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11 March 2013

Three things we have learned from the Huhne and Pryce Trial

What is significant about these two convictions for perverting the course of justice, asks David Allen Green.

By David Allen Green

“Marital coercion” has no place in a modern criminal justice system

In 1925, Parliament abolished the old common law rule that an offence committed by a wife in the presence of her husband is committed under the coercion of the husband. However, it was replaced with a statutory defence that “on a charge against a wife for any offence other than treason or murder it shall be a good defence to prove that the offence was committed in the presence of, and under the coercion of, the husband”.

This defence was not open to husbands coerced by wives, or to unmarried women (still less to anyone in a civil partnership). Lawyers even disagreed on whether the burden of proof for invoking this defence was on the defence or the onus was on the prosecution to disprove. In this trial, the judge ruled that the onus was on the prosecution to disprove. But the wider issue remains: should this (undoubtedly discriminatory) defence even exist at all, when there is also a general (but less generous) defence of duress in English criminal law.

Juries should be allowed to ask basic questions

The jury in the first Pryce trial asked some fairly basic questions of the judge. Some pundits responded to this with ridicule. However, the defence of “maritial coercion” was not straightforward in either legal or evidential terms, and the jury was right to ask questions. After all, a jury asking questions is a sign of a legal system working.

Newspaper exclusives do not come easily

The publication of the email and other correspondence between Vicky Pryce on one hand and the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday on the other will be a significant boon for students of media law and journalistic practice for a long time to come. Not only do we see an experienced journalist Isabel Oakeshott patiently negotiating with a changeable and sometimes manipulative source, we also see how newspapers offer legal guarantees and other comfort at each stage in tryng to get a story to publication. The whole correspondence should now be required reading for anyone wanting to understand where newspaper exclusives actually come from. Whether this correspondence should ever have been put before a court and enter the public domain will also now be an issue for media ethics debates.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman.

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