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Tuesday, 3 July, 2001, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Should juries know of someone's 'previous'?
Old Bailey
The Old Bailey: Are juries working in the dark?
Should juries know what kind of person is in the dock? Or is it crucial to the fairness of our justice system that they don't? The subject is up for grabs.

After five days of deliberating over whether they believed Barry George murdered Jill Dando, the jury reached their verdict. Guilty, they said.

Barry George's record
Imitating an officer
Assault
Attempted rape
Shortly after they announced their decision, the details of George's personal background were read out in court by the policeman who had led the inquiry, Detective Superintendent Hamish Campbell.

George had been fined in 1980 for three offences, he said: imitating a police officer, forging a police identity card, and approaching a member of the public saying he was a police officer.

A year later, he was sentenced to three months for assaulting a woman, suspended for two years.

Two years after that, he was jailed for 30 months for attempted rape.

Whether knowing these facts in advance would have had any effect on the jury's decisions will forever be a matter of speculation.

But it is true that some juries in the past have complained of being hamstrung by not knowing the full facts of someone's past. Especially so in cases where they have found someone not guilty, only to then hear of dozens of similar previous convictions.

Any indication of the character of the person they are discussing would be useful, the reasoning goes.

Principled stand

But it has long been a principle of law that juries should not have this information, because the jury should be convinced of someone's guilt based solely on the evidence of the case in hand.

Just because the defendant may have committed crimes in the past does not mean they are guilty of this one.

Whitemoor Prison: Scene of escape
Whitemoor Prison: Scene of escape
So strong a principle has it been that cases have been abandoned altogether because juries have wrongly been told about defendants' "previous".

In 1997, a trial of six men who had escaped from Whitemoor prison in Cambridge was abandoned, because the Evening Standard had published an article which referred to the previous convictions of some of them - they were members of the IRA.

The paper was fined 40,000 for its mistake.

All change

There are proposals, however, that this traditional legal position should be changed.

Recent case law has seen more instances in which evidence of previous conduct can be used, including offences for which the defendant was acquitted.

They can also be used where the defence calls into question the character of a prosecution witness, or indeed where the defendant puts his or her own character at issue.

But the government has proposed that the law could be further simplified by approaching the subject from the other direction.

In other words, allow evidence of previous convictions to be used where it is relevant, providing it does not have too much of a prejudicial effect on the case.

This plan has been criticised by the Law Society, and also by civil rights group Liberty.

A spokesman for Liberty said court cases were about proving a defendant "did it this time, not about assumptions based on something they might have done previously".

Safeguards

The government is, however, confident that the built-in safeguards will prevent fair trials being jeopardised.

Whether the proposal will come into law is not clear, however.

A review of the criminal justice system is being conducted at the moment by Sir Robin Auld, and it is expected that he will make some recommendation on the matter.

The Law Commission, which makes proposals for legal reform, has also conducted a consultation exercise on the subject.

It is expected to make a report shortly.

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