Plans to reveal in court whether defendants accused of child abuse or theft had been found guilty of similar offences could lead to miscarriages of justice, the Government was warned last night.
Tony Blair provoked a civil liberties row and scepticism among lawyers when he said judges in such trials would be able to order that a broad range of earlier convictions be disclosed to jurors. In other prosecutions, juries will be told about previous convictions if they are similar to the charges being heard.
The Prime Minister said the moves were “designed to make it clear we are not going to have people playing the system and get away with criminal offences that cause real misery to ordinary citizens”. He added: “I know of so many cases where the police and indeed jury members themselves get so angry when only afterwards do they learn about the previous convictions of someone for … very similar offences. This is part of a major rebalancing of the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, while protecting the rights of the innocent. But we have also got to make sure we convict the guilty.”
Judges have always had the discretion to disclose details of a defendant’s “bad character”, but the Criminal Justice Act last year clarified and simplified the law. Mr Blair said that from mid-December, juries will be told about very similar convictions, and about broadly similar offences in prosecutions for sexual attacks against children and theft. Ministers say the two categories have been chosen because of high reoffending rates and particular public concern about them.
It could mean the court being informed if someone accused of raping a young child had been found guilty of molesting a much older teenager, or a suspected burglar had been convicted of shoplifting.
But Barry Hugill, of the human rights group Liberty, said yesterday: “Most jurors would find it very difficult not to be influenced by admission of previous convictions. That means you would be trying someone not for their alleged crime but for previous crimes. It’s guaranteed to lead to miscarriages of justice.”
Mark Leech, founder of the former offenders charity Unlock, said: “These new rules are dangerous and ill-thought-through. Just because someone has committed an offence in the past doesn’t mean they have committed the present one. A jury should consider each offence on individual evidential merits; moving legal goalposts to make convictions easier is not improving the standard of justice.”