Andy Coulson acquitted of perjury after judge upholds ‘no case to answer’ submission



Scottish Legal News

Andrew Coulson, the former editor of the defunct tabloid the News of the World, has been acquitted of perjury by a judge at the High Court in Edinburgh.

Mr Coulson, 47, the Prime Minister’s former director of communications, was accused of giving “false evidence”  in the 2010 perjury trial of ex-Socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan.

However, Lord Burns acquitted the accused after sustaining a defence submission of “no case to answer” at the close of the Crown case, on the ground that the charge of perjury was “irrelevant” because the “false evidence” alleged in the indictment was “not relevant evidence at the original trial”.

“Not every lie amounts to perjury,” Lord Burns said in his explanation to the jury.

The court heard that in the original trial in December 2010, Mr Sheridan was convicted for perjury committed during his libel action against the News of the World in which he won substantial damages.

One of the important pieces of evidence against him was a video tape sent to the News of the World by a Mr McNeillage and purchased by the newspaper.

Mr Sheridan, who was said to appear and could be identified by his voice, was heard to admit matters which he had denied in his civil jury trial.

Having sacked his counsel at a relatively late stage in the original trial, he conducted his own defence and lodged an additional list of defence witnesses, which included Mr Coulson who, at the material time, had been editor or depute editor of the News of the World.

On 10 and 11 December 2010 the accused gave evidence as a defence witness in which he was alleged in this trial to have perjured himself.

The perjured evidence was said to have been related to his knowledge of “phone hacking” by employees of the News of the World or people acting for the newspaper and of payments to them and to “corrupt police officers” by the paper.

During his evidence in chief, the accused made an identification of the voice of Mr Sheridan in the McNeillage tape and that a “fleeting glance” of Mr Sheridan could be seen.

At the close of the evidence for the prosecution in the present proceedings, defence counsel Murdo MacLeod QC argued that the charge did not libel a “relevant charge” of perjury since the evidence said to be false was not relevant to the live issues at the original trial.

It was accepted that one aspect of the accused’s evidence at the original trial was directed to a live issue and that was his identification of Mr Sheridan’s voice on the tape in which he admitted certain sexual practices which were the subject of the charge in the original trial.

However, it was submitted that the “false evidence” alleged in this indictment did not relate to any live issues at the original trial or have a reasonably direct bearing on them. The evidence was therefore “irrelevant” and could not found a perjury charge.

Mr MacLeod argued that it for the Crown to lead evidence to establish that the false evidence was relevant, but that the prosecution failed to discharge that burden.

For the Crown, the advocate depute Richard Goddard submitted that there were two respects in which the false evidence of the accused was relevant: first, in relation to his credibility; and second to “the jury’s consideration of the substantial facts at issue in the case”.

In relation to credibility, the accused had given identification evidence which was in respect of a critical area in the original trial.

His credibility was in issue and the false evidence was “directly relevant to the assessment of his credibility”, it was argued.

The second ground was that Mr Sheridan was advancing in the trial a line in examination and cross examination that he was not the person in the McNeillage tape and that it had been concocted.

Mr Sheridan was asking questions on the basis that the News of the World had conspired against him and that his phone had been hacked on its behalf. Accordingly, the false evidence was relevant.

However, the judge held that the “false evidence” alleged in the indictment was “not relevant evidence at the original trial and the charge of perjury in the indictment is irrelevant”.

In a written note of reasons published today, Lord Burns said: “I consider that the false evidence would only become potentially relevant if it was capable of rendering the identification evidence doubtful or wrong in the minds of the jury. General credibility is not enough. I do not consider the Crown’s first ground well founded.”

The second ground called for an examination of the components of the false evidence and their potential for putting the credibility of the identification evidence in doubt.

The court heard evidence from Clive Goodman, an employee of the News of the World at the same time as the accused, that the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire hacked the phones of people in order to get information about members of the Royal Family and a former Home Secretary.

But Lord Burns considered that that evidence of itself would not be relevant to the issue of the credibility of the identification.

“Just because the accused knew of phone hacking activities in general would not be a good reason to disbelieve his identification,” he said.

He concluded that “the submission that the false evidence in the indictment cannot found a charge of perjury falls to be sustained since the Crown, as Mr MacLeod submitted, would have failed to discharge the burden upon it.”