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If those are weak arguments for the Government to advance, I have concluded that it is essential for this House to vote against the Bill for a different reason—because I am convinced that it is yet another step along
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the road that this Government wish to travel, leading in due course to a massive reduction in jury trials throughout our criminal justice system. It continues a shift of power away from the people and fits neatly with the Government’s desire to move power nearer to the centre, based on a presumption that the state or its appointed officers know much better than the people.

If we could be absolutely certain that no more than, say, six complex or lengthy fraud trials a year would be handled by a judge alone without a jury, we might just be satisfied, but we cannot be certain. Let us consider what the Solicitor-General said earlier. When I mentioned the complicated drugs case, he used the phrase, “We have no plans at this stage.” Later on, in response to another intervention, he said, “We have no plans.” Previously, unless I misheard him, he had said that the Government have “not ruled out” extending the proposals. So we have a Government who talk about half a dozen cases a year and a Minister who has more or less made it plain to the House that it is at the back of their mind to extend the principle beyond complex and lengthy serious fraud cases to other cases altogether.

Looking back on the Government’s attitude to jury trial over the past few years gives greater strength to our feelings that they may yet go further. This is the Government who some years ago introduced measures that would have given the courts, not the defendant, the ultimate decision on where cases were to be tried, thereby taking rights away from defendants—the Government who had the gall to say that they were convinced that the courts, rather than defendants, were best qualified to reach a view on the best venue for a trial. That smacks of a conceited “We know better than you” attitude—scant concern there for the rights of the individual.

I think that I heard the Solicitor-General say—I could hardly believe it—“Juries are right for some cases, but not for others.” That kind of comment makes me think that we have a Government who are saying in terms, “Now listen: we’re not going to bother any more with the rights of the individual to select trial by his peers—his equals, other members of his community. We’re not bothered about that—we’re more concerned with our own view as to what is right for a particular defendant.”

If we concede the principle that complex or lengthy fraud cases should be tried by a judge alone without a jury, the Government’s next step might be to try to widen that principle to ensure that all serious offences, for example, could be tried only by a judge alone. Gradually, they could whittle away the whole principle of trial by one’s peers. There is a risk that, if this trend continues, jury trial could disappear from our system altogether. All this is happening at a time when the real problem facing the people of this country is the inability of the police to detect the crimes, and to be on the streets to catch the criminals and bring them to court. Frankly, on any list of the public’s priorities relating to the criminal justice system, the need for fraud cases to be tried by a judge alone would be right at the bottom.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. The jurisdiction that is said to have the best record of prosecuting fraud effectively—the
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United States of America—is also one that the Government adduce as an exemplar to this country for dealing effectively with white-collar crime. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the United States has no problem with jury trials for complex fraud cases, as was evidenced by the Enron trial?

Mr. Malins: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and his intervention gives me the chance to pay tribute to him and his colleagues for the way in which they have stood up for the protection of civil rights over the years.

We all know the advantages of a jury, but let me just mention one or two. First, they temper legalism by their sheer common sense. There also is immense value in having a real participation in the administration of justice by ordinary citizens. The random nature of jury selection ensures that they are utterly fair and independent. In fraud cases, the issue is nearly always dishonesty. Who could be better than a jury to judge the issue of dishonesty? By reason of their number, their mix and their experiences of the world outside the court, they are surely better equipped than a judge alone, no matter how able the judge might be, to access the reliability and credibility of a defendant and of witnesses.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a most interesting and cogent argument, and I am completely convinced by what he is saying. Does he agree that another problem that we have to face in our courts is that justice must be seen to be done? The words, the terminology and the arguments must therefore be put forward in a comprehensible manner in order to include the jury, and the defendant is therefore also fully equipped with the facts in the most understandable way.

Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The jury is an integral part of the whole principle of justice being seen to be done.

It is also a very good thing that juries are not lawyers. They are not paid by the legal system; they are not beholden to it, and they are not part of the state. That is a huge advantage. If Ministers want to understand the real value of juries, all they need to do is travel to other countries and talk to some of those involved in the administration of justice abroad. Inevitably, those people will say how much they envy the British system of trial by jury. It must not be tampered with.

