The former Labour peer Lord Janner must attend a preliminary hearing on child abuse charges despite his severe dementia, a magistrate has ruled.
Chief magistrate Howard Riddle said Janner was fit to appear even if he could become confused.
Riddle ruled that Janner must appear before him on Friday 14 August but asked prosecutors and defence lawyers to examine the possibility of holding the hearing elsewhere – potentially including the defendant’s home. They will meet again on Tuesday to consider arrangements for the “novel position” the court had found itself in, Riddle said.
Janner, 87, faces a trial of the facts over 22 child sex offences allegedly committed in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. As Greville Janner, he was an MP for Leicester for 27 years. He denies any wrongdoing and his family says he is innocent.
He did not attend Friday’s initial hearing after his legal team claimed he was too ill to do so. He has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a severe form of dementia.
Two expert witnesses had argued Janner may find the court distressing, which could lead to a “catastrophic reaction”. But Riddle ruled that the law required Janner’s presence. “It seems to me that for the brief duration of these proceedings Lord Janner is fit to attend,” he said.
The case comes after a review overturned a Crown Prosecution Service decision not to bring charges because of his dementia. Janner is likely to be sent to the crown court, which will decide whether he is fit to plead and face a trial.
Andrew Smith QC, defending, argued that he should not be forced to appear before the court.
Dr James Warner, a consultant psychiatrist and dementia expert, told the court he had interviewed Janner earlier this year and believed he was unfit to attend court. “He would not be able to understand that he was here or the purpose of being here. As a consequence, he is highly likely to become distressed,” he said.
Clare Montgomery QC, prosecuting, said the court should be able to make the necessary adjustments to minimise any distress.
In April, the director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, decided it was not in the public interest for Janner to face a criminal trial on alleged abuse involving nine children because of his severe dementia.
However, six of the alleged victims asked an independent QC to examine
her ruling under the CPS’s victims’ right to review scheme.
If a crown court judge decides Janner is fit to plead, a full trial may take place. If not, there will be a trial of the facts, where a jury will decide only if he committed the physical acts of abuse. At a trial of the facts, there is no examination of the mental elements of the crime, no finding of guilt and no conviction. It is a relatively rare procedure normally used in cases where a defendant poses a danger and needs to be in hospital for their own safety and that of others.
The court cannot impose a hospitalisation or supervision order unless a jury has found the defendant performed the physical act of the crime.
Janner can only be sent to face the fitness-to-plead process and trial of the facts in the crown court if he attends the magistrates court, or his lawyers have been given instructions to consent on his behalf.
If they do not, the prosecution may have to make a little-used application to a high court judge for a voluntary bill of indictment. This has the effect of bypassing the magistrates court and delivering the defendant directly to the crown court.
Riddle said he understood Janner may well become intolerant of the legal process – and could even attempt to leave the court – but noted that one expert witness had pointed out that there was unlikely to be any long-term psychological damage as a result of a court appearance.
“He must appear for a comparatively short period of time. He is free to go if he becomes distressed … This will probably be achieved in less than a minute. Nevertheless the law requires his presence,” he concluded.
The court heard Janner’s condition has recently deteriorated and that he tried to leave his home without his carer’s knowledge.
Riddle said there was no doubt that Janner is suffering from dementia but that the court should be able to minimise the length of time he is expected to appear.
The hearing has been adjourned until next Friday.