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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) for giving me the opportunity not only to provide brief responses to the specific points that he raised, but to explain how this case has been handled so far. He will be familiar with much of that.

I know that my right hon. Friend has maintained an interest in the case. I also know that since her conviction, Susan May has pursued her case with two appeals against the conviction, two applications to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and a complaint against the police. I should like to take the opportunity to say something brief about each of them. Afterwards, I shall deal with the specific points about disclosure and the Forensic Science Service.

I am glad that we have a system that enables the Criminal Cases Review Commission to consider and reopen such cases, because I believe that if there has been a miscarriage of justice, we are most likely to be able to determine it through that mechanism.

Let me start with the first appeal. Four years after her conviction, Susan May lost her first appeal on 14 February 1997. The Court of Appeal rejected the fresh medical evidence that Susan May had suffered a memory gap about the circumstances of her aunt's death and said that it did not regard the conviction as unsafe. The appeal was followed by the first Criminal Cases Review Commission review. The case was one of several that was transferred to the commission from the Home Office in April 1997 following its establishment under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995. The commission considered an application from Susan May and concluded that it was worthy of further judicial scrutiny. In November 1999, the CCRC referred it to the Court of Appeal.
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In 1993, Susan May also made a complaint against the police, but because of her impending criminal trial, it remained on the table and stayed there until 1998 while she pursued her first appeal. Greater Manchester police carried out the investigation of the complaint under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority in accordance with the procedure that then pertained. In July 1999, an investigation report was submitted to the Police Complaints Authority, which issued a statement to the effect that the complaint had been investigated to its satisfaction. After that, the investigation report was submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service, which closely examined the report and concluded that there was no evidence that could secure a conviction.

The next step was to consider disciplinary action and, on 21 October 1999, Greater Manchester police submitted their proposals to the Police Complaints Authority. The Police Complaints Authority concluded that all bar one of the 22 allegations had not been substantiated because there was insufficient evidence to prove that any police officer had breached the police discipline code. The substantiated allegation was to do with an early interview by the police. It took place before Susan May's arrest and before she was cautioned. As my right hon. Friend said, she wanted to make the point that she should have been regarded as a suspect and not a witness, thereby having full protection under the law. The Police Complaints Authority agreed with her, and that became one of the subjects of Susan May's second appeal.

At the second appeal, the Court of Appeal heard arguments on the bloodstained handprint on a wall at the murder scene and the treatment of Susan May as a witness rather than a suspect, thereby denying her the protection under the law in relation to various comments that she made. The appeal judges ruled that her conviction was not unsafe and dismissed the second appeal on 7 December 2001.

Let me consider the second review by the CCRC. In August 2002, Mrs. May made a renewed application to the commission, and the second review is still going on. As my right hon. Friend knows, it would be inappropriate for me to discuss in detail the specific issues involved. I have inquired into that. The case is complex and I understand that the CCRC is carrying out several lines of investigation. A decision about whether to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal—I reiterate that that is a decision solely for the CCRC—will be made once its investigations are complete. In deciding whether to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal, the commission will apply the statutory test of whether there is a genuine possibility of the conviction being quashed. The decision on whether a conviction should be quashed rests with the Court of Appeal. That process means that I cannot deal with some of the detailed matters that my right hon. Friend raised.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): It would be extremely helpful if we could have an indication of the time scale of the review being carried out by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. If the Minister cannot give us such an indication, will she at least take the message from the House that it is
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important that the commission now expedite the matter, given that the lady has now been released and wants some closure so that she can live her life afresh?

Fiona Mactaggart: I assure my hon. Friend that I shall communicate to the chairman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission the views that hon. Members have expressed in this debate about the importance of bringing this matter to a conclusion. Of course, that is a matter for the chairman, but I shall ensure that he is made aware of the feeling in the House.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton mentioned two specific issues relating to the case. The first involved disclosure. I should start by pointing out that the common law disclosure arrangements that applied up to April 1997 were superseded by a statutory scheme in the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, which pertains thereafter. We have recently strengthened the 1996 Act in part 5 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The relevant amendments came into force on 4 April this year. Although the legislation has been amended, its fundamental principle remains the same: that justice depends on full and frank disclosure by the prosecution of all relevant material.

