Belfast Telegraph

Verdict is awaited on law change
Juries may be told of past crimes during trials

By Chris Thornton
08 February 2005

The criminal records of burglars, joyriders and paedophiles will be told to juries if the Government adopts a law change proposed today.

The move - first revealed by the Belfast Telegraph last November - will bring Northern Ireland into line with rest of the UK.

Under the proposals, a judge can decide to reveal the previous convictions of thieves and child sex offenders if they are on trial for similar offences.

The previous legal principle in UK law was that defendants should be tried only on the basis of the offence with which they are accused. Previous convictions were not admissible in court unless the defence raised them.

Civil liberties groups have been uneasy about the planned change in Britain, but the NSPCC welcomed the move here, saying it would help protect children.

John Spellar, the NIO's Criminal Justice Minister, said the change would "give courts the opportunity to hear a wider range of relevant evidence in criminal cases".

The proposals are part of the Government's "bad character provisions", which allow prosecutions to use more information about "previous convictions and other misconduct, where such information is deemed as relevant by the judge and is likely to throw new light on a case without unduly prejudicing the fairness of the trial".

Mr Spellar said that in child sex and theft cases there should be a "strong presumption" on the judge's part that the information should be disclosed.

"For over a century the law has recognised that evidence of a defendant's previous convictions and other misconduct may be admitted in some circumstances.

"However, the confusing nature of the current rules make them difficult to apply and may mean that evidence of previous misconduct that seems clearly relevant is excluded from court.

"Trials should be a search for the truth and therefore the court should have all the relevant information available to help it to reach fair and proper decisions".

Consultation on the law change will take place until April 29.

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