Standing Committee F
Thursday 15 February 2001
[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]
Notification of court and date of trial
Amendment proposed [13 February]: No. 100, in page 4, line 24, to leave out the word `by' and insert the word `before'.[Mr. Heald.]
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 99, in page 4, line 24, leave out
`the offence will be tried'
`and the time at which, he must appear'.
No. 101, in page 4, line 25, at end insert
No. 111, in page 5, line 3, leave out subsection (7).
Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I was speaking about amendment No. 111 in our previous sitting and, as I was saying then, leaving out subsection (7) would allow someone who was not informed that he had received a fixed penalty to keep the matter open. I will recap briefly and then ask the Parliamentary Secretary's opinion.
Chapter I will greatly assist the police and the administration of justice, by enabling comparatively minor offences to be dealt with swiftly and effectively. However, if the speed of justice is increased, its fairness can be reduced, which would be undesirable in cases in which people were unaware that they had been given a penalty notice, and wanted the matter reopened.
Subsection (7) is unnecessary, and the window that it leaves open is not likely to be used often. If people try to use that window in unmerited cases, the court will not allow it. However, in the sort of case in which it is used, it will give the court an opportunity to do justice where, otherwise, the rights of the citizen might have been ridden over roughshod. I hope that that is not the Government's intention, and I believe that it would be wise to leave this window open.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): It might help the Committee if I say a little about the clause's purpose. It will allow a police officer who issues a penalty notice to give the alleged offender a warning notice at the same time. A warning notice informs the offender of where and when the case will be tried, if he opts for a court hearing instead of paying the penalty. In normal circumstances, the police officer will have such details to hand. However, for events such as music festivals or demonstrations, during which the police could reasonably expect to issue some fixed penalty notices, they may wish to set the date and venue of the court hearing in advance for people who challenge offences under the provision.
Amendments Nos. 99 and 100 assist in specifying precisely where and when such a trial should take place, if it is requested by an offender. I explained to the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) that the Government have reflected on the matter in the light of the amendments, and are, in principle, prepared to accept the spirit of them. We will table amendments that reflect his improvements. On that basis, I hope that he will not press the amendments to a vote.
Amendment No. 101 would provide for additional requirements concerning the warning notice, although it is likely that they would be used extremely rarely. Other provisions in clause 7 state that the notice should be treated as a summons for the purposes of the application of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 to any further proceedings relating to the offence. They also state that such a summons is to be treated as having been properly served on the recipient by a justice of the peace on the date on which the notice was given.
I hope that Opposition Members do not have any quarrels with the principle of such provisions, although I understand their concern to ensure that the warning notice is a properly served summons. However, it is difficult to see what other prescription they would wish to make about the manner in which the notice is given. If their concern is that the constable serving the notice should make its meaning clear to the offender, the Government are prepared to ensure that that is covered in the Secretary of State's guidance to the police. However, there is little difference between an offender who is issued with a warning notice and an offender who receives a summons through the post and has nobody on hand to explain its meaning.
I assure the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire that the Government are prepared to take such a step, and I hope that he will be prepared to withdraw the amendment.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I was pleased with the concession on the previous occasion, and I am sure that this concession is very constructive. Will the Parliamentary Secretary explain the form of the warning notice? Will it be part of the same document as the fixed penalty notice, or will it be a separate piece of paper?
As I said previously, magistrates usually have to consider jurisdiction when deciding whether to issue a summons. Is there any provision about the petty sessional division that would deal with the case, and would it always be petty sessional division for the area in which the fixed penalty warning notice was given?
Mr. Lock: We envisage that there will be separate notices. An offender will be given a fixed penalty notice and told that if he wants to challenge it in a court, the trial is likely to take place at the specified time and venue.
On which court the trial would be held in, I imagine that the same rules that apply to any other offence will also apply. The police officer who observes an offence will give a fixed penalty notice as an alternative to the offence being tried in court. However, should the recipient wish to have the fixed penalty notice set aside and have the matter tried, the same provisions would apply as would apply if the police officer had arrested the individual and charged him with the offence. Therefore, the offence would be tried in the same court as if it were not dealt with by a fixed penalty notice.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the Minister give way briefly?
Mr. Lock: Yes, briefly.
Mr. Hawkins: The Minister said that he imagined that the rules would be the same as in existing criminal court procedure. In due course, will he write to all members of the Committee and give an undertaking that if the provision becomes law, there will not be a factory arrangement in which all such fixed penalties are heard in one court? I mentioned previously the campaign of the Evening Standard against all fixed penalty parking tickets being dealt with in Northampton, which is hugely inconvenient for London residents.
Mr. Lock: I do not need to follow the hon. Gentleman's suggestion because subsection (4)(a) provides for such a summons to be treated
``as properly issued on the information by a justice of the peace for the area for which the magistrates' court notified as the court of trial acts, requiring A to appear before that court to answer to that information''.
It is clear that that would be the court local to the area in which an offence is committed.
Sir Nicholas Lyell: How does clause 7(2) fit into the procedure? It states:
``Subsection (3) applies if a person (``A'') who has been given a warning notice makes a request to be tried'',
but as I understand the procedure, the request to be tried will follow the giving of the penalty notice.
Mr. Lock: I was intending to explain that in response to the issue that has been raised concerning subsection (7).
Let us assume that matters get slightly out of hand at a demonstration, and an offence is committed under the Public Order Act 1986, for which a fixed penalty notice is issued. At the same time, a warning notice is given to the individual, telling him, when the matter will be tried if he wants to contest it. However, it is entirely open to that individual, when sitting in his room later in the evening, away from the heat of the demonstration, to decide that as things had got out of hand, he would prefer to send a cheque to the clerk to the justices rather than face a criminal trial and get a criminal record. In that circumstance there would be no trial, as there would have been no request.
Alternatively, the individual concerned may wish to contest the matter. That is his right. He must serve a request to be tried, under clause 4, to exercise the option to have a trial rather than pay the sum due under the fixed penalty notice. That is why subsection (7) is required. Someone on whom a fixed penalty notice has been served and who has written to the justices seeking a trialcannot then say the he was not served with the notice in the first place. That is why subsection (7) says:
``If a person has been given a warning notice, section 14 of the Act of 1980 (proceedings invalid where accused did not know of them) does not apply.''
The individual must know of the proceedings, because he has made a request to be tried.
Sir Nicholas Lyell: I understand the hon. Gentleman's answer, but I was surprised by the way in which he began it. He described a situation in, for example, Trafalgar square, where things had got out of hand and individual A had been served with a fixed penalty notice. He said that A had also been given a warning notice, but as I read the structure, it may be the case that A is given only a penalty notice; he does not have to be given a warning notice. It would be rather odd if he were given a warning notice then and there, to tell him which magistrates court to come to and so on. I do not know whether police officers are to carry all these warning notices around with them. If A has not been given a warning notice then and there, he might still ask to be tried in answer to the fixed penalty notice. If he were then to receive a warning notice, would he have to ask again to be tried?