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2.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville): I cannot be expected to agree with the thrust of the last remarks of the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) but I concur with his alarm at the outcome of the cases that he described. He was kind enough to give me notice that he had corresponded with the Attorney-General and others. So, with his permission, I shall answer with a considered commentary on one of those cases--the Crown v. Hodgkiss, Dixon and Boyd. He can then judge whether what I shall say demonstrates not only concern but a willingness to ensure that such chains of events do not occur again.

As the hon. Gentleman said, in that case three men were charged with serious offences. They were committed for trial and a pre-trial hearing took place on 5 May 1995. Thereafter, the case was listed for hearing on three occasions: 31 July 1995, 12 December 1995 and 12 February 1996. On all those dates, the case was listed as what is called a "floater" and, in the event, it did not come before the judge until the last date. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a "floater" is a trial not allocated to a specific court or judge but which may be taken in any court within a court centre whenever a gap appears in any of the lists during the day. It is not tied to a single courtroom and can be taken in the first one that becomes free. It is necessary to run such a system because it is impossible to predict the precise length of trials and, if there were no such system, a court in which the fixed list finished early would simply be left with nothing to do, which would represent a waste of public money and increased delays. However, it is clearly unsatisfactory that a serious case such as this should be listed as a floater on three separate occasions. The Court Service is well aware of that fact and is taking steps to prevent a recurrence.

On 12 February 1996, when the case finally came to court, the defence applied for an adjournment as an expert witness was not available. Furthermore, prosecuting counsel was unable to reach the court due to adverse weather conditions. Although the court was told that the prosecution could proceed on the following day, the judge decided to grant the defence request for an adjournment.

The case was then listed for a fourth time, but this time as a fixture, on 30 April 1996. On that day, prosecuting counsel instructed by the CPS--who was new to the

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case--decided to seek an adjournment so that clothing from two of the defendants could be examined forensically. That was counsel's decision and contrary to the view of the police and the CPS, which did not consider such an examination necessary. The defence had not sought an examination either, despite being informed of its availability early in the proceedings.

The judge retired overnight to consider his position. The following day, he was informed by prosecuting counsel--following consultation with the CPS--that the trial should proceed. However, he was not informed that the defence had earlier been offered an opportunity to examine the clothing and declined. He was also told that the reason for the adjournment on 12 February was the unavailability of prosecuting counsel--the unavailability of the defence expert witness was not pointed out to him. On the basis of that incomplete information, the judge directed that the case should not proceed as the defendants would be put at a considerable disadvantage. He therefore stayed the proceedings.

Mr. Lewis: The Minister will acknowledge that I referred obliquely to that point in my speech. Were disciplinary proceedings taken against anyone found guilty of misleading a High Court judge in that way?

Mr. Sackville: No. I gather from the information that I have received from the Attorney-General that the situation did not lend itself to disciplinary proceedings--it may have been a case of incompetence rather than malevolence. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.

Mr. Lewis: Have we stopped dealing with incompetence in a disciplinary manner?

Mr. Sackville: I shall deal in correspondence with the general point as to what extent disciplinary procedures would be available in an extreme case.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has raised the case with the head of the Court Service. He in turn, together with the service's senior managers, has looked to see what steps can be taken to prevent the overuse of floating trials. The practice of floating cases involving a large number of witnesses and occurring on several occasions is contrary to guidelines. Three points in the guidelines are: floaters should be short and uncomplicated cases; they should involve few witnesses

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and no expert witnesses; and, if they are not reached on the first day they are listed, they should receive priority in subsequent listing arrangements. In light of this case, the head of the Court Service has re-emphasised the need for the guidance to be followed.

My right hon. and learned Friend has also contacted the leader of the northern circuit Bar to express his concern at the contribution that the change of prosecuting counsel had made to the unsatisfactory outcome of the case. The heads of chambers have been reminded of the need to ensure that the number of returned briefs is kept to an absolute minimum. More generally, the CPS, in liaison with the Bar, has issued service standards on returned briefs that are designed to ensure continuity of counsel throughout a case--something that was sadly lacking in the current case. The fundamental principle of the service standards is that the advocate who is instructed initially should conduct the case.

Finally, the Court Service and the CPS are arranging a conference for staff at senior levels to agree general principles, processes and mechanisms to ensure that cases are handled properly. That will take place on 3 February and, I hope that it will help to prevent a recurrence of this unfortunate episode.

Mr. Lewis: Can the Minister let me see a copy of the guidance to which he referred in the correspondence that he is to send me?

Mr. Sackville: I am sure that that will be no problem at all. I shall arrange that.

I can only sympathise and apologise through the hon. Gentleman to his constituents for the way in which they have been let down by the criminal justice system. I hope that the events that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, the Court Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Bar have set in train will avoid similar results in future cases.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that sinister forces might be at work. I hope that that is not the case. Even assuming that the case involved a certain amount of bad luck, but principally incompetence, it is very serious. I believe that lessons will be learnt from this particular case--and another case, about which I shall be happy to give the hon. Gentleman a more detailed commentary in correspondence--and that, in future, we can tell all our constituents that when there is a case to be heard following a serious offence, it will be heard promptly.

Question put and agreed to.

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