Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: I should like to make some progress, and then of course I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

Most either-way cases heard in the Crown court are there because of a decision by magistrates. Interestingly, defendants who want to be tried by magistrates have no choice if the magistrates direct a Crown court trial. Similarly, the Government do not believe that it is right for the final decision on Crown court trial to be a matter for the defendant's personal choice. Both the royal commission and the Narey review found that too many defendants have been working the system and choosing jury trial purely to delay proceedings.

One very experienced magistrate, Rosemary Thompson, who is well known to hon. Members on both sides of the House and is a former chair of the Magistrates Association, told Narey, at the time of his review, that

Rosemary Thompson has recently confirmed:

    Abuse is still rampant and there is still a pressing need for reform. Nothing has changed since the publication of the Narey report.

It cannot be right that we continue to allow repeat offenders with strings of previous convictions to demand full Crown court trials for trivial offences that can and should be heard in magistrates courts. As David Phillips, chief constable of Kent, said recently in support of our proposals:

    In the end it is plain daft to allow a persistent criminal charged with a minor theft to invoke the full panoply of a criminal trial with solicitors, barristers, court officials, jurors and judges at massive public expense.

The majority of those who opt for jury trial plead guilty at the door of the Crown court, but only after greater inconvenience and worry to victims and witnesses and considerable extra cost. Most people rightly regard that as a manipulation of the criminal justice system. The Bill will end it. If defendants are convicted at the Crown court, their success in delaying proceedings brings them not the lighter sentence that they might have hoped for, but a higher one. They lose their sentence discount and may spend longer on remand.

The evidence presented to the royal commission suggested that one of the key reasons why defendants chose trial by jury was that they thought that they would get a lesser sentence at the Crown court than they would at the magistrates court. Anyone with any experience of working in the two knows what the data show

7 Mar 2000 : Column 889

overwhelmingly: those who opt for a Crown court trial, even if they plead guilty at the door of the court, as many do, will justifiably receive a longer sentence because they have not pleaded guilty timeously.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Home Secretary is being selective in the evidence that he chooses to support his case. Two reports commissioned by the Home Office in the past 10 years have shown overwhelmingly that defendants who elect to go to the Crown court do so for reasons other than simply to stay out on remand or because they think that they can spin out the case. A defendant in the Crown court gets sight of all the evidence against them. That is not available in the magistrates court. They could also be given advice by lawyers to plead guilty on the basis of later evidence at the doors of the Crown court. Why cannot we have an objective assessment of the case for law reform, saving costs and improving justice as a whole rather than taking one issue, which the Home Secretary accepts is controversial, against--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps his interventions should be brief.

Mr. Straw: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's reading of the data. It is preposterous to suggest, particularly these days with the huge cost of criminal legal aid, that defendants in magistrates courts are denied the availability of legal advice.

Mr. Hughes: I did not say that.

Mr. Straw: That is the implication of what the hon. Gentleman said. He said that they were denied advice from lawyers and that they might get that advice at the Crown court. I heard him say that, but it is not the case. The excellent Library briefing sets out the data, as have we. The figures do not show any evidence of injustice being perpetrated by the way in which magistrates try cases.

The hon. Gentleman also made points relating to the Auld review, which is currently taking place. The Bar Council and some of my hon. Friends have asked why the issue cannot be dealt with by that review, which is considering the future of the criminal justice system in the round. Our proposal has been considered extensively, not just by a very distinguished judge of the Court of Appeal but by a royal commission set up by the previous Administration. Their unanimous judgment was in favour of the change, but without the safeguards that we are proposing.

I took what the Bar Council said to mean that it would abandon its opposition if Lord Justice Auld approved of the change. If that is not the correct inference to draw, the idea is merely a tactic for procrastination. We have already had the opinion of the senior judiciary on the merits of the proposals, if that is all that the Bar Council is waiting for. The Lord Chief Justice made a powerful speech on 20 January in which he came down wholly in favour of the change. He said on the record that he had canvassed the opinion of all the senior High court judges--more than 100--and that all bar a tiny handful were emphatically in favour of the change. The Bar Council has its response already.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): The Home Secretary's point about defendants playing the system to

7 Mar 2000 : Column 890

get to the Crown court may have been a good one some years ago, but it is now grossly exaggerated as it hardly happens at all--not least because of the introduction of plea-before-venue, coupled with full credit for early guilty pleas. Does the Home Secretary accept that there is now very little milking of the system?

Mr. Straw: If I did, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I would not have gone to considerable effort to bring this Bill before the House, and I have applied myself to the evidence. If that were the case, does the hon. Gentleman think that I would be bothering to go through this exercise? What he says is not the case.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): Will the Home Secretary re-read what the Lord Chief Justice said, and ask himself whether he has overstated the case a little? The Lord Chief Justice said that he had stood up at a meeting of 100 judges and asked if anybody disagreed. Earlier at the meeting--at which Mr. Justice Mitchell was endorsed--he had said that the proposed change could be supported, but only if the magistrates' decisions on jurisdiction were subject to appeal to a circuit judge. That was not then part of the proposal, but has been accepted subsequently by the Government. Is not it fair to say that the judges felt reluctant to stand out against the elected Government, but that they hardly showed the wholehearted support that the Home Secretary suggests?

Mr. Straw: Perhaps the record should be sent for, for the greater elucidation of Opposition Members, but I do not think that what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just said can be remotely justified. The speech by Lord Bingham of Cornhill was unequivocally 100 per cent. in favour of the change--although with the change that he had proposed of a right of appeal to a Crown court, which we have accepted and which was in the original Bill.

The noble Lord Bingham made it clear that almost every single judge was in favour. He invited the 100 judges present at the meeting to write to him if they dissented, as he said that one or two of them--despite their lengthy experience at the Bar and on the bench--may have been shy in coming forward. One wrote, and a further judge indicated dissent orally. However, there seems to be considerable unanimity of opinion on this matter.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): The Home Secretary should be cautious about relying on the support of the judiciary. I exempt the Lord Chief Justice from what I am about to say, but is not it correct that those of us who practise at the criminal Bar know full well that many members of the judiciary--both lay and professional--develop a predisposition in favour of the prosecution because they are exposed to crime over many years? It is precisely for that reason that many of us want to retain the jury system, and precisely for that reason that the Home Secretary should be cautious about relying on the views of the judiciary.

Mr. Straw: That was an extraordinarily ill-judged and intemperate attack on the quality of our judiciary by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I am sure that it was not a contempt of court, but it was getting on for that. I simply do not accept what he says and, later, I shall

7 Mar 2000 : Column 891

give figures which show without any doubt that the magistrates--whom he is suggesting are hard-boiled and willing to accept prosecution evidence, however poor--simply do not operate in that way.

Next Section

IndexHome Page