Royal Commission on Criminal Justice: Members divided on question: Defence lawyers hoped for changes in the admissibility of evidence

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The Independent Online
THE ISSUE of whether confessions to police should only be admitted as evidence if corroborated by other evidence is sidestepped by the commission because its members are split.

Many miscarriages of justice - including the Guildford Four case and also more recent scandals such as the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad affair - involved convictions based only on confessions of suspects. The failure of the commission to agree will disappoint many reformers.

It says that safeguards in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) - introduced in 1986 following the earlier miscarriage of the 1977 Maxwell Confait case - are 'comprehensive and, while not foolproof, are substantially sound'. PACE provides for both contemporaneous note-taking and tape recording of interviews.

Although there were allegations of abuse of PACE during its early years, the system has been tightened by internal enforcement and Court of Appeal judgments. However, many defence lawyers still think corrupt police officers can circumvent the rules by intimidation or deals outside the interview room. The commission urges that video-recording of interviews should be introduced, but makes no recommendation that confessions should only be admissible if video or audio taped. 'To do so, would mean that some reliable confessions might be lost.'

The commission recommends that custody suites - the area outside interview rooms - should be continuously recorded.

The commission says PACE, together with its recommendation of the reversal of a Court of Appeal decision limiting judges' powers to stop a weak prosecution, should make it 'less likely' that miscarriages will occur. In all cases, says the commission, the judge should warn jurors strongly about convictions on confession evidence alone.

Three members argued that a confession should not be the sole basis for a conviction. The majority view was that where a confession was 'credible' and passed the tests in PACE, it should be allowed. Where it was not credible, the case should be dropped by the CPS or rejected by the judge.

The commission also recommended that in some circumstances, police could question suspects after they have been charged; some lawyers fear this could be abused.

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