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Law Report: Confessions from hostile interviews inadmissible: Regina v Miller, Paris and Abdullahi - Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) (Lord Taylor of Gosforth, Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Popplewell and Mr Justice Laws), 16 December 1992.

If police officers, when interviewing suspects, adopt hostile and intimidating techniques which render the interviews oppressive and confessions obtained unreliable, the court has no discretion but has to exclude the confessions. A solicitor who is present during police interviews should responsibly and courageously discharge his function to intervene when improper questions are put. Police officers may be criticised for their interrogation techniques even if the solicitor has not intervened.

The Court of Appeal gave reasons for allowing on 10 December appeals by the three appellants against their convictions for murder.

The appellants were convicted on 20 November 1990 of murdering a prostitute in Cardiff. Police interviews of Miller were central to the Crown's case against the appellants. Miller was interviewed by the police over five days, for some 13 hours. All the interviews were tape-recorded on 19 tapes. His previous solicitor was present from the third interview onwards.

Miller denied both participation and presence at the murder scene well over 300 times on tapes 1 to 7. In tapes 8 and 9 he began to accept he was present, and eventually he made three admissions that he stabbed the victim.

Miller appealed on the grounds that the interviews were oppressive and the whole course of questions was such as to render his admissions unreliable and inadmissible under section 76(2) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

Michael Mansfield QC and Nicholas Blake (Birnberg & Co), none of whom appeared below, for Miller; Gerard Elias QC and Jocelyn Gibbs (Leo Abse & Cohen, Cardiff) for Paris; Roger Backhouse QC and Ian Pritchard-Witts (Bernard de Maid & Co, Cardiff) for Abdullahi.

LORD TAYLOR CJ, giving the judgment of the court, said that three points on section 76(2) required emphasis.

First, the issue of the admissibility of a confession having been raised by the defence, the burden of proving beyond reasonable doubt that the confession was not obtained by oppression or was not unreliable was on the Crown. Secondly, what mattered was how the confession was obtained, not whether or not it might have been true. Thirdly, unless the prosecution discharged the burden of proof, the judge was bound as a matter of law to exclude the admissions. His decision was not discretionary.

The court had read the transcripts of the tapes and heard a number of them played in open court. On hearing tape 7, each member of the court was horrified. Miller was bullied and hectored. Short of physical violence, it was hard to conceive of a more hostile and intimidating approach by officers to a suspect. It was impossible to convey on the printed page the pace, force and menace of the officer's delivery. The solicitor present appeared to have been gravely at fault for sitting passively through that travesty of an interview.

Having considered the tenor and length of the interviews taken as a whole, the court was of the opinion that they would have been oppressive and confessions obtained in consequence of them would have been unreliable even with a suspect of normal mental capacity. In fact there was evidence that Miller was on the borderline of mental handicap. Although the trial judge was invited to listen to part of tape 7, the bullying and shouting part was not played to him.

The Crown did not and could not discharge the burden on them to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the confessions were not obtained by oppression or by interviews which were likely to render them unreliable. The interviews ought not to have been admitted in evidence.

The interviews were central to the Crown's case against Miller and were wrongly admitted. What remained could not safely support a conviction in his case. Therefore Miller's appeal was allowed. The effect of that conclusion was that the verdicts in relation to Paris and Abdullahi could not be regarded as safe and satisfactory.

In the circumstances of the case the apparent failure of the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to prevent evidence obtained by oppression and impropriety from being admitted did not indicate flaws in those provisions. They did indicate a combination of human errors.

The police officers adopted techniques of interrogation which were wholly contrary to the spirit and in many instances the letter of the codes laid down under the Act. Those responsible for police training and discipline must take all necessary steps to see that guidelines were followed.

The solicitor who sat in on the interviews seemed to have done that and little else. Guidelines for solicitors published by the Law Society provided that a solicitor might need to intervene if the questions were oppressive, threatening or insulting; that a solicitor should intervene if the officer was not asking questions but only making comments or if the questions were improper or improperly put; and that the solicitor should advise the suspect of his right to remain silent if improprieties remained uncorrected or continued.

A solicitor fulfilling the exacting duty of assisting a suspect during interviews should follow the guidelines and discharge his function responsibly and courageously. Otherwise his presence might actually render disservice.

If the officers took the view that unless and until the solicitor intervened they could not be criticised for going too far, they were wrong. Finally, it was most regrettable that the worst example of the police excesses was not played in full to the trial judge before he ruled on admissibility.

Ying Hui Tan, Barrister