Serious Crime, Criminal Justice and Courts and Armed Forces Bills

17 October 2014

In a Report published today, the Joint Committee on Human Rights expresses some concerns over provision in the Serious Crime Bill to extend extra-territorial jurisdiction to criminalise preparation or training abroad for terrorism.

The report notes that the definition of terrorism is one that could be applied broadly and the provisions in the Bill may therefore cause legal uncertainty, with implications for those travelling abroad for legitimate reasons such as delivering humanitarian aid. It also points out that there may be considerable practical difficulties in bringing prosecutions for such cases, not least because of the difficulty of gathering reliable evidence of activities abroad in conflict zones like Syria which are in such a state of flux.

While welcoming the Government’s assurance that measures in the Bill will be operationally useful and lead to prosecutions that cannot currently be brought, the Committee recommends that arrangements are made to report on and monitor both the number of prosecutions brought as a result of this proposed change in the law and the extent of its operational utility.

The Committee also

  • welcomes the clarification of the law that the current offence of child cruelty does cover psychological harm; 
  • in the light of the Government continuing to exclude 16 and 17 year olds from the protection of the child cruelty offence calls on the Government to review the area of law dealing with the definition of the age of a child in the UK;
  • welcomes the Government’s clarification concerning the safeguards around the new provisions on dealing with the seizure and forfeiture of drug-cutting agents;
  • is concerned about the over-broad definition of “computer misuse” in the Bill and recommends removal of certain elements of the definition in order to remove legal uncertainty;
  • recommends that amendments be made to the Bill to bring greater legal certainty to the threshold for restraint orders which freeze a person’s assets; and
  • recommends raising the threshold of the mens rea required for the offence of participation in the activities of an organised crime group proposed in the Bill.

The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill

The Committee also:

  • states its concerns about provisions in the Bill permitting the use of force on children in secure colleges to ensure good order and discipline and recommends that the Bill be amended so that reasonable force can only be used as a last resort, only for the purposes of preventing harm to the child or others and that only the minimum force necessary should be used;
  • restates its objection to a number of the Government’s proposed changes to judicial review, which in the Committee’s view go too far in restricting access to court to hold the Government to account for acting unlawfully, specifically with regard to the capping of costs, interveners’ costs, procedural defects and substantive outcomes, and the power of the Lord Chancellor to redefine public interest proceedings;
  • welcomes the Government giving further consideration to the need for specific legislation to provide better protection for the privacy of victims of revenge pornography;
  • expresses itself satisfied with the extent of judicial discretion available in relation to the proposed mandatory sentencing provisions for possession of a knife; and
  • believes that the criminal, not civil, standard of proof should be applied with regard to provisions in the Bill proposing to strike out personal injury claims involving fundamental dishonesty.

The Committee also reports on the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill. It notes that too many safeguards for independence are left to be "agreed" between the new Ombudsman and the Secretary of State and/or the Armed Forces, and are therefore not, by their very nature, "guarantees" of independence. It calls for the Bill to be amended to increase the appearance of independence of the Ombudsman.

Dr Hywel Francis MP, the Chair of the Committee, said

"We are concerned that the Government is introducing broad and uncertain definitions into the law, often to deal with serious crimes such as terrorism, but which are likely to place some individuals in the position of not knowing whether or not they at risk of committing an offence, for example if they travel to deliver humanitarian assistance in a conflict zone – and the legal uncertainty over definitions will also cause problems for the courts.
We are also concerned about authorising the use of force on children to ensure “good order and discipline” in secure colleges, and we want to see that broad power narrowed down.  The Government’s proposed reforms to judicial review also go too far, because they will make it too difficult for people to go to court to hold the Government to account for acting unlawfully. As we said in our Report on Judicial Review earlier this year, this is about upholding the rule of law, and we hope the House of Lords will amend the Bill in ways we have recommended. This ought to stop the Government from making it more difficult for it to be challenged in court.
However, we welcome the good things in these Bills, with regard to the Service Complaints Ombudsman and particularly with regard to provisions dealing with the protection of children, although here the law seems increasingly to be in a muddle about the definition of ‘child’ in UK law, something the Government really needs to look into."

Further information

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