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7.30 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): It is a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore), who has spoken brilliantly. About 33 years ago, I played rugby against the hon. Gentleman. He was outstanding on the pitch, if a little punchy. I congratulate him on everything that he said this evening.

I declare an interest: I have been a practising criminal lawyer for many years. I have sat judicially as a recorder of the Crown court and as an acting metropolitan stipendiary magistrate, also for many years, in dozens of court centres in London and the south-east. I may be the only Member of the House who has sat both in the Crown court as a judge and in the magistrates court.

The debate has nothing to do with where one receives a better trial. It has nothing to do with whether the trial is better in the Crown court or the magistrates court. It is possible to have a wonderful or a bad trial before lay magistrates; to have a wonderful and fair trial before a stipe, or not; or to have a jury that goes one way or the other. The debate is not about that. It is about the freedom of people in this country to say, in relation to certain offences, "Rightly or wrongly, I would like to exercise my right to trial by jury."

What does the Bill do? What does it say? What are the Labour Government saying through the Bill? They are saying, "You, the defendant--man or woman--are charged with an offence of minor dishonesty. You are a

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person of good character. You have a job and an outstanding reputation. As a Government, we understand that if you are convicted, you will lose everything." The Government are telling the defendant, "Until today, you have had a right to jury trial--trial by your peers. With this Bill, we are taking away that right, simply because we believe that we can save money thereby." That is the issue.

That approach is shameful and shoddy. The Government should not have introduced the Bill. They did not have to do so. There are several reasons why it was unnecessary. As we have already heard, Lord Justice Auld is reviewing the working of all the criminal courts and the court system. Is not it silly to introduce such a dramatic Bill and to make such a fundamental change, rather than to wait for his report?

The Government say that the changes will save money. The explanatory notes state that the Bill is expected to save £128 million. I do not believe a word of that. If I were allowed to ask hon. Members to put up their hands if they agreed with the Government's figures, I do not suppose that a single hand would be raised. Indeed, not a single hand has gone up. What is that £128 million? Tomorrow, it could be £138 million or £148 million. Who in the Chamber believes a word of that claim?

Mr. Garnier: It was £105 million last week.

Mr. Malins: Indeed. It is nonsense. Anybody who has been around has learned by now to distrust Government figures. However, money is their prime motivation for introducing the Bill.

I worry about the Bill, not least because of the delays that might result. Let us picture the scene: a defendant in the magistrates court is refused trial by jury, and he or she appeals. Until a few hours ago, I had assumed that the normal rules in the magistrates court would apply; there have always been 21 days for appeal--probably with a hearing 21 days later. However, it was only when I was talking to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that I learned that it was envisaged that the appeals should go through in 48 hours.

The Home Secretary must get real. It would be nonsense for him to go to a magistrates court or a Crown court and to try to get an appeal through in 24 or 48 hours. Ten to one, the prosecutor in the magistrates court would be an agent, who would push off immediately after the hearing and take a fortnight to return the papers to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Who would draft such an appeal? What about the defence lawyer? If it is intended to conclude the appeal within 48 hours, why is there no provision for that in the Bill? Why is there no mention of it in the explanatory notes? Furthermore, will it not be a sham if the appeal is merely carried out by paperwork? A worthwhile appeal must have an oral hearing. In his reply, will the Minister undertake that oral hearings may be granted in every case? Any appeal judge would look at the bits of paper and say, "I want to hear the advocate on this matter." It cannot be done in 48 hours; it is nonsense to believe that that could occur.

There is another cruel unfairness about the Bill. The Government are saying to a defendant, "We won't let you go to the Crown court for your trial, but having insisted

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that you be tried in the magistrates court, we retain the right to send you to the Crown court for sentence." That is a fundamental unfairness. It will create much dissension and unhappiness.

The Government claim that many people who elect for trial in the Crown court eventually plead guilty. It is true that some people do. However, we need to ask why. Furthermore, just because that happens, does it mean that we have to introduce this measure? Of course it does not. There are two principal reasons why people go to the Crown court and plead guilty. The first is significant; it is to do with disclosure. Only when a case is committed to the Crown court does the defence receive all the papers--or nearly everything.

