Law Essays – Admissible Criminal Evidence

Admissible Criminal Evidence

It matters not how you get it; if you steal it even, it would be admissible in evidence” [per Justice Crompton in R v Leatham 1861] Discuss

When considering the above statement it is necessary to examine legislation with regard to the admissibility of evidence. The starting point is to look at section 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which allows the court discretion to exclude any evidence they deem to have been unfairly obtained. There have been several cases where the issue of illegally obtained material has been considered. This paper proposes to examine the cases where judges have both exercised their discretion and excluded the evidence as well as the times when such evidence has been allowed.

Within this framework consideration will be given of the factors that judges have taken into account when deciding whether or not to exclude such evidence. This will involve looking at policy issues in relation to the use of illegally obtained evidence in order to reach a conclusion as to whether in general terms the courts will opt to include or exclude such evidence.

In reaching a decision as to the uniformity of the application of this discretion consideration will be given to whether changes that have occurred with regard to the rights of the suspect under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 have impacted on the admissibility of such evidence.

Although there have been many changes in the law with regard to the use of evidence that has been illegally obtained many judges still use the case of R v Sang [1980] as a yardstick by which to measure whether evidence such be excluded. In this case Lord Diplock commented that

“(1) A trial judge in a criminal trial has always a discretion to refuse to admit evidence if in his opinion its prejudicial effect outweighs its probative value. (2) Save with regard to admissions and confessions and generally with regard to evidence obtained from the accused after commission of the offence, he has no discretion to refuse to admit relevant admissible evidence on the ground that it was obtained by improper or unfair means.”(at p 437)

In this case the court following the comments made by Lord Diplock concluded that the judge would have no power to exclude the evidence on the basis that it had been obtained through the use of an agent provocateur. In many ways the decision whether or not to exclude illegally obtained evidence seems to centre on fairness. Sang remains as an authority of the rules on the exclusion of evidence as was demonstrated in the case of R v Nadir [1993] where Lord Taylor CJ said that if a judge

“considers evidence the Crown wish to lead would have an adverse effect on the fairness of the trial, he can exclude it under s 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984….He also has a general discretion to exclude evidence which was preserved by s.82(3) of the 1984 Act which would allow the judge to exclude evidence he considers more prejudicial than probative.”

In the later case of R v Khan [1994] 4 All ER 426, Lord Taylor seemed to change his opinion of the use of Sang as an authority stating that

Since, on any view, the discretion conferred on the judge by s 78 is at least as wide as that identified in R v Sang it is only necessary to consider the question of the exercise of discretion under s 78 – which is what the judge did.”

In general terms although the judge has the discretion to be able to rule the evidence as inadmissible it is more common for the courts to allow the evidence to be adduced.

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Many judges are of the opinion that the effect of s78 does not make very much difference to the cases brought before the court as most judges seem to decide in favour of inclusion rather then exclusion of such evidence as was the case of R v Mason [1987] and in the subsequent case of R v Samuel [1988]. Mason was later quashed on appeal when it was discovered that the only real evidence against the defendant was the confession and that this had been obtained by telling the defendant that his fingerprints had been found in glass near the scene, which was totally untrue. This decision was reached on the basis of interpretation of s78 where it was considered that there was bad faith and impropriety on the part of the police.

A similar decision was reached in the case of Matto v DPP [1987]where the officers persuaded the defendant to undergo a breath test despite the fact that they were conducting the test under circumstances in which they were not entitled to do so. The conviction was quashed with the judge stating that the bad faith of the officers in carrying out the test when they knew they were not entitled to had tainted the case as a whole. This case was distinguished from the case of Fox v Gwent [1986] as in this case the officers were not aware that they were acting outside of there powers.

A further case where the court have ruled that the police were not acting in bad faith was the case of R v Alladice [1988] in which the defendant confessed and the confession was allowed to be admitted to the court despite the fact that the police had wrongly refused to allow the defendant access to a solicitor. From all of the above it would seem that the court will only regard the police as acting in bad faith if there is clear evidence that the police deliberately deceived the defendant.

There are of course exceptions where the action of the officers was questionable and the courts have still deemed the evidence to be admissible as was the case in R v Christou [1992]. In this case undercover police officers set up a shop were they were supposedly selling jewellery. All transactions in the shop were secretly recorded which led to the arrest of the defendant for dealing with stolen goods and making incriminating statements. The judge held that the police had not incited the offences and there had been no unfairness in their conduct.

In the case of R v Smurthwaite and Gill [1994] the officers posed as contract killers and recorded conversations with the defendants who were attempting to hire the services of a contract killer to murder their spouses. The court regarded the officers as agent provocateurs but held that the officers had not incited the defendants to kill their spouses and therefore the evidence was admissible. In this case the judge stated that

“…the fact that the evidence has been obtained by entrapment, or by an agent provocateur, or by a trick, does not of itself require the judge to exclude it. If, however, he considers that in all the circumstances the obtaining of the evidence in that way would have the adverse effect described in the statute, then he will exclude it.”

In some instances evidence that has been obtained through impropriety has been excluded. Impropriety can occur were there has been a breach of criminal law or a breach of PACE. This was held to be the case in R v Khan [1994] where surveillance devices had been placed on the premises of the suspect. It was argued that the placing of the equipment on the premises amounted to trespass by the police. The court however allowed the evidence to be admitted and the defendant was convicted.

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In cases where impropriety is alleged most of these cases centre on the admissibility of confessions or incriminating statements. The reliability and admissibility of confessions is governed by s76 of PACE. The most common impropriety is the denial of access to legal representation. The failure to contemporaneously record interviews has also been a problem in the past.

