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8.21 pm

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I shall be brief. I compliment the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) on a speech that could hardly have put the case better. My approach is very much the same and, although I suspect that we disagree on a number of political matters, on this we agree strongly.

The debate involves three issues. Fundamentally, it is about liberty and the liberties of the subjects of the United Kingdom who live in England and Wales--I shall not discuss Scotland because the system is different. It is also about confidence in our criminal justice system and, to some extent, efficiency and cost, although I very much doubt whether the Bill will achieve many cost savings should it be forced through.

Liberty is the key point, and the right to elect for jury trial is one of this country's great liberties. The most serious offences--murder, manslaughter and a number of others--have to go to jury trial, but either-way offences do not. They are huge in number and run up to some serious offences. Almost always, they deal with either violence or a significant element of dishonesty. There are some 369 categories and at least 700 offences, and there may be a great many more.

Jury trial means that the citizens of this country have the right to be tried not by a professionally appointed member of the judiciary or an appointed member of the magistracy--I have the highest regard for the magistracy, as I shall explain--but by their peers. A random group of 12 ordinary men and women from all walks of life is brought together to consider a particular case, and probably a small number of others, over a fortnight, but they do not sit day in, day out judging such matters professionally.

I must declare my interest, obviously. I have been a barrister for 30 years, I am a recorder, I was a Law Officer for 10 years, I am the son of a barrister and High Court judge and my late stepmother was a magistrate for 25 years and chairman of the bench in Dacorum. [Interruption.] I see the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) in his place. I must have appeared hundreds of times in the magistrates court in my early days and a great many times in the Crown court, although I do not make my money there any more--except, from time to time, as a recorder.

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The quality of justice in the magistrates court is very high and I am the strongest supporter of our 29,000 magistrates, but they should recognise the danger that erosion such as that provided for by the Bill will encourage erosion in their area. However, that is a different matter. One has to say that, for a number of reasons, the quality of justice in the Crown court is of a higher order, not because jurors are better people than magistrates--they know less than magistrates and have less experience--but because cases are better prepared when they get to the Crown court. As has been rightly said, there is much fuller disclosure. There is also time for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to make much fuller disclosures, for legal advisers to consider the matter, for evidence to be gathered and for advice to be taken.

It is not a criticism of the system that those who elect for trial by jury subsequently plead guilty in the Crown court. That is not a matter of wasted costs, but of saving costs. At least they and society know that those cases have been carefully considered and, by the time that they decide to plead guilty, all the proper avenues have been gone through.

I want to say something that may be thought to be more controversial and more critical, but is certainly not intended to be. I have personal experience of cases that were tried and rightly acquitted in the Crown court. I say rightly acquitted because I was convinced that either the person was innocent or the case was at least not proven. I have in mind examples from my experience as an advocate and as a recorder, when I watched cases being tried, and I cannot say with confidence that those people would necessarily have been acquitted in the magistrates court. That is not a criticism of the magistrates, but the system is more careful, more thought through and more balanced in the Crown court. In the Crown court we put ourselves before ordinary men and women who think frightfully carefully, and I have great admiration for the jury system and the seriousness with which jurors play their part. That provides a higher system of justice and one in which we can have the greatest confidence.

What will happen if we go down the route suggested by the Bill in matters of cost and efficiency? I do not believe that it will have the good effect that is intended. I am not naive enough to say that there are no semi-professional criminals who do not play the system. Of course there are. Accused persons elect for trial partly to serve their time in custody in less harsh and more open conditions on remand. There is an element of abuse there--I fully accept that--but those people will play whatever system we have. They will certainly try to play the system that the Government propose to introduce.

There will be a ping-pong match. Such people will elect for trial by jury, but that will be refused because they have a number of previous convictions and the case seems to be unmeritorious. They will therefore appeal to the Crown court judge. They will certainly make sure that their lawyers demand an oral hearing; if, as a result of the oral hearing, the matter is none the less heard in the magistrates court, it is highly likely that they will ask for it to be fought in the magistrates court.

