Howard sounds retreat on help for prosecutions

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, revealed yesterday that he has watered down his Bill designed to prevent defences in court cases "ambushing" prosecutions with the introduction of late information.

On publication of the Bill, Mr Howard revealed two major concessions compared to the gung-ho proposals to remove defence rights to see police files he had outlined in a consultation paper in May.

The original plan was for the the prosecution to give the defence only the material from their files they consider relevant to the case. The defence could only ask for more at a later stage after it had outlined its own case, and if it could prove that what it wanted to see was part of that original case.

But as published, the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill forces the prosecution to disclose at the outset a list of everything relating to the investigation, leaving open the possibility that the defence will still be able to go on a "fishing expedition" based on the list.

The extent of Mr Howard's concession to lawyers who had feared the new system would lead to miscarriages of justice is underlined by the wording of the May consultation paper which said that to disclose a schedule at this stage "would not be an advance on the current unsatisfactory position".

In a second concession, Mr Howard has agreed in the Bill that the defence will not, as the police had wanted, have to disclose the names and addresses of all their witnesses.

The 49 clause Bill, which was given a first reading in the Lords on Thursday, includes provision for the first time in English law that a defendant who has been acquitted can face a retrial if one of the jurors or witnesses is later convicted of being "nobbled".

The Bill also provides:

t A statutory scheme for preparatory hearings before trials in long and complex cases, modelled on the existing arrangements for serious fraud cases;

t A measure to allow judges to make binding rulings on points of law or admissibility of evidence at a pre-trial hearing;

t And procedures at magistrates' courts requiring defendants to indicate their plea before a decision is taken on hearing the case before magistrates or at the Crown Court.