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Home Affairs Select Committee chairman Robin Corbett
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Tuesday, 6 March, 2001, 10:14 GMT
Double jeopardy law set to go

The Commission suggests the new law should apply retrospectively
A law which prevents defendants being tried twice for the same crime is expected to be scrapped in murder cases.

The move is anticipated following a report from the Law Commission into the so-called double jeopardy rule in England and Wales.

The change had been recommended by the McPherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence.

We believe these new recommendations recognise the need to enhance public confidence in the criminal justice system

Judge Alan Wilkie QC
The mother of the murdered black teenager, Doreen Lawrence, has backed the proposal but the lawyer representing her, Imran Khan, said he had misgivings.

The Law Commission's 20-month inquiry has concluded that it should be possible to quash acquittals in murder trials where there is "reliable and compelling new evidence of guilt".

It also controversially suggests that the new law should apply retrospectively.

The study, led by Judge Alan Wilkie QC, was initiated at Home Secretary Jack Straw's request following the 1999 Stephen Lawrence inquiry, which suggested a review of the double jeopardy rule.

Neil Acourt, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight were formally acquitted when a private prosecution for murder failed.

Mrs Lawrence said she wanted her son's alleged killers to stand trial again.

'Killers walking free'

"Solicitors and other people I know have concerns about this but I think that in Stephen's case and cases like his, if new evidence comes to light then I think they should be tried again," she told GMTV.

"I can only speak from a personal point of view. Those who are critics are usually solicitors who understand a little bit more about the law. What I am thinking about is that my son's killers have been walking free."

Mr Khan told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that under the proposed change a second trial could not be fair.

"What we have to look at is the issue of compelling evidence. What that does is reverse the presumption of innocence, " he said.

"Can you imagine a jury sitting in the trial who know a High Court judge has looked at the evidence and said it is compelling and should lead to a conviction.

'Assault on human rights'

"We are getting into the position where defendants are being put through incredibly unfair trials."

He said the real problem was ineffectual police investigations into crimes when they are committed.

The Law Commission has stressed that its double jeopardy inquiry had no connection to the Lawrence murder or to any other case.

The Home Office's National Crime Faculty estimates there are 35 murder cases in which acquitted defendants could be charged again in the light of fresh evidence.

Current rules mean they cannot be re-tried, even if they confess or police discover new evidence.

We increase the chances of innocent people being convicted if we remove it

John Wadham
Liberty director
The Law Commission has also recommended that the prosecution should have the right to appeal against acquittals made on the direction of a judge.

Such appeals could be made where a case is halted on a point of law.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the results of another independent inquiry would be awaited before any moves to change the law.

Some lawyers believe that scrapping double jeopardy would be an assault on human rights.

John Wadham, director of civil rights organisation Liberty, described the law as "a fundamental part of our criminal justice system".

Defence barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC said a retrospective change in the law could be a breach of human rights.

He welcomed the call to allow second trials but said it was "irrational" to confine the change in the double jeopardy rule to just murder trials.

Michael Napier, president of the Law Society which represents 80,000 solicitors in England and Wales, said the organisation was not fundamentally opposed to a change in the law but questioned how a fair trial could be guaranteed.

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See also:

16 May 00 | UK Politics
Debate: Double jeopardy
25 Jan 00 | UK Politics
DPP queries 'double jeopardy' rule
24 Feb 99 | Stephen Lawrence
Double jeopardy: The defendant's friend
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