Criminal Justice and Courts Bill
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Georgina Holmes-Skelton, Matthew Hamlyn, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
‘( ) In subsection (3), for “The” substitute “Where a relevant prosecutor issues a written charge and a requisition, the”.’.
This amendment and amendment 49 provide that prosecutors must serve a copy of a single justice procedure notice on a designated officer for a magistrates’ court (the person responsible for administering the process) and not a specific court. This is to facilitate cases started in this way being dealt with in any magistrates’ court.
We start today with part 3. Clause 24 introduces a new way of commencing proceedings by way of a written charge and single justice procedure notice. The notice will be used instead of a requisition in cases that follow the new single justice procedure. In England and Wales, criminal proceedings can be started in various ways: a prosecutor can lay information before a magistrate and then apply for a summons or arrest warrant to secure the defendant’s attendance; the accused can be charged in person by the police in the police station and then bailed to attend or detained for court; or prosecutors can issue a written charge and requisition and then serve these on the defendant, usually by post.
Clause 24 amends section 29 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which deals with the last of these methods: criminal proceedings being commenced by way of a written charge and requisition. The clause introduces a notice called a single justice procedure notice, which will be used instead of a requisition in cases that will follow the new single justice procedure. The key difference is that a requisition, like a summons, requires a defendant to attend court. Under the new procedure, the single justice procedure notice requires the defendant to respond in writing to the allegation. Our aim is to introduce flexibility into the process for deciding cases under this
Any magistrates court should be able to try cases under the single justice procedure regardless of the area in which the case originated. In order to facilitate that, amendments 48 and 49 provide that a prosecutor must serve a single justice procedure notice on a designated court officer responsible for administering the process rather than a specific court. Amendment 50 is a consequential drafting amendment resulting from these changes.
Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Roger. When I move our first amendment, I will respond to the Minister with some opening remarks about this part of the Bill. We have no objection to these amendments but I have one question which may come up in later debate. According to the explanatory statement,
“prosecutors must serve a copy of a single justice procedure notice on a designated officer for a magistrates’ court… and not a specific court. This is to facilitate cases started in this way being dealt with in any magistrates’ court.”
I understand from that, that the Minister intends that, by using the new procedure, this can effectively be dealt with not just by a single magistrate, not just in whatever time and place is considered convenient, but in any court. Have I understood that correctly? If so, how can that possibly sit with the Government’s stated intention that this will still be open justice to which the press and other parties may have access? I understand that this can be in the context of no response and therefore with matters proceeding in absentia. None the less, I understood that the Government, perhaps wanting to have their cake and eat it here, wanted it still to be the case that, wherever the decision was being taken, although it might be a private room, the public had access.
I hate to refer to an individual magistrates court, because it has probably closed, but, notionally, if a case that had previously been tried in Bodmin magistrates court was now, for convenience—because there happened to be spare magistrates—being dealt with on the papers in the Carlisle magistrates court, that would seem to inconvenience anybody who wanted to attend.
Mr Vara: I am happy to clarify that point. It is intended that this would be a senior magistrate, who could sit in any court. As will become clear as the debate continues on this clause, these will be low-level, routine offences. At the moment, it is rare for journalists to be in magistrates courts; the media cannot afford that, unless there is some very serious offence of huge public importance. In that case, it would not be dealt with by a single magistrate. There will be provisions, which I will come to later, for public knowledge of what is happening before the magistrate deals with a case, and of the result afterwards.
Mr Vara: Thank you, Sir Roger. I have thought about it. No matter how high profile an individual may be, she or he is not going to be turning up in court to hear a magistrate pronounce that they will get three extra points on their licence. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments made by Richard Monkhouse when he gave evidence earlier in the Committee’s proceedings. He said—I am open to correction of the exact words here—that in many of the offences concerned, very few people actually bothered to turn up. At one point, he might even have said that no one turned up.
Mr Slaughter: Perhaps nobody would turn up for three points on the licence, but if it is a totting offence, with a disqualification, or a TV licence offence or a fare evasion offence, that might attract public attention.
Mr Vara: I fear that it would be the same in that case. This point will be expanded as the debate progresses. These are very low-level issues, possibly involving somebody who did not have a rail ticket, or a TV licence. The measure does not go beyond that. We will come to the possibility that somebody may lose their licence later. In those circumstances, the defendant will specifically be informed that there is a risk of losing their licence, in which case he or she can make representations and turn up.
‘(3ZA) Where a relevant prosecutor issues a written charge and a single justice procedure notice, the written charge and notice must be served on the person concerned, and a copy of both must be served on the designated officer specified in the notice.’.
This amendment is consequential on amendments 48 and 49.
This amendment and amendment 52 make clear that an order authorising a prosecutor to issue requisitions and single justice procedure notices, or just single justice procedure notices, will also authorise the issue of written charges.
Mr Vara: Clause 24 provides that only “relevant prosecutors” will be able to use the new single justice procedure. This includes public prosecutors already authorised to use the written charge and requisition process, such as the police, Crown Prosecution Service and Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The Secretary of State can add to the list of relevant prosecutors by order so that TV licensing or train operating companies, for example, could use the new single justice procedure. In doing so, the Secretary of State can make clear that those prosecutors can use only the single justice procedure, without having access to the broader power to begin prosecutions by written charge and requisition. These amendments are purely drafting points, but are necessary to make it clear that relevant prosecutors who are limited to using the single justice process can issue a written charge only when they are also authorised to issue a single justice procedure notice. In this way, this amendment ensures that those “relevant prosecutors” who are not meant to have access to the requisition power are not inadvertently given it. I would like to think that hon. Members will see this as a sensible safeguard worth reinforcing.
Mr Slaughter: I have no objection to this technical amendment. The Minister has used for the first time the phrase “relevant prosecutor”. Will he explain the rationale behind the move away from the term “public prosecutor” to “relevant prosecutor”? Those with suspicious minds may think that this is opening the door to prosecutors who are not directly employed by the public service.
Mr Vara: There is a distinction between the two. It is pointed out in the Bill. “Relevant prosecutors” are, for example, TV licensing or train operating agencies. They would be restricted to simply having the right to serve this procedural notice, as opposed to other prosecutors, who could, for example, serve requisitions or summons.
‘(11) No offences shall be triable under this procedure unless specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State and of which a draft has been laid before, and approved by each House of Parliament.’.
We come to it with good intent. We understand that the intention of much of part 3 is to save costs but also to improve efficiency. That certainly appears to be the intention of clauses 24 to 28 and clauses 32 to 35 on leave for appeals. It also appears that some of it is simply a response to a necessary updating of the law, whether that be in relation to strict liability and contempt proceedings in clauses 37 to 38 or the responsibilities of jurors in clauses 40 to 48. Although we are reliant on common law to keep us up to date through precedent and development by the courts, of course statute has to keep up as well. The Minister will find that, although we have a number of probing amendments, only some give us cause for concern. It must be said that some of
We simply cannot see the point of some clauses—certainly as currently drafted. That includes clause 36 on wasted costs. We have some significant concerns where either we think there are unintended consequences or matters go too far. Depending on the Minister’s response to those amendments, we will see whether we press them to the vote. We are concerned about clause 29 and the compulsory nature of the court charge. We also have concerns about clause 44 and the ambit of what “prohibited conduct” means.
In relation to amendment 39 and the others on clauses 24 to 28, we wish first to clarify the circumstances in which this new procedure will be used: that is, for what type or what specific offences. Secondly, on clause stand part, we want to look at the principle underlying the change to single magistrates. Then a series of amendments looks at the organisation of the process in terms of attendance and information supplied to defendants, and also asks whether there is any mitigation of the right to a fair trial or to open justice.
We are not likely to press amendment 39 to a vote. The Minister will say that it is unnecessarily bureaucratic and, as the Government often say, that it will restrict the working of the process, because every time there were additions or deletions to those offences which could be considered, it would need to be done by affirmative procedure. That is not our intention. Our intention is to try to probe what the Government intend this new process to be used for. We will have a wider debate when we come to clause stand part and the new clauses on the integrity of the process, but it is useful before that to look at both the principle and the practice under which this quite radical change to the way that magistrates courts operate will take effect. Even if we say that we are not averse to the principle of what the Government are doing here, it is only right that we look at the possible consequences.
It so happens that in another Committee of the House—today, I think—an amendment will be proposed to the Deregulation Bill on decriminalising the offence of not possessing a television licence. I mention that because it is cited in the Government’s impact assessment and in several briefings, including that from the Magistrates’ Association, as perhaps the leading offence that would be covered by this procedure. I understand that the proposal is likely to have the support of both parties, so it is right to ask if it is envisaged that the decriminalisation process will not go ahead immediately, but will open the door to its happening without further legislation. I think we are talking here about one in 10 of all offences that go before magistrates courts.
A lot of what were previously considered criminal offences of a minor nature have already been moved elsewhere, particularly road traffic offences, which essentially are now dealt with by a civil process of fines and appeals. That may be envisaged for television licences as well and there appears to be a consensus about that. If that is the leading type of case, and if it will entail a substantial body of work, it would be helpful if the
Earlier, I mentioned fare evasion, another minor, unfortunately common offence dealt with by the magistrates court. In common with TV licence offences, it is often an offence of dishonesty, if the evasion is wilful. I note that one of the Government’s arguments is that this type of offence—which they class as a regulatory offence, and which will come before magistrates courts under the single justice procedure—is effectively victimless, in the sense that there is no aggrieved individual or family that suffers from it. That is part of the reason why this procedure will be used.
No offences are victimless in every sense: fare evasion costs both the transport system and other paying customers, and TV licence evasion costs the BBC as well as honest licence payers. I therefore do not agree that these are victimless offences. They are perhaps more minor than benefit fraud, but they are in the same category. The Government regard benefit fraud as a serious offence, and would not think about decriminalising it or subjecting it to the single justice procedure. What is the rationale for the classification of offences? Will this conflict with the Government’s other ambitions, including ambitions to move matters out of the criminal field and perhaps out of the courts altogether, to be dealt with by some extrajudicial process such as a fixed penalty?
This is significant because there seems to be consensus that it is wrong to send people to prison for not paying their TV licence. The effect on the revenue of the BBC is a separate issue, as is the motives of those who are suddenly terribly concerned about the ability of the poor to pay fines. If the Government are decriminalising matters, when we come to clause 29 they may want to consider whether imposing substantial additional financial burdens, which people may not be able to afford, actually amounts to criminalising the poor. Does that contradict what the Government are saying here?
