Law Report: Spent convictions admissible in evidence

LAW REPORT: 19 December 1996

Thomas v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis; Court of Appeal (Sir Richard Scott, Vice-Chancellor, Lord Justice Evans, Lord Justice Saville) 28 November 1996

It was a matter for the discretion of the trial judge whether a plaintiff's spent convictions should be admitted in evidence under section 7(3) of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

The Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal by the plaintiff, Gabriel Thomas, against the decision of Sir Michael Davies, sitting as a High Court judge on 8 March 1995.

The plaintiff, a limbo dancer of considerable reputation, was arrested at 2 am on the morning of 28 May 1990, as he left the stage door after giving a charity performance at the London Arena in Docklands, and was charged with threatening behaviour. He claimed he was subjected to abusive and racist remarks, brutally manhandled and arrested without lawful cause. The arresting officers denied this and denied they had used excessive force.

The plaintiff was tried for the offence of threatening behaviour and was acquitted. He then sued the police claiming damages for assault, damage to property, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.

At the trial of his action before the judge and a jury, the question was raised, in the jury's absence, whether two previous convictions of the plaintiff could be put to him in cross-examination. One, from 1980, was for unlawful wounding; the other, from 1983, for criminal damage. Both convictions were spent for the purposes of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 so that, by virtue of section 4 of that Act, they could not be admitted unless they fell within the exceptions provided for by sections 7 and 8. Section 7 provided:

(3) If at any stage in any proceedings before a judicial authority in Great Britain . . . the authority is satisfied, in the light of any considerations which appear to it to be relevant . . . that justice cannot be done in the case except by admitting or requiring evidence relating to a person's spent convictions . . . that authority may admit . . . the evidence . . .

The judge allowed the evidence to be admitted on the ground that the plaintiff gave the impression of being well spoken and respectable and in view of his convictions that might leave the jury with a false impression of his reliability and credibility.

Lord Gifford QC and Paul Kishore (Harris & Co, Southwark) for the plaintiff; Jonathan Loades (Metropolitan Police Solicitor) for the commissioner.

Lord Justice Evans said that section 7(3) was expressed as a qualification to the general rule of exclusion in section 4(1) and there was a strong presumption against permitting cross-examination or admitting the evidence, but the section also emphasised that the discretion was a broad one.

The judge might take into account "any considerations which appear . . . to be relevant", and the overriding requirement was that "justice shall be done".

The question raised by section 7(3) had to be answered by the judge although it was not a matter of law, nor could it be answered by logic or by any process of reasoning alone. A negative answer would be required where the previous conviction was so obviously irrelevant both to the issues in the case and to the moral standing of the witness that a reasonable jury could not properly take it into account when deciding whether to believe him or not.

But the interests of justice were synonymous with a search for the truth, and the judge had to recognise that a reasonable jury might take a wide range of factors into account when deciding which witnesses to believe and therefore where the truth lay. It was also his responsibility to consider whether the likely significance of the fact of a previous conviction in the jury's eyes was such that they might be unfairly prejudiced against the witness in question.

If the evidence had any relevance, it had some potential for prejudice. The degree of relevance could be weighed against the amount of prejudice and other factors could be taken into account.

In the present case, the judge decided the jury should have a full picture of the plaintiff and his history, not limited by his deemed good character under section 4 of the act. His decision was a valid exercise of his discretion under section 7(3).

Paul Magrath, Barrister

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice