The offence of perverting the course of justice is committed when an accused:
- does an act or series of acts;
- which has or have a tendency to pervert the course of justice,
- and is intended to pervert the course of justice.
This increasingly prosecuted offence has gained high profile scalps, including Constance Briscoe, Chris Huhne, Vicky Pryce, Jonathan Aiken and Jeffery Archer. It is an indictable only offence which means that the case will be allocated immediately from the Magistrates' Court to the Crown Court because the Magistrates do not have jurisdiction to deal with such a serious offence. Perverting the course of justice is a common law offence, which means its origins are based in case law rather than statute. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment and / or a fine.
The most common offences charged as perverting the course of justice are; interfering with witnesses, concealing evidence and making false allegations of a crime.
Interfering with witnesses can include both actual witnesses and potential witnesses. The offence can be committed before a suspect has been arrested or charged with an offence. So long as an incident has occurred from which it can reasonably be expected that an investigation would take place. The act of attempting to influence a witness to change their account or discouraging a witness from reporting an offence or from attending court is an offence if it is done with the intention of preventing justice from being done.
Concealing evidence can also amount to an offence even before the police are aware that an incident has happened, again so long as it can be reasonably be expected that an investigation would take place. Common situations encountered in practise include washing clothes to remove forensic evidence such as blood, or disposing of drugs or weapons and can have the effect of landing family members and friends of the accused before the courts without them really appreciating the seriousness of their actions.
Reporting false allegations of a crime can often result in a more serious offence being committed. Examples of reporting false allegations of a crime include reporting a vehicle stolen after a car crash to cover for the fact that the driver had been drinking alcohol or was uninsured to drive the vehicle. A more serious example of reporting a false allegation of a crime includes making false allegations of serious offences such as rape. All those convicted of perverting the course of justice need to be alert to the likelihood of an immediate custodial sentence. It is imperative for anyone accused of such a serious offence to seek legal advice and be represented by someone suitably qualified and experienced.
Another commonly encountered situation is the act of taking a partner or family member's speeding points which on the face of it may not seem overly serious. However this behaviour is included in the wide remit of the offence of perverting the course of justice. The letters that are sent by the police requesting information about motoring offences are called notices of intended prosecution. There is a legal obligation to respond to the police identifying the driver that must be in the required format and include a warning that knowingly providing false information is an offence. If false information is intentionally provided then an offence is committed.
The case of R v Tunney  1 Cr App R. (S) 91 confirmed that the three factors to be born in mind by the sentencing judge are;
- the seriousness of the substantive offence,
- the degree of persistence, and,
- the effect of the attempt on justice itself.
If the accused admits the offence then these factors can greatly assist in mitigation if it can be highlighted that:
- the original offence was not particularly grave;
- that the offending behaviour was short lived;
- that the attempt was so unsophisticated that it did not result in significant resources being wasted to investigate;
- if blame was directed towards someone else, their inconvenience was limited.
When representing someone accused of perverting the course of justice a useful resource is the prosecution charging guidelines. Firstly, the prosecution will consider whether there is sufficient evidence and then they must consider whether it is in the public interest to prosecute. A number of the examples of offending behaviour referred to in this blog could easily be charged as a different (and in many cases less serious) offence. Wasting police time is often an appropriate alternative which remains only in the jurisdiction of the Magistrates' Court. It is imperative that lawyers are aware of alternative offences from the earliest stage so that representations can be made to the police, where appropriate, to resolve the case by police issuing a caution for an alternative offence. Proposing a suitable alternative where the offence is admitted at the Magistrates’ Court will prevent the case reaching the Crown Court.
Cartwright King is a national criminal defence law firm. If you have been charged with perverting the course of justice then you will need an experienced defence solicitor. Contact us for advice on 0845 894 1622 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for advice and assitance.