Perverting the course of justice is the name of an English common law crime involving any number of actions designed to interfere with the administration of justice, usually involving a criminal case. Perverting the course of justice may include instances of other statutory crimes, such as perjury, fraud or witness tampering. The American legal system contains a similar statutory crime called obstruction of justice.
Common Law Crime
Perversion of justice is a crime at English common law. This means the definition constitutes the crime is not found in statutes or specific Acts of Parliament but rather in published court decisions, called case law, which have been issued over the course of several hundred years. Perversion of justice is also recognised as a crime in Canada, Ireland, and a number of other countries have criminal justice systems springing from English common-law origins.
Threetypes of acts may be charged as perversion of justice: fabrication of evidence, threatening or intimidating a witness or juror and providing false testimony that results in another person being charged with a crime or misleads authorities in their investigations. Related crimes include perjury, which is charged under a separate perjury statute.
Fabrication of Evidence
In 2004, a young woman named Maxine Carr was charged with Perversion of Justice for providing a false alibi for her boyfriend Ian Huntley regarding the murder of two young girls. The case received considerable news coverage, which raised issues regarding her personal safety. After serving a brief prison term, she was released with a court-protected identity.
In the 1970s, John Samuel Humble wrote a series of letters and recorded tapes sent to police claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who was the target of an intense police investigation. The hoax confessions misled police, who at one point in the investigation interviewed the real killer but released him since his voice did not match that on the cassette sent by Humble. Peter Sutcliffe was later caught and convicted on his own confession. In 2006, Humble was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for perversion of justice by misleading authorities.
In 1994, England codified the crime of Witness Intimidation as part of an omnibus crime bill. The offence may still be charged as an incident of perversion of justice, but the statutory provision eases the prosecution's burden of proof and allows for more stringent sentencing. A 1995 report of the London Home Office Police Research Group found that prevalence of witness intimidation in some low-income housing projects was so great as to "endanger in some areas the development of effective cooperation between the police and the public to combat crime," thus necessitating adoption of the witness intimidation statute.
Crown prosecution sentencing guidelines for perversion of justice recommend minimum sentences of four months and maximum sentences of one to two years per incident. Specific perjury and witness intimidation statutes permit longer sentences. A 2002 report by law professor Susan Edwards to the Scottish Centre for Sentencing Research indicates that most persons convicted of perversion of justice and related crimes received sentences in the two-year range unless the underlying case was for murder or other notably serious matters.
Comparison to Obstruction
The American criminal justice system recognises a statutory crime of obstruction of justice rather than the common-law crime of perversion of justice. The obstruction of justice statute, beginning at 18 U.S. Code Section 1501, criminalises the same elements contained in the crime of perversion of justice, but then greatly expands the applicable scope to include obstruction agency actions or financial audits, assaulting process servers, resisting extradition and numerous other actions that interfere with the efficient and appropriate administration of justice.
- Cindy Hill