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Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): I say at the outset that I shall support the Bill, as I said I would in my contribution to the debate on the Queen's Speech. It is much needed and it gives us an opportunity to debate the role of lay people in the justice system, which is a good thing. It is important that we consider the balance between fairness to the accused and fairness to victims. We have to ensure that we make justice efficient and fair.

I believe that I am the first person to speak in the debate who is not, or has not been, a practising lawyer. I am therefore rather reluctant to enter the fray with the great and incisive minds of our revered legal profession. However, I find it difficult to leave something alone if I see something wrong with it. I feel obliged to challenge it, and that is one of the reasons for my speech.

I am tempted to say that I have come to bury lawyers, not to praise them, but I will not. Some of them are not such bad people. However, I hope that the Bill will bury the arrogant, patronising and elitist attitude that so many in the legal profession have shown towards the lay magistracy and to the jury system.

When I spoke in the Queen's Speech debate, I said what my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) said earlier. My reasons for supporting the Bill are not to do with whether it saves any money. That should not be the serious motivating factor behind it, and I hope that it is not. If there are financial gains as a consequence, that is well and good and I shall welcome them. However, it is not my first reason for supporting the Bill.

There has been an amazing outcry from some quarters, including the press and the legal profession, that the Bill is an outrageous assault on civil liberties. Although I realise that some hon. Members--and certainly the gentlemen of the press--do not allow facts to get in the way of a good story, let us consider them. More than 90 per cent. of all criminal trials begin and end in the magistrates courts. Some of them are for petty offences and others are for quite serious ones, such as those that we have heard described tonight. I think that assaulting a police officer is a serious offence, and I hope that the House would agree. That offence is dealt with in a magistrates court. I think that driving while unfit is a serious offence, and that is dealt with in a magistrates court.

If trial by jury is such a safeguard for our civil liberties, why is no one suggesting that those offences--indeed, all offences--should have jury trials? I hope that, because we have sufficient faith in the magistracy to deal with such cases fairly and with common sense, we accept that it is appropriate for them to be dealt with in the magistrates courts.

As has been pointed out, of the either-way cases sent to the Crown court, the vast majority are sent by magistrates declining jurisdiction themselves. Using their common sense and experience, they say that they prefer certain cases to be dealt with in the Crown courts. That is despite the fact that some defendants would have preferred to have their cases tried in a magistrate court at the time.

When defendants opt for jury trial--the figure of 18,500 has been bandied about--70 per cent. of them admit guilt before the case comes to trial. We are talking about a small number of people who go before a judge and jury. Defendants in the Crown courts are three times

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more likely to receive a custodial sentence than defendants in magistrates courts being tried for similar offences.

The guardians of our civil liberties--affectionately known as the legal profession--say that this is a bad Bill for another reason. They say that magistrates are case hardened or that they are unqualified lay people. The implication is that the higher acquittal rate by juries shows that juries must be right and magistrates must be wrong. However, there is no way of telling whether that is true, because we do not analyse the way in which juries come to their decisions. We have no evidence on that.

I wish to reiterate what my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East said in passing. Miscarriages of justice in this country have taken place in Crown courts. It was not in magistrates courts that we saw the Guildford four, the Birmingham six and many others being, tragically, the subject of miscarriages of justice.

Some people suggest that defendants should have a right to trial by jury because that gives them a better chance of acquittal.

Mr. Marshall-Andrews: Will my hon. Friend explain why the proportion of acquittals in magistrates courts is less than the proportion of cases thrown out by judges which never come before a jury because there is no evidence? That is a worrying statistic, but why does it happen?

Ms Prentice: My hon. and learned Friend made a similar point to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but he misses the point. There are fewer acquittals in a magistrates courts because more people plead guilty, and very few cases are thrown out by judges. People go to the door of the court and decide to plead guilty. My hon. and learned Friend's point is a different argument altogether.

The claim that defendants exercise their right to a jury trial because they think that it will give them a better chance of acquittal is a dodgy reason for supporting the present system. We might as well say that the defendant should be able to opt for the judge whom he thinks will be a soft touch. That would bring the whole system into dreadful disrepute.

I want to make it clear that I support both the magistrates system and the jury system. I have been a magistrate and a juror, and both sets of good citizens work hard to come to the right decision. No system is perfect, but on the whole jurors, like magistrates, try to bring their common sense and local experience to each case and do their best to come to a fair judgment. It is wrong to suggest, as hon. Members have done in the debate, that magistrates do not know or understand the local area. They come from that area; they live and work there; they represent it, and they are as concerned as anyone else in the area to uphold justice.

I agree that magistrates could do with a makeover. They do not get a very good press, which is probably thanks to debates such as this. They are portrayed as living in a world separate from that of those on whom they sit in judgment. I think, and after listening to the debate I am even more convinced, that that image has been conjured up by people who have not spent much time in magistrates courts in recent years. Magistrates are citizens too. Certainly, we need more JPs from ethnic minorities, and

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JPs must reflect all strands of our society, but they are much closer to doing so than some of the hysterical arguments that we have heard would lead us to believe.

In response to a point raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I put in a plea about the jury system. Are we really seeing the true reflection of our communities on every jury? Do we really understand how juries come to their conclusions? The fact that we uphold the jury system as a good method of justice is no reason to believe that it is always perfect. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not here at the moment. He suggested that the jury system was far more representative and therefore better than the magistracy.

Last week, I sent the student on placement with me to the Inner London Crown court at Elephant and Castle, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, to carry out a rough check of how many of the jurors in the 10 courts there were white and how many were from ethnic minorities; and, if possible, to give me a gender and age breakdown. I acknowledge that it was not scientific research, but the results were very interesting. She said that 95 per cent. of all the jurors were white. That does not represent inner London terribly well. My simple point is not that juries do not do a good job, but that it is wrong to assume that only juries are representative.

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): As my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is not here to speak for himself, I ask the hon. Lady whether she accepts that everyone on the electoral register has an equal chance of ending up on a jury. That is not the same mechanism as the one by which magistrates are chosen, and every member of the population does not have an equal chance of ending up a magistrate.

Ms Prentice: That is only partly correct, because there is enormous opportunity to decline the chance to sit on a jury. I looked at the form that a colleague had and saw that the number of exemptions is remarkable; so jury selection is not a straightforward, random process.

I turn now to some letters and articles from barristers, whose ignorance of the magistracy seems to know no bounds. One said that in Scotland sheriffs are qualified, experienced and respected--good, so they should be--and went on to say that magistrates are unqualified. That is true; it is part of the process and it is why they are magistrates. His implication was that because they were unqualified they were unfit to try cases. How qualified does he think juries are?

Another barrister described magistrates as


Being worthy seems now to be a disqualification. A third barrister described magistrates as legally untrained, which is not true. They get rigorous, regular training. One need only consider the training that they are receiving to deal with human rights legislation. The patronising attitude and sheer arrogance of some leading barristers is almost breathtaking. Clearly they do not spend much time in magistrates courts.

It strikes me that too many defendants in magistrates courts are not being given the best advice by their legal advisers, and I wonder why. Call me an old cynic--


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