|Long title||An Act to amend the Law relating to Indictments in Criminal Cases, and matters incidental or similar thereto|
|Citation||5 & 6 Geo 5. c.90|
|Territorial extent||England and Wales|
|Royal assent||23 December 1915|
|Commencement||1 April 1916|
|Amended by||Criminal Justice Administration Act 1956|
Criminal Justice Act 1948
Prosecution of Offences Act 1985
Statute Law Revision Act 1927
|Text of statute as originally enacted|
|Revised text of statute as amended|
The Indictments Act 1915 (5 & 6 Geo 5. c.90) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that made significant changes to the law relating to indictments. The law relating to indictments evolved during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and became lengthy, confusing and highly technical to the point where some barristers specialised entirely in drawing up indictments. During the nineteenth century several Acts were passed by Parliament to correct this problem, but none were entirely successful. In 1913 Lord Haldane created a committee to draw up a draft bill reforming the law of indictments, which became the Indictments Act 1915.
Coming into force on 1 April 1916, the Act established rules on how indictments are to be drafted, and provided methods to amend and alter faulty indictments in court. Most importantly it simplified the layout of indictments and provided a list of items it had to contain, such as "such particulars as may be necessary for giving reasonable information as to the nature of the charge." While the Act has been significantly amended over the years, several sections are still in force, and the indictment rules given form the basis of the Indictment Rules 1971 (S.I. 1971/1253) which replace the Indictment Rules 1915 (S.R. & O. 1915/1235).
An indictment is a document formally accusing an individual of a criminal offence. Indictments have been used in English law from at least 1362, but the system was mainly developed during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. During this period indictments became lengthy, confusing and highly technical, firstly because of the large number of new criminal offences created and secondly because of the back-and-forth between counsel for the defence and the prosecution, one attempting to spot loopholes in the indictment and the other attempting to close them. A slight misspelling on the indictment rendered it invalid, and all errors were taken in favour of the prisoner. An additional contributory factor was that the indictments were drafted by clerks of assize who were only paid once per set of indictments - if the indictment was not valid they had to write a new one for free, and they therefore had a vested interest in making them as detailed and complex as possible to avoid subtle flaws. By the turn of the 20th century indictments were so complex that some barristers such as Archibald Bodkin had a practice specialising in writing them.
The 19th century saw significant changes made to English criminal law in an attempt to simplify and modernise it, and Acts of Parliament reforming the law surrounding indictments were passed in 1826, 1828, 1848, 1849 and 1851. Only the Criminal Procedure Act 1851 dealt with indictments directly - the others simply amended the law around it - but it was not an unqualified success. J.F. Stephen wrote "In 1851 an Act was passed which went further in the way of removing technicalities but it did so by an enumeration of them so technical and minute that no one could possibly understand it who had not first acquainted himself with the technicalities which it was meant to abolish". The Act did get rid of the idea that minor flaws in an indictment sunk it entirely, and Stephen later wrote that "a general impression has been produced that quibbles about indictments have come to an end".
Nothing else was done to reform the law relating to indictments until the early 20th century. In 1913 Lord Haldane created a committee led by Mr Justice Avory to draft a bill reforming the law of indictments. The draft bill was finished and introduced to Parliament by 1915, and it was given the Royal Assent on 23 December 1915, coming into force on 1 April 1916 as the Indictments Act 1915.
Despite being the first Act to amend the law relating to indictments in over 50 years, it at no point formally defines what an indictment is.
Section 1 of the Act provides:
The rules contained in the First Schedule to this Act with respect to indictments shall have effect as if enacted in this Act, but those rules may be added to, varied, or annulled by further rules made . . . under this Act.
The First Schedule to the Act was repealed by rule 2 of the Indictment Rules 1971.
The original format also allows the rules to be changed by the Rules Committee, something removed when the Act was amended by the Criminal Justice Administration Act 1956. The original rules remained in force until 1971, when they were significantly reformed as the Indictment Rules 1971.
This section created a rule committee made up of the Lord Chief Justice, a judge of the High Court of Justice, a Clerk of the Peace, a Clerk of Assize, a Chairman of the Quarter Sessions, a Recorder and "another person having experience in criminal procedure". The committee had the power to suggest changes to the rules governing indictments, which would be placed before Parliament for forty days and passed as a Statutory Instrument if no objections were raised. This was a more powerful version of the rules committee established by the Poor Prisoners' Defence Act 1903. This section was repealed by the Criminal Justice Administration Act 1956 and the Courts Act 1971, and the rules are now amended by the Crown Court Rule Committee.
This section lays out what an indictment is required to contain. It must include a statement of the offence the defendant is being charged with "together with such particulars as may be necessary for giving reasonable information as to the nature of the charge." The second part of this caused problems, because prosecution barristers would give the smallest amount of information possible to make the defence counsel's job more difficult. This was a significant problem, particularly in complex fraud cases where by the 1960s it was normal for the defence attorney to receive several thousand pages of witness statements, documents and pieces of evidence with only a vague, general indictment tying them together.
This section allowed an indictment for both felonies and misdemeanors at once, but gave the defendant the right to treat both as if they were felonies and allowed him to challenge the jurors. This was amended by the Criminal Law Act 1967 to remove the right to challenge jurors (and felonies were abolished).
This section allows the court to amend an indictment at any point before trial, unless to do so would cause an "injustice". It also allows them to postpone a trial for the purpose of amending the indictment and separate felonies and misdemeanors into different indictments.
This section allowed the court to award costs to the prosecution for defective or unnecessarily lengthy indictments. It was repealed by section 31(6) of, and Schedule 2 to, the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985.
This section formerly provided that nothing in the Act prevents the challenge of an indictment if it fails to comply with the Vexatious Indictments Act 1859. This was amended by the Administration of Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1933, and the section now provides that nothing in the Act prevents a challenge if the indictment fails to comply with "any other enactment".
This section provides that similarly the Act does not intend to alter the jurisdiction of courts or places where an individual can be tried, and that the Act applies to all appeals against indictments.
This section provides that the Act does not apply in Scotland or Northern Ireland, and that it came into force on 1 April 1916. It also amends and repeals several other bits of legislation with the Second Schedule, including some of the Quarter Sessions Act 1849. This schedule was itself repealed by the Statute Law Revision Act 1927.
This Schedule contained rules relating to indictments, which could be cited as the Indictment rules 1915. It was repealed by rule 2 of the Indictment Rules 1971. The rules created by this Schedule are replaced by new rules under that instrument.
Rule 1(2) provided that each sheet on which an indictment was set out was to be not more than 12 and not less than 6 inches in length, and not more that 14 and not less than 12 inches in width, and that if more than one sheet was required, that the sheets were to be fastened together in book form.
The Appendix to the Rules, as enacted, contained specimen forms of indictment for a number of offences:
By rule 4(5), the forms set out in the appendix to the rules or forms conforming thereto as nearly as may be had to be used in cases to which they were applicable, and in other cases forms to the like effect or conforming thereto as nearly as may be had to be used, the statement of offence and the particulars of offence being varied according to the circumstances in each case.