I think that far more than 2,000 cases will be involved. I think that the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) was much nearer the mark when he said that there would be several thousand. Many people, having been convicted in the magistrates court,

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will then seek to appeal. If they are in custody the position will change, but they will nevertheless seek to appeal, and that will involve more time and more money.

Let us return to the question of one, two or three-day contested cases in the magistrates court. It is difficult to find time for the hearing of such cases; it seriously upsets the existing system, and it will undoubtedly lead to increased costs. In such cases, people will demand more discovery. They will demand adjournments for more discovery. They will expect advocates--indeed, they will rightly expect legally aided advocates--to defend them in the magistrates court. Although the costs of hearing such cases in the magistrates court will be less than those in the Crown court, because it will not be necessary to pay for the jurors and the extra accommodation, they will be significantly more than the average cost in the magistrates court.

The truth is that the Government do not know what the costs will be. As I am sure that the Minister knows, last June I tabled a series of questions that I had thought through carefully. The answers, which he will know as well as I do, show that the Government do not have the material at their disposal to be able to calculate the costs accurately. I think that the more recent figures that I have been given are at best educated guesses; in my view, they are significant underestimates. The bottom line is that we will not see much saving, but will see a considerable diminution in the quality of justice and in our liberties.

I respect those who take a different view from mine as much as I respect those who take the same view. I have read carefully what the Lord Chief Justice thinks, and would say only--with great respect to the Lord Chief Justice--that I consider the freedom to be tried by one's peers to be too precious for us to attempt to judge these matters narrowly. I believe that we would be wise to hold back and to refrain from adopting the course in which he believes.

I was probably the chief influence for the fact that Lord Runciman led the last royal commission. I thought it an excellent commission, but on this specific matter I beg to differ with its views. I had great respect for Lord Justice James, who prosecuted in the case of the great train robbers and produced a very similar report in about 1973. Nevertheless, I do not think that they reached the right conclusion.

Jury trial is one of our great liberties. It is one of the foundations of our democracy, as is the right to choose. When he gave his lighthearted example involving a bottle of champagne, the Home Secretary said that he would choose to go before the magistrates. That is his right, but he, and all other citizens, should also have the right to choose to go before a jury in the whole spectrum of cases in which honesty and dishonesty are involved. If we remove than right, we reduce our liberties; we should not do so.

8.32 pm

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best), and unlike the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell)--and, I think, every other Member who has spoken--I have no legal interests to declare. I am not a lawyer, I am not a magistrate, and I have never even served on a jury. I therefore listened to the Home Secretary's

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original explanation of why he had introduced the Bill--or, rather, its predecessor, the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill--in what was as near to a state of grace, or at least of ignorance, as is possible, albeit for someone who remembers the 1986 White Paper that discussed the issues, and the attempt by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) to introduce a similar measure as Home Secretary in 1997.

Both were seen off by widespread opposition. In 1997, it was led by my right hon. Friend the present Home Secretary, who launched a forceful attack on the proposals. On that occasion, my right hon. Friend persuaded me that he was absolutely right--and, indeed, persuaded every other member of the Labour Opposition. As I recall, he was cheered to the echo for his attack on the then Home Secretary.

As a layman, I have not been aware of anything substantially wrong with the right to elect trial by jury. In nearly 17 years as a Member of Parliament, I have not received a single letter complaining about that right. I wonder if any Member has ever received such a letter; I rather doubt it. I am, however, aware of the good principle behind jury trials that, if one of us is accused by the state of a serious crime, the right to be judged by a random selection of our fellow citizens is very precious. That may explain why the right to elect trial by jury is so important. If we are to change that right, the case has to be proved overwhelmingly. Neither the previous Home Secretary nor the present Home Secretary has produced an overwhelming case.

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