Fans of the BBC drama ‘The Trial of Christine Keeler’ who saw Sunday’s finale episode will have seen Keeler, famous for her affair with the former Secretary of State for War John Profumo, imprisoned for perjury. Keeler pleaded guilty in December 1963 to the offence and was sentenced to nine months imprisonment.
Perjury is an offence of lying on oath in court. Like any offence, the Prosecution must prove the case against the accused so that the Court is sure beyond reasonable doubt of their guilt. The accused can only be convicted if the Court is satisfied to this standard. To prove an offence of perjury, the Prosecution must show that:
- The witness was lawfully sworn as a witness;
- In a judicial proceeding;
- The witness made a statement wilfully, that is to say deliberately and not inadvertently or by mistake;
- That statement was false; and
- The witness knew it was false or did not believe it to be true; and
- The statement was, viewed objectively, material in the judicial proceeding.
Keeler was accused of giving evidence to the Court in June 1963 as a Prosecution witness in a trial against her former partner Lucky Gordon that he had assaulted her earlier that year. Gordon maintained his innocence and explained that two witnesses present at the scene would be able to confirm this. The police, at the time, claimed that the witnesses could not be found and Keeler’s evidence was the key evidence which led to Gordon’s conviction.
Almost two months later the Court of Appeal famously overturned Gordon’s conviction when the missing witnesses were located and confirmed that Keeler’s account was largely false. She was arrested and charged with perjury and in December 1963 she pleaded guilty to the offence. In doing so Keeler accepted that she had been lawfully sworn as a witness in Gordon’s trial and wilfully gave evidence against him which she knew was false. The evidence was clearly ‘material’ as it was evidence upon which Gordon was wrongly convicted.
Keeler was given an immediate custodial sentence of nine months. There is no Sentencing Guideline currently in force for perjury offences, although the Court must always consider the ‘culpability’ of the accused, that is to say, the level of responsibility for the offence, and the ‘harm’ caused by it when sentencing. This was also the position in 1963. In Keeler’s case the Court had to consider, amongst other factors, that due to her false evidence Gordon was convicted of an offence and spent time in custody before his conviction was overturned.
Keeler’s story serves as a reminder that the Court has always treated false evidence very seriously. However, the drama suggested that her legal team had hoped for a suspended sentence of imprisonment and viewed the sentence she received as unfairly harsh. This is unlikely to be the case, as the Court confirmed in subsequent cases:
“There is a long line of cases in this Court where it has been said again and again that except in the most exceptional cases (and those must be truly exceptional) where persons are brought to book for perjury it is inevitable that a custodial sentence follows.”