Rebecca Leighton's case : Background
On Friday 2nd September, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that criminal charges against Rebecca Leighton have been discontinued - see CPS announcement. Miss Leighton had been arrested in connection with suspicious deaths at Stepping Hill Hospital, Stockport. She was employed as a nurse at the hospital.
Police powers of arrest without warrant are set out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 section 24. It will be noted that many of the arrest powers are expressed to be on the basis of "reasonable grounds to suspect" guilt. Certain "arrest conditions" also apply - see s.24(5).
On 22nd July 2011 she was charged: three charges of criminal damage with intent to endanger life; three charges of criminal damage being reckless as to whether life would be endangered and one charge of theft (of medication belonging to the hospital). On 23rd July the Magistrates duly "sent" her for trial at the Crown Court as they are now obliged to do under section 51 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (which ended "committal proceedings" for offences triable only in the Crown Court).
The criminal damage charges arose under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 s.1(2):-
According to the CPS, the reason for discontinuance of the criminal damage charges is that Miss Leighton was charged on the basis of "reasonable suspicion" but the on-going inquiries had not so far provided a "stronger case which would meet the test that there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction."
In relation to the theft charge, the CPS stated that- "While there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction on this charge, we have decided it is not in the public interest to proceed as Rebecca Leighton would be likely to receive a nominal penalty given the time she has already spent in custody."
She spent 45 days in custody.
It is quite remarkable that a person can be charged with such serious offences on the basis of "reasonable suspicion." Is there legal authority for this?
existed since 1880. In 1981, the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure (Cmnd 8092, 1981) recommended the setting up of a new and independent prosecuting authority. Hence, in 1986, the CPS came into being following the enactment of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 ("the 1985 Act"). The DPP became Head of the CPS but works under the "superintendence of" the Attorney- General.
The Code - at paragraph 4 - sets out what is known as the FULL CODE TEST. It is clear enough (from para. 4.2) that it is this test - with its evidential and public interest stages - which should normally be applied:
The case is a good example of the immense damage which can be done to a person by the processes of the law. The liberty of the citizen should only be taken away on the basis of a law passed after due consideration by Parliament. Can it truly be said that Parliament has applied itself to the Code for Crown Prosecutors?
It appears that civil action against the Police might be under consideration - see Telegraph 3rd September. Such actions are complex and, in modern times, clearly engage Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is unlawful for a public authority in the UK to act incompatibly with Convention rights - Human Rights Act 1998 s.6. The Police and the CPS are, without doubt, public authorities. A leading text is "Civil Actions against the Police" - Sweet and Maxwell - eds. Hugh Tomlinson QC and Richard Clayton QC.
Addendum 5th September: The Inforrm's blog looked at the media coverage of this case - A suspect monstered by the tabloids ...
In relation to arrest, the term "reasonable suspicion" has been the subject of numerous judicial decisions of which the following are perhaps the most important:
Fox, Campbell and Hartley v UK(1990) ECHR 18
Cumming v Chief Constable of Northumbria Police  EWCA Civ 1844
O'Hara v Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary  UKHL 6
Commissioner of the Metropolis v Raissi  EWCA Civ 1237
Armstrong v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police  EWCA Civ 1582
Alford v Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire  EWCA Civ 100
Buckley and others v Chief Officer of the Thames Valley Police  EWCA Civ 356
For an excellent and detailed article on this please see Criminal Law and Justice Weekly - Reasonable suspicion and the Court of Appeal - Neil Parpworth, De Montfort Law School
In relation to reasonable suspicion and the threshold test for charging - see the Code for Crown Prosecutors Section 5.
Rebecca Leighton wants to carry on as a nurse after Stepping Hill saline charges are dropped - Manchester Evening News 5th September