Public Prosecution Service v McKee; Public Prosecution Service v Elliott


[2013] UKSC 32


Easter Term

On appeal from: [2011] NICA 61


Lord Neuberger, President

Lady Hale

Lord Mance

Lord Kerr

Lord Hughes

Public Prosecution Service
McKee (AP)
(Appellant) (Northern Ireland)
Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland
Elliott (AP)
(Appellant) (Northern Ireland)

Appellant (McKee)

Ken McMahon QC

Michael McComb BL

(Instructed by Richard Monteith LLB Solicitors)


David Hunter QC

Stephanie Boyd BL

(Instructed by PPS of Northern Ireland)

Appellant (Elliot)

Ken McMahon QC

Richard Smyth BL

(Instructed by Kenneth McKee & Co Solicitors)


David Hunter QC

Stephanie Boyd BL

(Instructed by PPS of Northern Ireland)

Heard on 22 April 2013

Lord Hughes (with whom Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale, Lord ManceandLord Kerragree)


The issue in this appeal is: what are the statutory consequences if the fingerprints of a defendant have been taken in a police station in Northern Ireland by an electronic device for which the legislation required approval from the Secretary of State, when such approval has never been given? In particular, is any evidence which makes use of the control fingerprints thus taken inadmissible in any subsequent court proceedings?


Article 61 of the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 ("the Northern Ireland Order") sets out the powers of the police to take fingerprints without consent. Similar (but not in every respect identical) provision is made for England and Wales by section 61 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. These powers are exhaustively defined; otherwise prints may only be taken with consent —see article 61(1) and, in England and Wales, section 61(1). The cases where prints may be taken without consent have been varied a little from time to time and do not need to be set out seriatim here. One of the principal cases, however, was and is where a person is in police detention having either been arrested for a reportable offence, or charged with, or informed that he will be reported for, such. Another is where he has been convicted of such an offence. Generally, fingerprints may be taken once only in the course of any single investigation, although there are now provisions permitting replacement prints to be required if the first ones were of insufficient quality to allow satisfactory analysis, comparison or matching.


Between 1 March 2007 and 12 January 2010 article 61(8B) of the Northern Ireland Order provided:

"Where a person's fingerprints are taken electronically, they must be taken only in such manner, and using such devices, as the Secretary of State has approved for the purposes of electronic fingerprinting."

That provision matched an intended section 61(8A) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which latter provision was inserted into the 1984 Act by the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 but was never brought into force. Both article 61(8B) and section 61(8A) were later repealed as redundant by section 112 and schedule 8 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, with effect from 12 January 2010, and with that repeal there disappeared from England and Wales and from Northern Ireland all requirement for statutory approval of fingerprinting devices.

However, although the requirement for approval existed in Northern Ireland (but not in England and Wales) from 1 March 2007, such approval was, by oversight, not given to any device until it was belatedly provided on 29 March 2009 after the omission had been noticed. It follows that for the two years from March 2007 to March 2009 article 61(8B) was in force but no device had been approved as contemplated by it.


The two appellants were defendants charged with theft in Northern Ireland. The offence was alleged to have taken place on 6 October 2007, during the two-year period mentioned. A stack of building materials had been found removed from the owners' depot and placed apparently ready for collection by the thieves. The appellants were found nearby in a van but said that they were there innocently and had not been near the stolen materials. Their fingerprints were taken when they were detained in the police station after their arrest. A fingerprint matching Elliott's left thumb was found on the packaging of the stolen materials. The match of fingerprints was relied upon by the Crown and proved in the magistrates' court. The defendants were convicted.


The device used in the police station to collect the control sample of the fingerprints of each appellant was a combination of camera, scanner and computer, known as 'Livescan'. No-one noticed that no type approval had been given for its use as required by article 61(8B). When this was appreciated, the appellants appealed to the County Court, where the appeal proceeded by way of fresh hearing ab initio. The preliminary point was taken that the evidence of comparison was inadmissible because of the absence of approval. That argument succeeded before the County Court judge but on further appeal by the Crown, by way of case stated, the Court of Appeal ruled against it.


The Livescan process was and is generally used by the police throughout Northern Ireland, as well as throughout England and Wales and Scotland and, indeed, worldwide. It has very largely superseded the traditional process of ink pad and paper. It is possible to have mobile devices as well as those located in police stations. Both are linked directly to computerised storage and searching equipment located centrally. Amongst the advantages is the ease of electronic transmission, storage and sorting of the prints taken. One aspect of that is that a set of fingerprints given at a scene or in the street can now often almost instantaneously verify or refute the identity of the person tested. Another is that international exchange of data is made much easier. Livescan devices were in general use in Northern Ireland from 2006 and throughout the two-year period 2007–2009 when type approval was required by article 61(8B).


For the appellants, the first and principal submission of Mr McMahon QC is that the language of article 61(8B) unequivocally renders a nullity any fingerprints taken by a device which has not been approved. Therefore, no legal use can be made of them. For this reason, there is, he submits, no occasion to investigate what consequences Parliament must have intended should follow from a failure to use an approved device. That would be necessary only if there were an ambiguity in the wording. There is none, and it necessarily follows that the product of an unapproved fingerprinting process is inadmissible. Any other conclusion would, he submits, leave article 61(8B) a dead letter.


The difficulty with this attractively simple submission is that the statute says nothing at all about the consequences of failure to use an approved device. There is ample precedent for such a statutory provision to be accompanied by an express provision that evidence shall only be admissible if obtained in accordance with it. An example is afforded by the statutory rules relating to evidence of speed provided by speed guns. Section 20 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 provides, for England and Wales:

"(1) Evidence…of a fact relevant to proceedings for an offence to which this section applies may be given by the production of -

  • (a) a record produced by a prescribed device, and

  • (b) …

(4) A record produced or measurement made by a prescribed device shall not be admissible as evidence of a fact relevant to proceedings for an offence to which this section applies unless -

(a) the device is of a type approved by the Secretary of State, and

(b) any conditions subject to which the approval was given are satisfied."

Identical provisions are contained in the equivalent Northern Ireland legislation: article 23(1) and (4) of the Road Traffic Offenders (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. There are provisions to similar effect in section 6 of the Noise Act 1996, and in section 45 of the Antisocial Behaviour etc (Scotland) Act 2004, in respect of noise meters. The absence of this kind of explicit statutory provision from article 61(8B) thus raises the question of what consequence was intended to follow from non-approval.


This legislation was enacted against the background of the well understood general common law rule that evidence which has been unlawfully obtained does not automatically thereby become inadmissible. That has been clear since at least the decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Kuruma v The Queen [1955] AC 197, where the defendant was charged with unlawful possession of ammunition which had been found on him as a result of an unlawful search, carried out by a policeman of insufficient seniority to make it. Lord Goddard CJ said this at p 203:

"In their Lordships' opinion the test to be applied in considering whether evidence is admissible is whether it is relevant to the matters in issue. If it is, it is admissible and the court is not concerned with how the evidence was obtained."

This proposition was endorsed by the House of Lords in R v Sang [1980] AC 402, which dealt more specifically with the judge's discretion to exclude evidence which will have the effect of rendering the trial unfair (see now section 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and its equivalent, article 76 of the Northern Ireland Order). Likewise in R v Khan [1997] AC 558 evidence obtained by unauthorised surveillance and the secret recording of private conversations was admissible despite the unlawful methods by which it had been obtained. The position was summarised by Lord Fraser, with whom all other members of the House of Lords agreed, in Fox v Chief Constable of Gwent [1986] AC 281, 292A as follows:

"It is a well established rule of English law, which was recognised in R v Sang, that (apart from...

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