As I said, one in 10 criminal prosecutions last year was for evasion of the TV licence. 155,000 people were convicted and fined, and I believe that only 51 were sentenced to custody. That is a small number, but there is consensus that custody is inappropriate, a view shared by the Magistrates Association. If this flagship policy for the magistrates courts goes forward, the immediate consequence may be that a large proportion of the cases that would have been dealt with by the single justice procedure will not be. With the way the Government are going, it seems likely that other offences may be either decriminalised or taken out of the magistrates courts altogether. What do the Government see as the future for this? There will obviously be implications for costs and for the alleged savings. I will leave those two points for the Minister to answer, and we will come on to the wider implications, because this is a clause stand part debate.
Mr Vara: I thank the hon. Gentleman for indicating the Opposition’s line of thought regarding the general ambit of the issues being discussed today and on Thursday. I very much hope that, where issues are raised through amendments, I will be able to provide further information as it is required. In many instances, I very much hope
I note what the hon. Gentleman said regarding the proposals for the single magistrates court. He made much play of the issue of TV licences, and said that cases about TV licences constituted one in 10 of the cases being dealt with. For the record, I might say that that leaves nine in 10 cases still needing to be dealt with. A system that deals with 90% of cases is still formidable. That being said, I will not make any comment regarding TV licences. That debate is being had at the moment. As far as I am concerned, the current position is that people who avoid paying for TV licences are dealt with by magistrates courts. The debate is for another place and another date.
Mr Slaughter: My understanding is that we are talking about one in 10 of all cases that go before magistrates courts, not in one in 10 of the cases that will be covered by the civil justice procedure.
I want to emphasise to the hon. Gentleman and other members of the Committee that we are dealing with cases that members of the public, defendants or the press rarely turn up for. We have three magistrates sitting at the bench, lawyers and court clerks. The charge sheet concerning an individual in a case is read out, and at the end of it, the person is given a pretty standard sentence. All we are trying to do is ensure that that process is dealt with far more expeditiously. It is absurd that we have situations where defendants cannot even be bothered to reply to the notification given to them that there will be a trial. We are dealing with low-level cases, such as speeding and ticket or TV licence evasion.
Mr Slaughter: We will discuss the details of the procedure. I have the figures here. There are about 1.64 million cases, about half of which may fall into the category that we are discussing, so we are possibly talking about one in five cases involving TV licences. The reason why I press the Minister to give a fuller picture of the type of offences involved is that there is a slippery-slope argument. It is all very well saying now, “It is just this and that.” I would like to be clear what offences the clause will cover, because we cannot make a decision based just on the Minister saying, “Oh, these are all trivial matters.”
The number of cases is huge, but there will be a rigid system. The prosecutor will specifically state that the cases are those in which individuals have not even bothered to reply saying whether they are guilty, or have
I emphasise that the cases being dealt with by the clause are those that many people out there on the streets already think are being dealt with in offices. I think many would be horrified to know that there is a process where, if someone is going to get three points on their licence and a routine fine, there are three magistrates—distinguished people from the local community—sitting at a bench, with lawyers, court clerks and legal advisers, and where the lawyer will stand up and read out the charge, and the bench will say, “Three points will be given to this individual. Next.” It is an absurd situation and it does not stack up.
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that some people are terrified when they receive a summons and may not deal with it? They may not have access to a lawyer or a citizens advice bureau, or have Cameron McKenna or anyone else to advise them.
Mr Vara: I certainly accept it; that is the situation at the moment. Regardless of whether the single justice procedure goes forward, the scenario that the hon. Lady describes exists, and that will not change. We will come to the issue of people who, for example, have difficulty reading the documents that are sent to them. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service will try to help them, but the system described by the hon. Lady exists and does not impact on what is proposed.
On the matters raised by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, I note that he first spoke of one in nine cases and then one in five. Let us not get bogged down in statistics, but let me give the Committee my figures. In 2012-13, the types of cases that we are referring to amounted to some 840,000 proceedings in Her Majesty’s courts—half of all summary proceedings in that year. The cost of administering such cases is estimated at £24.3 million per year.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): I thank the Minister for giving way, because I want to challenge his language, and the way he talks about speeding as a trivial offence. The most common cause of death of 15 to 24-year-olds is road traffic accidents, the majority of which are caused by speed. I am concerned that this process is trivialising road traffic offences even more, when we know that they are a major issue in our community today.
Mr Vara: May I make it clear that I did not trivialise driving offences? I did not use the word “trivial”, and I hope that the hon. Lady recognises that point. To the extent that I may have given any such indication, it was not intended. I am simply talking about somebody who is driving along in a 30 mph area and suddenly exceeds the limit by a few miles per hour. Dangerous driving and injury by driving are subject to custodial sentences. The cases that I refer to are not. The proposal is for
Julie Hilling: I thank the Minister for that. He did refer to trivial offences, which included speeding, but I am grateful for his clarification. However, speeding is frequently totted up—I know we are coming to that in a moment—and needs to be challenged, but not by a secret courts method.
Mr Vara: I have said a lot already in the past half-hour or so, so if I did use the word “trivial”, let me be clear about the context in which it was used. I was simply referring to people who speed in a relatively minor sense, as opposed to on the motorway and wherever it would be dangerous, so I am talking about the speeding that many members of the Committee may have committed and then ended up with three points on their licences. I want to make it clear that the procedure is not intended for dangerous driving and serious offences that could result in custodial sentences.
Mr Vara: The single magistrate will have access to legal advice, a clerk, or whatever assistance they may need. Whether there will be a magistrate sitting there, going through papers and dealing with the umpteenth hundredth identical type of case, while there is a legally qualified clerk sitting there reading a book, I do not know. The intention is that a single magistrate can sit and deal with relatively routine cases that appear in their hundreds and thousands on a regular basis. However, I emphasise to the hon. Lady that if a single magistrate needs legal advice or assistance, that will be available to them, and if they wish to discuss matters with their fellow magistrates, clearly that option will also be open to them.
Yasmin Qureshi: I thank the Minister for that clarification. That is exactly what my concerns were about. If it is correct that there will be just one magistrate—and we are talking about lay magistrates, not district judges, are we not?—sitting on their own, with hundreds and hundreds of files, without a lawyer or a prosecutor in the room, that will lead to difficulties, because quite often, even with the simple and straightforward matters that we are talking about, somebody could suggest that there were mitigating circumstances or exceptional hardship; any number of things could crop up.
Traffic court can also get very technical; I am not trying to give evidence here, but as someone who did a massive amount of traffic cases in my early career, I know that. For a single justice, having a legally qualified person present is, or should be, a must.
Mr Vara: It will certainly be the case that the clerk will be sitting, so there will be a clerk who can give advice. The hon. Lady says that she has been involved in cases similar to those that we are discussing, but she was probably not involved in a lot of cases where somebody was going to get three penalty points; she may have been involved if somebody risked losing their licence, but if it was a routine matter she would not have been. The statistics show that thousands of the people involved in these cases do not even bother replying, let alone turning up in court.
Yasmin Qureshi: In the early days of my career, when I worked for the CPS, it was quite routine for junior prosecutors to have a pile of 200 or 300 traffic cases and to deal with them. However, what we had were magistrates and clerks. While I can accept that one magistrate is fine, if we do not have anybody present while that magistrate is going through a pile of traffic cases, that would lead to quite a lot of difficulties.
I remember a number of times when many technical issues arose that required legal advice to be given to the magistrate. If the magistrate is sitting by themselves and does not have knowledge of the law, how will they know that there is an issue to be examined? Quite often, I pointed out—even as a prosecutor—one way in which we had tried to get somebody to court, or a way of dealing with an issue, or that legal advisers could be present. The problem is that legal advisers are not qualified lawyers, as they used to be in the old days. Now most legal advisers in magistrates courts are actually non-qualified people, so they do not have the knowledge—
Amendment 39 would require the list of offences to which the new single justice procedure applies to be set out in secondary legislation. Our intention is for all summary only non-imprisonable offences to be in the scope of the procedure. Offences such as speeding, driving without insurance and TV licence evasion take up the majority of court time that is spent on these types of offences, and these are the types of cases that we expect the single justice to hear.
Mr Slaughter: This is the problem. I have got that information in front of me. TV licence offences, fare evasion cases and summary motoring offences such as speeding and no-insurance cases—2,562 different offence types—are dealt with by magistrates. I do not expect the Minister to go through all of them, but it would be useful if he could indicate whether it is just those four types of offence that we should know about, or whether there are others we should know about.
Mr Vara: Sir Roger, there comes a point when I think, “I’ve said this several times and I am struggling to find the wording.” The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are more than 2,000 offences. We will come to that
I am providing examples of the offences. Prosecutors will sift cases, identifying low-level ones that can be sorted and dealt with in that manner. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me, as I hope all Committee members will, for not being able to itemise right now which of the 2,000-plus offences will be dealt with in that manner. The intention is to provide a more modern, efficient way of reaching the right outcomes in such cases, without unnecessary expense to the public purse.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East spoke earlier about her experience of the CPS. I am not inviting her to speak, given that she has spoken about as much as the hon. Member for Hammersmith and I have. She spoke in her capacity as a CPS lawyer and I am minded to say that, in many cases, she will have stood up and read out the cases without a lot of opposition to what she had to say.
Julie Hilling: I thank the Minister for giving way, because I am still confused. I do not understand whether the prosecutor could decide whether any of the 2,000 cases could be tried by a single magistrate or whether the Government will set the parameters that decide which cases can be tried. I am not clear, after his comments, whether that is so.
Mr Vara: The judiciary is independent, as we all recognise. The Government are providing a legal structure and the criminal courts procedure rules will contain the detail about how the measure is to be implemented. Stakeholders will be involved, including the Crown Prosecution Service, the police, the judiciary and the magistrates themselves. Indeed, magistrates have been consulted. All those people will be involved in coming up with the proper guidance that will be used to identify to which types of cases the provision will refer from the 2,000-plus that are eligible.
I emphasise again that the cases involved will not be those that are likely to be controversial. Offences to which someone has pleaded not guilty will be dealt with under the existing system. I am talking about low-level, relatively routine cases that are dealt with on a standard level at the moment, in an absurd situation, with three benchers, lawyers, cases being read out, and the time and effort that goes with that. Legal advice will be available to the people concerned.
