Neill v North Antrim Magistrates' Court and Another

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
JudgeLord Templeman,Lord Ackner,Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle,Lord Browne-Wilkinson,Lord Mustill
Judgment Date12 November 1992
Judgment citation (vLex)[1992] UKHL J1112-1
Date12 November 1992
CourtHouse of Lords
North Antrim Magistrates' Court and Another

[1992] EWHC J1112-1

Lord Templeman

Lord Ackner

Lord Jauncey

Lord Browne-Wilkinson

Lord Mustill

House of Lords

Lord Templeman

My Lords,


For the reasons given by my noble and learned friend Lord Mustill I would allow this appeal.

Lord Ackner

My Lords,


I agree with the conclusions and reasons contained in the speech of my noble and learned friend, Lord Mustill and I too would accordingly allow the appeal and quash the committal for trial.

Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle

My Lords,


I have had the advantage of reading in draft the speech prepared by my noble and learned friend, Lord Mustill. I too would allow the appeal and quash the committal for trial.

Lord Browne-Wilkinson

My Lords,


I agree with the conclusions and reasons contained in the speech of my noble and learned friend Lord Mustill and would accordingly allow the appeal and quash the committal for trial.

Lord Mustill

My Lords,


This appeal, which stems from an unpleasant but familiar incident of violence, gives rise to issues of importance in relation to proceedings for committal for trial.


During the evening of 25th February 1991 the victim left home to make use of the cash dispenser at a bank in Coleraine. He parked his car and walked along Bridge Street towards the bank. He was then set upon. He suffered head injuries and his wallet disappeared. He remembered nothing of the incident when he recovered consciousness in hospital.


Meanwhile four young men, amongst them the appellant, Peter Neill, and John Connor, had been getting into trouble with the police. They were seen on the same evening by an off-duty police officer, drinking together in a public house not far from the place of the incident. Shortly before 1 o'clock the following morning they were seen in the victim's car outside the town. After a chase they were stopped by the police. Connor was the driver. Neill, who was in the front passenger seat, jumped out of the car and ran away.


All four young men made statements to the police. Connor said that after an exchange of words in the street Neill knocked the victim down, and another member of the group named Morton kicked him. Connor and the fourth man (Brown) ran away. A few minutes later Neill and Morton came up with them and handed Connor a set of car keys. He got into the victim's car and they drove away. Brown gave a somewhat similar story, although he did not speak of the assault itself.


By contrast Morton and Neill denied any knowledge of the incident. According to Morton he had not been in the town centre of Coleraine at all that evening, although he was one of the four men identified by the off-duty police officer in the public house. Neill admitted that he had been in the public house, but averred that he afterwards went to the home of an acquaintance named Kneeland, remaining there until he was picked up by Connor in the victim's car around midnight. This story, was, however, denied by Kneeland and his girlfriend, who said that Neill did not come to their house until early the following morning.


All these statements were before the Resident Magistrate at North Antrim Magistrates' Court when the four men appeared on a preliminary inquiry to answer charges of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, theft, taking a motor vehicle without consent, and using the vehicle without insurance, and were all committed for trial.


Thus far I have not mentioned two further witnesses whose written statements are central to this appeal. They were youths named Holmes and Kinnaird, who we are told live close to the four accused. In his statement Holmes spoke of four people walking behind a man up Bridge Street. One of them he identified as Brown. He walked past, but then came back and saw the man lying on the ground. He helped him up, and with Kinnaird took him to the police station. Kinnaird's story was that he had seen four men, amongst whom he identified Brown and Neill. They cornered the man, and then Neill kicked him to the ground. Afterwards he saw Brown and the other three boys kicking him about the face. One of them (not Brown or Neill) went through his pockets. After they went away Kinnaird helped Holmes to take the victim to the police station.


