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Williams v The Queen

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Court/Judicial body: Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

Citation: [2006] UKPC 12 (25 April 2006)  
Date: 25 April 2006
Instrument(s) cited: Juveniles Act (Jamaica), Section 2 Administrative Directions annexed to Practice Note (Judge’s Rules) (Jamaica) [1964] 1 WLR 152, Paragraphs 3 & 4

Case summary

Background: The defendant Ricardo Williams had just turned 13 when he was arrested on 10 July 1994 on a murder charge. He was then convicted for murder by the Circuit Court for the parish of Kingston on the basis of a written statement he gave in the days immediately following his arrest and sentenced to life imprisonment at the Governor-General’s pleasure. The defendant appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeal of Jamaica on the ground that the trial judge had failed to consider whether his written statement whereby he confessed his guilt had been made voluntarily. During this second appeal before the Court of Appeal (there had been a previous appeal in 2000), it came to light that Mr Williams had been beaten and kicked several times by police officers while held at the police station, had not been offered any food or legal counsel, and neither of his parents nor any other adult had been contacted. The defendant acknowledged that his confession to the murder had been true but only given because he had been afraid of further beatings. The Court of Appeal deemed Mr Williams’ statement admissible as evidence on the basis that he had “no doubt” that it was given voluntarily and Mr Williams’ conviction was upheld. No reference to the fact that Mr Williams had been 12 years old at the time of the murder was made during the Court of Appeal trial. Instead, the judge, the defense and the prosecution understood Mr Williams to have been 14 years old at the time of the murder.

Issue and resolution: Life imprisonment of children. Whether a statement given by a child was admissible and sufficient to support a charge for murder and sentence of life imprisonment. The Privy Council ruled that it was unfair to admit the statement, allowed the appeal and set aside Mr Williams’ conviction.

Court reasoning: The Court focused its reasoning on the admissibility of the defendant’s statement. The Lordships based their arguments on a recent appeal from Jamaica, Peart v The Queen [2006] UKPC 5, and considered the Judges’ Rules applicable in Jamaica and voluntariness as the criterion for admission of a confession. The Court explained that under Jamaican law, judges can be guided in making their rulings by the so-called Judges’ Rules (Administrative Directions annexed to Practice Note); when making rulings related to children defendants, judges are advised by the Rules that “reasonable arrangements should be made for the comfort and refreshment of persons being questioned”, and that “as far as practicable children (whether suspected of crime or not) should only be interviewed in the presence of a parent or guardian, or, in their absence, some person who is not a police officer and is of the same sex as the child”. Per Mr Williams’ evidence, (i) reasonable arrangements for his comfort and refreshment had not been made during his questioning and (ii) he was not questioned in the presence of a parent or guardian. Based on the decision in Peart v The Queen, the Court ruled that the Jamaican Judges’ Rules are administrative directions, not rules of law, but possess considerable importance as embodying the standard of fairness which ought to be observed. A court may allow a prisoner’s statement to be admitted notwithstanding a breach of the Judges’ Rules, but the criterion for admission of a statement is fairness. The voluntary nature of the statement was seen by the Lordships as the major factor in determining fairness. If it is not voluntary, it will not be admitted. If it is voluntary, that constitutes a strong reason in favour of admitting it, notwithstanding a breach of the Judges’ Rules; but the court may rule that it would be unfair to do so even if the statement was voluntary. The Court found that the judge in the present case had not made overt reference to the Judges’ Rules, to the appellant’s age or to the way in which he was exercising his discretion. The Court confirmed that appellant had been aged 12 years at the time of making the statement, a fact which it found had not been appreciated by anyone concerned with the case at the time of the ruling. Considering Mr Williams’ age, literacy (he allegedly could only read and write his own name), lack of non-officer parental or other adult guardianship at the time of his arrest and/or his confession, and allegations of physical abuse at the hands of the officers, the Lordships concluded that, per the Judges Rules and the fairness requirement as outlined in Peart v the Queen, it was not fair to admit his confession. As Mr Williams’ confession was the only substantial piece of evidence which linked him to the murder, his conviction was set aside.   

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