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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 17:28 GMT
Law on previous convictions may change
Roy Whiting
Roy Whiting was jailed for four years on a previous sex charge
The law which prevented the jury from learning about Roy Whiting's previous conviction for child abuse, could be changed.

The government is known to want reform of the legal principle which currently keeps the jury in the dark about a defendant's criminal past.

It meant that the jury did not know that Sarah Payne's killer had a conviction in 1995 for abducting and assaulting a nine-year-old girl.

Prosecutors had been refused permission to reveal the case - which showed striking similarities to the Sarah Payne case.

And it is only now that the details and the fact that Whiting was jailed for four years for the crime, can be made public.

The law governing previous convictions is a jealously-guarded principle of English law.

'Similar fact evidence'

Lawyers have always argued that giving details of a defendant's past crimes would lead to wrongful convictions because it would unduly influence the jury.

There are only certain specific times when previous convictions can be told to the jury, outlined in an 1898 Act.

This "similar fact evidence" as it is known was used in the cases against Rosemary West and the serial rapist Nicholas Edwards.

In the trial of Barry George, convicted of murdering television presenter Jill Dando, the jury was not told of his earlier conviction for attempted rape because it was deemed too dissimilar.

But there are calls for a change in the law.

Lord Justice Auld said in his major review of the criminal justice system, published in October, that this area of the law was "highly unsatisfactory in its complexity and uncertainty".

Value vs risk

The senior appeal court judge said it was unfair to try to bolster a weak prosecution case by bringing up previous convictions, but added that the current system could also be unfair to the defendant.


If the opening of a prosecution case is simply a run-through of all the bad things a person has done, the chances of successfully defending that person are greatly diminished

Mark Littlewood, Liberty

But the Law Commission, the independent body which recommends reform to the government, has published a report saying prejudicial evidence should be admissible "if it is relevant to a specific issue in the case".

It argues it should be presented if its value in proving an aspect of the case outweighed the risk of it prejudicing the jury against the defendant.

The government's commitment to changing the law was revealed in October when some confidential papers were left in a Westminster pub by Home Office officials.

Objections

The papers found there way to Fleet Street and were said to disclose that changing the rules on previous convictions was "a clear priority for the Prime Minister", ranking high on a list of priorities.

But there are objections to any change in the law, by civil rights campaigners who believe it will damage British justice.

Mark Littlewood, campaigns director of Liberty, said: "There's no doubt that revealing previous convictions significantly influences and alters the minds of jurors.

"We already have in place means to bring forward evidence of previous convictions if there is a stark comparison between earlier cases and current prosecutions.

"If the opening of a prosecution case is simply a run-through of all the bad things a person has done, the chances of successfully defending that person are greatly diminished."

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Catching a murderer

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29 Jun 00 | N Ireland
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