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Taking the law into their own hands

The parents of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence might have been better advised to pursue a civil action than a private prosecution, writes Sharon Wallach
The arrests of four men in relation to the unsolved murder of south London teenager Stephen Lawrence would appear to vindicate his parents' decision to pursue a private prosecution. In the long run, however, events could turn out rather differently.

Indeed, no less an authority than Anthony Scrivenor QC, a former chairman of the Bar, believes a civil action for damages would have been a more effective route than a private prosecution for murder in bringing to justice those responsible for the killing in south-east London two years ago.

Four white men were remanded in custody last week, jointly charged with unlawful killing, after Neville and Doreen Lawrence initiated proceedings in Greenwich magistrates' court. Stephen, who was 18, was stabbed at a bus-stop in Eltham in April 1993 and died of his wounds. Four people were arrested after the attack, and three months later two men were charged with murder. But the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

The four accused are Neil Acourt, 19, Luke Knight and David Norris, both 18, and another man, aged 18, who cannot be named for legal reasons. The police have refused to confirm whether any of the four were involved in the original inquiry.

The last successful private prosecution for murder occurred in 1865. Since then only two others have been brought, the last in 1988, and both failed.

The procedure for launching a private prosecutions begins with obtaining a magistrates' court summons. At this stage, proof is not necessary. You have merely to show a basis for a case for a summons to be granted. The matter continues as any other case unless the CPS intervenes to take over, alter the charge or end the case for lack of evidence.

In theory, the individual has a right to bring a private prosecution (with the proviso that certain offences may be prosecuted only with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Attorney General), but in practice the CPS has complete statutory discretion to take over a case, without the obligation to offer reasons.

In this instance, the Lawrences are hoping that the CPS will take over the case. As their solicitor Imran Khan points out: "We have always maintained the CPS had sufficient evidence."

So far, however, the CPS has yet to make a decision over whether or not to intervene. The service is reluctant to be seen to interfere with the individual's right to bring a prosecution, unless asked to do so. "The case was dropped because in our view there was not a realistic prospect of conviction on the basis of the evidence we were given at the time," a spokesman says.

For tactical reasons, Mr Scrivenor wonders whether the private prosecution was the best move. There may be a danger, he says, that the CPS decides to take the case over in order to close it down.

"The DPP would look a bit foolish if the case was allowed to go ahead after the CPS said the first time round that there was insufficient evidence," he suggests.

Should this happen, it may be difficult to revive the issue. According to Mr Scrivenor, so far no one has sought a judicial review to test a CPS decision to close down a case. There is also a statutory time-limit of six years for bringing an action in a case of this nature.

Another factor is cost. The Lawrences are receiving no legal aid for the private prosecution. Their legal team, including their barrister Michael Mansfield QC, are offering their services free, but Mr and Mrs Lawrence could still face a hefty bill, particularly if they lose the case and are sued for damages by the defendants. A Stephen Lawrence Family Campaign is attempting to raise £10,000 as an "insurance mechanism" should the action fail.

All in all, Mr Scrivenor suggests that by far the best tactic would be to bring a civil action for damages against the four defendants. A civil case would be a dry run for the evidence, he says, particularly if the judge is requested to follow criminal standards of proof.

"If a High Court judge says guilty, the CPS would have to take the case on," Mr Scrivenor says.