Juries are also anonymous, as the hon. and learned Member for Medway mentioned earlier. That is a huge advantage. They come to court, they deliver a verdict, they drift back into their community and go home to lead their normal lives—end of story. A single judge trying a case enjoys no such privilege. If this trend continues, judges in this country will become more politicised. They will have a higher profile, and they will be subject to more criticism and pressure. I do not think that that would be healthy.

If there is a problem with the present system, and if it is true that some cases are very complex and might last for many months, the remedy can be found by taking another route. First, let us ensure that those who prosecute and defend these cases are extremely able and
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that they present the issues in a short and simple manner. In other words, we need better case management. We have had the rules for a little while now; let us allow them to bed down and to work. Better case management will lead to shorter cases. It is entirely possible for cases to be further simplified, and it is essential to let case management rules bed in properly. Juries do not lengthen fraud trials. In a great number of such cases, a huge percentage of the time is taken up with legal arguments between the barristers and the judge in the absence of the jury. There is no evidence to support the proposition that juries find fraud cases too difficult; quite the reverse.

An important principle is at stake today. Why do I speak so strongly in favour of the jury? It is because I believe that it represents one of the great protections for the people against an over-mighty state. In all my years of trying cases in the Crown court with a jury, I have not once found a defendant who was not content to be tried by his peers. I have never found a defendant who felt that the jury was biased against him or her. The defendant might say that the judge was biased against him, or gave him a rotten sentence, but I have never heard a word of criticism from a defendant against a jury and its verdict.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I have listened to my hon. Friend’s speech, and I apologise for not having been present for a lot of the debate. This is an extremely dangerous Bill. It undermines this country’s traditional justice system. Are not the Government insulting jurors by saying that they are incompetent to judge in a complicated fraud case? That is unacceptable.

Mr. Malins: How right my hon. Friend is. With the Bill, the Government appear to be saying to jurors—my hon. Friend makes the point so well—in terms, “You are not up to the job. It is too difficult for you.” That is a great insult to our jury system, which has served us so well for so long. The truth is that the people of this country trust juries, and defendants in court trust juries. It is equally true, sadly, that the only people who do not trust juries are this Labour Government.

3.57 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): It is a curiosity that the Members taking part in this debate are representatives of English constituencies. In a sense, that is right because we are talking about England and English law. So far, everyone who has spoken has been a lawyer. I am not. I am proud, however, to have heard the lawyers, with the exception of but one, from Cheshire—

Stephen Hesford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Shepherd: I will continue. With the exception of the hon. Gentleman, to whom I will give way later, all those lawyers have made reference to something that is wider and that unites us: a sense of England. If anyone were to describe that sense of England, they would think of the history of this country. One of the features of the history of this country that has given confidence to its people over the centuries is that an ordinary man may sit in a jury and decide on the truth of a case. It cannot be suborned.

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That was not easily won. We had Star courts. From Magna Carta, we had the concept that nobles alone should judge themselves. The very words in Magna Carta, however, can be used to mean something else—that each and every one of us shall be tried by our peers. We, the people, will try ourselves. Why is it that in common-law jurisdictions—Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States—that is a constitutional requirement and cannot be suborned by an Executive? Why are we not asking ourselves that question?

I believe profoundly that our very sense of liberty and confidence in our system of government and its institutions derive from the participation of the common man and woman in the great institutions of state. That is why I think that the Government are very misdirected in seeking to throw out a feature of our system of government that has survived across eight centuries or so. The common-law tradition is remarkable, and as many of the lawyers who have spoken today have said, it is a feature that is often commented on by other countries with different systems. I do not denigrate the intent behind other legal systems. I know that they seek the same objective as we seek, which is justice, although their perspective is different from ours. Our system, however, has been central to the equality of the citizen in this country, and the march that took us there.

In the past 10 years, the extraordinary progress of this Government in seeking to modernise the institutions of state so casually and in such a half-baked fashion has created a cynicism about motives and aspirations. Not only do I feel that they so often misdirect themselves; I think that the incompetence associated with the measures that they propose undermines what was central to the jury system—confidence in the law, and hence confidence in justice.

It is not an old hanging judge who decides whether I am guilty. He may pass sentence, but it is others who decide, picked at random from the people of our country. The jury system is a check on the misogyny or the narrowness—if it is true—of judges. It is a check—if it is true—on the instruments and intentions of Government, because the greatest Government can be brought to a halt by the decisions of those in the jury box. Why does Blackstone, a constitutional authority, prize the institution of the jury across seven centuries? Why does Devlin, in his “Trial by Jury”, see in it the many little parliaments of England? Because it is the common man and woman who are having an impact on decisions that affect lives.

