Will I be prosecuted if the court doesn't believe my evidence?
A recurring theme among defendants and witnesses since I first set foot in a courtroom in 1995 is worry that they will be prosecuted for perverting the course of justice or perjury if the court does not believe their evidence. I have sat in police interviews where the officer has threatened to prosecute a suspect for lying to them and have even seen it happen a few times.
What do “perverting the course of justice” and “perjury” mean? Perverting is an offence committed when a person tries to interfere with justice, usually so that a guilty person is not prosecuted or so that an innocent person is prosecuted. For example, somebody might create false evidence to divert the police’s attention away from the real culprit – as happened in the Yorkshire Ripper investigation when a man sent police fake tapes and letters pretending to be the murderer. Or a witness might give a false account to police to cover up for themselves or a friend.
Perjury is telling a lie while under oath in court. There will be many trials every day that hear perjured evidence from the witness box, but prosecutions are relatively rare because it is difficult to prove that somebody lied. The fact that a jury or judge did not accept their evidence is not sufficient evidence to convict somebody for perjury.
In HM Advocate v Turner, a Scottish motoring law case decided in 2020 the defendant had been driving when his car left the road killing his two passengers. He was charged with causing death by dangerous driving because police believed he had fallen asleep while driving. However, Mr Turner told passers-by who stopped to help, paramedics and police officers that a deer had run out in front of his vehicle and he had lost control while taking evasive action. The police charged Mr Turner with two counts of causing death by dangerous driving and one count of attempting to pervert the course of justice because they decided he was lying about the deer running out.
Mr Turner objected to the charge of perverting the course of justice saying it could not be lawfully brought against him.
The Scottish High Court had to decide whether the matter. Lord Turnbull decided that the prosecutor could not bring the charge. The reasons given were that when Mr Turner made his claims to the passers-by and paramedics there was no criminal investigation underway and so there was nothing capable of being perverted. However, an investigation was underway by the time he gave his account to the police. But still no charge could be brought against him because that account given by Mr Turner was part and parcel of the criminal investigation – it was a claim that would be fully tested by the natural flow of the course of justice. Thus, he could not be guilty even if he were lying to the police officers.
While the Scottish High Court does not bind the English and Welsh courts the cases decided there are highly persuasive authority that will usually be followed by courts in England and Wales. So, if you think you have a defence to any motoring allegation there is no need to worry that you will be prosecuted for perjury or perverting the course of justice if you are disbelieved.
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