Leading Article: Europe will defend Britain's rights

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The Independent Online
IT SHOULD now be plain to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, that he is almost certainly wasting Parliament's time by introducing new limitations to the right of silence. The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which would allow a prosecution to draw adverse inference from a defendant's silence, is about to become law. Yet the European Court of Human Rights, whose decisions the Government has promised to honour, looks unlikely to tolerate such a breach of civil liberties.

That much seems clear from a ruling this week by the European Commission of Human Rights. It has judged that the trial of Ernest Saunders, the former Guinness chairman, was unfair. Mr Saunders complained about evidence used against him that had been gathered under circumstances in which he was compelled to answer questions.

Such powers of compulsion are limited to financial cases and were granted to the Serious Fraud Office during a wave of public anger at white collar crime. The rich were considered not to need a right to silence on the grounds that they were bright and had good legal representation. But these provisions were draconian. The Commission has rightly drawn attention to an aspect of British law that gives unfair advantage to the prosecution.

Sometimes a breach of civil rights is too high a price to pay for gaining convictions. This was true of the techniques used to investigate Colin Stagg in connection with Rachel Nickell's murder. In that case a British court protected an individual's interests; Parliament and the judiciary should have been equally vigilant in controlling the prosecution of financial crime.

The European Commission's lead on the Guinness trial is likely to be supported by the European Court of Human Rights. Likewise, Mr Howard can expect a hostile reception in Strasbourg for any further limitation to the right of silence. Once the European authorities have an opportunity to judge a test case - which may not be for years - they are likely to find it faulty.

Should this happen, many people, no doubt some of them guilty, would have their convictions overturned, the Government would be embarrassed and Britain's legal system would be further undermined. It is not too late for Mr Howard to recognise the pit into which he is descending.

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