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Indictments are like cheques; sign them!

The House of Lords has just endorsed the decision in R v Morais (1988) 87 Cr App R 9. In that case the judge had given leave to prefer a voluntary bill against the accused, who was arraigned on six counts in the bill. The accused pleaded not guilty, was convicted on four counts and was sentenced. Relying on the Administration of Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1933, he appealed on the ground that the bill had never been signed by the proper officer: without a signature, he argued, there could be no indictment, and without an indictment there could be no valid trial.

In Morais the Court of Appeal agreed with the submission. The court endorsed a statement of Peter Pain J in an earlier case:

It seems to us that it is impossible for a criminal trial to start without there being a valid indictment to which the defendant can plead, and that the bill of indictment does not become an indictment until it is signed”.

In Ireland the relevant legislation is the Criminal Justice (Administration) Act 1924. It mandates the form of the indictment in the Act and in the First Schedule to the Act. The choice of indictment is limited to the charges expressed or implied in the documents known as the “Book of Evidenceâ€? served on the accused.

The 1924 Act permits amendment of an indictment before the conclusion of the trial but neither this power nor the restriction on the defence to take issue with the form of the indictment will avail if the situation in Morais is present, for the reason that, until it is signed, the indictment is not an indictment.