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Last Updated: Monday, 7 August 2006, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Sheridan perjury trial 'unlikely'
By Alistair Bonnington
BBC Scotland solicitor

Tommy Sheridan
The newspaper had to prove its claims about Tommy Sheridan
Perhaps predictably the end of the Sheridan v Scottish News of the World trial last week has not stopped the accusations and counter-accusations which were very much the hallmark of this remarkable case.

The News of the World and its witnesses, particularly those witnesses who are members of the Scottish Socialist Party opposed to Mr Sheridan, are resolutely sticking to their stories.

There has been talk of an investigation by the police into the possibility that the News of the World witnesses committed perjury when giving evidence at the civil trial over the past weeks.

As Lord Turnbull correctly pointed out at the Court of Session, perjury is an extremely serious crime. It is also notoriously difficult to prove.

It is necessary for the Crown to prove to the criminal standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" that the accused person gave false evidence on oath in a courtroom and did so wilfully.

This last point is important. It is not enough to say that the evidence was inaccurate; it must be shown that, when giving it, the accused knew what they were telling the court was false.

The accused persons I used to represent were almost universally willing to lie on oath when giving evidence to try to save their own skins

Traditionally, we have very few perjury persecutions in Scotland - despite the fact that an application of elementary logic tells you that perjury must be committed every day in almost every court in Scotland in criminal trials.

The accused persons I used to represent were almost universally willing to lie on oath when giving evidence to try to save their own skins.

When, as usually was the case, the sheriff rejected their evidence as false, there was no subsequent perjury prosecution.

Equally, when the Crown witnesses, sometimes police officers, were disbelieved by the sheriff, there was no follow-up inquiry about perjury.

So, setting all special factors aside, it is highly unlikely that there will be a perjury prosecution following on the civil jury trial in the Court of Session.

Bob Bird
It was a big defeat for Scottish News of the World editor Bob Bird

But in the Sheridan case this is particularly so, because the jury's verdict does not mean that they thought the News of the World witnesses were lying.

The News of the World, as a defender which had admitted the articles written about Mr Sheridan were defamatory of him, had in law the responsibility to prove to the court that their story was true.

As we lawyers say, the "onus of proof" lay on the News of the World's shoulders.

Plainly, it failed to discharge that onus, as the jury's verdict shows. But that does not necessarily mean that the jury thought the News of the World witnesses were telling lies.

Even if they did think that, how can anyone work out which witnesses they thought were liars and what parts of their evidence were deliberately falsified?

The Contempt of Court Act prevents anyone, even judges, finding that out. Questioning jurors is a crime.

The prospect of a lengthy, complicated and inevitably useless investigation into the possibility of perjury having been committed in the Sheridan case should fill the Scottish taxpayer with horror.

Rather than stamping their little feet like enraged children, the politicians and tabloid journalists concerned should move on

Why should precious resources be wasted on such a stupid exercise?

Politicians, particularly minor politicians, love nothing better than the limelight. They are psychologically incapable of stopping talking about themselves to journalists on a daily basis.

For that reason, it is highly likely that there will be difficulties holding a perjury trial before a jury because the potential accused persons would have rehearsed their arguments and tried to prove their innocence in the media beforehand.

Never forget that the standard of "beyond reasonable doubt" is a high standard to reach.

In a criminal prosecution arising out of the Sheridan case the witnesses would be tabloid journalists and Scottish politicians, two of the groups of people which all analysis demonstrates have rock-bottom credibility ratings with the public.

Surely no responsible prosecutor could be satisfied that it was in the public interest to proceed with a case in which the prospects of success for the Crown must be slim.

Insofar as it can, the law has fulfilled its full function in the Sheridan case. Rather than stamping their little feet like enraged children, the politicians and tabloid journalists concerned should move on.

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