Straw wants shot of ‘agonising’ pardon decisions

By Alex Stevenson

Ministry of Justice officials are starting preparatory work to examine how Jack Straw’s “quasi-judicial” role in pardoning Michael Shields can be made a one-off.

The justice secretary freed 22-year-old Mr Shields, who spent four years behind bars after being convicted of attacking a barman by a Bulgarian court, yesterday.

Mr Straw admitted he had “agonised” over the case and changed his initial decision to reject an appeal for a pardon when new evidence came to light, apparently corroborating a confession by a man other than Mr Shields.

He was only able to make the decision after losing a judicial review in December 2008, which stated he did have the authority to override the convention that convictions in foreign courts be respected.

The administrative court directed that he assess whether Mr Shields was ‘morally and technically innocent’. As a postscript to his statement on the release, Mr Straw made clear he was uncomfortable with this power.

“One issue that has emerged from this case is the appropriateness or otherwise of the justice secretary, rather than a court, exercising this power over a prisoner’s liberty involving finding of fact in an alleged miscarriages of justice, particularly in relation to cases from abroad,” he said.

“I am clear, even with expert advice, that a quasi-judicial role such as this is not a suitable function for the executive. I shall therefore be exploring alternative options for dealing with any future cases which arise.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman told there were no immediate plans for a consultation to be launched.

But he confirmed officials were beginning work to prepare proposals. “[Mr Straw] has reservations about the current situation and wants it reviewed,” the spokesman said.