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Sunday, 31 December, 2000, 19:13 GMT
Juries 'may hear of past crimes'
The plans form part of Lord Justice Auld's review
The plans form part of Lord Justice Auld's review
Juries could hear details of defendants' past crimes under proposals being considered by the government.


There is a danger people will be found guilty of offences for which enough evidence does not exist

Deborah Clark of Liberty
Senior police officers have long argued that withholding criminal records tips the scales of justice in favour of the accused.

But civil rights groups and many lawyers will be outraged at removing a defendant's right to be judged solely on the evidence and not their criminal record.

A Home Office spokesman confirmed to BBC News Online that the principle formed an "important aspect" of Lord Justice Auld's ongoing review of court procedure and the laws surrounding evidence, due out towards the end of January.

The Law Commission, which advises the government on legal matters, is also said to be examining the issue.
Serial rapist Nicholas Edwards
A jury heard details of Nicholas Edwards' past acquittals

Apart from under exceptional circumstances, courts go to great lengths to avoid mention of any previous crimes committed by a defendant.

In fact if a jury hears of a defendant's criminal record it almost invariably leads to a mistrial.

But last September a rapist was jailed after a jury was told details of charges which he had been acquitted of.

The jury was told 39-year-old Nicholas Edwards, who had two previous rape convictions, had successfully used the same defence on five previous occasions.

Opposition

A senior Home Office source told the Sunday Times the plans may be particularly effective against the persistent offender.

He said: "At the moment the framework is as established in 1991 when the policy was called 'just deserts', where the punishment was for the particular crime rather than the offender and his previous behaviour as a whole."

The move will meet widespread opposition from civil rights activists and lawyers already furious over government plans to limit the right to trial by jury.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, said the "alarming" move could prove "extremely dangerous".

Along with plans to limit the right to trial by jury, it could see innocent people convicted on the grounds they were "roughly, probably, or even maybe guilty", a spokesman said.

Danger

The plans were also attacked by civil rights campaigners and Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes, who said the plans amounted to "yet another brick out of the wall of the criminal justice system which is one of the most respected in the world".

"It is bad enough being determined to get rid of the right to choose jury trial in England and Wales and regularly wanting to adjust the burden of proof in criminal cases," he said.

Deborah Clark, of campaign group Liberty, told The Observer it would lead to more miscarriages of justice.

"By giving details of previous convictions there is a danger people will be found guilty of offences for which enough evidence does not exist," she said.

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See also:

21 Sep 00 | UK
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