Myers v DPP

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
JudgeLord Reid,Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest,Lord Hodson,Lord Pearce,Lord Donovan
Judgment Date17 June 1964
Judgment citation (vLex)[1964] UKHL J0617-2
CourtHouse of Lords
Date17 June 1964
Director of Public Prosecutions

[1964] UKHL J0617-2

Lord Reid

Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest

Lord Hodson

Lord Pearce

Lord Donovan

House of Lords

Upon Report from the Appellate Committee, to whom was referred the Cause Myers against Director of Public Prosecutions (on Appeal from the Court of Criminal Appeal), that the Committee had heard Counsel, as well on Thursday the 23d, as on Monday the 27th, Tuesday the 28th and Wednesday the 29th, days of April last, upon the Petition and Appeal of James William Myers, praying, That the matter of the Order set forth in the Schedule thereto, namely an Order of Her Majesty's Court of Criminal Appeal, of the 6th of March 1964, might be reviewed before Her Majesty the Queen, in Her Court of Parliament, and that the said Order might be reversed, varied or altered, or that the Petitioner might have such other relief in the premises as to Her Majesty the Queen in Her Court of Parliament, might seem meet; and Counsel having been heard on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Respondent in the said Appeal; and due consideration had this day of what was offered on either side in this Cause:

It is Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in the Court of Parliament of Her Majesty the Queen assembled, That the said Order of Her Majesty's Court of Criminal Appeal, of the 6th day of March 1964, complained of in the said Appeal, be, and the same is hereby Affirmed, and that the said Petition and Appeal be, and the same is hereby, dismissed this House.

Lord Reid

My Lords,


The Appellant was convicted, together with another man, on several counts relating to the theft of motor cars. His scheme was to buy for small sums, but, curiously, not very small sums, wrecked cars together with their log books issued by the local authorities on registration. Having bought a wrecked car he then stole a car as nearly as possible identical with the wrecked car and proceeded to disguise the stolen car so that it corresponded in every respect with the particulars of the wrecked car noted in its log book. He could then, as he thought, safely sell the disguised stolen car together with the genuine log book of the wrecked car.


The log book contains a chassis number and an engine number, and these had therefore to be transferred, together with the wrecked car's number plates, from it to the stolen car. As the chassis number and engine number appear on small plates which can be detached from the chassis or engine it was not difficult to substitute the genuine chassis and number plates taken from the wrecked car for those on the stolen car.


But a great deal of evidence of various kinds was adduced against the Appellant in a trial which lasted for I think 29 days, and the Appellant was shown to be involved in the thefts of nearly twenty cars. Owners of the stolen cars identified the disguised cars as their cars by dents, scratches or other features. The Appellant's defence was that he had rebuilt the wrecked cars which he bought and had had nothing to do with the stolen cars. This was contradicted by the evidence of expert insurance assessors, who had examined some of the wrecked cars before they were written off and sold to the Appellant and who testified that for various reasons the disguised cars could not possibly be the wrecked cars rebuilt. In some cases the stolen cars had been repainted to correspond with the colour of the wrecked car and in these cases there was evidence that below the paint of the disguised car there was paint of the original colour of the stolen car. And in premises occupied by the Appellant there had been found number plates and other parts of the stolen cars which had been discarded in the process of disguising them.


But there was also very cogent evidence in the case of a few cars derived from records kept by Austins, the manufacturers, at their Longbridge Works, and the question of law in this case is whether that evidence was rightly admitted. It appeared that when each car is being assembled it is accompanied by a card on which it is the duty of the workman concerned to copy particulars of the car. So there is copied on to the card the chassis number and the engine number which the workman sees on the car. But there is also another number, known as the block number, which is indelibly stamped on the engine: and this too is entered on the card. These cards were photographed on to microfilms and then destroyed and the microfilms were produced by a witness responsible for these records who also transcribed the particulars from the microfilms. If these records were admissible evidence they proved that when a particular car left the works it bore three particular numbers—the chassis and engine numbers on detachable plates and the block number. But when the disguised car was examined it bore two numbers which the records showed belonged to the wrecked car and one, the block number, which the records showed belonged to the stolen car. As the latter number was incapable of alteration this evidence proved conclusively that the disguised car was the stolen car and not the wrecked car rebuilt.