When we talk about justice, we must feel that the system is fair, we must feel that it is open, and we must feel that that it is accessible. Now the great minds that form this Government think that that is not appropriate. I tell them that they again misjudge something that is essential to the character of this country, and hence, by their misdirections, undermine confidence in themselves. But this little jury, the Parliament of England, must express a view on what we stand for. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Hykeham and Sleaford—

Mr. Hogg: Other way round.

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Mr. Shepherd: As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) pointed out, Parliament is more than just us. There is another Chamber, and it will have a judgment, too.

We are conscious—hence the cynicism—that this is something that the Government have pencilled in for the Parliament Act. They want to suborn the passions that are expressed here today. I urge the House to stand by the arguments of every Member who has spoken so far, apart from the Solicitor-General and his hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford).

4.4 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con): We in this House often have our best debates on matters of fundamental and constitutional principle, and that has been the case this afternoon. We have heard a number of extremely good—even memorable—speeches, including that of the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). However, it is striking and very sad that in a debate on such an important matter, apart from the minimum team of the Minister, the Parliamentary Private Secretary and the Whip, only two Labour Members have even sat in on the debate, let alone taken part. Yet presumably they will all pour into the Chamber in an hour or two to vote down one of the fundamental liberties of the subject that has been with us for hundreds of years. The Labour party is addressing our constitutional liberties with an awesome and breathtaking degree of levity.

Stephen Hesford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davies: I shall give way to one of the two Labour Members to whom I referred. He happens to be the one I disagree with, but he certainly has a right to be heard.

Stephen Hesford: I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman, but has he not thought that, as several Members have reminded us, we have been around this track a few times? The principle he refers to is not at issue in this debate. What is at issue is a timetable motion. That is what this short Bill is about, and Labour Members have taken that into account in deciding whether to attend the debate.

Mr. Davies: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. This is not a timetable motion debate; it is a Second Reading debate on a self-standing Bill. It is true that there have been attacks before—over the centuries—on our fundamental liberties, including trial by jury, and those attacks have been seen off, including previous ones by this Government, but that does not make the issue under discussion any less important.

I always approach such issues in the same way as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) evidently does—perhaps there is something in the Lincolnshire air that makes us automatically adopt the same attitude. I first address them as issues of principle, and then as issues of pragmatism, and then I test whether the pragmatic arguments are sufficiently strong to deserve that some compromise be made in the fundamental principle.

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The issue of principle is threefold. Opposition Members are all making similar points—they are mutually supportive and consistent points, and to a degree there is an overlap, but each Member has a slightly different perspective. I start from the position that although we in this country do not have a written constitution and we therefore do not have any foundational law, if we did have a foundational law Magna Carta would come as close as is possible to being it. The idea of trial by jury began in Magna Carta; so far as I know, its reference to trial by peers is the first time in the history of the human race that that idea was enshrined in a constitution-type document. It has not only been with us in this country ever since, but it has been followed by scores of countries around the world—in fact, by all those that have respectable systems of justice. We should treat it with the greatest respect and be extremely sceptical about eroding it.

I must give credit to the House of Commons Library for drawing to my attention a quotation from Sir William Blackstone. It is good for all Members to read Blackstone because there is no more eloquent advocate of our constitutional liberties and the rationale for them. For the benefit of those who have not read the note produced by the Library—that is a wonderful task that it always performs on such debates for Members—I wish to read out a few lines of it:

Those words were penned, presumably, rather more than 200 years ago, as they are part of Blackstone’s “Commentaries”, but they might have been penned for this debate.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman may or may not know that those words were also quoted with devastating effect in another place by a former Attorney-General of this very Government when this matter was last before us. Lord Morris of Aberavon produced a devastating critique of the Government’s proposal to remove jury trial, and he was very effective in arguing, from the point of view of a former Minister who had taken such decisions in this place, that it was not necessary and entirely otiose.

Mr. Davies: I did not know that and I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening and pointing that out to me and to the House in general. I obviously do not follow as closely as I should, and as he does, proceedings in the other place on these important matters. My starting point is that there must be a very strong presumption against eroding these fundamental liberties, and I am very glad that the Liberal Democrats are with us on this matter this afternoon.

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