Joint Committee On Human Rights First Report


1. Letter from Rt Hon David Blunkett MP, Home Secretary to the Chairman


I hear that the Joint Committee on Human Rights may be scrutinising our Criminal Justice Bill on Monday, 9 December.

I understand that the Committee will receive advice from your own Legal Adviser at this session. This is just to let you know that I stand ready to provide as much help with this as I can. We have not yet been asked to provide any information. I expect that you will make any such request in the light of your session on Monday. I shall ensure that our response is speedy.

The Bill takes forward a number of proposed reforms to the criminal justice system, based for the most part on a comprehensive process of review and consultation. I placed on record in my speech in the Second Reading debate the debt we owe to Sir Robin Auld and John Halliday, for their reports, Review of the Criminal Courts of England and Wales (8 October 2001) and Making Punishment Work: report of a review of the sentencing framework for England and Wales (5 July 2001)

A number of the areas for reform have also benefited from detailed work by the Law Commission:

    —  Bail & the Human Rights Act
    —  Report no245, Evidence in Criminal Proceedings: Hearsay and related topics
    —  Consultation paper No156, Double Jeopardy
    —  Consultation paper No158, Prosecution appeals against Judges' Rulings
    —  Report No267, Double Jeopardy and Prosecution Appeals
    —  Report No273, Evidence of bad character in criminal proceedings

These reports looked closely at questions of compatibility with Convention rights, which have guided us. For example, in report no245, the Law Commission recognised that the use of hearsay evidence is an area where it is not possible to draw definite conclusions, as judgements by the European Court on this issue are difficult to reconcile. However, it argued that the use of evidence from people whom the defence has no chance to question would be Convention compatible where questioning by the defence is genuinely impossible, but that a conviction should not be founded to any decisive extent on such evidence. The Commission also concluded that the use of such evidence would be compatible with the Convention if:

    —  It consists of the statement of a witness whom, in the pre-trial phase, the defence had a chance to question; or

    —  The court accepts an earlier statement made by a witness who appears in court as evidence of the truth of its contents, even if the witness later contradicts that statement in the course of his or her oral evidence.

And the Law Commission's report 273 contains a detailed analysis of the application of the Convention and its principles to the admissibility of previous convictions and other misconduct in criminal proceedings. The European Court of Human Rights has generally adopted the principle that the rules for the admissibility of evidence are primarily a matter for domestic law and that the question is whether the trial as a whole has been fair as required by Article 6. The Law Commission add "Whilst the use of a particular rule of evidence may cause a trial to be unfair on the facts in any system, the Strasbourg Court and Commission have not, however, established that any particular rule of evidence about bad character evidence is impermissible" (Law Commission 273, para 3.5).

The Bill also includes some changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which were recommended by a recent joint Home Office/Cabinet Office review, whose report was published on 18 November.

There are also some extensions to provisions for drug testing and treatment. The context for these changes was set out in our Updated Drugs Strategy, published on 3 December.

Our aims in this Bill are to strengthen the response to crime, to achieve greater clarity and consistency in criminal justice procedures, and to deliver an improved and more transparent framework for sentencing of adults. The provisions have been developed on the basis of the earlier reports to which I have referred, and in the light of consultation. They have been assessed against the European Convention on Human Rights and are considered to be compatible. Where questions of compatibility may be invoked, we have sought to provide the necessary safeguards. But, as I made clear at the Bill's Second Reading, we are very open to suggestions from those who would wish to improve the Bill, in both Houses of Parliament. We know that this is a complex and difficult area, and we know that proportionality is required. Your Committee's considerations should contribute constructively to this, and we look forward to hearing from you and responding to your points.

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Prepared 20 December 2002