Inside Parliament: Lord Chief Justice weighs in for defence: Taylor backs restricting right to silence - Ferrers holds out prospect of amendments

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The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, last night came to the aid of the Government with a ringing defence of its plans to restrict a suspect's right to remain silent.

His intervention as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill was being debated by peers stemmed a tide of cross-party criticism which had left Earl Ferrers, Minister of State at the Home Office, admitting that 'nobody has a monopoly of wisdom' and holding out the prospect of later amendments.

The right to silence proposals would allow a court or jury to draw adverse inferences from a suspect's refusal to answer police questions or give evidence in the witness box. 'Too often, police efforts to establish the facts of a case are impeded by offenders who exploit the rules of silence,' Earl Ferrers said.

At the end of a Committee Stage debate described by one of the few non-lawyers as 'a rather splendid and interesting tennis match', a key clause dealing with silence under police questioning was endorsed by 176 votes 114. However this is the most likely area for a modest watering down by the Government at the Bill's Report Stage.

Lord Taylor's only quarrel was that the clause was 'inconsistent' with other clauses in that it would allow an inference to be drawn from a suspect's silence even before he was arrested. 'I certainly think the suspect must be cautioned before he is exposed to the risk of his silence counting against him,' he said. A caution would be given at the time of arrest.

Otherwise, Lord Taylor was fully behind the Bill. 'These provisions are not directed towards the vulnerable or towards the common run of first offenders . . . The evidence before the Royal Commission (on Criminal Justice) showed, and judicial experience confirms it, that it is the experienced criminals charged with very serious offences who most frequently decline to answer questions.'

The Commission, however, had recommended by a 9-2 majority against diluting the law on the right to silence. Its chairman, Viscount Runciman of Doxford, pointed out that this was also the view of the Law Society and the Bar Council.

The changes 'must inevitably increase to some degree the risk of innocent defendants being convicted of crimes which they did not commit. That is not something which members of this House can contemplate with equanimity,' he said.

In common cause, Lord Alexander of Weedon, a Conservative and chairman of the pressure group Justice, said that even many duty solicitors found police stations 'intimidating'. Evidence before the commission showed that typical suspects were neither intelligent nor lucid.

A study of 136 suspects in London police stations found they were prone to give 'misleading or inaccurate' information. They had an average IQ of 82 - within the bottom 15 per cent of the general public.

However this cut little ice with Lord Stewartby, a former Tory minister, who said that outside Westminster and the legal profession, people thought the scales of justice were 'tipped much too far in the favour of criminals . . . Too many malefactors fail to get their just deserts because of the technicalities of the legal system.'