I say to the hon. Member for Bolton West and other Committee members, by way of conclusion, that the guidance will be clarified after proper consultation with all the stakeholders. Before we came up with the proposal, we spoke with a lot of people concerned.
I shall leave it at this. I did not expect to have a full account of all the offences, but I did expect to be given more of a flavour of what was happening. I am not happy that prosecutors—this is what I understand from what the Minister has said—will sift through offences and decide which ones are suitable for the proposed
The onus is on the Government to get the criminal justice system right. If they are going to make such a significant change, they need to be clear on what offences they are dealing with and why those are suitable for the procedure, and at least on what changes they can foresee at present. If a significant number of the offences under the procedure are already going out of the door at this point, I am not happy. However, I have said that I will not press the amendment to a Division. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘(1) Section 29 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (public prosecutor to institute proceedings by written charge) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1), for “public prosecutor” substitute “relevant prosecutor”.
(3) For subsection (2) substitute—
“(2) Where a relevant prosecutor issues a written charge, it must at the same time issue—
(a) a requisition, or
(b) a two justice procedure notice.
(2A) A requisition is a document which requires the person on whom it is served to appear before a magistrates’ court to answer the written charge.
(2B) A two justice procedure notice is a document which requires the person on whom it is served to serve on the designated officer for a magistrates’ court specified in the notice a written notification stating—
(a) whether the person desires to plead guilty or not guilty, and
(b) if the person desires to plead guilty, whether or not the person desires to be tried in accordance with section 16A of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980.”
(4) In subsection (3)—
(a) for “and requisition” substitute “and the requisition of two justice procedure notice”, and
(b) after “the requisition” insert “or, as the case may be, the two justice procedure notice”.
(5) After subsection (3) insert—
“(3A) If a two justice procedure notice is served on the person, the relevant prosecutor must—
(a) at the same time serve on the person such documents as may be prescribed by Criminal Procedure Rules, and
(b) serve copies of those documents on the court.”.
(6) After subsection (3A) insert—
“(3B) The written notification required by a two justice procedure notice may be served by the legal representative of the person charged on the person‘s behalf.”.
(7) In subsection (4), for the words from the beginning to “public prosecutor” substitute “A relevant prosecutor authorised to issue a requisition”.
(8) In subsection (5), for ““public prosecutor”” substitute ““relevant prosecutor””.
(9) After subsection (5) insert—
“(5A) An order under subsection (5)(h) specifying a person for the purposes of this section must also specify whether that person and a person authorised by that person to institute criminal proceedings—
(a) are authorised to issue requisitions and two justice procedure notices, or
(b) are authorised to issue only two justice procedure notices.”.
(10) A person who immediately before the commencement of this section is—
(a) a person specified in an order under section 29(5)(h) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, or
(b) a person authorised by a person so specified to institute criminal proceedings,
is to be treated after the commencement of this section as authorised to issue requisitions and two justice procedure notices (subject to the order specifying that person being varied or revoked).’.
‘(1) Section 30 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (further provision about method of instituting proceedings in section 29) is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection (1)—
(a) in paragraph (a), for “or requisitions” substitute “requisitions or two justice procedure notices”, and
(b) in paragraph (b), for “or requisitions” substitute “requisitions or two justice procedure notices”.
(3) In subsection (2)(b), after “further requisitions” insert “or further two justice procedure notices”.
(4) In subsection (5)—
(a) in paragraph (b), for “public prosecutor” substitute “relevant prosecutor”, and
(b) after paragraph (b) insert ”, and
(c) any reference (however expressed) which is or includes a reference to a summons under section 1 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (or to a justice of the peace issuing such a summons) is to be read as including a reference to a two justice procedure notice (or to a relevant prosecutor issuing a two justice procedure notice).”.
(5) After subsection (7) insert—
“(7A) The reference in subsection (5) to an enactment contained in an Act passed before this Act is to be read, in relation to paragraph (c) of subsection (5), as including—
(a) a reference to an enactment contained in an Act passed before or in the same Session as the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2014, and
(b) a reference to an enactment contained in such an Act as a result of an amendment to that Act made by the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2014 or by any other Act passed in the same Session as the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2014.”.
(6) In subsection (8)—
(a) for ““public prosecutor”, substitute ““relevant prosecutor””, and
(b) after ““requisition”” insert “two justice procedure notice””.’.
‘(1) The Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 11 (non-appearance of accused: general provisions)—
(a) in subsection (1), for “and (4)” substitute ”, (4) and (8)”, and
(b) after subsection (7) insert—
“(8) This section and sections 12 to 16 do not apply if and for so long as a written charge is to be tried by a magistrates’ court in accordance with section 16A.”
(3) After section 16 insert—
“Trial by two justices on the papers
16A Trial by two justices on the papers
‘(1) A magistrates’ court may try a written charge in accordance with subsections (3) to (8) if—
(a) the offence charged is a summary offence not punishable with imprisonment,
(b) the accused had attained the age of 18 years when charged,
(c) the court is satisfied that—
(i) the documents specified in subsection (2) have been served on the accused, and
(ii) service of all of the documents was effected at the same time, and
(d) the accused has not served on the designated officer for the magistrates’ court specified in the two justice procedure notice, within the period prescribed by Criminal Procedure Rules, a written notification stating either—
(i) a desire to plead not guilty, or
(ii) a desire not to be tried in accordance with this section.
(2) The documents mentioned in subsection (1)(c) are—
(a) a written charge and a two justice procedure notice (see section 29 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003), and
(b) such other documents as may be prescribed by Criminal Procedure Rules (see section 29(3A) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003).
(3) The court must try the written charge in reliance only on—
(a) the documents specified in subsection (2), and
(b) any written submission that the accused makes with a view to mitigation of sentence.
(4) The court may disregard a written submission that is not served on the designated officer for the magistrates’ court specified in the two justice procedure notice within the period prescribed by Criminal Procedure Rules.
(5) The court may try the charge in the absence of the parties.
(6) The court may not remand the accused.
(7) If the resumed trial is to be conducted in accordance with subsections 10 (3) to (7), no notice is required of the resumption of the trial after an adjournment.
(8) A magistrates’ court acting under this section may be composed of two justices.
(9) A magistrates’ court not specified in the two justice procedure notice may try a written charge in accordance with subsections (3) to (8) as if it were the magistrates’ court so specified.
(10) Subsection (1) is subject to sections 16B and 16C.
16B Cases not tried in accordance with section 16A
‘(1) If a magistrates’ court decides, before the accused is convicted of the offence, that it is not appropriate to try the written charge in accordance with section 16A, the court may not try or continue to try the charge in that way.
(2) A magistrates’ court may not try a written charge in accordance with section 16A if, at any time before the trial, the accused or the accused’s legal representative on the accused’s behalf gives notice to the designated officer for the magistrates’ court specified in the two justice procedure notice that the accused does not desire to be tried in accordance with section 16A.
(3) If a magistrates’ court may not try or continue to try a written charge in accordance with section 16A because the conditions in section 16A(1) are not satisfied or because of
(a) adjourn the trial, if it has begun, and
(b) issue a summons directed to the accused requiring the accused to appear before a magistrates’ court for the trial of the written charge.
(4) A magistrates’ court issuing a summons under subsection (3)(b) may be composed of two justices.
16C Cases that cease to be tried in accordance with section 16A
‘(1) If a magistrates’ court decides, after the accused is convicted of the offence, that it is not appropriate to try the written charge in accordance with section 16A, the court may not continue to try the charge in that way.
(2) If a magistrates’ court trying a written charge in accordance with section 16A proposes, after the accused is convicted of the offence, to order the accused to be disqualified under section 34 or 35 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988—
(a) the court must give the accused the opportunity to make 5 representations or further representations about the proposed disqualification, and
(b) if the accused indicates a wish to make such representations, the court may not continue to try the case in accordance with section 16A.
(3) If a magistrates’ court may not continue to try a written charge in accordance with section 16A because of subsection (1) or (2), the magistrates’ court must—
(a) adjourn the trial, and
(b) issue a summons directed to the accused requiring the accused to appear before a magistrates’ court to be dealt with in respect of the offence.
16D Sections 16B and 16C: further provision
‘(1) If a summons is issued under section 16B(3)(b) or 16C(3)(b)—
(a) a reference in sections 11 to 13 to a summons issued under 20 section 1 is to be read, for the purposes of subsequent proceedings as regards the matter, as if it included a reference to a summons issued under section 16B(3)(b) or 16C(3)(b) (as the case may be), and
(b) the magistrates’ court that issued the summons under section 25 16B(3)(b) or 16C(3)(b) and the magistrates’ court specified in the summons are to be treated, for those purposes, as if they were in the same local justice area.
(2) If a summons has been issued under section 16B(3)(b) or 16C(3)(b), a justice of the peace may issue a summons directed to the accused requiring the accused to appear before the magistrates’ court specified in the summons under section 16B(3)(b) or 16C(3)(b) for the purpose specified in that summons; and subsection (1)(a) applies in relation to a summons under this section as it applies in relation to a summons under section 16B(3)(b) or 16C(3)(b).
(3) Where a summons has been issued under section 16B(3)(b) or 16C(3)(b), a magistrates’ court that afterwards tries the written charge or deals with the accused for the offence must be—
(a) composed as described in section 121(1), or
(b) composed of a District Judge (Magistrates’ Courts) sitting alone by virtue of section 26 of the Courts Act 2003.
(a) the accused is convicted of an offence before a matter is adjourned under section 16C(3)(a), and
(b) the matter is tried after the adjournment by another magistrates’ court,
that other magistrates’ court is to be treated as if it were the court that convicted the accused for the purposes of section 142(2).
16E Accused not aware of two justice procedure notice
‘(1) This section applies if—
(a) a two justice procedure notice has been issued, and
(b) the written charge is being tried, or has been tried, in accordance with section 16A.
(2) The proceedings subsequent to the two justice procedure notice are void if—
(a) the accused makes a statutory declaration that the accused did not know of the two justice procedure notice or the proceedings until a date that the accused specifies in the statutory declaration,
(b) that date is a date after a magistrates’ court began to try the written charge,
(c) the declaration is served on the designated officer for the magistrates’ court specified in the two justice procedure notice within 21 days of that date in such manner as Criminal Procedure Rules may prescribe, and
(d) at the same time as serving the declaration, the accused responds to the two justice procedure notice by serving a written notification on that designated officer.
(3) Subsection (2) does not affect the validity of a written charge or a two justice procedure notice.