One such case where the defendant was denied access to a solicitor was R v Samuel [1988]in which the defendant was arrested for burglary and after having been charged with one offence of burglary was denied access to a solicitor during which time he was interviewed again and confessed to a robbery. At the appeal the court held that the denial of the right to consult with a solicitor was a breach of s58 of PACE and of the Code of Practice on Detention and Questioning. As the judge had failed to exclude the confession at the original hearing the conviction for robbery was ordered to be quashed. The appeal court stated that even if the confession was reliable the breach of s58 rendered the confession as unfair.

Within the criminal justice system the gaining of evidence illegally is classed as one of the exclusionary rules where evidence is suppressed or defendant’s rights are violated. Bentham (1827) argued that if you

‘exclude evidence you exclude justice’

He further argued that the solution to the problem was not to deprive the jurors of the evidence but to instruct them about the dangers presented by the evidence and allow the jury to decide for themselves whether to believe the evidence presented to them. Bentham stated that it was rather a contradiction for the court to declare their confidence in the decision of the jury whilst at the same time withholding evidence from that jury for fear of them reaching the wrong conclusion. Bentham stated that

If there be one business that belongs to a jury more particularly than another, it is, one should think, the judging of the probability of evidence: if they are not fit to be trusted with this, not even with the benefit of the judge’s assistance and advice, what is it they are fit to be trusted with? Better trust them with nothing at all, and do without them altogether

Bentham felt that exclusionary rules are

“insults offered by the author of each rule to the understanding of those whose hands are expected to be tied by it.”

He stated that relevant evidence should only be excluded when there was a risk of an inaccurate verdict without the use of the evidence. He went on to advocate

‘the abolition of all formal rules and a return to a ‘natural’ system of free proof, based on everyday experience and common-sense reasoning’.

In the case of R v Kearley [1992] the House of Lords held that the evidence of telephone calls and visitor’s to the defendant’s house where they were asking for drugs was irrelevant or inadmissible as hearsay evidence. The primary evidence in this case came from two witnesses who had given evidence stating that the defendants were engaged in the sale of heroin. In this case the persons that came to the house or telephoned dealt with the police who were occupying the house at the time.

The evidence of those that had rang or had come to the house could only be used as hearsay evidence as there was no way of getting the persons to give direct evidence to the court. Initially the defendant was found guilty but this was overturned on appeal on the grounds that the judge should have directed the jury of the inferences that could be drawn from the evidence. The court stated that the defendants could not be found guilty on the basis of their association with the people who had rang or called at the house.

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As with criminal law evidence can also be excluded in civil law cases under Civil Procedure Rules 32.1, though such exclusion is rare as the burden of proof in civil cases is significantly less then for criminal trials.

Choo (1989) argued that there are three possible rationales for the exclusion of evidence, these being compensation, deterrence and repute. Choo (1993) stated that judicial legitimacy was the most satisfactory basis for the exclusion of evidence. Ashworth (1977) disagreed with this stating that exclusion was on the basis of discipline, reliability and protection. Hunter (1994) agreed with this stating that discipline is similar to deterrence.

One of the main reasons for excluding evidence is on the basis of reliability. Where the reliability of the evidence is in question the courts will frequently opt to exclude the evidence from the proceedings. Bentham (1827) suggests that there is no need for total exclusion and that so long as a caution is issued with the presentation of the evidence the jury should be entitled to hear that evidence.

Choo (1989) believes that allowing the evidence to be disclosed to the jury when such evidence could be unreliable is an ‘infringement’ of the rights of the defendant. Choo states that such evidence should be excluded if it admission ‘would have such an adverse affect on the fairness of the proceedings that the court ought not to admit it.’

From the above it can be concluded that the rules regarding the use of illegally obtained evidence are not uniformly applied. In some instances the court will exclude such evidence from the jury whilst in other cases the evidence will be admitted. It is clear from s78 that evidence that has been illegally obtained can still be submitted to the court if it can be proven to be reliable or if an unfair result would be achieved if the evidence where not presented to the court. The courts seem to place emphasis on the notion of fairness as fair play. This is applicable both in deciding whether to allow the evidence to be heard or whether the evidence should be withheld from the jury.


Allen, C, Practical Guide to Evidence, 2nd Ed, 2001, Cavendish Publishing

Ashworth, A (1977) ‘Excluding Evidence as Protecting Rights’ [1977] Criminal Law Review 723

Ashworth, A and Blake, M The presumption of innocence in English law [1996] Crim LR 306 E

Bentham, J, Rationale of Judicial Evidence 15-16 (1827), London

Choo, A & Mellors, M, ‘Undercover Police Operations and What the Suspect Said (or Didn’t Say), [1995] 2 Web JCLI

Choo, A (1989) ‘Improperly obtained evidence: a reconsideration’ 9 Legal Studies 261

Choo, A (1993) Abuse of Process and Judicial Stays of Proceedings (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Elliott, C, & Quinn, F, Criminal Law, 3rd Ed, 2000, Pearson Education

Glazebrook, P R, Statutes on Criminal Law, 2001, Blackstone’s

Hunter, M (1994) ‘Judicial Discretion: Section 78 in Practice’ [1994] Criminal Law Review 558

Huxley, P, & O’Connell, M, Statutes on Evidence, 5th Ed, Blackstone’s

Murphy, P, Blackstone’s Criminal Practice, 2002, Oxford University Press

Smith. J C, The presumption of innocence (1987) NILQ 223 B

Stephen, Sir JF, A Digest of the Law of Evidence, 12th Ed, 1936, Art 147

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