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6.7 pm

Jean Corston (Bristol, East): I support the Bill, and I do not do so on grounds of cost. I spoke recently to someone from the Commonwealth, who said that, when he thought of Britain, he thought of fair play, justice and democracy. Justice and democracy are expensive, and I think that we should be prepared to pay the price. I accept that those who are responsible for the Government's purse strings may consider that to be a factor, but to me it is utterly irrelevant.

Unlike my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I did not criticise the proposal when the royal commission published its report, because I paid great attention to who was on the commission. It consisted of 11 people, most of whom I did not know, although the positions that they held at the time suggested that they could be trusted to consider the way in which our criminal justice system should be amended to deal with the collapse in public confidence that came in the wake of all the miscarriages of justice that we have seen, many of them in Irish cases.

Two members of the commission in particular, who are known to me in different contexts, led me to feel that I should respect its unanimous view. I refer to the chair, Lord Runciman--Garry Runciman, a highly respected

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social scientist, treasurer of the Child Poverty Action Group for many years and also, as it happens, a business man, as well as being the author of major works of sociology--and Professor Michael Zander, of the London school of economics.

I must declare a kind of interest at this point: Professor Zander was one of my teachers when I was a somewhat elderly law student at the LSE. In any event, I have the utmost respect for him, and no one could doubt his civil liberty credentials.

The royal commission relied on figures from research by the Home Office's research and planning unit, conducted by Hedderman and Moxon and published by HMSO in 1992.

In case anyone is going to say, "Ah. We now have plea before venue," the House of Commons Library says that, so far as it is aware, the number of cases in the last year for which figures are available, post-plea before venue, where people plead guilty at the door of court, is 11,000. At that time, however, Hedderman and Moxon pointed out that only 18 per cent. of cases tried in the Crown court were indictable. The remainder were either-way cases. Fifty-two per cent. were directed automatically by magistrates, who considered that it would be more appropriate for a Crown court to deal with the matter.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Is my hon. Friend aware that it was an essential part of Runciman's suggestion that, should the right of trial by jury be given up, that magistrates should consider, by statute, the reputation of the people to whom they were denying trial? It was an essential part of Runciman, which has been taken out of the Bill. As she knows Michael Zander, does she know whether he has changed his mind?

Jean Corston: Of course I am aware that the commission thought that the reputation should be considered, but surely my hon. and learned Friend is aware of the reasons why it has been removed from the Bill.

Thirty per cent. of cases went to the Crown court as a result of the defendant's election--the defendant chose trial by jury. Three main objectives in making that choice were cited. The first was that it put off the day of trial, which is obvious. If in custody, the defendant will spend time on remand. Spending time in any prison is not pleasant, but at least someone on remand will have better access to lawyers, more visits, the right to wear their own clothes and to spend more money in the prison shop.

The second objective was said to be that defendants believed that there would be a better chance of acquittal as they thought that the trial process would be fairer. There may be some truth in that, but the royal commission found it odd that most of them ended up pleading guilty. By the day of trial, 70 per cent. of those who elected for trial had pleaded guilty to all the charges. A further 13 per cent. pleaded guilty to some charges.

The third objective cited was the belief that a Crown court sentence would be lighter. That belief is much mistaken. Judges are three times more likely to impose immediate custody. On average, sentences are two and a half times as long. One third of defendants who elected trial by jury said that, in retrospect, they would have

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preferred to have been dealt with by magistrates. For all types of offences, magistrates are more likely to order defendants to pay compensation to victims.

The royal commission knew that there would be objections, particularly from the legal establishment. It was not mistaken, but it said that magistrates conducted more than 93 per cent. of all criminal cases--that is 1.8 million cases a year--and should be trusted to try fairly. Therefore, it is invidious to suggest that it is not possible to get justice in a magistrates court. Very few miscarriages of justice have been referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission following magistrates court decisions; indeed, it may be only one.

The royal commission did not consider that defendants should be able to choose the mode of trial that they thought would offer them a better chance of acquittal, any more than they should be able to choose the judge whom they thought would give them a more lenient sentence.

Last year, 400,000 either-way cases were tried by magistrates: that is, 400,000 cases where defendants said that they were happy for the magistrate to proceed immediately to trial. That does not seem like a lack of confidence to me. Furthermore, of the 65,000 cases that went to the Crown court, 47,000 were sent by magistrates themselves because they thought it inappropriate for them to try those cases. They do have some knowledge of what is appropriate in terms of their jurisdiction.