The statements of these two boys were amongst the evidence tendered to the Resident Magistrate at the preliminary inquiry. Neill's solicitor thereupon made a request that they should attend and give evidence on oath, in accordance with Article 34(2) of the Magistrates' Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 (hereafter "the 1981 order"). The Resident Magistrate then heard evidence from a police officer that on the previous day the mothers of the two boys had told him that their sons were afraid to come to court because of threats made to them, and that on the day of the hearing the mothers had come to the courthouse and confirmed that their sons were afraid to attend court or to leave their homes in the evenings. In these circumstances, after hearing argument, the Resident Magistrate admitted the boys' statements in evidence, pursuant to Article 3(3)(b) of the Criminal Justice (Evidence, Etc.) (Northern Ireland) Order 1988, on the ground that they had refused to give oral evidence through fear.


Taking these two statements together with the other material it is beyond question that there was sufficient material upon which the Resident Magistrate could properly commit all the accused for trial on all charges, and even without them Connor and Brown could have been committed on the basis of their own admissions. It has however been argued throughout on behalf of Neill that the Resident Magistrate should not have admitted the statements in evidence and that accordingly judicial review was available to quash the committal.


In the Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division (Crown Side), where the leading judgment was delivered by Sir Brian Hutton L.C.J., it was held that the statements were indeed inadmissible but that, even so, certiorari would not lie to quash the committal. Neill now appeals to this House, on a question of law certified as follows �

"Whether it is open to a Divisional Court of the Queen's Bench Division by order of certiorari to quash a committal of an accused for trial under Article 37(2) of the Magistrates' Courts (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 where the evidence which the Magistrates' Court found sufficient to put the accused upon trial by jury was inadmissible."


The Legislation


Although it will prove possible in the event to decide this appeal on quite narrow grounds certain issues of more general importance have been investigated, both in the judgment under appeal and in the arguments before the House, which I believe we cannot overlook. Very properly a considerable body of authority has been deployed in argument, and further material has subsequently come to light. Much of this is liable to be misunderstood, if taken out of context, especially since the law on committal for trial and on judicial review has not stood still. The authorities on the latter have by now become too familiar to need rehearsal but the statutory basis of committal for trial does require consideration at a little length.


First, as to the broad history. Here, I cannot improve on the summary given by Dawson J in Grassby v. The Queen (1989) 168 C.L.R. 1, at pp. 11-13, which I take leave to quote in full �

"A magistrate in conducting committal proceedings is exercising the powers of a justice of the peace. Justices originally acted, in the absence of an organized police force, in the apprehension and arrest of suspected offenders. Following the Statutes of Philip and Mary of 1554 and 1555 (1 & 2 Philip & Mary c. 13; 2 & 3 Philip & Mary c. 10), they were required to act upon information and to examine both the accused and the witnesses against him. The inquiry was conducted in secret and one of its main purposes was to obtain evidence to present to a grand jury. The role of the justices was thus inquisitorial and of a purely administrative nature. It was the grand jury, not the justices, who determined whether the accused should stand trial.

With the establishment of an organized police force in England in 1829, the role of the justices underwent change. The most significant factor in this change was in The Indictable Offences Act 1848 (U.K.) (11 & 12 Vict. c. 42), 'sir John Jervis' Act', which provided for witnesses appearing before the justices to be examined in the presence of the accused and to be cross-examined by the accused or his counsel. Depositions of the evidence were to be taken down in writing and signed by the magistrate and the accused. The accused was no longer obliged to be examined. He was to be invited to make a statement and was to be cautioned with the now familiar words: 'Having heard the evidence, do you wish to say anything in answer to the charge? You are not obliged to say anything unless you desire to do so, but whatever you say will be taken down in writing, and may be given in evidence against you upon your trial.' The Act went on to provide that 'if, in the opinion of such justice or justices such evidence is sufficient to put the accused party upon his trial for an indictable offence, or if the evidence given raise[s] a strong or probable presumption of the guilt of such accused party, then such justice or justices shall, by his or their warrant, commit him to the common gaol or house of correction � or admit him to bail �'

The provisions of Sir John Jervis' Act established committal proceedings in essentially the same form as they are today and were adopted in New South Wales in 1850: Justices of the Peace (Adopting) Act 1850 (N.S.W.) (14 Vict. No. 43); see now Justices Act 1902 (N.S.W.), s. 41. It is to be noted that even under Sir John Jervis' Act the...

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