(4) A magistrates’ court may accept service of a statutory declaration required by subsection (2) after the period described in subsection (2)(c) if, on application by the accused, it appears to the court that it was not reasonable to expect the accused to serve that statutory declaration within that period.
(5) A magistrates’ court that accepts a statutory declaration under subsection (4) is to be treated as accepting service of a written notification that is served at the same time.
(6) A statutory declaration accepted under subsection (4) and a written notification treated as accepted under subsection (5) are to be treated as having been served as required by subsection (2)
(7) If proceedings have become void under subsection (2), the reference in section 16A to the period within which a written notification must be served is to be read as referring to a period that ends on—
(a) the date on which a written notification is served under subsection (2)(d), or
(b) if a magistrates’ court is treated as accepting service of a written notification by virtue of subsection (5), the date on which the written notification is so treated as accepted.
(8) If proceedings have become void under subsection (2), the written charge may not be tried again by any of the same justices.
(9) A magistrates’ court carrying out functions under subsection (4) may be composed of a two justices.”.’.
‘(1) In section 121 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (constitution etc of a magistrates’ court), after subsection (5) insert—
“(5A) A magistrates’ court that is trying a summary offence in accordance with section 16A is restricted to the following in dealing with the accused for the offence—
(a) imposing a fine;
(b) imposing a penalty under section 102(3)(aa) of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979 or section 29, 35A or 37 of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 (penalties imposed for certain offences in relation to vehicle excise licences);
(c) ordering an amount to be paid under section 30, 36 or 38 of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act 1994 (liability to additional duty);
(d) making an order under section 130(1) of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 (compensation orders);
(e) ordering payment of a surcharge under section 161A of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (victim surcharge);
(f) making an order as to costs to be paid by the accused to the prosecutor under section 18 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985;
(g) making an order as to costs to be paid by the accused by virtue of section 19 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985;
(h) ordering payment of a charge under section 21A of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 (criminal courts charge);
(i) making an order under section 34 or 35 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (disqualification from driving);
(j) making an order under section 44 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (endorsement of a driving record);
(k) making an application to the Secretary of State by virtue of section 24(1)(a) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 (benefit deductions);
(l) making an attachment of earnings order under Part 3 of Schedule 5 to the Courts Act 2003;
(m) making an application for benefits deductions to the Secretary of State under Part 3 of Schedule 5 to the Courts Act 2003;
(n) making a collection order under Part 4 of Schedule 5 to the Courts Act 2003;
(5B) The limit in subsection (5) does not apply to fines imposed as described in subsection (5A).”.’.
I would not normally permit a stand part debate, because the issues covered by clause 24 have already been very thoroughly aired. However, I cannot deny the Committee the opportunity to discuss the meat of new clauses 12 to 15, and on that basis, I shall expect members to refer more to them than to the clause.
The Chair: Order. I am sorry. I should also have indicated, for the benefit of everybody present who does not understand these arcane procedures, as I described them before, that the new clauses, if they are to be moved, will not be moved now. They will be moved at the point in the Bill at which they are reached, which is many pages ahead. For the moment, although they will be debated, they will not be voted upon this morning.
Mr Slaughter: I am most grateful, Sir Roger. I understand. That is why these are presented as new clauses, rather than as amendments to clause 24. The effect of the new clauses goes to the heart of the proposal. They say that, throughout the process of trial and sentencing, rather than a single magistrate, there should be a minimum of two magistrates. To a large extent, that is the status quo. I accept that point and wait to be persuaded by the Minister that his scheme is better than the status quo.
“A magistrates’ court shall not try an information summarily or hear a complaint except when composed of at least 2 justices unless the trial or hearing is one that by virtue of any enactment may take place before a single justice. A magistrates’ court shall not hold an inquiry into the means of an offender for the purposes of section 82 above…except when composed of at least 2 justices.”
If it is the case that a single magistrate can impose sentences of imprisonment at the moment, that has escaped me. I may be wrong about that, but it would be helpful to have guidance, since it is a central contention of the Minister that there will be no power for a single justice to imprison.
The new clauses address the question of the Government’s intention in going to a single magistrate in that vast number of cases—perhaps 50% of all cases that currently come before a magistrates court. We know that that in turn is 95% of all cases that come before any criminal court in England and Wales. It is a significant step. That is where I disagree with the Minister, who has said about 14 times, “Oh, don’t worry, this is all very minor and trivial and it’s not going to make much difference.” It does make a difference, because we are talking about a trial process being handled by a single magistrate.
I have absolute admiration for the magistracy, as I am sure all Members present have, but a central tenet is that they are lay people. They are legally untrained people. The alternative to a bench of three magistrates—notwithstanding what it says in the 1980 Act, the normal bench is three magistrates—is a single district judge. We have seen a growth in the use of a single district judge. Some will say that is a good idea and some will say it is not, but it is accepted in the criminal courts that a single district judge can try both fact and law. However, a single magistrate cannot do so thus far. That is why I say that the proposal is a very significant difference. I suspect that the motivation behind it is partly financial and partly to do with the organisation of the magistrates court.
In April 2008, there were 29,419 magistrates. In April 2013, only five years later, there were 23,410. That is a drop of 6,000. There are simply far fewer magistrates around. We know not just that there has been the largest ever closure programme of magistrates courts, but that it is continuing. I bumped into the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on Budget day, and he was incensed because he had just found out that another programme of magistrates courts closures would affect his constituency. He said:
We have seen a decline in the magistracy. We have seen a decline in the number of courts, and we have also seen a decline in the number of cases coming before the courts. What is the motivation here? What is the rationale? The policy appears to conflict with other things that the Government are doing. As we saw earlier in the Bill
When the Secretary of State announced the proposal for a single justice process—he loves announcing and re-announcing matters—he talked about the rubber stamping of foregone conclusions. That is a rather trite way to describe a trial process, but we know what he meant. According to an article from T he Guardian on 11 September 2013, he also said:
The third contradictory statement that the Secretary of State made when announcing the policy was that the ambition was to free up magistrates courts to deal with more serious matters. In so far as that will take the pressure off, avoid delay and allow more time to consider existing trials and other serious matters that come before magistrates courts, so be it. But we also heard that 40% of cases sent to Crown court on sentencing following conviction result in sentences no longer than those that could have been imposed by magistrates. What are the Government doing about making that part of magistrates courts—the top end—more efficient at the same time as they are clearing out the bottom end?
A provision was introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 2003—the Government tried to get rid of it in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 but then thought better of it—to allow magistrates to impose a single sentence rather than a consecutive sentence of 12 months. We support that. The Government did not support it but then thought better of it. However, it still has not been introduced.
If the rationale of going to a single magistrate system is purely organisational—that is, there are not enough magistrates—can we know that? If it is designed to free up magistrates courts to take on more serious work, that would be very interesting and something that would have our support and that of the Magistrates’ Association, but there is no sign of that happening.
Alternatively, is this simply about cost saving? I will go back to the figure that the Minister used earlier. I think that he quoted £23.43 million as the administrative cost of dealing with regulatory cases. That does not take us very far. What are the intended savings by adopting the single magistrate process? Later in the impact assessment it appears to say that the saving will be between £35 million and £64 million—about £50 million on average over a 10-year period, so about £5 million a year. Is it right that about 20% of the current cost will saved? How robust are those figures? Given the range from £35 billion to £64 billion, they do not seem very robust. Is cost saving the primary intention here, or is it a by-product? We need to know more about how magistrates courts will operate in future.
Before summing up the Opposition’s concerns and to give the Minister some comfort, I will point out that I have listened not so much to what the Government have said, as to the Magistrates’ Association. Although it has reservations, which we will come to in later amendments,
We are concerned that most of the process will end up under the criminal procedure rules, rather than in primary legislation—the Government’s clearly stated intention. We are concerned that there will be less scrutiny of the process. The Government rather disparagingly mention in their commentary that there is too much reading aloud and that matters can be dealt with on paper. They have a point, but reading aloud allows the court to be properly apprised of the situation. Issues such as defendants’ means and mitigation, which can be supplied in writing, and assistance at the prosecution need to be considered. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East made the point about assistance at prosecution, and we have an amendment on that later. All these matters will not be present in as robust a form as they are now, which implies less scrutiny individually and cumulatively.
If the Government are concerned about defendants not attending, perhaps we should ask why that is so. Trials in absentia are important, even on minor matters. We had a debate in the Chamber last week about the presumption of innocence in relation to a draft EU directive. We happened to agree with the Government on that occasion, because we did not see how the draft directive, which dealt partly with this issue, fitted comfortably with English law. That is not to say that trial in absentia would be welcomed; it is something that should be avoided at all costs. Later amendments try to ensure that more defendants attend and that they understand their rights and responsibilities. That, again, is the point made by my hon. Friend in relation to the way that people react to official documentation. The Minister rather dismissively said, “Oh, half these people do not bother to attend.” Perhaps he should ask why people do not attend. Part of the reason could be that the prosecuting authorities do not present their cases very well to people on the papers, rather than anything else.
We will come on to concerns about recording decisions and open justice. I have dealt with the Minister’s point about public prosecutors, but he is perhaps not taking this as seriously as he should. He will have received briefs, as I have, from leading civil liberties organisations on this subject. Most of their points we direct to other parts of the Bill, but I ask the Minister to look again at what both Liberty and Justice have told us about these matters. They quote the coalition agreement, which states:
For centuries, the common law principle that defendants are tried by their peers has allowed justice to be dispensed fairly and in a manner that commands public confidence. Lay magistrates, who currently hear less serious criminal cases, are justified in accordance with the jury trial tradition on the basis that they are laypersons, neither legally trained nor professional judges, that act as peers. In recognition of this, the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 requires that criminal trial and sentencing is presided over by at least two magistrates. In practice three magistrates generally sit together and a mix in age, gender and ethnicity is sought as far as possible. Further magistrates are employed on a voluntary basis with only their expenses paid.
The implications of the reform proposed in clauses 24 to 28 should not be underestimated. Currently magistrates have only very limited powers when sitting on their own, restricted to: hearing remand applications and issuing search warrants and warrants for arrest. Magistrates’ panels on the other hand fulfil a substantial function in our criminal justice system and command significant power.
They hear and decide the outcome of cases (including both questions of law and fact) and pass sentence. They have the power to impose sentences of up to six months imprisonment as well as community penalties and fines of up to £5,000 per offence. While it is not currently proposed that magistrates should be able to sit alone and in private to determine cases that attract a sentence of imprisonment it is highly likely that once this procedure has been established further piecemeal reforms will be proposed”.
