Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4 Dec 2002 : Column 968—continued

7.19 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), and I begin with the same point: we have had a proliferation of criminal justice laws in this country since 1984. Sadly, a lot have not stood the test of time, so it will be interesting to see whether the Bill suffers a fate similar to the majority of that legislation or proves more lasting.

I draw attention to a couple of points that will give the Bill a lasting nature, at least in certain areas—the inclusion of the principles of sentencing and the establishment of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which is an important development for the future. Furthermore, a Bill has begun its life in the other place that will unify magistrates court and Crown court structures and which, equally, will bring significant change. So the package that we shall deal with in this Session contains lasting elements.

I begin my detailed comments by referring to jury trials. It might be helpful to point out that this country uses three classifications of offence. Summary-only offences, by their very nature, do not involve jury trial, as they may be tried only by magistrates summarily. On either-way offences, the defendant has the right to choose either summary trial before a magistrate or trial before a jury in the Crown court. On indictable-only offences, the defendant gets no choice and must be tried before a jury in the Crown court.

I set that out to show the difference between this Bill and the previous Bills through which the Government attempted to make changes to jury trial. The mode of trial Bills aimed at those either-way offences and provided that, instead of the defendant having the choice of where to be tried, the court would say whether that person could be tried by jury.

I remind the House that I was fanatically opposed to that proposal on principle, and I spoke and voted against the Bill that was introduced in this House to give it effect. I was overlooked for service on the Committee, but I returned to the issue on Report and even tabled an amendment, which some Members will recall. It is a great delight to me that the Government have abandoned that way of proceeding on trials and have introduced in this Bill my amendment on magistrates not committing people to the Crown court for sentence if they have dealt with the trial themselves. I feel happy about the Government's attitude to the Bill, although a couple of Members have had difficulty with accepting yes for an answer, even though the Government have said that that is not their intention and it is not what they are doing through this legislation.

I am happy with the changes that have been made there, but there is worry around the House over those offences that are indictable only, but for which the Government propose some change to jury trial. It is worth saying a word about them. On long and complex cases, the matter involves degree rather than principle, because there would be a danger of a jury losing the

4 Dec 2002 : Column 969

battle—losing the thread of what they are there to do because of the sheer weight of the proceedings—owing to a war of attrition in only a small minority of cases. That would occur, I hasten to add, only because of the tactics of the parties to the trial and not because of any difficulty for the jury in coping with complex facts and situations. I entirely agree with those Members who said that jurors are sensible people who can take in a lot. Therefore it follows that I am talking about exceptional cases in which it is right that there should be no jury trial.

The same goes for jury tampering. Surely it is unacceptable to the House that somebody could get an acquittal by tampering with the jury. Obviously, the response normally stops short of saying that there will be no jury to try a certain case, as we can protect a jury and ensure that anyone caught tampering with it is treated as one who has committed a serious criminal offence; and we can limit the number of cases in which a judge has to say, XThere is no way that we can have a fair trial with a jury because of the attempt to interfere with that jury." Again, a small number of cases would be involved, but being able to give such a response would be useful weapon in the judge's armoury.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman will have noted the comments on the difficulties that would be likely to arise in practice when a judge continued to hear a case after a jury had been discharged because of tampering. I suggest that, in reality, it would be necessary to start again. He may also agree that, in reality, tampering involving 12 jurors would be unlikely, although it is likely that such a jury would be unable to return a verdict. However, if adequate protection were in place and supplied for the retrial, especially if there were a fear that a previous jury had been tampered with, the chances are that justice would be properly done with a jury. There would be no need for a judge to sit on his own.

Mr. Kidney: The hon. Gentleman's points are contradictory. I agree with and accept the first, which is that it would be difficult for a judge to continue the trial knowing what the judge knows, as he or she would be prejudiced. I do not agree with his second point, however, as there would be few cases in which the judge said, XNo amount of protection and no amount of retrial is satisfactory for the conduct of justice in this case. I believe that it needs no jury and a judge-only trial." That may happen, but only in a small number of cases.

