Shirley Summerskill – 1978 Speech on the Maxwell Confait Case

Below is the text of the speech made by Shirley Summerskill, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, in the House of Commons on 13 April 1978.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) has raised the subject of Sir Henry Fisher’s report, because I can give him some of the reassurance that he seeks.

Perhaps I should explain that the report arose because the convictions of the three boys—Colin Lattimore, Ronald Leighton and Ahmet Salih—were referred by the then Home Secretary to the Court of Appeal in 1975. Four months later, their convictions were quashed by the court and they were immediately released.

In view of the public concern which arose following the Appeal Court judgment, the Government announced in November 1975 the setting up of an independent inquiry to investigate the circumstances leading to the trial of the three boys. Sir Henry Fisher, a former High Court judge, was invited to conduct the inquiry.

Because the inquiry took place in private, certain understandings of confidentiality were necessarily given in respect of the evidence submitted. This relates to the last point that my hon. Friend raised. It was on this basis that witnesses gave evidence. It would be a breach of faith if the inquiry documents were made public now or, as my hon. Friend suggested, if they were made available to research workers or to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure. I doubt whether there would be much advantage in this, in that Sir Henry Fisher made it clear that his report was prepared in such a way that its findings would be supported by extensive references to the evidence. My right hon. ​ Friend the Home Secretary is, however, considering the possibility that the Royal Commission might have access to some parts of the unpublished evidence, and he will write to my hon. Friend about this in the near future.

I turn to Sir Henry Fisher’s findings about the involvement of the three youths which, on a balance of probabilities, were different both from those of the trial court and from those of the Court of Appeal. At the trial, Colin Lattimore and Ronald Leighton were convicted of killing Maxwell Confait and they and Ahmet Salih—who did not stand trial for the killing—were convicted of arson. Sir Henry Fisher’s finding was that Ronald Leighton and Ahmet Salih were involved in the killing and that all three youths took part in the arson.

With regard to the youths’ legal status now, the simple answer is that their convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal. That is equivalent to an acquittal and, so far as the criminal law is concerned, that is the end of the matter. There is no conceivable way in which the criminal courts could examine the matter afresh. There is no right of appeal by the prosecution, and the Home Secretary has no power to refer the case again to the Court of Appeal, even if he wished to do so.

My hon. Friend asked what view the Home Secretary takes on Sir Henry Fisher’s findings on the balance of probabilities. It would be improper for the Home Secretary to express a view one way or the other. The proper authority for determining questions of guilt is the courts, and he cannot prefer his own view to theirs. As I have said, in law the youths’ convictions have been quashed.

It has been said that the present situation is unsatisfactory for all concerned. But it is not correct to say that Sir Henry Fisher found the young men guilty. He was not conducting a trial, and he said no more than that he found, on the balance of probabilities, that they were involved in the offences. The young men have not been placed in this situation by the Government or other public authority. They and their advisers pressed for the inquiry to be held, and at the inquiry, and in all matters relating to it, the young men were fully represented by solicitors and counsel.

With regard to compensation, the former Home Secretary agreed when the three young men’s convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal that they were eligible for ex gratia compensation by the Home Office. Interim payments were made of amounts recommended by the independent assessor to whom such cases are customarily referred, but it was decided that a final assessment would have to await Sir Henry Fisher’s findings. In reply to a Question by my hon. Friend on 13th December 1977, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that if the young men wished he would refer all three cases for further consideration by the assessor. Their legal advisers informed the Home Office that they wished to proceed, and, after consultation with them about the terms of the memorandum to be sent to the assessor, the cases were referred to him at the beginning of March. I understand that the applicants’ legal advisers have since made representations direct to the assessor.

The assessor has not yet made recommendations to the Home Secretary. In doing so he will, in accordance with the normal procedure, have regard to the extent to which the convictions were attributable to any action or failure to act by the police or other public authority or were contributed to by the accused persons’ own conduct. Sir Henry Fisher has things to say on both counts which the assessor may wish to take into account. It would not be right to exclude these matters from the assessor’s consideration or to seek to influence him in any other way.

I turn now to the broader policy aspects of criminal law and procedure on which Sir Henry Fisher has put forward a number of valuable suggestions. Sir Henry himself accepted that changes which he suggested would need further examination by a body like a Royal Commission. Many of his more substantial suggestions fall into this category, including his proposals relating to the Judges’ Rules. I think it is common ground among us that this task can most appropriately be done by the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, which was announced last June by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

This inevitably means some delay, but, having set up a Royal Commission, we ​ must give it the opportunity to weigh all the relevant considerations. In doing so the Commission will need to consider not only the particular suggestions put forward by Sir Henry Fisher but the views of others with an interest in those areas, including those whose views may run counter to the suggestions expressed in the report. It is not an excuse for inactivity, but is will cover a wide range of possible reforms in the law. It is eagerly awaited by many people.

With regard to the other point which my hon. Friend made, the Royal Commission’s research will not be controlled by the Home Office research unit. It is for the Royal Commission itself to decide what research it needs to assist it in its work and how it should be organised. It can have research done by anyone it likes. It can go anywhere that it wishes. It is up to the Royal Commission entirely.

While any substantive changes in the whole area covered by the Judges’ Rules must await the views of the Royal Commission, my right hon. Friend has announced his intention to reissue in one document the Judges’ Rules, the administrative directions to the police and the related Home Office circulars, so as to ensure that they are well known to the police and to members of the legal profession. This publication should appear well before the Summer Recess. In the Metropolitan Police, the Commissioner has issued a recent force order emphasising the importance of complying with the rules and directions. I understand that my hon. Friend has recently written about this to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is considering whether these orders can be published. It would be inappropriate for me to comment at length on this request at this stage beyond saying that it is a long-established practice not to publish Metropolitan Police general orders which include information on police operational matters.

My hon. Friend asked about the Government’s attitude towards the tape recording of police interrogations. Following the report published in 1976 by the Home Office committee which looked into the feasibility of an experiment in tape recording, we consulted a number of individuals and organisations with an interest in the subject. I must stress that, far from being unanimous, their views ​ showed a remarkable divergence, and no unanimity of view emerged about whether an experiment would be desirable. The Home Office has now submitted a memorandum to the Royal Commission inviting it to consider whether it wishes to submit any views to the Government on a possible tape recording experiment and the form which this might take. I assure my hon. Friend that, in the light of the Commission’s views, the Government will decide whether to go ahead with an experiment.

I also assure my hon. Friend that not all the policy topics raised in Sir Henry Fisher’s report need await the Royal Commission. My Rt. Hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has arranged for the examination of certain suggestions which affect the responsibilities and staffing of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Working parties set up by the Director of Public Prosecutions are already considering Sir Henry Fisher’s findings on these points. In particular, they are looking at the review of the Prosecution of Offences Regulations 1946 and, in relation to cases committed for trial, the disclosure to the defence of statements and other information in the possession of ​ the prosecution, and the editing of witness statements.

My Department has also arranged for Sir Henry’s suggestions in regard to pathologists and their reports to be examined. In addition, Sir Henry’s suggestions about the submission of the police report to the Director of Public Prosecutions have been drawn to the notice of the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has agreed to ensure that they are brought to the attention of all police forces, including those responsible for detective training schools.

Sir Henry Fisher’s report is a valuable document on what is in many ways a distressing case. There have been lessons to be learned from it for all of us. In reserving judgment on a number of wider issues, my rt hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in no way dismissing what Sir Henry had to say, but the areas are so important that we must move forward with great care. We shall move forward, and we are moving forward. That is why I have put a good deal of emphasis on awaiting the views of the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure.