28 February 2000
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So, farewell then, Augusto? But just think how it might have been. What if the English courts had handled his extradition as they should have done? Wouldn't General Pinochet now be sitting in a Spanish prison awaiting trial for torture?
The first Law Lords hearing began early in November 1998. Judgment was given just three weeks later. Lord Hoffmann famously sat while disqualified.
Writing in The Pinochet Case, a new book of essays edited by Professor Diana Woodhouse, David Robertson says that if Lord Hoffmann had stood down, "a very likely replacement at the last minute would have been Lord Goff". Robertson, an Oxford politics don, reminds us that Lord Goff was later to decide that Pinochet had immunity from extradition. He says that if Lord Goff had sat instead of Lord Hoffmann the Law Lords would have split three-two in favour of the former dictator and Pinochet would have been home within a month or so of his arrest in London.
But Lord Goff would not have sat. To avoid any suggestion that the panel had been packed with Pinochet's supporters or opponents, it was decided that the Law Lords would sit in order of precedence. Lord Goff was no longer the senior Law Lord. Because his successor, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, was unavailable, the case was heard by the next five on the list. If Lord Hoffmann had stood down, his place would have been taken by Lord Hope, one of those who was to find against the former dictator.
Pinochet would also have lost if Lord Browne-Wilkinson had sat and, as a result, Lord Hoffmann had never made it on to the original panel. Either way, the appeal would have been resolved by the end of November 1998.
In the event, the case had to be reheard. Because the presiding judge, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, was already suffering from the strain which forced him to take time off last year, the final Law Lords' ruling was not delivered until March 1999. Four months had been wasted.
By the middle of April, Jack Straw had given his authority for the case to proceed to its next stage, a hearing at Bow Street Magistrates' Court. Two weeks later, the case was then adjourned until the start of June - not unreasonably because Spain wanted to draw up new charges and Pinochet wanted to try his luck in the High Court.
But at that hearing the chief magistrate Graham Parkinson decided that the committal proceedings should not begin until 16 weeks later, at the end of September. Even more mysteriously, by the time September came around Parkinson, who had always said that he should hear the case himself, found he was too busy dealing with administrative matters. If only he could have known in June how busy he was going to be in September, he might have chosen another magistrate who could have heard the case without a further delay of four months.
Without these two delays, committal proceedings would have been out the way by the spring and the subsequent habeas corpus challenge might have been resolved by the late summer of 1999. Pinochet could have been on his way to Spain - or home to Chile - before he suffered the first of his strokes in September. Without the strain of waiting, he might not even have become ill at all. The English courts have a lot to answer for.