Clarke in clash on right to silence

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The Independent Online
KENNETH CLARKE, the Home Secretary, is heading for a likely clash with the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice after increasing signs that it will recommend retention of a suspect's historic right to silence.

The controversy was re-ignited last week when it was disclosed that charges against a couple whose baby died from multiple injuries were dropped because both had refused to make statements to the police.

The fact that suspects have refused to answer questions cannot be presented as evidence against them in court.

Mr Clarke has strongly urged the commission to end the right to silence - partly on the grounds that the tape-recording of interviews under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act has significantly reduced the danger that confessions will be fabricated by police officers.

But while the commission is said to be divided about what recommendation to make on the right to silence, informed predictions are that, under its chairman Lord Runciman, it will refrain from proposing radical change on the issue.

When Mr Clarke met the commission last year he strongly backed the Home Office's formal submission that information was the key to police investigations, and commented unfavourably on the fact that suspects were allowed to withhold it.

Senior police officers argue that abolition of the right would significantly improve the clear-up rate for crimes.

But supporters of the continued right of silence argue that its removal would mean that weak- minded or vulnerable suspects would be much likelier to incriminate themselves and face wrongful convictions.

Mr Clarke, an experienced criminal barrister, used to be a supporter of the right to silence. But greater controls on the taking of evidence have convinced him that the law needs to be changed. He favours the introduction of video-taped interviews, and experiments are already under way.

Given that Mr Clarke's views on the right to silence are well known, a decision against abolition by the commission would cause problems for the Government.

Althought there is no obligation on Mr Clarke to accept its recommendations, he would come under strong politicial pressure to do so.

The royal commission was set up in March 1991 by Mr Clarke's predecessor, Kenneth Baker, after a series of miscarriages of justice had come to light, including the conviction of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. It is due to report in the summer.

The commission is certain to recommend that home secretaries no longer have the responsibility of deciding whether possibly unsafe convictions should be referred to the Court of Appeal. Mr Clarke supports the idea of removing the responsibility from the Home Office.

Overall, the commission is looking increasingly unlikely to recommend root and branch change to the criminal justice system, for example by putting police investigations under outside supervision.

But it is likely to make a wide series of recommendations across the whole system for better 'quality control' of judges, magistrates and lawyers, as well as for the police.