In any event, the Bill will provide for a right of appeal to a Crown court judge for anyone who is refused jury trial as a result of a magistrates court deciding to reserve the case to themselves. It is an important safeguard, but not one that was recommended by the royal commission.

Mr. Simon Hughes: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jean Corston: With respect, may I ask for a short intervention because there is a time limit on my speech and there will not be on the hon. Gentleman's?

Mr. Hughes: The question is simple. Why is the hon. Lady's argument not an argument for getting rid of jury trial all together?

Jean Corston: That is an extraordinary question from someone who, I understand, practises law. In some cases--for example, murder and rape--no one would suggest that magistrates have the competence to deal with such matters. Apart from anything else, there is the length of the trial.

The Attorney-General, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for whom I have much respect, said that those who opposed the Bill would have to say

the type of victim to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) referred earlier--

    "Your case is not going to come on for nine months" . . . why? Because the system is clogged up with matter that . . . does not really need to be there.--[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 January 2000; Vol. 608, c. 1293.]

That is something that we have to acknowledge.

Mr. Burnett rose--

Jean Corston: I will not give way again because of the time limit on my speech.

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I turn to the question of race. In my constituency, there is a considerable population of people from the black and Asian communities. If I had thought that the Bill would in any way harm their prospects of a fair trial, or their representation in the criminal justice system, I would have been the first to have said so and to have voted against it. I am absolutely committed to the eradication of racism in our society and oppose the way in which black people can be stigmatised by the criminal justice system, but I have been influenced by research by Dr. Bonny Mhlanga of Hull university, who conducted an analysis of 5,500 defendants, which was published in October.

The research concluded that black and Asian defendants were less likely to be convicted after contested trials in both Crown and magistrates courts. At magistrates courts, 48 per cent. of cases involving black defendants did not result in conviction. The equivalent figure for white defendants was 41 per cent. In the Crown court, 36 per cent. of black defendants and 30 per cent. of white defendants were not convicted. Therefore, it is not true to say that black people are less likely to get justice from magistrates.

If there is a problem with the magistracy, let people say so and let us do something about it. As a result of the royal commission and the lack of confidence that most of us displayed in our criminal justice system after the disgraceful and outrageous cases involving people such as the Birmingham six, the Bridgewater four, the Guildford four and all the rest, Labour Members said that we should look at the way in which the judiciary was elected and judges behaved. We are trying to do that. If there is a similar problem with the magistracy--it has not been brought to my attention that there is--let us deal with it, rather than say, "Let us have a Crown court system," which is bogged down with things that simply do not need to be there and is used as a delaying tactic by people who know the form.

In turning to the legal profession itself, I have to declare an interest: before I came to the House, I practised as a barrister. I never practised criminal law, but I have during my time as a Member of Parliament been much persuaded by briefings from organisations such as the Bar Council--I am a member of the Bar--the Law Society, Justice and Liberty. I am not so persuaded now.

I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. One of its provisions was the abolition of the right to silence. A new form of caution was to be administered to people when they were arrested, or taken to a police station.

We were all told--those of us on the Standing Committee had a specific responsibility to look at every single briefing that came before us--that that was the most appalling attack on the rights of defendants, that it would lead to miscarriages of justice, that it was wrongheaded and anti-democratic. I cannot describe the effect that that had on me. Those were the days when we were in opposition and used to turn up at a three-line vote for a principled abstention.

I was one of the 40-odd Labour Members who made myself very unpopular by voting against that Bill. I did so on the basis that the Bar Council and Law Society had said that it was the end of justice as we knew it, or words to that effect. Ever since, I have been waiting for all those miscarriages of justice that were going to emerge because of that measure to do so, but they have not. All I say to

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people at the Bar Council and the Law Society is, "Think very carefully about how you conduct yourselves, because some of us are beginning to think that you sometimes raise siren voices."

The name of the Attorney-General was invoked by Opposition Members. He was once the chairman of the Bar Council. When he heard some of the objections being made to the Bill in another place, he said that, as a former Bar Council chairman, he himself had behaved in that type of "neanderthal" fashion. I tell those organisations--for many of whom I have the utmost respect--"Be very careful in how you express yourselves, because the way in which you are pursuing some of these issues is having precisely the opposite effect to that which you intended."

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