Inside Parliament: Peers in `Battle of Verbals' over Criminal Justice Bill
Goodwin, Stephen, The Independent (London, England)
Aconcession by the Government yesterday over ending a suspect's right of silence failed to satisfy lawyer peers opposed to the change, with one lord warning of a resumption of the "battle of the verbals" in courts.
Lord Wigoder, a former Crown Court recorder, foresaw counsel, police officers and defendants disputing "on and on" over who said what or stayed silent, whether the defendent had been properly cautioned and who was lying.
But though the Liberal Democrat peer and other senior figures remain unhappy, the Government appears to have bought off serious trouble on the issue with a further change to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. A caution must have been given by the police before a suspect's silence could count against him.
Whether a climb-down or simply an admission by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, that the Bill was not properly thought through in the first place, the amendment was carried unopposed as the Report Stage continued in the Upper House. However, heavy government whipping ensured that a move to give a suspect the right to consult a lawyer and have interrogations tape-recorded before any inference could be drawn from his silence was seen off by 143 votes to 91.
Lord Ackner, a former Lord of Appeal, said the unsuccessful amendment represented "the minimum safeguards if we are to maintain the standard of fairness which is an essential part of our administration of justice". He was supported by the Conservative Lord Alexander of Weedon, chairman of Justice, Lord Wigoder, Labour frontbencher Lord Irvine of Lairg and - by letter - Viscount Runciman of Doxford, chairman of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice which advised against ending the right of silence.
Lined up against them - to the relief of Earl Ferrers, Minister of State at the Home Office - were Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Rawlinson of Ewell, a former Conservative Attorney General, and Lord Hailsham. The former Tory Lord Chancellor said there should be "as few technicalities or ritual dances" as possible.
Earl Ferrers caused a ripple of consternation when he told peers he saw "no reason why silence should not be treated in the same way as a confession" subject to the safeguards proposed by the Government.
The caution will include the existing reminder that the suspect is not obliged to say anything and that anything said may count in evidence, plus a warning of the dangers of remaining silent.
As a further safeguard, Earl Ferrers said a new procedure would be introduced at police stations. Before conducting a formal interview, the officer would ask the suspect whether he wished to confirm, deny or modify any earlier exchanges or silences. …