“It is impossible for a single magistrate to form a ‘panel of peers’ and this will offend against the basic premise of trial by jury. Further, perceived flaws in the current lay magistracy system are addressed at least in part by the requirement that magistrates sit in open court and as a panel. These complaints will be exacerbated by the single magistrates process. Complaints about the current system include that the lay magistracy are not sufficiently representative of society; that magistrates should not be charged with reaching decisions of both fact and law, that there is wide discrepancy in magistrate sentencing, and that they rely too heavily on legal clerks”.
I raise those points—they are well made, and I cannot improve on the language—because we are losing the principle that magistrates are a jury and that the reason for two or three people putting their heads together is to get the same effect in miniature as a jury. If that element is removed, it does several things. First, as has been said, it removes the panel of peers; secondly, it removes a check that one magistrate may have on another. I happen to think that that is quite important in these volume cases, where it is easy to make mistakes. We all admire magistrates who, day after day, go through rather tedious and routine matters. However, it is just as important that they get those matters right, both by understanding the case and by making a finding of fact and sentencing appropriately. It is common sense that, if more than one person does that, one acts as a check on the other. We do not say three, but we do say two.
The other problem highlighted is that removing one or two lay magistrates changes the balance between the magistrate and the clerk. Everyone else is removed from the equation except the single magistrate and the legal clerk. That is a significant change in the balance of power and the balance of convenience between the parties.
I hope that those comments reflect why we think that the new clauses are necessary. They are not intended to be wrecking new clauses. They are not intended to pay lip service and then undermine the process. They are
“Where this right is waived, it must be established in an unequivocal manner and be attended by safeguards commensurate with its importance. In this particular type of case, it must be shown that the defendant understood what the consequences of a waiver would be.”
This is particularly important as legal aid is not available in such cases. I am not suggesting that it should be available; what I am suggesting—again, I take a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East earlier—is that the full onus is upon the individual to understand and deal with the situation, without really any assistance. I cannot think of any advisory agency that would advise on something of this kind. Therefore, a single magistrate process is not wholly appropriate.
The Chair: Order. Everything that has been said this morning has been in order. Were that not the case, I would have made that very plain. It is also not the Chairman’s job to seek to curtail debate in any way, shape or form; rather, it is to facilitate it. Fifty groups of amendments and new clauses and schedules must be completed by Order of the House—not of the Chairman of the Committee or even of the Programming Sub-Committee—by 5 o’clock next Tuesday. That limits the options slightly.
I suggest that perhaps the usual channels might wish to have a word with each other because the only options available are for the Committee to sit this evening—which is entirely possible and part of my duty is to take the Chair if required to do so—and on Thursday evening, when most Members wish to get back to their constituencies. So that perhaps limits the options a little further.
Both Tuesdays and Thursdays are open-ended—until the Government moves to adjourn—so if we are to sit in the evenings, the Officers of the House need to know because provision must be made to staff the Committee. A Chairman would also not expect to sit for more than three hours at a time without a suspension—again, for the well-being of the staff. Frankly, it is not the Chair’s job to look after the well-being of Members but simply to manage the business. I point that out now in case the usual channels wish to have a conversation.
I shall try for the final time to give reassurance to the Committee. I fully recognise that there is concern both in the Committee and among groups outside this place, but by taking up some of the examples that the hon. Member for Hammersmith has provided, I hope to allay some of his fears. He spoke of the existing power of a single justice to sentence people to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 14 days; he was right to do so, but that power is excluded from the proposed procedure. The single magistrate would have no such power because they would not be dealing with anything to do with prison.
A single magistrate has powers to remand someone in custody. That is far more significant than what we are proposing under the single justice procedure. We are proposing a system that is for summary-only, non-imprisonable offences. The courts will have the final decision on whether the case goes ahead under this procedure, and they may, if they so wish, decide to have the case dealt with according to the normal procedure that is available at the moment. The defendant can, at any time before trial, ask for her or his case to be heard before a traditional court, and that will certainly be the case with a not guilty plea.
The new clauses are intended to remove the provision to allow a single magistrate to hear offences under this procedure and replace it with two magistrates. We have high-quality magistrates in this country. I am confident that in simple, straightforward cases such as motoring offences, where the facts are straightforward and the defendant has often already pleaded guilty by post, our magistrates are capable of reaching a decision by themselves. A single magistrate deciding these cases will have to comply with the sentencing guidelines, which are very clear for such cases. I fail to see the benefits of two magistrates, as opposed to one, sitting with a legal adviser.
Robert Neill: I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says, as would practitioners on the ground. Will he concede that it is precisely because of the safeguards he has outlined that the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, giving evidence to us, said that he, speaking on behalf of the CBA, had no problems with the single magistrate procedure as proposed?
Mr Vara: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. He speaks with a huge amount of practical experience. He is right to remind us what the chairman of the criminal Bar told us in evidence and I am glad that that has been put on the record again.
The purpose of the single magistrate procedure is to introduce some flexibility into the way in which these offences are dealt with. A single magistrate could seek advice from another where that was thought necessary or helpful, and they will, of course, have the assistance of a legal adviser. Magistrates deal with such offences regularly and are perfectly capable of making a decision without having to consult a colleague. Magistrates are broadly supportive of these proposals, as they would free up their courts to focus on more serious and contested cases, such as shoplifting and public disorder—cases of the type that have the biggest impact on local communities. We will continue to work through all the implementation details with them and further develop the safeguards already in place.
The new clauses would also remove the provision that a court can decide a case under the single justice procedure other than in open court. That would undermine one of the main drivers behind the policy. We consider that the time wasted and the costs incurred in requiring magistrates to sit in open court when they decide cases is disproportionate in the type of low-level case that the procedure will apply to. Allowing a single magistrate to decide a case other than in open court introduces important flexibility, ensuring quicker resolution of such cases.
I note that the amendment would also allow a single justice to hear and consider evidence from a party to the case if they turn up when the single justice is considering the case. In practice, parties will not know when a case is going to be considered by a single justice under the new procedure, so it is extremely unlikely that such a situation would occur. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Hammersmith to withdraw his amendment.
Yasmin Qureshi: I rise to ask the Ministers to consider the practical application of the proposed provisions. The fact that there may be one magistrate is not such a big issue, but I ask the Ministers to consider the importance of the presence of either a clerk or a prosecutor—someone who is legally qualified or semi-legally qualified—
Yasmin Qureshi: I understood the suggestion to be that the single magistrate would be able to have access to legal authority or to a legal clerk, as opposed to having somebody present throughout the proceedings. That is the first point we should consider.
On a practical level, a magistrates court normally has set sessions for traffic court cases. At that point everything is in court, and a decision is made as to whether the case goes to trial or for sentence on another date. Who will make that decision when someone has sent in a written guilty plea? Normally, that is the only matter. When someone pleads guilty the case then goes over to another date for a hearing. At that point, who will do that determination? Will it be done by the clerk or by the prosecutors, or will it be done in the normal way by two or three magistrates, with a prosecutor and a legal adviser present? I want answers to those practical procedural questions.
The reason I ask the Minister to consider whether a magistrate who is dealing with these cases should at all times have a legally qualified person or a clerk with them, rather than be able to access one if they need to, is that these cases can be quite onerous in terms of paperwork. Also, problems arise quite often: these cases may be
A case involving a defective tyre is considered to be simple. It carries three points, and one would not think that there would be an issue, but if one actually goes into what a defective tyre is and the circumference of the tyres has to be measured and so on, technicalities do arise. For that reason, contrary to what people think, cases such as defective tyres and overweight vehicles or axles can be complex. Road traffic legislation is very technical and can get very complicated. Although there may be three points for a defective tyre or having an overweight vehicle or the axle being too high, those kinds of issues can arise. For that one reason alone, a legally qualified person who knows exactly what they are doing should be present.
Sometimes when there is a whole load of cases, it is very easy not to realise what is happening in some of them. For example, there may be something in someone’s written explanation that qualifies as exceptional hardship or mitigation. These are the kinds of things a lay magistrate will have to deal with. I say without any disrespect that although there are good lay magistrates, in my earlier years I had experience of magistrates who perhaps do not have so much knowledge. To suggest that all lay magistrates know what they are doing and can go through a whole pile of traffic cases and even written guilty pleas without the presence of a lawyer or a clerk will lead to difficulties and problems. I ask the Minister to consider this.
All relevant stakeholders will be consulted, and we spoke to many of them before we came up with the proposals. We did not simply think them up in a back room somewhere; we have had detailed discussions with relevant people, who, broadly speaking, support the proposals, including the very people who will be taking the decisions: the magistrates themselves.
As I said, the cases are low level—lower level than a single magistrate can deal with at present. There are more than 23,000 magistrates, and many of them will not want to do such work. There will be a process. Again, we will speak with relevant people to ensure that the right people deal with the cases. We are putting in place a framework on which there is consensus. In terms of the minutiae, all the relevant people will be consulted, because we want to get it right. We do not feel that justice will be in any way impaired.
Mr Slaughter: Believe it or not, we are quite supportive of the proposal. Many of the critics I quoted are also supportive of greater efficiency and simplifying a lot of the formalities in the process, and that is to a large extent what the clause does. We are concerned about a single point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East raised: the cases may be complex and there is such a volume of cases that it places a huge
The other concern is that one magistrate is simply not enough. I will say no more now, because we will not oppose the clause. We will think about it when we come to decide on the new clauses. I am minded not to press the new clauses to a vote, but I want to place on the record our strong worries about such a radical change. I hope the Government will at least promise to review the situation and ask the agencies and organisations such as the Magistrates’ Association and HMCTS to ensure that the matter does not simply disappear from sight.
“In accordance with Government policy to make best use of the Criminal Procedure Rules, maximum allowance will be made for procedures to be determined by the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee, with only the most fundamental requirements and safeguards being on the face of the legislation.”
The clause essentially deals with the issue of criminal procedure rules, which, of course have a place. We are concerned about that intention in relation to important processes—I will not repeat why they are important processes; I think that is accepted by all members of the Committee—but it is wrong, as a matter of principle, to ensure that as much as possible is not in primary legislation.