The reason why this evidence is maintained to have been inadmissible is that its cogency depends on hearsay. The witness could only say that a record made by someone else showed that, if the record was correctly made, a car had left the works bearing three particular numbers. He could not prove that the record was correct or that the numbers which it contained were in fact the numbers on the car when it was made. This is a highly technical point but the law regarding hearsay evidence is technical, and I would say absurdly technical. So I must consider whether in the existing state of the law that objection to the admissibility of this evidence must prevail.


It is difficult to make any general statement about the law of hearsay evidence which is entirely accurate but I think that the books show that in the seventeenth century the law was fluid and uncertain but that early in the eighteenth century it had become the general rule that hearsay evidence was not admissible. Many reasons for the rule have been put forward but we do not know which of them directly influenced the judges who established the rule. The rule has never been absolute. By the nineteenth century many exceptions had become well established, but again in most cases we do not know how or when the exception came to be recognised. It does seem however that in many cases there was no justification either in principle or logic for carrying the exception just so far and no farther. One might hazard a surmise that when the rule proved highly inconvenient in a particular kind of case it was relaxed just sufficiently far to meet that case, and without regard to any question of principle. But this kind of judicial legislation became less and less acceptable and well over a century ago the patchwork which then existed seems to have become stereotyped. The natural result has been the growth of more and more fine distinctions so that it now takes even so concise an author as Professor Cross over 100 closely packed pages to explain the law of hearsay evidence.


Two cases in this House illustrate the position during the latter part of last century. In Sturla v. Freccia 5 App. Cas. 623 a report prepared about 1790 by high officials for the Government of the Republic of Genoa was held inadmissible as evidence of the truth of statements made in it. Lord Hatherley said:

"I have anxiously listened to see whether or not there was any case made by the Appellants which could at all be brought within the range of the now very numerous authorities which have settled and determined, with tolerable precision, the rule to be adopted with reference to evidence which may come within the class of hearsay evidence, for it really amounts to no more than that. The exceptions which have been made I need not go through or attempt to classify"


(p. 634). And Lord Blackburn said:

"It is not disputed that the general rule of English law is that hearsay evidence is not receivable, one reason probably is the want of the safeguards of cross-examination; however, undoubtedly, the law is that, as a general rule, hearsay evidence is not admissible. But to that a great many exceptions have been introduced. I do not say that if we were but beginning to make the law, we should be able to say exactly why so much should be admitted and no more, probably it would be difficult to say that in all cases: but the exceptions have been established and exist, and we have to see whether this case comes within any one of those."


In Woodward v. Goulstone 11 App. Cas. 469 the question was whether a lost will was set up by parole evidence. There this House considered views expressed in the Court of Appeal in Sugden v. Lord St. Leonards L.R. 1 P.D. 154. In that case it would seem that there was approval of a considerable extension of an existing exception and Jessel M.R. sought to justify it in principle. But in this House Lord Herschell L.C. said:

"It appears to me that if that view be adopted the extension of those principles to a case like the present would equally afford authority for many additional exceptions hitherto unknown to the law. It is much broader than would merely support the particular extension of the exceptions which the Master of the Rolls was then upholding; and I cannot help feeling that for the Courts to add at will from time to time any new exceptions which appear to be capable of being supported on principles similar to those which have been long established would be introducing a dangerous uncertainty into the law of evidence." (p 480).


I find no sign of a more liberal approach in any of the speeches in these two cases. And since the latter was decided in 1886, there appears to be no case in which any new exception or any...

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