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1.26 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): The case that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) raises is genuinely most distressing, and I read with much sadness the papers, the transcripts of the court case and the letters that his constituents have written to him and others. I wish to begin my comments by extending my sincere sympathy to Claire Oldfield-Hampson's family.

I shall try to address the points that the hon. Gentleman made, especially as he was kind enough to give me a preview of the conclusions at which he had arrived, but I should like to make one or two points first. He will be

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aware that the judiciary is independent of Government and that I am unable to comment on individual judicial decisions. He used the word "travesty" several times during his comments. He opened his speech by explaining that, in fact, the family in this case lived in another part of the country, although his constituents are Claire Oldfield-Hampson's relatives. The case was heard in a court in Northampton--distant from the hon. Gentleman.

When hearing about court decisions, all of us who are not lawyers--like the hon. Gentleman, I am not one--must bear in mind the fact that we do not hear the full case, or the full arguments. As he said, we should not retry the case here tonight; we certainly would not do it justice. It is right and proper that the judicial process is separate from and beyond the influence of politicians such as ourselves.

I had hoped to describe the process that the Crown Prosecution Service undertakes when reaching conclusions about which charges to introduce, but I do not have much time. However, it goes through two stages, the first of which involves an evidential test. The Crown prosecutor must be sure that sufficient evidence exists to provide a realistic prospect of conviction. A realistic prospect of conviction is one in which a jury or bench of magistrates, properly directed in accordance with the law, is more likely than not to convict. If the prosecution is satisfied that that first test is met, it will test whether the prosecution is in the public interest. More often than not, especially in a serious case such as this, the prosecution would take place. Those tests must be met. The CPS will start or continue a prosecution only if those tests are met.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the guilty plea to manslaughter was accepted. He will forgive me if I talk generally, rather than dealing with the specific details of the case. In prosecutions alleging murder, it is normal practice to obtain medical reports about the accused's state of mind. Those reports are disclosed to the CPS and are taken into account when it decides whether and how to proceed. In response to the psychiatric report produced on David Hampson's behalf, the CPS took additional steps to obtain a second report. That second report confirmed that, at the time of the killing, he had been suffering from a moderate to severe depressive illness. The judge is not a medical expert and relies on such a report to inform his view on the way forward. The Crown Prosecution Service has to bear in mind such reports and the two tests that I have described when making its case.

The CPS thought that it had a strong case against Mr. Hampson on the murder charge but, if it had continued to hold that view, the report that it had commissioned would have had to be disclosed to the defence and would have completely undermined the case for a murder charge. The matter was given careful consideration, including clarifying the report with the psychiatrist and obtaining the advice of Queen's counsel. However, following all that, the CPS concluded that it had no choice but to accept a plea of guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

It is important to deal with the point about the judge's acceptance of the points made about the wife's behaviour and the allegation that the court demonstrated more sympathy for the accused than for the deceased and her family. The judge had the benefit of hearing the basic facts set out by the prosecution, of reading the full psychiatric reports and of hearing a statement in mitigation by the defence before passing sentence.

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The learned judge in question is not a psychiatrist and his comments were drawn from the medical reports that he had before him. He confirmed only that the prosecution had good reasons for accepting the guilty plea.

The judge in a criminal trial has to perform a difficult balancing act and must ensure not only that the necessary evidence is before the court but that the defendant is treated fairly. Far from being sympathetic to Mr. Hampson, the judge said

The judge did not accept Mr. Hampson's claim that his responsibility for what had occurred was minimal and imposed a relatively severe sentence in the circumstances. As it turned out, the Court of Appeal felt that the sentence was too severe and that the judge had started from too heavy a sentence. It then reduced the sentence.

I shall try briefly to address the individual conclusions that the hon. Gentleman has reached. On his point about challenging the case made in mitigation, the Government are still considering whether there should be measures additional to victims' personal statements to enable victims' views or those of their families to be presented and, for example, to respond to mitigation statements. There is already scope to do that and the prosecution often takes such an approach. That might be in addition to the prosecution's current duty to challenge factual inaccuracies.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the weight that should be given to psychiatric reports must, like any other evidence, be weighed up carefully on a case-by-case basis. However, it would not be feasible or, I think, sensible to try to draw up rules to define how we do that. Such rules could never be so comprehensive as to cover every possible situation. The hon. Gentleman's conclusion is difficult to make.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the decision about whether a murder charge should be reduced to manslaughter. My view is that such a decision must continue to be made by the prosecution. As I made clear earlier, the decision in this case was inevitable once the CPS received its own psychiatric report. That report undermined completely the case for a murder charge and would have had to be disclosed to the defence. There was no prospect of maintaining the murder charge in those circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say that we are introducing provisions for victims' statements. The unfortunate circumstances of the case meant that because there was a guilty plea, statements from the family were not presented to the court. We intend greatly to extend the use of victim statements throughout the country this year.

The hon. Gentleman's point about victims and families having state-sponsored legal advice on how to present evidence is one for the Home Secretary to consider, and on this occasion I will side-step it, if I may. I know that my right hon. Friend is concerned to do as much as he can to enhance the rights of victims and their families.

The hon. Gentleman asked that the state apologise to the family of Claire Oldfield-Hampson for their experiences. I am not sure that it is my place to give such

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an apology. I have a great deal of sympathy for the family, the difficulties that they have faced and the tragic circumstances in which they continue to live.

These matters are not easy to arrange. Nobody who is closely involved in such a case is likely to feel satisfied at the end of the process. I can add only that the due process of law was followed in this case. The House might feel that that process is flawed and, as I have made clear, the Government are committed to keeping the whole process under review and to improving it, where appropriate, particularly as it relates to victims.

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Everyone is entitled to be treated fairly and properly, including victims and their families, witnesses, jurors and those who are accused of criminal offences. There can be no winners in such circumstances, only losers. It is society's job, and the Government's duty, to ensure that as fair a justice system as possible is in place. We are striving to achieve that. Human institutions being what they are, we may never achieve it, but it is at the heart of our aims.

Question put and agreed to.

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