Mr Vara: The clause contains technical amendments on account of the modified method of initiating criminal proceedings by way of written charge and single justice procedure. The clause amends section 30 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to make technical modifications. It ensures that the criminal procedure rule committee can make provisions relating to the single justice procedure notice. This will ensure that both written charge processes are consistently applied. The committee’s goal is to simplify and streamline the way in which criminal cases are managed within courts to prevent avoidable delays.
In addition, the clause will insert new subsection (5)(c) into section 30 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, so that existing references in legislation to summonses will be read as including the single justice procedure notice. Under the traditional method of initiating criminal proceedings, the summons is the document that requires defendants to attend court for the proceedings. The single justice procedure notice will create a different type of obligation on the defendant: to provide the
The Chair: Before I call Mr Slaughter to move amendment 40, let me say that I have looked carefully at the quantity and quality of the amendments to the clause and it is clear to me, even at this stage, that by the time we have worked through all the amendments, we shall have discussed most of the matters arising from the clause. I am therefore unlikely to call a clause stand part debate. If hon. Members wish to raise matters that do not necessarily relate directly to the amendments, they may do so, on the clear understanding that there will not be a clause stand part debate.
I am grateful for that indication, Sir Roger. We can be fairly brief in speaking to our amendments to the clause, as some of the ground has already been covered. That may give some comfort to the Committee and the usual channels.
Whereas it is perfectly proper for a trial to take place where there has been an acknowledgement from the defendant, it is not where there has been no response. The amendment deals with the in absentia point, which I have already covered. There is something obnoxious about trials proceeding in the absence of parties when the reason for that absence is not known. The Minister will no doubt say that situations where no notice was received can be dealt with after the event by statutory declaration, where there is some good reason, but that cannot be best practice. Best practice must be that the court is in possession of all the facts when trying a case. If the court has heard nothing from the defendant, it is likely that it is not in possession of all the facts, and the process would be imperfect.
In other jurisdictions trials in absentia are common, and happen on serious, even capital charges. Clearly, nothing like that happens in this jurisdiction. We try to set an example, ensure that the basic principles of fair trial are adhered to and conform with the principles of the European convention on human rights. I therefore suggest to the Minister that it would be appropriate to adopt the procedure only in cases where there has been a response from the defendant.
Valerie Vaz: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. To start with I wish to state that I was present at the first evidence session on 11 March, but my name was not listed in the formal minutes. I would like to correct the record.
I rise to set out my concerns about the clause and the provision that allows magistrates to sit as a single justice in certain circumstances. My concerns have two main
I was dismayed and disappointed by the Minister’s saying that he needs to speed up the whole process, because justice—like democracy—is hard fought, hard won and takes time, and we need to examine the issues carefully. Will justice be done or be seen to be done? I do not think so. It is one of our basic principles that cases—except security cases—are heard in open court and that we have open justice. In my view, the proposed procedure will undermine that principle. We are told that it will be used in straightforward cases, but that is all the more reason to have those cases heard in open court and not in some side room, as has been suggested.
I know that I am probably speaking as a lawyer now, but it is necessary to have the formality of a court, particularly when it is pronouncing a judgment or making an order. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith has raised the issue of the number of offences and the list of offences, it is still not quite clear what they should be and what they are. I would be pleased to hear the list from the Minister. One suggestion is the simple, straightforward one of TV licence evasion, but that is a criminal offence and can be punishable with imprisonment. Almost 50 people a year—about one a week—are imprisoned for it. Also, there is an issue about TV licences, which we will not go into just yet.
To me, a single magistrate goes against what the magistracy was established for in the first place. The magistracy should provide two or three magistrates with a broad experience of life, from different backgrounds and reflective of society, to sit in judgment on a case. From Magna Carta—which we will soon celebrate—onwards, the accused has had a right to a fair trial. In every hearing, would a single magistrate have to indicate that the proceedings are article 6 compatible? They ought to do so. I have not been able to find in any of the clauses whether magistrates have to give reasons for their decisions, which they should do, if they are sitting as a single magistrate, in the proper administration of justice. Whether the offences they are considering are serious or not, they should all conform to the principle of justice being done and being seen to be done.
What about saving costs, which is the key plank of the clause? What evidence does the Minister have that the procedure will save costs? This is not about a straightforward hearing, where all the evidence is there, let alone the accused. As we have heard, the accused could turn up at the last minute. If we look at the amendments to the 1980 Act we see that the clause is
If the single magistrate wants to issue a summons requesting that someone attend court, logically that defeats the purpose of having a hearing before a single magistrate, because new section 16D(3) says that if a single magistrate issues a summons, lo and behold, the case has to be tried by a district judge or two justices in open court. This is “simplified” procedure, but we have a procedure now whereby we could end up with a situation where the usual route—if it had been used in the first place—would have been much more cost-effective and efficient.
The single magistracy offends this country’s hard-won system of justice. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East mentioned advice given by a clerk. If a clerk sits in a room with a single magistrate, there is no one to say whether they are interfering with the magistrate’s decision, which they cannot—there is case law to that effect. What about the advice? Two or three magistrates can stand up to a clerk and discuss a decision, or they can do so on their own if they are legally qualified, but a single magistrate might feel overpowered.
What about consistency of sentencing? There is not consistency of sentencing now, so how can we be sure that the relevant reasons have been taken into account in a closed courtroom? People go to open court for all sorts of reasons. They go to see how it works. They go as students, as jurors or because they have to defend themselves. That is all the more reason why all cases should be conducted in open court.
The Government have proposed the clause as if it is a simple, straightforward procedure, and it is clear from what I have set out already that it is not. Things can become much more complicated. The Minister said that he has had discussions with the Magistrates Association, but I do not know whether it completely supports the measure. There appears to be an assumption that we are talking about the simple, straightforward paperwork or box work that district judges undertake. These cases are not simple box work; they are much more complicated.
The Minister might consider it a way forward to have uncontested cases listed in the hearing list as floating cases that can float over a number of days, so that people are aware of whether they are going to be heard on a certain day. The cases could be put at the end of a hearing list when, say, two magistrates are sitting. That will not raise costs and there will be the benefit of having two magistrates consider such cases.
Lord Bingham said that magistrates are a “democratic jewel beyond price.” I urge the Government to think again about the clause and allow magistrates to do what they do best, which is to ensure that justice is done.
Mr Vara: I thank the hon. Lady for her speech, which I know is based on conviction; I compliment her on that. I would like to give her some comfort, and I hope that by the time I have finished my few remarks, I will have succeeded in doing so.
Justice will be done, but we have to recognise that times have changed and, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith said, cases are being dealt with in volume. We need to acknowledge that many of those cases are routine. I emphasise that any defendant who wishes to have her or his case decided in open court can opt for that at any time up until the single magistrate has made their decision, provided that they have notified the court. The measure applies to more than 2,000 offences, and it would be impracticable to list all the offences that may be in scope, for the simple reason that—as we of all people know, as legislators—the list is ever-changing. Not everything on the list will qualify, because the relevant people will get together to set guidelines to ensure that only routine, summary and non-imprisonable cases will be dealt with in that way.
The hon. Lady refers to article 6, and yes, the clause is compatible with it, because anyone who wants to have their case heard in open court can do so. The measure is just for cases in which people have pleaded guilty or do not bother to plea. Indeed, the presumption at the moment is that all summary trials in the traditional magistrates court go ahead whether the accused is present or not. We have to be careful not to make arguments against the Government’s proposals when the systems actually exist now. That is important.
The hon. Lady mentioned costs. The total costs are estimated to lie in the range of £3 million to £14 million at 2013-14 prices over 10 years, in present value terms. That is split between transition costs and ongoing costs. The total benefits are estimated to lie in the range of £49 million to £67 million at 2013-14 prices over 10 years, in present value terms.
The hon. Lady mentioned people turning up at court. Under the single magistrate procedure, it is envisaged that a list will be published saying, “By x date, the following cases will be dealt with.” Nobody will know precisely on what day their case will be dealt with, so turning up in court will be difficult. However, they will know that their case will be dealt with by a future date and, after that date, the results will be made available to the public. We are looking further, given electronic devices and advancements in technology, at whether there is another way that the public can be informed about what has happened. We are exploring all possibilities in that regard. Any individual who wishes their case to be heard in open court has that right and can exercise it, right up to the point at which a decision is taken.
I leave the hon. Lady with some figures. Criticism is levelled at the new procedure, although a significant number of defendants fail to respond under the current procedure. For example, for summary motoring offence proceedings, some 52% of cases dealt with by the magistrates court are heard without a plea and in absentia.
Yasmin Qureshi: On a point of clarification, am I right in thinking that a date will be published by which someone’s case will be dealt with, rather than a date being published on which it will be dealt with? If that is so, somebody could, for example, be asked to declare
Mr Vara: I want to be precise about my wording. Under the proposal, a particular case would be heard not before x date. For example, if the hon. Lady were up for speeding, under the proposal, her case would be heard not before, say, 20 April. The reason is that, clearly, there will be a volume of cases involved. There will be certainty that a case will be heard not before x date. However, after it is dealt with, there will be publication of what has happened. In respect of queries from an insurance company, an individual can, until the point when results are published, write to the court and say that they wish to have their case heard in open court, in the traditional way. It is important to recognise that an individual’s right to have their case heard in open court is there.
On individual cases, the hon. Lady needs to appreciate what I say. We are dealing with low-level cases; 52% of cases concerning summary motoring proceedings, for example, are heard without a plea. People who cannot be bothered to make a plea are hardly likely to want to seek the kind of information that the hon. Lady is seeking. I hope that she will settle for that. We may have to agree to disagree, because I am mindful that we are going around the same issue. I repeat that we are talking about low-level offences from a list of more than 2,000. To the extent that there are any queries, people could stand here for ever and a day raising this, that and whatever, but the point is that we are not talking about this, that and whatever case.
Yasmin Qureshi: I think that the Minister misunderstands my point. I am not talking about which cases are dealt with by what procedures. I asked for a clarification. Did I understand him correctly? Will the result not be published at the point when a decision is made—on that day? That is the only query. I was asking a technical, procedural question about the scheme.
Mr Vara: The results will be made available as soon as is practical. Right now, people are heard, and then a list is made with the result. Given what I said earlier about being mindful of technology, openness and transparency, the hon. Lady can rest assured that the results will be made available to all and sundry as soon as is practically possible. We will speak to all the relevant people. The journalists who do not turn up for these kinds of cases—media organisations do not even have the resources to attend some of the more important cases—can apply at present, and will continue to be able to apply, for a list of results, and they will continue to get it. I emphasise—and conclude, I hope—that we are talking about relatively straightforward, low-level cases.