The third consequence of the Bill for judge-only trials would arise if the defendant chose such a trial. I spent all my time in the debates on the previous Bill arguing that the defendant's choice should be upheld, so I find it difficult to disagree with the Government on that point now, as they have come round to my view. Disagreeing over that would be an unusual choice, although I see that such events could arise from time to time.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He refers to upholding defendant choice—whether he should have jury trial or not—but the Government have included a rider that that choice will be denied in certain cases. Does not that in some

4 Dec 2002 : Column 970

way negate their argument, which is, XWe are offering you a choice between two systems that we consider to be equally justified—it is up to you."?

Mr. Kidney: May we return to that in Committee? I understand the point but, equally, I understand the Government's worry about some people appearing to have a cosy relationship with judges—they do not need a jury because they will get off if they know the judge.

I want to include a footnote on jury trials in either-way cases, as some provisions, which nobody has objected to tonight, would reduce the number of such trials—again, very modestly. The first would extend magistrates' power of sentence from six months to a maximum of 12. Magistrates would turn away fewer cases that they would have sent to Crown court for trial and keep them for themselves. That would reduce the number of jury trials in itself.

If the provision on a defendant requesting an advance indication of sentence survives to the statute book and if magistrates agree to give such an indication, that would convert some defendants to staying with the magistrates rather than going to Crown court for trial. That, too, would reduce the number of jury trials. For the same reason, custody plus might tempt some people to stay in the magistrates court. Interestingly, there has been no controversy in the House about a smaller number of jury trials resulting from any of those measures.

I hesitate to step into tonight's other controversies. The double jeopardy proposals are very much a response from the whole country to DNA being discovered as a reliable test that almost certainly provides proof positive of someone's guilt of an offence which could not be proved previously because such technology was not available. It was said earlier that this is probably a passing change that involves a few cases in which DNA evidence is available and helps to secure a conviction that could not be secured before. I am happy with that analysis, although none of us can foretell the future or what scientific advances will be made after today. That may mean that the provision remains valid for many years, even after those few DNA cases have been mopped up by the provision.

Tonight's other controversy is the introduction of the defendant's bad character. Interestingly, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) takes no objection to that one. I am happy about that, because I shall take no objection either, provided that the safeguards are right. That matter should be hammered out in Committee.

Clearly, we have been introducing evidence of a defendant's bad character in cases for over a century. A common-law rule and two Acts dating from 1865 and 1898 have permitted it in some circumstances. Nevertheless, we can surely ask from time to time whether the current rules are adequate. I do not think they are, and I think we are entitled to change them slightly if that is what we believe is right in order to ensure fair trials as between prosecution and defence.

The Bill gives us an opportunity to rehabilitate community sentences as a genuine alternative to prison, and to reduce the appallingly large prison population. That means, however, that we must make the community options robust. It does not help us if the media can report that fines need not be paid, and it does

4 Dec 2002 : Column 971

not help us if nothing happens to people who break the conditions attached to community sentences. The Government are right to pay attention to such issues, although extra resources will of course be required. The hon. Member for North Down asked for all the resources to go to police officers, but some should go to, for instance, the National Probation Service, so that it can supervise community sentences and their conditions. Otherwise, people may often break the conditions, which will bring the service into disrepute. It will also mean that more people are sent to prison, because that is the only thing that will satisfy the public mood.

I want to say something about what is, in a sense, a local issue. When I met local magistrates and their clerks to discuss the Bill, I was very pleased with their response. They like the extra sentencing powers that they will have—both the powers relating to imprisonment and the wider range of conditions they can attach to community sentences. They also like—subject to the detail—the proposal for a unified system for magistrates courts and Crown courts. That, I thought, was a positive response. Stafford currently exceeds the national average for fine collection, but the magistrates would like the Government to continue their financial support for fine enforcers so that they can maintain that good record.

The magistrates commented that recent media reporting of inadequate arrangements for fine collection had affected their ability to collect fines. People believed newspaper reports that the payment of fines was now optional, and did not pay. That is an interesting message for reporters.

My last point, in fact, concerns reporting. Since when has it been right for most cases heard in my local magistrates court to go unreported by the local media? I think the reporting of cases is part of the fair administration of justice: people should know which members of their community have been to court, and have been convicted. That is the whole point of the saying that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. Let me please the Society of Editors by asking the Government not to overlook the need of reporters to be able to report cases. There are substantial obstacles preventing journalists from doing their job in magistrates courts—an issue that I may be able to pursue in more detail if I am fortunate enough to be a member of the Committee on this occasion.

Next Section

IndexHome Page