Leaders: Why did Coulson charge ever go to court?

Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson leaves the High Court in Edinburgh. Picture: PA
Former News of the World editor Andy Coulson leaves the High Court in Edinburgh. Picture: PA
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THERE was significant doubt over the Andy Coulson perjury trial from the outset. If the prosecution could prove Coulson lied about phone hacking at the 2010 perjury trial of former MSP Tommy Sheridan, did it necessarily follow that the lie would have affected the outcome of that trial?

Yesterday, the case collapsed at the High Court in Edinburgh, over that very doubt. The crucial aspect of the case was relevance. At the end of the prosecution’s case, Lord Burns ruled that nothing he had heard about former News of The World editor Coulson’s involvement in phone hacking had any relevance to Sheridan’s conviction for perjury.

It wouldn’t have mattered if this latest trial had demonstrated Coulson had known about phone hacking at an earlier stage than he had previously admitted. If Coulson had lied, it had to be proved the lie had significant consequence. It didn’t, based on the evidence led.

The ruling delivered by Lord Burns is based on the very definition of perjury. The case effectively fell at the first hurdle, although the trial went on for two weeks because the prosecution evidence had to be presented in full before relevancy – or lack of – could be assessed.

The outcome has echoes of the collapse of the World’s End murder trial in 2007, which was halted when the judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove its case. There was wide political criticism of that failed prosecution, and it required a change in the law to allow a second, ultimately successful, prosecution to be brought, to secure the conviction of Angus Sinclair.

Observers are entitled to ask why the Coulson case got to this stage in the first place, if the basic definition of a perjury charge could not be established. The accused was charged three years ago, and it is reasonable to expect that the Crown Office would be able to reach a conclusion that there was a case to ­answer during that timescale.

That it was not able to do so represents an unacceptable ­failure.

To compound the problem, the Crown had also argued in Sheridan’s trial back in 2010 that phone hacking was not relevant to the accused’s innocence or guilt.

Underlining the folly of the Coulson perjury charge, the Crown was given two days at the end of the trial to decide whether to appeal Lord Burns’ ruling. No appeal was made. If the Crown could see in just two days that an appeal would be unsuccessful, why was this conclusion not reached by those leading the case in the previous three years?

This case represents another embarrassment for the Crown Office, and legitimate questions are being asked about how and why this case came to court, at great public expense. A full review of the handling of the case is required.

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