Juries to Be Told of a Defendant's Criminal History

Article excerpt

Byline: JAMES CHAPMAN

DAVID Blunkett was facing another row with the judiciary last night over plans to allow defendants' previous convictions to be revealed to juries.

The Home Secretary's reforms, due to come into force in six weeks' time, will mean criminal records being disclosed as a matter of course during trials.

In most cases, convictions will only be made known if they are similar to the current charge.

However, in child sex and theft trials, judges will be able to order that a much broader range of previous offences are revealed to the jury. In exceptional cases, they will even be told if a defendant has been acquitted of a 'strikingly similar' offence in the past.

Currently, juries are rarely told if the accused has previous convictions for fear of prejudicing a fair trial. If such information is disclosed in court, a jury is usually dismissed and a retrial ordered.

The way was opened for the reforms by the Criminal Justice Act passed last year.

The Home Secretary has now laid orders before Parliament - which will have to be passed by the Commons and the Lords - bringing the changes into force.

They will apply in both crown and magistrates' courts.

Though judges will decide whether or not to accept a prosecutor's request for a jury to be informed about previous convictions in individual cases, the Home Office said the 'onus' would be on disclosure.

The change will apply to all cases, provided the previous offences were similar to the current charge. However, the Home Office said in child sex and theft cases, a broader range of previous convictions would be admissible.

The spokesman gave the example of someone charged with stealing an expensive stereo from a shop who had a previous conviction for stealing penny sweets.

That would be judged relevant. …