Under the Act, the prosecution is under a statutory obligation to disclose to the defence all material which

the prosecution case, or of assisting the defence case. This duty applies throughout the trial. This is a strong test designed to ensure that the defence gets the material that it needs and that the trial focuses on the points at issue. To ensure that the prosecutor has all the necessary information, there is a statutory code of practice, which has recently been revised, and which obliges the police to retain, record and reveal all relevant investigative material to the prosecutor. I might add that the Criminal Justice Act 2003 strengthens the scheme of prosecution disclosure. Under the unamended Act, two different prosecution disclosure tests applied, one before the defence had produced a defence statement and one after. We have amalgamated those into a single new test, the effect of which will be to ensure that the defence gets discloseable material at an earlier stage than hitherto.

My right hon. Friend's suggestion that all case material should be handed over to the defence is, I fear, unrealistic in most cases. Many cases generate large volumes of investigative material, and under my right hon. Friend's proposed arrangements it would fall not only to the prosecutor to consider unused investigative material, but to the defence as well, thereby duplicating effort. Considerable time would be wasted in considering large volumes of material that did not satisfy the disclosure test. It is also important to note that some material cannot be handed over to the defence. This includes so-called sensitive material, such as that relating to the identity of informants. Such material might sometimes have to be withheld from the defence on public interest immunity grounds, provided, of course, that the court had made an order to that effect.

To conclude, the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 already contains a strong disclosure scheme that provides adequate safeguards for the defence. The key is for practitioners to apply the Act
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correctly in all cases. We have a responsibility in all aspects of the prosecution service and elsewhere to ensure that it is properly applied.

John McDonnell: It would be useful to put on record that, in this case, neither the volume nor the sensitivity of the material was used as an argument for barring the disclosure of information which I believe could have ensured that this lady was proved innocent.

Fiona Mactaggart: I said that I would draw the attention of the chairman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission to the debate. He will note what my hon. Friend has said. I am trying hard not to make specific comments about a case that is under consideration by that body, which is the proper body to decide on these matters. I am trying to deal with the general issues.

My right hon. Friend raised a general issue about the Forensic Science Service, and about the circumstances in which its services should be secured. The Forensic Science Service is an executive agency of the Home Office, and is the principal provider of impartial forensic science services to the police and other investigating forces. It provides information to support the investigation of crime and evidence for the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts, and it also gives independent advice to the Home Office and others who serve the administration of justice, including the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The Forensic Science Service works within the criminal justice system for both the defence and the prosecution, and takes pride in its impartiality. I think it perfectly possible for an independent forensic science service to provide proper advice on different occasions and examine evidence scientifically for different parties in circumstances such as these. I think we should make it clearer that the duty of experts giving evidence should be to the court and to justice. The Criminal Procedure Rule Committee has published a consultation paper that examines the issue of expert evidence and responsibility in relation to the court. While there may be contestability in regard to particular issues of expert evidence, it is important that the court should be satisfied about the expertise, and satisfied that it has been deployed properly in specific cases.

I asked about the different tests in the Susan May case to which my right hon. Friend referred. I was told that the tests for the police were for blood, while those for the commission were for DNA. Two different processes are involved. The tests for the commission were carried out in Birmingham, and a report on the results was compiled by a Forensic Science Service employee in Wetherby. Those involved in the DNA tests were not involved in the original inquiry.

I believe that it is quite possible for a body such as the Forensic Science Service not to seek to justify an initiating decision, but to provide impartial, accurate, expert evidence in cases such as this. If there is evidence that demonstrates that it has failed to do that in a particular case, it should be taken into account by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in its review.

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