Mr Slaughter: I will not deal with the transparency point, because we have amendments on that coming up, but I think that this is a sensible amendment. It simply says that one should not be able to waive one’s right to trial by omission; that there should have to be some explicit act providing that waiver. I suspect that the Government’s reason for opposing it is not that they object to the principle, but that they fear they will not make sufficient cost savings if they go down that route, for the reasons the Minister has given—although, having heard a completely new set of figures on savings from the Minister, different from the one I read out from the impact assessment, I suspect that the Government have no clue about what the savings will be under this system. This is an issue of fair trial, but that specific point is probably better dealt with under amendment 45, so I will not pursue it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
This amendment and amendments 54, 54A, 55, 56 and 60 make clear that a single justice procedure notice will identify a designated officer for a magistrates’ court (the person responsible for administering the process), rather than a specific magistrates’ court, and that any magistrates’ court may deal with a case started in this way.
Mr Vara: As I explained earlier, this procedure is intended to introduce a more flexible and efficient process for administering cases, so that they can be dealt with in any magistrates court, irrespective of where the offence originated. To facilitate that, we have ensured, through these amendments, that the single justice procedure notice identifies a designated court officer, who is responsible for administrating the process, rather than a specific magistrates court. We are also making it clear that while the cases remain uncontested and subject to the discretion of a magistrate conducting the procedure, they can be allocated to any magistrates court, rather than a specific court associated with a designated officer, or in a particular area.
‘(c) a submission from the DVLA to inform the court of any penalty points endorsed on the defendant’s driver record.’.
This is a different kind of amendment. It is genuinely trying to be helpful in improving efficiency. All our amendments are trying to be helpful, but are about the principle of a matter; this concerns the practicalities. I am, however, cribbing from the written evidence submitted by the Magistrates Association, which points out the following, in relation to how the procedure operates now:
“The Bill requires the court to try the charge relying only on the documents served on the defendant and any written mitigation supplied by him…The court needs more than that to make the right decision about whether it should adjourn the matter, as required by statute, to consider disqualifying an absent defendant from driving. The court needs to know whether the defendant has
We do not see this as an unfairness point, because we say that as long as the court is not losing cases among the hundreds in front of it, and if it has that information before it, it will properly adjourn the case and inform the defendant that he may be subject to disqualification. Totting is a big issue, because there are the peculiar circumstances where defendants manage to accumulate far more than 12 points. The issue of disqualification needs to be taken seriously—and I am sure that it is taken seriously by all magistrates when they look at the matter. However, it would be helpful to them to have all the information before them at the earliest opportunity, and this amendment specifically includes that among the evidence that will be presented.
I understand why the Government wish to be clear about what evidence is and is not admissible. It includes any defendants’ mitigation that may be there; we say that in addition, there should be a submission from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency informing the court of any penalty points disclosed on a defendant driver’s records. That information may be before the court, but—this really is going back into the mists of time—I can remember doing road traffic cases, and that was honoured more in the breach than the observance. If you were defending somebody who turned out to have a considerably worse driving record than the court acknowledged and they got away with it for whatever reason, I am sure they thought that they had had a good result. However it brings the whole process into disrepute. That is the worst of it. At best, it causes delay and confusion in the process. This is intended to be a helpful amendment and I hope the Government can accept it.
Julie Hilling: This gives me my first proper opportunity, Sir Roger, to say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship. This is a major issue for me and something that I have been dealing with for the last couple of years. I feel it may be a bit of a solution to the runaround I have been doing. I went to see Transport Ministers, who sent me to Justice Ministers, who sent me to the Sentencing Council, who sent me back to Justice Ministers, who sent me back to Transport Ministers. In all of that, I have made very little progress.
As I have already said today, I am concerned about trivialising driving offences and worry that these low-level cases can add up to some serious issues, particularly people choosing to continue to ignore driving law. How on earth can people tot up the number of points they do if they do not see themselves as above the law, able to ignore it and continue to drive as they want? I say this again, because it is really important: the most common cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds in this country is accidents on the road, and in the majority of those cases, speed is an important factor.
The figure has gone down—I will give the Government that—but we have 8,000 people driving with more than 12 points on their licence. People are supposed to be not
Let me give some examples. Zak Whitbread, the former Norwich City player, said that he needed his car to look for a new job. I am shocked that a premier league footballer could not afford to pay someone to drive him around or could not simply take a taxi, the train or a bus like the rest of us. Kieren Fallon, the jockey, said that he could not afford to pay a full-time driver. Why could he not share cars, book a taxi or do what the rest of us do? Alex Williams, the Tory candidate for Stretford and Urmston at the last election, got off because he said he could not afford to pay his £2,000 a month mortgage if he could not drive. The Squeeze singer, Chris Difford, even though he earns up to £100,000 a year, said that he could not travel up and down the country playing gigs, and the son of the singer Tony Christie said he would not be able to drive his dad to gigs. There are many more examples, but I will not delay the Committee with them.
The Bolton News did a survey recently of its readers. Eighty-three per cent. of respondents said that drivers with more than 12 points should always be banned. Public opinion says that it is wrong that people continue to drive with excessive points on their licence. Magistrates tell me that they need better guidance. The Transport Minister tells me that it was a problem with the DVLA but that it has been solved. It cannot possibly be solved if last year 8,000 people continued to drive with more than 12 points. The Justice Minister says that it is for the Sentencing Council. But, again, how come we have so many people driving with more than 12 points on their licence?
The amendment would at least ensure that the magistrate has up-to-date information. One of the concerns expressed by various Ministers throughout the Government is that people are not being banned at 12 points because the magistrate did not know that they already had 12 or 15 points. I do not say that everybody should be automatically banned at 12 points and that we should not have exceptional hardship, but to have exceptional hardship in so many cases where people have continued to breach the law is absolutely wrong. Therefore, I urge the Minister to accept the amendment. It makes absolute sense. It would ensure that at least one of the loopholes by which people are continuing to flout the law and drive with more than 12 points on their licence is closed. It is an exceptionally sensible amendment. I hope the Government listen.
Mr Vara: To be fair, the Government have given the amendment serious thought. I want to emphasise that point. The hon. Lady may have the impression that I am in some way trivialising motoring offences. I am not. I want to put that on the record and make it abundantly clear. I am talking about a scale of motoring offences. The offences I am talking about—where there
Julie Hilling: They may be minor speeding offences that would not amount to dangerous driving, careless driving or any of those other charges, but does the Minister accept that totting them up shows a disregard for the law? That is what the amendment addresses. I accept that he is not trivialising motoring offences.
I will come to the amendment in a moment, but I want to conclude my remarks about the seriousness with which driving offences are treated. I hope the hon. Lady appreciates that some traffic offences take six months to deal with, from the offence to completion, and that that is a huge drain on the smooth running of the criminal justice system, taking focus away from more serious offences, some of which she has referred to. We find that unacceptable.
Our proposals are about getting poor drivers before the court and getting them dealt with more quickly. More serious cases, such as drink-driving and careless driving involving damage or injury, are likely to be too serious to be dealt with under the new procedure. The new procedure simply is not for such cases. Causing death by dangerous driving can be dealt with only in the Crown court. That continues under our proposals.
Amendment 41 would introduce a new requirement that the documents sent to the defendant with the single justice procedure notice should include a copy of the submission from DVLA to the court, informing the court of any penalty points on the defendant’s driver record. The purpose of the single justice procedure is to make the system more efficient. The amendment would create an additional—it does not currently exist—unfunded administrative burden on the criminal justice system.
Where cases are currently heard in the absence of the defendant, no advance notice is given of the state of their driving record. Indeed, it is the explicit responsibility of the holder of a driving licence to ensure that it is kept up-to-date by surrendering it as and when required, for details to be changed or endorsements to be added. If there are endorsements on a driving record that do not appear on the counterpart of the corresponding driving licence, the licence holder might well be committing a further, separate offence.
I share the concern of the hon. Member for Hammersmith about ensuring that defendants are protected under the procedure, but the amendment would afford them something that is not provided for in the current system, eroding some of the responsibilities that we all have as citizens. However, I agree that up-to-date DVLA information is important when it comes to deciding the
Although, therefore, I cannot accept the amendment, I am grateful to have a spotlight on the issue of DVLA information. On the basis that we will consider the issue further, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment at this stage.
Mr Slaughter: I am sorry, Sir Roger; I was momentarily distracted by a tweet from the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims. He has just tweeted his support and praise for magistrates. How opportune! It was a coincidence, I am sure.
Mr Slaughter: I am grateful for what the Minister says, and I accept it. Some of the instances that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West was talking about would be times when the court was in possession of the full facts, and had made a judicial decision that there were exceptional circumstances. I agree with the view that that is right and should continue; magistrates should be entrusted with that power. However, many of the cases that she alluded to are extremely worrying, and one wonders how such circumstances can come about. I am talking about different circumstances, where administrative problems result in the court not being in full possession of the facts, or where it must take further steps and incur further costs to gain full possession of the facts. I think the Minister takes that point.
I do not accept the Minister’s argument about additional administrative costs. The offences may be low level, as the Minister has told us several times, but that is no reason for not getting things right, including for persistent offenders. I am grateful for the assurance that he will re-examine the issue, and on that basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘(12) Prior to a paper procedure the court must publish the cases to which it will apply and when it will take place, and
(13) Following a paper procedure the court must publish the outcome.’.
Mr Slaughter: These are important amendments. I do not think it will be possible for the Minister to say in response that he has consensus on his side. I do not think I have read a briefing from any of the very learned parties that have put their minds to these clauses that is at ease with them. The amendments concern the principle of open justice. Amendment 44 is about reporting processes
“It is not the intention of this work that these cases should be heard ‘in private’, so work to mitigate any potential impact on open justice will take place to ensure that the public access to relevant case information is maintained. As part of the Government’s wider transparency agenda, we are also looking at further ways of making the court processes and outcomes more transparent to the public.”
