. Notwithstanding any of that, could the Minister please explain how the judiciary takes advice? Which disability organisations does it take advice from when ruling on cases of people with disabilities?

My Lords, the relevant judges will decide cases depending on the evidence in that case. There is very substantial judicial training—probably more than there has ever been—on all kinds of issues, including the issues to which the noble Baroness refers.