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Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill was taken through another place by my honourable friend Doug Hoyle, MP, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It arose from the hard work undertaken by my honourable friend Alan Milburn, Member of Parliament for Darlington. He pressed the Government for three years because of a tragic case involving his constituent, Michael Gibson. Mr. Gibson was assaulted in an unprovoked attack in April 1992. Because he did not die until August 1993, his assailant was given a two-year prison sentence for grievous bodily harm. In the event, that person was released from prison two months after Mr. Gibson's death. Society owes a great deal to Mrs. Gibson for the unrelenting pressure that she has brought to bear in seeking to have the law changed.
The need for this Bill, therefore, arises from an 800 year-old rule whereby a person can be charged with murder only if the alleged victim dies within a year and a day of the act which was the cause of death. My honourable friend the Member for Darlington in his campaign to change the law came across no fewer than five recent cases which were dealt with under the year and a day rule. The Gibson case received a great deal of publicity in the north east of England, and indeed in all parts of the country. It gave rise to widespread public criticism.
The rule is a legacy of a time when medical science was so rudimentary that, if there was a substantial lapse of time between injury and death, it was unsafe to pronounce on the question of whether the defendant's conduct or some other event had caused the death. Medical science has now progressed to a point where it is possible accurately to link injury with death even if there is a significant time lapse. Moreover, advances in technology mean that seriously injured patients can be kept alive for long periods. This can have the effect, as in the case of Michael Gibson, of rendering impossible a prosecution for murder simply because of the year and a day rule. One can fully understand the additional distress that this must cause to a victim's family.
The Bill before us provides an opportunity to abolish this outdated rule and prevent such distress in future. The rule has been examined by the Law Commission and the Home Affairs Select Committee of another place, both of which recommend that it should be abolished. The Government agree that, subject to certain safeguards, the rule should be abolished. The purpose of the Bill, to which I trust your Lordships will give a second reading tonight, is to abolish without replacement the year and a day rule in homicide.
The Bill extends to England, Wales and Northern Ireland and contains only three clauses. Clause 1 abolishes the rule for all offences in which death is an element. Although the precise scope of the rule is unclear, it certainly applies to murder, manslaughter, infanticide and aiding and abetting suicide. It may also apply to motoring offences in which death is an element: causing death by dangerous driving; causing death by reckless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs; and aggravated vehicle taking causing death.
Clause 2 provides a safeguard against prosecution in two types of case. The consent of the Attorney-General is required before a prosecution may be brought where the injury alleged to have caused the death was sustained more than three years before the death occurred or the person whom it is intended to prosecute for a fatal offence has already been convicted of an offence committed in circumstances alleged to be connected with the death.
This is a sensible safeguard. If there is a realistic prospect of conviction, prosecution should not be rendered impossible just because there is a long time lapse between the act that led to death and the death itself. Nevertheless, it is right that such cases should be carefully considered at the highest level to weigh public interest for and against prosecution. Similarly, the consent of the Attorney-General is required before prosecution whenever there is a risk of double jeopardy; that is, where a defendant has already been convicted of a non-fatal offence arising out of the same incident. Clause 3 sets out the Bill's short title, commencement and extent.
I believe that the abolition of the year and a day rule is universally regarded as a sensible measure and one that is long overdue. For the sake of emphasis, I repeat that the Law Commission and the Home Affairs Select Committee of another place recommend that it should be abolished. Most importantly, the families of victims of crime want it abolished.
My honourable friend Alan Milburn, MP, is from the North-East. I come from the North-East. We are both proud that our region should play a part in such an important change in national legislation, especially since it arises immediately from a tragedy that occurred in the north east of England.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I intervene briefly to place on record the support of the Liberal Democrat Benches for this Bill. As the noble Lord has said, it is a measure that is long overdue, and it is one that has our wholehearted support.
Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Dormand of Easington, both for introducing the Bill in this House and for explaining its purposes, provisions and safeguards with such clarity. The law in this area has failed to keep pace with developments in medical science which can now prolong life following serious injury for periods which could never have been contemplated as a possibility even 20 years ago. Pathology, too, has developed to a degree where causation of death can now often be established with certainty after a lengthy delay between injury and death in cases where, even a relatively short time ago, it would have been speculative to try to do so.
In the recent past families of victims of crime have, on occasion, suffered additional distress because this outdated law remains in force. It is unfortunate that it has taken the death of Michael Gibson and the energy and dedication of his mother to bring pressure to correct this injustice for the future. In a real sense, this Bill is his Bill. His Member of Parliament, the honourable Member for Darlington, who campaigned for the legislation, together with the honourable Member for Warrington North, who piloted the Bill through another place, both also deserve praise and our gratitude.
No one should as a result of a technicality such as this be able to escape punishment for a serious crime which they have committed and which results in the death of another. Nonetheless, I am glad that safeguards have been incorporated into the proposed legislation to guard against any risk of double jeopardy. If, as I hope, the Bill reaches the statute book as it deserves to do, I believe that it will make a real contribution towards relieving the additional distress which the families of victims of crime can suffer in these peculiar and dreadful circumstances. From these Benches, the Bill has our full support.
I should also at the outset like to add my voice to the tribute paid to Mrs. Pat Gibson, who has campaigned tirelessly for the abolition of the year and a day rule since the tragic death of her son Michael. At the same time, I should also like to congratulate the honourable Member for Darlington on piloting the Bill through another place and, indeed, to thank the honourable Member for Warrington North for the work that he has carried out on the legislation.
It is entirely understandable that the families of those who become the victims of crime should want to see an end to the rule. Their view is shared by the Government and, I believe, by your Lordships' House. We have heard something of the history of the rule. It was right that there should be a careful assessment of the implications of abolishing a rule that has been with us for 800 years. We asked the Law Commission to advise us and it concluded that the rule should be abolished for all purposes and with certain safeguards. The Home Affairs Select Committee of another place also endorsed abolition of the rule.
I am confident that we are dealing with a law that, as the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, said, must be abolished. There is now little difficulty in proving the link between an injury and eventual death, particularly in those tragic cases where the victim enters a long coma. It can only add to the devastation felt by a victim's family if they know that their loved one's assailant will escape prosecution because of this ancient rule.
I shall not delay progress by repeating what has already been said about the contents of the Bill. It meets all the concerns of the Government which were set out in our response to the report of the Home Affairs Committee of another place last July. In particular, it provides that abolition of the rule should be accompanied by certain safeguards, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, to prevent inappropriate prosecutions. The Government appreciate the sensitivities involved in prosecuting offences long after they were committed. We believe that the provisions of Clause 2, which require the consent of the Attorney-General to institute proceedings in certain cases, strike the right balance between the public interest and the rights of defendants.
There is a very wide measure of support for the abolition of the year and a day rule. I trust that your Lordships will agree to give the Bill a Second Reading, and that it will complete its remaining stages smoothly and quickly. I commend it to the House.
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and my noble friend Lady Mallalieu for their very supportive contributions. I am sure that no one in the