That will not do. A vague assurance that, having removed half of the proceedings in magistrates courts from open court, they will then seek to mitigate that in some unspecified way is not good enough. I will pray in aid what the Magistrates Association says on this point. It is brief, but to the point:
“The MA is well aware that few members of the public attend to listen to and observe cases where the defendant is absent. However, it is a principle of British justice that cases are heard and that the results are made known in public and we would be sorry to see this principle abandoned, even for the cases which this Bill deals with. We would be concerned if the general public perception became that these cases were no longer criminal cases handled by magistrates with the same rigour as every other criminal case … MPs might like to consider whether these proposals will trigger an adverse public reaction among those who distrust politicians, are increasingly suspicious of police integrity and who say that the Government is at war with motorists. These proposals may present an open-goal to tabloid newspapers running campaigns on secret courts and roadside cameras being there for cash generating purposes rather than for road safety.”
I think a lot of those points will hit home with Members; they certainly do with me—my local authority makes £19 million profits out of traffic enforcement every year. Both Liberty and Justice make similar points in their submissions that this offends the basic concept of open justice. The PCS union who gave evidence made the same point:
“PCS is concerned that justice will not be seen to be to be done. Offenders will not even know which court is hearing the case. It will be difficult to discern which case an endorsement on a driving licence relates to.”
The intention behind amendment 42 is to leave out the part of clause 26 that deals with proceedings not in open court. The principle is very clear. We believe that all proceedings should continue to be in open court. We do not think that is a terribly onerous burden to impose on the new system. The Government give an assurance that:
“In order to preserve open and transparent justice, magistrates’ courts will continue to publish daily case lists on the day of the appointed hearings. These lists are currently, and will continue to be, available to local media. In addition the court will still be obliged to give certain case information to the public on request, as they are currently.”
“Paragraph 12 of the same fact sheet speaks of the Government’s wider transparency agenda and its wish to make court processes more transparent to the public. However, this Bill provides for a
For that reason, amendment 44 would require the court to publish the cases prior to a paper procedure and to publish the outcome following that procedure. The Minister may say that that is the intention anyway, but I would rather see it in the Bill. I would rather know beforehand, first, exactly when cases are taking place, secondly, that those cases will be heard in open court and thirdly, that the decisions will be published thereafter. I cannot see what is difficult here.
Mr Vara: The amendments relate to the arrangements for ensuring open and transparent justice in cases heard under the single justice procedure. Amendment 42 would remove the provision that a court can decide a case under the single justice procedure other than in open court. That would undermine one of the main drivers behind the policy, as we consider that the time wasted and the costs incurred in requiring magistrates to sit in open court and decide cases is disproportionate in the type of low-level cases to which the procedure will apply. Allowing a single magistrate to decide a case other than in open court introduces important flexibility, ensuring a quicker resolution to these types of cases.
Amendment 44 would require case lists to be published, both of cases that will be considered by a single justice and of decisions reached by a single justice. The effect would be to lay down in primary legislation something that we believe is best left to criminal procedure rules and to general practice.
I fully agree with the intention behind the amendments. We have made it very clear that we must not lose transparency as a result of these reforms, and we cannot allow the new process to take place without any scrutiny, but I do not feel that the amendments offer an appropriate mechanism for achieving that. Local press do not have the resources to have reporters sitting through cases of this kind. In his evidence to the Committee, Richard Monkhouse stated that in his experience “very few” journalists or members of the public turned up to hear cases involving non-payment of TV licences, for example. It is of course vital that local media have access to information about what happens in the courts, and we will have mechanisms in place to ensure that the public have access to court decisions.
Julie Hilling: I find it difficult to accept the Minister’s argument. The fact that a newspaper may not be able to afford to send a reporter to the court surely does not equate with the newspaper cannot send a reporter to the court? My concern with that is that we will be seen to be doing justice in secret, in a broom cupboard somewhere
Mr Vara: My reference to journalists not turning up to court now was actually to cases where, in the not-too-distant past, they would have turned up, but we are talking about the types of cases that they did not turn up to in the distant past—before the internet came on the radar, in any event. The cases that would be dealt with by a single magistrate would not historically have been those that reporters attended.
I hear what the hon. Lady says about openness and transparency, but we are dealing with a specific type of case that occurs day in, day out. Last week I attended a function and was talking about the Bill with an individual, and she was surprised that such cases are dealt with in open court. She had assumed that, if she got three points on her licence, that would be dealt with by an official or a clerk sitting in a room. As I said, we are dealing with relatively low-level cases.
We intend to make court registers available to local media, and a protocol exists to facilitate that. There is also provision in the criminal procedure rules that obliges a court to give certain information in response to a third party request. We do not intend to publish court lists of cases to be heard that day in the precincts of the relevant magistrates court, which is currently done in relation to cases heard in courtrooms, because owing to the new procedure’s flexible nature, it will not be known which cases will be tried. However, we do intend to publish a list of the cases dealt with in a given period of time. We can include details of the plea in those cases, which will be more information than is currently available.
I am confident that, with these arrangements in place, the new procedure will provide a more efficient and also open and transparent process for reaching the right outcomes in these cases without unnecessary expense to the public purse. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Hammersmith to consider withdrawing his amendment.
Mr Slaughter: I think that the Minister has given the game away: transparency is being sacrificed for flexibility. He mentioned local newspapers. I do not know whether he saw the Newspaper Society’s submission, but, in relation to this point, it said:
“We share the concern expressed during the Second Reading debate about the proposed departure of the fundamental principle of open justice, by the Bill’s introduction of a procedure whereby a single justice can try a case upon papers sitting in private and not in open court, especially as the decision reached not just upon guilty pleas received but on the grounds of non-response, without proof that the accused had received the relevant notices that legal proceedings had been instigated against them.”
As I said, I do not intend to press amendment 44, although I wish that the Government would give further consideration to publicising the proceedings before and after the event, in particular because, as we discovered earlier, such matters could be heard almost anywhere and at almost any time.
Open justice is so fundamental that we are not prepared to withdraw amendment 42. The Minister has given no good reason, whether financial, organisational or practical,
We have made substantial strides in recent years in further opening up the courts, including the family courts, which had in large part been closed. There is ongoing controversy—there are no Liberal Democrats present, but I was going to pay them a compliment on some of the work they have done on the Court of Protection, which is an ongoing scandal. In fact, I will go further, and pay the Daily Mail a compliment, because it has been excellent on the issue, not just on family courts but on closed material procedures. It is right that we rely on our press, whatever its faults at any other time, to ensure that there is maximum access. Yes, in their self interest, but also I think in the public interest, as well. I suspect that we will deal with a little bit of that this afternoon, when we look at the contempt provisions.
I will deal with the amendment fairly briefly. It is another of those practical and helpful amendments that I know the Minister prefers. Its purpose is to give flexibility to magistrates to hear from either party if they do attend and it would assist the court.
The Minister may blow my words back to me and say that it would be unfair or in some way improper if a process was going ahead with the defendant not having responded or the prosecution not expected to be there, and then one or the other turns up. I rely not on only good advice, again from the Magistrates Association, but on some of the comments made earlier by my hon.
The Government are imposing on a single magistrate, working with only the assistance of a clerk, a substantial burden of work, some of which may be highly technical or voluminous, where it is quite difficult to find the facts. If one of the parties is present, trusting the independence and the skill of the magistrate not to be unduly influenced by that party seems to be entirely sensible. Suppose that the prosecutor said, “The essence of this case is x,” and the magistrate, having been taken to a particular document, paragraph or section in the case before them, is able to see that that is the case; or suppose that the defendant, through mitigation or representation, clarified the matter. By drafting the clause to say:
the Government will have made a rod for their own back. We simply suggest deleting the second part of that sentence. That would still allow courts to try the charge in the absence of the party, but would give additional flexibility—that word on which the Minister has relied so much this morning, along with “low-level”.
Mr Vara: The amendment would allow a single justice to hear and consider evidence from a party to the case if they turn up when the single justice is considering a case. In practice, parties will not know when a case will be considered by a single justice under this new procedure, so it is extremely unlikely that this situation would occur. In any case, there is clear provision in the Bill which states that when a person wants to be heard by a magistrates court, they are perfectly able to request a hearing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider withdrawing this amendment.
Mr Slaughter: That does not answer my point because, however rare it may be, if it does assist then it assists. However, in the interests of flexibility—shall we call it—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
‘( ) Any magistrates’ court may try a written charge in accordance with subsections (3) to (8), whether or not its designated officer is specified in the single justice procedure notice.’.
This amendment removes a provision treating a magistrates’ court issuing a summons under new sections 16B and 16C and the court specified in the summons as being in the same local justice area.
Mr Vara: The Government are clear that in circumstances where the single justice procedure is not appropriate, the case should return to a traditional magistrates court. New sections 16B and 16C of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, inserted by clause 26, provide for this. In those cases, the single justice must adjourn the trial and refer the case to a traditional magistrates court. All the current rules about summary proceedings will apply to this traditional magistrates court, in particular the rules on the size of the bench and the requirement to sit in open court.
The traditional courtroom to which the case is referred and in which it is dealt with thereafter will not necessarily be in the same area in which the single justice sits. These amendments relate to the process by which that single justice can, where necessary, summons the defendant to a court in a different justice area if that would be more appropriate. This might, for example, be in the area where the offence took place, or closer to the defendant’s place of residence.
The first amendment would remove new section 16D(1)(b). That paragraph would have provided that the single justice issuing the summons and the traditional court specified in the summons are to be treated as being in the same local justice area. Having reflected since its drafting, we think the provision is unnecessarily complex and that the summary trial provisions will work across local justice areas. Because it is unnecessary, the wording should go.
The second amendment relates to the power of the justice of the peace to issue a further summons after the single justice has already issued a summons referring the case back to a traditional magistrates court. This is a supportive power, in case something goes wrong with the original summons. The amendment makes clear that the further summons can require the accused to appear before any magistrates court. This simply mirrors the power to issue the first summons. As with the first summons, the magistrates court would be in an appropriate area, for example where the offence took place or closer to the defendant’s place of residence.
New section 16D(2) of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, inserted by clause 26, provides that, following the issue of a summons under new section 16B or 16C, a justice of the peace may issue a further summons. This amendment provides that the further summons may require the person concerned to appear before any magistrates’ court.— (Mr Vara.)
‘( ) This section does not apply if the trial of the written charge has been adjourned under section 16B(3)(a) or 16C(3)(a).’.
This amendment provides that, if proceedings are moved from the procedure under section 16A of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 to the usual procedure in a traditional magistrates’ court, the new
New section 16E of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, inserted by clause 26, governs what happens if a defendant is, for some reason, unaware of proceedings which have taken place under the single justice procedure. It allows the defendant to prove this by making a statutory declaration that they did not know about the single justice procedure notice or the proceedings. This will