Mr. Hogg: On disclosure, is there not another point that my hon. Friend would want to make? In the magistrates court, there is not the same degree of disclosure. Consequently, the defendant's conduct of the defence case in that court would be hampered by lack of disclosure.

Mr. Malins: My right hon. and learned Friend is right. In the magistrates court, disclosure sometimes amounts to only one side of A4 paper with a summary of the facts. It is only by going to the Crown court that the defendant knows everything and so, better-informed and with counsel's advice, has to say, "I must plead guilty."

The second reason that people who go to the Crown court sometimes plead guilty is because when they arrive there, the charges are reduced. In response to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor), no one is saying that the magistrates overcharged--the charge has nothing to do with the magistrates. The CPS or the police overcharge; it is a real problem.

Those are the main reasons why people change their plea at Crown court. They do not suggest that we should remove the right of jury trial. All we have to do is to give closer consideration to accurate charging and to proper and fuller disclosure.

Furthermore, what will happen in the magistrates courts or the stipes courts? What happens if the appeal fails and the case has to be tried in the magistrates court? Come with me to the stipes court at Camberwell Green, or wherever, and read the daily list. There are 100 overnights or remands, and sentences all morning. The space is crammed. Where is there room for a two or three-day trial? In a Crown court, the trial carries on--Monday, Tuesday and the next day. If a trial is adjourned part-heard in a magistrates court, it will go two or three months down the line. What would be the chance of getting the same bench or the same stipe? It would be slim. If there are to be more trials in the magistrates courts, the listing problems will be awful.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is the reason why the average delay in contested cases in magistrates courts is 21 weeks, whereas the average time for two-day cases to be heard after committal to the Crown court is five weeks? The delay is infinitely less.

Mr. Malins: The hon. and learned Gentleman has an outstanding history at the Bar. He is right. At present, to

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get a two-day slot for a trial in the magistrates courts, one has to look months ahead. It is much quicker in the Crown court.

Ms Blears: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that in the Narey pilot areas the time taken to deal with cases in the magistrates courts has been reduced by two thirds and that, because the Narey recommendations came into force on 1 November last year, we should see a similar decrease in the time that it takes such courts to dispose of cases?

Mr. Malins: It is my fault, but I do not know whether the hon. Lady has a great deal of judicial and court experience; I am sure that she has. The Narey courts that sit at the moment are creating quicker through-processes, but that is no reason to introduce this Bill. It is every reason to let the situation develop over the next few months and see how things go on.

I shall have to conclude my remarks shortly, but let us consider the position and assess what we need to keep and what we need to change. First, plea-before-venue has done very well. It was introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the former Home Secretary, and it has saved a lot of time. It has been coupled with the huge credits that defendants now get for an early guilty plea, so when I am in court I see, day after day, plea-before-venue and guilty pleas. That saves a lot of time.

There is far less abuse of the system than there used to be. Frankly, if, once every couple of months, I scratch my head as I sit judicially in a stipendiary court and say, "This is a bit of an abuse of the system"--and I have said that--that is a very small price to pay for the greater good that we want to maintain.

Why do we not look at other issues, such as declassifying--or is it reclassifying--offences? Hon. Members have pointed out that habits and moods change. Years ago, all cases of criminal damage would go to the Crown court, but now--I shall be corrected if I am wrong--there is a £5,000 maximum limit. Taking and driving away a car used to be worth a sentence of three years on indictment, but now it is only six months. Driving while disqualified was worth a sentence of 12 months, but now it is worth only six even though sometimes it should be worth more. Finally, drink-driving is only a summary offence. Times changes and should we not, along with the Auld report, consider such issues? Are there other offences which we could perhaps consider for summary trial only?

I have described the approach that we should consider in future. We also need to wait to see what the Law Commission says about assault cases. My goodness, one sees many assaults charged as actual bodily harm even though they should be charged as common assault. Why are the people in the House who know about the subject not being asked by the Government for their views? Why do we not think about the issues carefully and constructively? That is what we should do.

What we do not want to do is say to that man or woman to whom I referred earlier, "You've had this right for many, many years. We're taking it away because we are going to save money." That is why this Bill, which has not been thought through and will not save time or money, is at the end of the day terribly unfair.

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7.43 pm

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