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Criminal Defence Articles

What happens for a first offence of Perverting the Course of Justice?

Even if you are a first-time offender, you could face prison time if you are convicted of perverting the course of justice. That said, only serious cases of perverting the course of justice will be prosecuted; the CPS will not bring this charge every time a person is found to have misled the court or the police. When deciding whether to bring this charge, the CPS are required to consider whether it is in the public interest. This means that there are occasions where a witness will be found to have lied to the court, but where it is not worthwhile for the CPS to prosecute for perverting the course of justice. However, if you are convicted of perverting the course of justice, you are likely to face a substantial sentence. This article explains the offence of perverting the course of justice, and the sentence that you could face if you are convicted for the first time.

What is the offence of perverting the course of justice?

Perverting the course of justice relates to interfering with the due process of the courts and law enforcement. It is a common law offence, which means that it has been defined over the years by the courts, hence the archaic language in which it is described. The elements of the offence are as follows:

  • you commit an act or series of acts
  • which has/have the tendency to pervert, or are intended to pervert
  • the course of public justice

The course of justice refers to court proceedings that are underway or imminent. This can include civil as well as criminal cases.

A person should only be convicted of this offence if they intended to deceive law enforcement or the police with their actions. If false information is provided unknowingly, i.e. it was an honest mistake, there is a defence that can be put forward by the defendant.

Is making false statements a crime in the UK?

Whether or not making a false statement is a crime depends on the context in which it is made. Where the false statement is made to the police, it could constitute the offence of perverting the course of justice. For example, if you say something to the police in a police interview that transpires to be untrue, or if you falsely report an item as stolen when you are aware that it has not been stolen, this would be perverting the course of justice. Making a false allegation of a crime against a person is also perverting the course of justice, even if you do not intend that the person should be arrested.

Is it illegal to not help a police officer in the UK?

Whether not helping a police officer is illegal depends on the specifics of what has taken place. Wasting police time is a crime in England and Wales pursuant to Section 5(2) of the Criminal Law Act 1967. This is a less serious offence than perverting the course of justice. Wasting police time is an offence that is triable only summarily, i.e. in the Magistrates’ Court.

It is defined as: ‘where a person causes any wasteful employment of the police by knowingly making to any person a false report tending to show that an offence has been committed, or to give rise to apprehension for the safety of any persons or property or tending to show that he has information material to any police inquiry.’

In addition, it is an offence to accept money or another form of payment in response to an agreement to withhold information from the police pursuant to Section 5(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1967. This offence can lead to a custodial sentence of up to 2 years.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) must give their consent before either of these offences are prosecuted. This means that they will usually only be tried in the most serious of cases.

What happens if you are suspected of perverting the course of justice in the UK?

If you are suspected of perverting the course of justice, you will be arrested and taken to the police station. You will then be interviewed under caution. This is your opportunity to explain your version of events to the police if you so wish. Alternatively, you can exercise your right to remain silent or hand in a written statement. The best course of action depends on the circumstances of your case and the evidence against you. You have the right to confidential legal advice prior to your police interview, and to have a legal representative present during the interview. For a serious charge such as perverting the course of justice, it is worthwhile discussing your options with your lawyer.

Once the police have completed their investigation, they will send the case to the CPS for a charging decision to be made. If you are charged, you will either be handed the charge sheet at the police station or you could receive it in the post by way of a postal requisition. Although perverting the course of justice is an indictable only offence (which means that the trial will take place in the Crown Court), the first hearing will take place in the Magistrates’ Court.

What is the sentence for perverting the course of justice in the UK?

Perverting the course of justice will always be heard in the Crown Court. Because it is a common law offence, there is no statutorily defined maximum sentence and therefore the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Currently, there is no published guidance confirming the appropriate sentence for perverting the course of justice. However, the Sentencing Council has published its recommendations for the purpose of consultation only. The Sentencing Council recommends that the offence range should be between a community order and 7 years’ custody.

It also suggests that factors that would indicate high culpability, and these include:

  • conduct over a sustained period of time
  • sophisticated and/or planned nature of conduct
  • where the underlying offence from which the defendant sought to divert police attention is very serious

Conversely, factors that would reduce culpability include:

  • if the defendant was involved through coercion, intimidation, or exploitation
  • where the offender’s responsibility is substantially reduced by mental disorder or learning disability

Will I go to jail if this is my first time committing perverting the course of justice?

In all likelihood, if you are convicted of perverting the course of justice, you will go to jail. For public policy reasons, to deter individuals from manipulating the justice system, the courts take a hard line on individuals convicted of perverting the course of justice. Politicians and other well known individuals (such as Jonathan Aitkin and Jeffrey Archer) and have been known to have been given a prison sentence for perverting the course of justice. For this reason, it is very important to ensure that you have an experienced and reputable criminal defence solicitor representing you in your court case.

Mark Webb case

An example of the court’s approach to sentencing can be seen in the case of Mark Webb, a man from Bath who made serious false allegations against his neighbour Ms Avis leading her to be convicted of assault and threats to kill.

The threats to kill allegation arose from letters that Avis had supposedly written to Webb and his wife. The bail conditions imposed on Avis rendered her homeless. Meanwhile, Webb was treated as a vulnerable witness, which enabled him to give his evidence from behind a curtain.

Following sentencing, Webb completed a court form seeking compensation from his neighbour. The officer overseeing his compensation application noticed similarities between his handwriting and the writing in the threats to kill letters. Finally, the CPS instructed a handwriting expert. Whilst the expert opinion was awaited, Avis was sentenced by way of a fine and a suspended sentence. Eventually, the expert confirmed that the letters were written by Webb and accordingly, Avis was able to appeal to the Crown Court and have her convictions quashed.

Eventually, Webb pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 months’ custody for perverting the course of justice. The facts of this case demonstrate a serious effort to mislead the court into convicting an innocent person. Cases such as this will nearly always result in a prison sentence if they are discovered by the police.

Where to get further help

If you have been charged with perverting the course of justice, you are probably facing a custodial sentence if you are convicted. For this reason, make sure you have the best possible legal team on your side. At Stuart Miller Solicitors, we will take a proactive approach to your legal case. Where we feel that it is inappropriate for the state to expend resources on a prosecution, we will write to the prosecutor at the earliest opportunity and raise this. For the best possible results, instruct us as early as possible in your case. Contact us for a no obligation consultation today.

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