Legal study calls for safeguard on confessions

(First Edition)

A LAW TO prevent confessions being admitted in court unless they are backed by other evidence seems likely to be recommended by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, following the publication yesterday of important research.

The survey, by Professor Michael McConville of Warwick University, counters police arguments that the introduction of such a law would hinder the chances of convicting criminals.

Professor McConville said that in 87 per cent of the 524 cases he studied, confessions were already supported by other evidence, with the result that a new law would make little difference. In most of the other cases, police could have found additional evidence if necessary. Instead, they cut short the inquiry to save money.

The study also found that in a small number of cases, police obtained confessions from people they admitted were mentally retarded and could not therefore be relied upon to tell the truth. 'The problem in some of these cases is that there is little in the confession beyond an admission, so that the task of acquiring supporting evidence is made more difficult.'

The report cites one case in which an officer formally described a young woman charged with the theft of a cheque as 'capable of of being interviewed on her own . . . not retarded, just slow'. When questioned by researchers, however, he described her as 'backward and doolally'.

Professor McConville says in the report: 'There can be no question whatever that a corroboration rule would impose higher evidential requirements upon police and prosecutors and that this must inevitably lead, even with changed investigative practices, to some reduction in cases which currently end in a conviction based solely upon the accused's confession.'

His report will strengthen the hand of those pressing for new rules to exclude convictions based on uncorroborated confessions. The issue has been widely discussed in legal circles over the past year, particularly after the Court of Appeal freed Judith Ward who was wrongly convicted of the M62 coach bombing in 1974.

The Crown Prosecution Service yesterday said it was dropping a case against a man who had confessed to murder and attempted murder because his admission of guilt was unreliable. Augustus Brown, a 'determined, accomplished and persistent liar' with no friends, had wanted to go to prison where he would be looked after, the Old Bailey was told.