Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): Given the hon. Gentleman's passionate defence of the jury system, if the Bill is passed, can he give the Committee a cast-iron assurance that it would be reversed by a future Conservative Government?

Mr. Hawkins: The Parliamentary Secretary knows perfectly well that policy for future elections is not decided on the hoof in a Standing Committee. I can tell the hon. Gentleman what I also said on Second Reading that when the issue was debated when the Conservatives were in government, I expressed my opposition to any reduction in the right to trial by jury. My view has always been consistent. The Parliamentary Secretary should be able to judge what my advice is likely to be when it comes to the formulation of future policy, but I am not going to be drawn further than that.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Just to clarify, is the hon. Gentleman saying that he would advise his party leader that a future Conservative Government should introduce legislation to reverse the effect of the Bill?

Mr. Hawkins: I am confident that the Bill will not become law. If it is not defeated in this House I am certain that it will suffer the same fate as the No. 1 Bill in another place. The Minister's question is therefore completely academic. As it will not become law, there will be no need to reverse it. I certainly shall not answer hypothetical questions.

10.45 am

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey). I hope that this will be a supportive intervention. The hon. Gentleman and I both hope that the Bill will not become law. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that neither his party nor my party would go to the electorate on one policy on such an important matter and then suddenly, without any authority, change it?

The Chairman: Order. We are beginning to have a Second Reading debate. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now return to the amendment.

Mr. Hawkins: I will indeed, Mr. Maxton. First may I thank the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey for his supportive intervention? I entirely agree with him. The problem for the Minister is that so many Labour Members are drawing attention to that point. They are involved in the campaign to retain trial by jury and produce a rather splendid magazine drawing attention to these debates. They make the point made in my right hon. and learned Friend's amendments: the decision about the mode of trial involves the circumstances of the offender and not the offence.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the Government campaigned on the other side of the argument at the election. They told the electorate that they were against any change in the right to trial by jury. They have now turned that on its head and they have no mandate for this. They are being attacked constantly from their own side both by lawyers and non-lawyers. I refer Labour Members, to the comments made by one of the non-lawyers on Second Reading, the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best). All of us involved in that debate regarded his speech as one of the most powerful made by the Govemment's opponents on their Back Benches. It is noticeable that the opposition to the Bill comes not just from lawyers, but from both sides in both Houses.

I return now to the amendment and the circumstances of the offender, which is what particularly concerns my right hon. and learned Friend, We must look at what the constitutional significance would be if the Bill became law. I make no apology for returning to some of the points that my night hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made. Again, Sir Patrick Devlin has some helpful comments about the circumstances of the offender. He talks about this being a matter of conscience. He describes the jury as a safeguard against repugnant laws. It must be regarded as repugnant if organisations like Justice, Liberty and the Commission for Racial Equality argue that it would be quite wrong for the circumstances of the individual offender not to be taken into account.

Sir Patrick Devlin said:

    The second and by far the greater purpose that is served by trial by jury is that it gives protection against laws which the ordinary man may regard as harsh and oppressive. It is a protection against tyranny. It is also an insurance that the criminal law will conform to the ordinary man's idea of what is fair and just. If it does not the jury will not be a party to its enforcement. They have in the past used their power of acquittal to defeat the full operation of laws which they thought to be too hard. Their minds are not trained to the making of an orderly separation and opposition, they are more likely to allow one set of considerations to act upon the other in such a way as to confuse the issues. One way or another they are prone to give effect to their repugnance to a law by refusing to convict under it. The small body of men, who under modern conditions, constitute the effective body of legislators have to bear this in mind. It affects the character of the laws they make, for it is no use making laws which will not be enforced.

That is what the Government have to bear in mind. If they are seeking to introduce a law that states that there must be no consideration of the individual circumstances of an offender, they are flying in the face of all the research done by organisations such as the Commission for Racial Equality and the Society of Black Lawyers.

There is no point detaining the Committee at great length this morning with that research. The Ministers know that it shows that ethnic minority defendants do not feel that they receive as fair a trial from the lay magistracy as from a jury.

Mr. Lock: The hon. Gentleman is rightly focusing on whether the character of the defendant should be taken into account. Will he give us the benefit of his views on whether the character of the defendant should have been taken into account in extending criminal damage trials, which, as he well knows, were limited when the right to jury trial was cut down by the previous Government, on the basis of the value of the damage caused, not the defendant's character? Was that right or wrong? Or would he prefer not to answer?

Mr. Hawkins: We are talking about the Government's current proposals that relate to a body of offences in which the circumstances of the offender may be relevant. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, that includes issues of dishonesty. The whole purpose of trial by jury has been to protect individuals who felt that they would have a fairer trial by a body of their peers. The Parliamentary Secretary confuses the issue by referring to the past: it is not relevant to the amendment being debated.

Not only are the Government mistaken in their proposals, but also in rejecting the important points made by my right hon. and learned Friend. The proposals upset further those who are rebelling against the No. 1 Bill. The Government are going against seven centuries of history and setting their face against a crucial constitutional safeguard.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I hesitate to follow such a fine contribution. I hope that the Committee will take to heart the words of Sir Patrick Devlin.

The debate on whether to keep the right to trial by jury is interesting, but the amendment is about whether to consider the circumstances of the accused. There has been much talk of the jury system having existed for seven centuries. One of the most important features of that system is that it involves the whole of society in the legal process. As has been said, it gives society the right to order men and women to question laws that they think are hard and vexatious.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) was speaking, it struck me that that is the first and ultimate stakeholder principle. It was not invented two or three years ago in a hothouse in Millbank tower, but seven centuries ago, to give ordinary men and women the right to be involved in the legal process and to judge their fellow men and women who are accused of crimes by the state.

However interesting the arguments are, Mr. Maxton, you rightly want us to focus on whether to consider the circumstances of the accused. I made the effort last night to talk to a number of people. One of the conversations I had was with a practising circuit judge. I shall not name him, but he was open in his views. To be fair, he started the conversation by saying that he wanted to restrict the right to trial by jury. I can see both sides of the argument. I have also practised in the criminal courts, but, unlike my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, I am a very undistinguished lawyer and have, therefore, spent a great deal of time in the magistrates courts, while he has been practising in the higher courts. However, over the years, that has given me some insight.

The judge to whom I was talking last night began by saying that he believed that the right to trial by jury should be limited. He is a practising judge who is concerned with the administration of justice and presumably wants to ensure efficiency and lessen delays. That is understandable. Presumably he has come across abuses by those who are not of good character, and we know that that happens. Such people, often with a string of convictions, should not be our concern on this amendment, because they waste the time of an ancient, expensive, careful and slow system. However, some of the abuses have been exaggerated. Many people change their plea, but not all of them necessarily do so because they are being cynical and want to waste our time by electing trial in the Crown court as a way of spinning things out. It may be that some sort of plea bargain is done; that is not strictly allowed these days, but such things happen.

The judge said, as members of the Committee have, that we should limit the right to trial by jury, that magistrates try people well and carefully and that there is no reason why they should not consider these cases. He accepted all that, but, interestingly, when I asked him where he would like to be tried if he inadvertently walked out of a shop carrying something and was subsequently accused of shoplifting, he said that he would like to be tried in front of a jury. That is a question that members of the Committee should ask themselves. If, despite having devoted their lives to doing their best, they were accused of dishonesty, which could destroy them, their sense of worth, career and everything, deep down, who would they want to be tried by? Would they want to be tried by the magistrates or by a jury? If Committee members are honest with themselves, I believe that they would prefer to be tried by a jury.

 
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