Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Taylor: That is utterly illogical.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Gentleman may say that, but the facts support many arguments that I do not consider to be illogical. However, the more important point does not arise from statistics.

I remind those hon. Members who are still minded to support the Government but who are not on the payroll vote of what the arguments are.

First, the public case for retaining a broad base for jury trial is that it allows citizens to participate in the legal process. Jury trial is popular and adds to the legal system's credibility. It reduces those elements of the legal process in which only lawyers are involved.

The hon. Members for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) and for Salford (Ms Blears) take a pro-Government view. However, I maintain that the argument does not come down to supporting either the witnesses or the defendant. Both are worthy of support: many hon. Members are committed to ensuring that victims and witnesses get a better deal, but not at the expense of defendants. It is important for the balance of civil liberty and justice that everyone feels confidence in the system. That system will be undermined for all of us if it loses the public's confidence.

Another argument concerns the defendant's case for a jury. The election for Crown court trial is an election for trial by judge and jury, and not just by jury alone. The Crown court system separates questions of evidence, procedure and abuse of process--which are heard when the jury is not present--from the facts that are for the jury to determine. Some people believe that magistrates cannot easily separate what they hear in the debate about procedure from what they hear in the case.

Mr. Taylor: Claptrap.

Ms Blears: That is patronising.

Mr. Hughes: It is neither: I practised at the Bar before I came to the House, and I was involved in both prosecuting and defending. I have been in court often enough to know that people do not trust magistrates as much as they trust judges and juries, because they believe and understand that judges and juries have different roles.

Mr. Hogg: If the position were as the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) suggested, would not trial judges in the Crown court deal with questions of admissibility in the jury's presence? It is because it is important that the jury does not hear the underlying debate that it is excluded.

Mr. Hughes: One of the reasons why people do not plead guilty at the beginning of their trial is that they do not see all the evidence against them. The clerks' advice to magistrates is given out of sight, so that defendants never know what that advice is. It is never recorded, so cannot be read subsequently. There are all sorts of ways in which the magistrates system is less open and transparent.

7 Mar 2000 : Column 925

The crucial point for defendants, whether we like it or not, is that the composition of the magistrates' Bench is not representative of Britain in 2000 in the same way that the composition of juries is.

Ms Blears: That is such nonsense.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. We must not keep having interventions from sedentary positions.

Mr. Hughes: The hon. Member for Salford does her reputation no good by saying that. Juries represent age, gender and race in a more balanced way than the magistracy. For defendants, therefore, the case for trial by jury is strong. The Home Secretary cited the people who support the Bill, but defendants, and those who represent them, also have a right to an opinion. They are just as important as judges, magistrates and the police.

There is also a political case for retaining jury trial. Certainly, there is a political case to be made against abolishing jury trial for hundreds of offences in one go. We must be careful that the Government do not push Parliament into supporting the majority against the few. Most people are not defendants in court cases. It may be popular on the streets to talk about toughening up the system, taking away people's rights and giving people who have been in trouble before a hard time, but that does not mean that it is right. We must resist populism, especially in the criminal justice system, as it sets a very dangerous precedent.

The Government have made some concessions with regard to the Bill. They inserted a reputation clause, but that only serves to show their dilemma over the Bill. A Bill with a reputation clause is clearly discriminatory, as some people have a reputation that could be presented as being more important than that of someone else. For example, if two people with no convictions were brought to trial for the same offence, and if one were 21 and out of work, while the other were a member of the Government, would the court regard their reputations as similar? No, it would not.

The reputation clause has to go, and in that I disagree with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). That leaves a proposal that does not allow people, irrespective of reputation, to choose jury trial at all. I hope that the House will accept, therefore, that these arguments in support of the Bill are poor, however one approaches them.

The Government say that abuse goes on, but they are out of date. It is no longer true to say that. The evidence cited by the House of Commons Library makes it clear that most people who plead guilty at the door of the court do not do so because they want an extended time on remand. They plead guilty because the evidence that comes to light between committal and trial has persuaded them to plead guilty, or because their lawyers have. Research by the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department proves that.

7 Mar 2000 : Column 926

Ms Blears: What does the hon. Gentleman say about the research that shows that 27 per cent. of defendants intend to plead guilty at the time that they elect for jury trial? That means that about 6,000 cases a year proceed on the basis of a sham.

Mr. Hughes: The other argument is that the number of people who change their plea later is going down, as is the number of those electing jury trial. The figures are not going in the direction that supports the hon. Lady's case. They are going in the opposite direction. A parliamentary answer to a question of mine states that, in 1995, 33 per cent. of either-way cases were committed for trial on the election of the defendant. However, that figure fell to 32 per cent. in 1996, and to 28 per cent. in 1997. The studies show that that reduction can be put down as much to reasons of legal process as to reasons of the interests of defendants.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the 27 per cent. of defendants who, according to Hedderman and Moxon, intended to plead guilty in 1989 all knew that they would go for trial in the Crown court anyway? That was where they were to be committed for sentencing, so they were not causing any trouble in the judicial system.

Mr. Hughes: That is clear from the reports, and colleagues can read the research.

Even if some people abuse the system, punishing the many because of the "abuse" of the few is wrong. It is like saying that because some people fiddle housing benefit, there should be no right to claim housing benefit. Therefore, the hon. Lady cannot argue that case and the Government should not. It is fundamentally illiberal and unjust.

Mr. Garnier: Is not that precisely the point made by Labour's Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws? We do not have to destroy the right to jury trial in either-way cases to deal with the abuses mentioned by the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears)--we change the mechanics.

Mr. Hughes: Not only is the hon. and learned Gentleman right, but many of the mechanics have been changed and are being changed. They have produced the speedier process and better system that everyone agrees should be achieved.

On cost, the argument that these changes will save a lot of money is untested. Once we add appeals systems, we add to the cost. I ask colleagues, if they have not already done so, to read an article by probably the most learned expert in Britain on sentencing. Writing in Current Sentencing Practice News in December, Dr. David Thomas describes the bizarre procedure now proposed in the Bill and referred to by Conservative Members. Three different groups of magistrates could be trying different parts of the proceedings, as well as having appeal processes at two stages.

The truth is that any possible cost benefits could be lost. In any event, most of them, as a parliamentary answer to me revealed, do not result from changes to the system. As a sentencing court cannot pass such long sentences, the cost of imprisonment is less. I am in favour of reducing the bill that the Prison Service gives the state, but let us

7 Mar 2000 : Column 927

do so by reducing directly the costs of imprisonment. Let us not use cost as a back-door advantage when there is no direct relation.

The crucial point is that the fewer jury trials there are, the cheaper it will be. No jury trials would mean a very cheap legal system. Making every trial a jury trial would make it very expensive. Please let us not argue that in order to save a bit of money, it is worth reducing the right to jury trial. If we believe that certain offences should not go before juries, let us argue for that, but for reasons other than cost.

Next Section

IndexHome Page