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Mr. Marshall-Andrews: In dealing with the so-called idea that people are playing the system, is my right hon. Friend aware that Michael Zander's report to the royal commission suggested that the overwhelming reason why people changed their plea was that in 50 per cent. of cases the charges were reduced, because of the well-known practice of overcharging defendants, especially black defendants, in magistrates courts?

While I am on my feet, my second point is that my right hon. Friend says that he is applying the Runciman royal commission, but he is not, because Runciman said that we should allow magistrates the powers only if they deliberately considered, as a statutory point, the reputation of the defendant. That is exactly what--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is far too long a contribution.

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. and learned Friend's point about reputation and livelihood, but he will know that much concern was expressed in the Chamber and in the other place about the inclusion of the criteria on reputation and livelihood, on the ground that that could unfairly discriminate against black and Asian defendants and those of what were regarded as a lower social class. I have responded to that concern by including in the Bill criteria relating to the seriousness and complexity of the offence, and to the sentencing power of the court, but not to reputation and livelihood.

My hon. and learned Friend will be able to make his point in greater detail in Committee but, if he is seeking to make a strong case, I advise him not to quote Professor Michael Zander in his favour, because both in his report to the royal commission and in an article in The Guardian on 25 May last year he came out strongly in favour of the basic principle of the Bill. He said:

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Does not the real unfairness of the Bill rest in who will be allowed to have a trial by jury? Will not it benefit the rich, the powerful and the famous who will have the right to trial by jury? Will the Home Secretary answer the questions he himself asked a few years ago:

Mr. Straw: I have answered those questions, because I have said that I have changed my mind on that point. Moreover, the more I thought about it, the more I accepted

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that it was wrong to have a system in which one of the criteria was tipped in favour of the people whom I mentioned. We have established criteria that are related to the seriousness and complexity of the offence and the sentencing power of the court. However, I said only yesterday that I have never brought a Bill before the House that has not been improved as a result of debate in the House, and that may well be the case for this Bill. The purpose of debate is to consider propositions from Government and, we trust, to improve them.

The provisions in the Bill are likely to prove significantly fairer. I repeat that we have strengthened the safeguards proposed by the royal commission to include in the Bill an interlocutory right of appeal to a Crown court judge against a decision of the magistrates to refuse to transfer jurisdiction.

Dr. Lynne Jones: Will my right hon. Friend explain how the measures will assist victims of crime, when he is introducing a right of appeal to the Crown court and when the magistrates courts will cause a longer delay before disposal of the case in the Crown court? Does he not realise that when the Government introduce such measures, that is precisely why so many Labour party members and supporters feel alienated?

Mr. Straw: I do not know to whom my hon. Friend talks but, in my constituency, which includes a lively Labour party, I have found no significant opposition to the changes. In the frequent open-air meetings that I hold in the centre of Blackburn in King William street, all the comment about the proposals has been in favour of the changes. People know that the reality is very different from what is being advanced by some hon. Members here today.

Before I go into the details of the Bill, two fundamental matters must be addressed. The first concerns the categorisation of offences. In England and Wales, the venue for a criminal trial is determined by the classification of offence that is charged. In the first category are the most serious offences--such as murder, rape, robbery, wounding or causing grievous bodily harm with intent--which can and should be tried only in the Crown court.

Then there are offences that can be tried either in the magistrates courts or the Crown court. The most common cases are stealing from shops and stalls, absconding from bail, and assaults occasioning actual bodily harm. In 1998, the numbers of prosecutions for each of those offences amounted to more than 75,000, 45,000 and 38,000 respectively. Where the offence is serious, and the magistrate's sentencing power is too limited, magistrates themselves may commit the case to the Crown court.

That very important point has not been fully understood outside the House. Of the total number of cases that went for trial at the Crown court last year, 45,000 were directed for trial there by magistrates. As I have already said, quite a lot of defendants want to be tried by magistrates, but in such cases they have no choice: if the magistrate so decides, the case must be tried in the Crown court.

In the common types of case that I have described, the defendant must give his or her consent to be tried by the magistrates--even if the circumstances of the case are very petty. Last year, 19,000 elected to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) will be interested to know that does not mean that there is less delay when there is election for

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trial. There is always greater delay than when the trial is held in the magistrates court, as is shown clearly in the data provided by the House of Commons Library.

Finally, there are summary-only offences which can only be tried by the magistrates. These include offences such as minor assaults. This categorisation is intended to represent a hierarchy based on the seriousness of the offence. In practice, however, that is often not the case. As the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, has pointed out, a number of offences can be tried only in the magistrates courts, where a conviction would--and does--have serious consequences for the defendant that go far beyond the formal punishment imposed by the court.

I shall give the House an entirely hypothetical example. Let us imagine that a Member of Parliament gets drunk, takes a car without consent and then assaults the police officer who apprehends him. If that hon. Member were convicted on those three sets of charges, I suggest that there would be a serious question mark over his or her career. Yet Parliament has decided that the serious offences involved--of taking a vehicle without the owner's consent, of assault on a police officer, and of drink-driving--are ones that only magistrates can try. There is no right of election for jury trial and, as far as I am aware, there is general confidence in magistrates' ability to try such offences.

The second, general, observation that I want to make concerns the position of magistrates in our criminal justice system. I can tell Opposition Members--especially my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews)--that the logical consequence of much of the opposition to the proposal in the Bill is to deny the competence and capacity of magistrates to arbitrate on any judicial matter. That is odd, as about 97 per cent. of all criminal cases in England and Wales--many of them with very severe consequences for defendants--are already tried by magistrates.

Magistrates routinely handle decisions relating to defendants' bail, matters of guilt or innocence, and appropriate sentencing following conviction. Many of those decisions have a far more serious effect upon the defendant's liberty than the decision relating to the mode of trial. In the debate in another place, the Lord Chief Justice said about magistrates that

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw: Not yet. All the evidence shows that magistrates courts conduct themselves fairly in dispensing justice. Each year, our magistrates conduct 70,000 contested trials. That is two and a half times the number conducted in the Crown court, yet the Criminal Cases Review Commission has received remarkably few complaints about summary conviction and has referred only one case involving the magistrates courts to the Court of Appeal.

I suggest that that is partly because there is an unfettered right of appeal following conviction by the magistrates before a judge sitting with two justices,

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whereas there is no automatic right of appeal following conviction in the Crown court. Contrary to all suggestions, including that of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), when magistrates hear trials, they acquit in 33 per cent. of cases. Of those cases that go for appeal--one in seven are subject to appeal to a Crown court judge and two magistrates--one third are successful.

Let me come on to an important issue on which I have thought long and hard--whether the Bill would disproportionately affect black defendants. It is said that they elect for jury trial because they believe that they will not receive a fair trail in the magistrates courts. I have considered the issue seriously. Lawyers, above all, need to weigh the evidence, and the evidence suggests that any such belief is entirely misplaced. Recently published Home Office data show a higher conviction rate for white defendants than for black or Asian defendants in the magistrates court.

That finding is backed by another recent study, showing that in both the magistrates court and the Crown court, black and Asian defendants were less likely than white defendants to be convicted after contested trials. At both courts--although it is not possible to make direct comparisons between the two conviction rates--black defendants were 6 to 7 percentage points less likely to be convicted than white defendants. There is also a strong similarity between acquittal rates in magistrates courts and in the Crown court for contested either-way cases when account is taken of the differences in seriousness and complexity in Crown court cases.

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