Law lords allow appeal for Pinochet

Five law lords took the unprecedented step yesterday of overturning an earlier panel's decision that refused the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet immunity from prosecution.

Five law lords took the unprecedented step yesterday of overturning an earlier panel's decision that refused the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet immunity from prosecution.

The unanimous ruling by the five law lords was greeted with delight by supporters of the general, offering the prospect that he may yet avoid extradition to Spain to face charges of torture, kidnapping and conspiracy to murder.

Lawyers for General Pinochet had successfully argued that the original ruling was flawed because Lord Hoffmann, one of the judges on the panel, had failed to disclose his relationship with Amnesty International. The human rights group had been present as interveners during the hearing and argued that the general should not be protected by immunity.

The House of Lords is supposed to be the court of last resort and its ruling the final word on any case, although it is open to challenge in the European courts. The appeal by General Pinochet's lawyers against the law lords' ruling that he was not immune to prosecution set a precedent of challenging their decisions.

After yesterday's ruling it was revealed that the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, had written to the senior law lord, Lord Browne- Wilkinson, demanding new measures to prevent the situation recurring.

He wrote: "My request to you is that you ... ensure that at any time any committee is being composed to hear an appeal that its proposed members consider together whether any of their number might appear to be subject to a conflict of interest, and in order to ensure impartiality, and the appearance of impartiality... require any law lord to disclose any such circumstances to the parties, and not sit if any party objects and the committee so determines."

Lord Hoffmann was yesterday out of the country. One Tory MP, Gerald Howarth, said that he must consider his future. "It is a quite remarkable twist of events and must make Lord Hoffmann question his position as a law lord," he said.

According to legal experts Lord Hoffmann's resignation would only become a strong possibility if the law lords said in their reasoning behind yesterday's decision - due to be published in January - that he had actually demonstrated bias in his decision. No law lord has resigned since the present system was devised in 1876

Delivering the judgment in the House of Lords, Lord Browne-Wilkinson said: "In the special circumstances of the case, including the fact that Amnesty International was joined as intervener and appeared by counsel before appellate committee, Lord Hoffmann, who did not disclose his links with Amnesty International, was disqualified from sitting."

It was revealed in The Independent that solicitors acting for General Pinochet had received material earlier this year highlighting Lord Hoffmann's links with Amnesty International Charity. But his lawyers stressed in the Lords that Lord Hoffmann himself should have disclosed the connection, and because he did not, General Pinochet remained unaware of them.

A new Lords hearing has been scheduled for the new year. The decision by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to allow an extradition request from Spain to go ahead, based on the original Lords ruling, remains active. However, the extradition proceedings are now expected to be held in abeyance until the new hearing decides on the question of immunity. Who pays the cost of the various legal actions, said to be running at more than pounds 1m, will also be decided at the conclusion of the case.

The Tory spokesman on home affairs, Sir Norman Fowler, renewed his call for Mr Straw to send General Pinochet home. "This is a case which should be settled in Chile, not here in Britain," he said. However, the Home Office said yesterday that Mr Straw did not intend to intervene at this stage and would let the legal process take its course.

Amnesty International yesterday expressed disappointment at the decision, but said the legal battle would go on. Baroness Thatcher, who had called for General Pinochet's release, refused to comment on the day's developments.

The leader of the Chilean senate, Andres Zaldivar, said during a visit to Spain he was very pleased with the "positive" decision. Carlos Reyes, spokesman for former Chilean political prisoners group Chile Democratico, said: "I am in total shock ... From the very beginning I believed justice would be done ... Now I am not so sure."