Rubbishing the defence of self-incrimination?

The right to withhold information on the grounds of self-incrimination is to be debated in the House of Lords, reports Roger Pearson.

The rights of waste disposal companies to refuse to answer questions which could lead to conviction for environmental offences are to be probed by the Law Lords.

Green Environmental Industries is to appeal against rulings in which it was held it was not entitled to refuse to answer questions relating to unauthorised handling of hospital waste.

The company and its principal shareholder, John Moynihan, claimed that they could refuse to answer questions from Hertfordshire County Council as the council was not entitled to ask for what could be self-incriminating evidence.

But the High Court and Court of Appeal upheld the right of the council, which was acting in its local government waste regulation role, to seek the information. In the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Russell and Mr Justice Scott Baker were told that council waste regulation inspectors had sought the information under the provisions of the 1990 Environment Protection Act but that Green Environmental and John Moynihan (1997) had refused to answer.

The court said it did not consider Parliament had intended to make the possibility of self-incrimination an excuse not to provide information sought under s.71 of the 1990 Act. It was argued that it would be "inappropriate" for inspectors to ask for evidence which may require Green Environmental and John Moynihan to incriminate themselves.

But in upholding the previous ruling, the Court of Appeal said that there was nothing in the Act which blocked the County Council from seeking the information they had asked for. The matter will now go to the House of Lords. Lords Slynn, Hope and Clyde have given leave for an appeal which is likely to take place later this year.