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Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 125:

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Page 20, line 31, leave out ("offences alleged to be committed") and insert ("pre-trial hearings beginning").

The noble Baroness said: This amendment to Clause 32 is a technical amendment concerned with the application of Part IV. As drafted, Clause 32(1) provides for Part IV to be applied to offences alleged to be committed on or after such day as is appointed by the Secretary of State. This would create difficulties if an indictment contained several counts, some relating to offences committed prior to the appointed day and others relating to later offences. The amendment addresses this by providing for Part IV to be applied to pre-trial hearings beginning on or after the day appointed for the purposes of Clause 32.

As a consequence of the amendment to Clause 32(1), an amendment is needed to Clause 46. As drafted, Clause 46(1) makes provision about the time when an alleged offence has been committed for the purpose of certain provisions in the Bill, including Clause 32(1). As a consequence of the amendment to the commencement provision in Clause 32(1), the reference to Section "32(1)" should be removed from Clause 46(1).

In moving Amendment No. 125, I have spoken also to Amendment No. 158. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 126:

Page 20, line 35, leave out ("made by statutory instrument").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 32, as amended, agreed to.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 127:

Before Clause 33, insert the following new clause--

Transfer for trial

(". Schedule (Transfer for trial) to this Act (which contains provisions about transfer to the Crown Court for trial) shall have effect.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 127, I shall speak to all the government amendments in this group. I anticipate that noble Lords opposite will speak to the opposition amendment which is, I believe, Amendment No. 135, so I shall speak to Amendment Nos. 127, 161 and 172.

The first new clause before Clause 33 brings into effect the new provisions contained in the schedule (Transfer for trial) to the Bill which amend the transfer for trial provisions which will be inserted in the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

The amendments contained in paragraphs 1 to 9 of the schedule are designed to improve the operational effectiveness of the transfer procedure and to deal with a number of points which were raised on the transfer provisions during the consultation process on the associated draft rules of court. The majority of these are of a straightforward technical nature: their effect will be to make the procedure more workable and efficient.

Interim solutions to these problems were identified when the draft rules of court were prepared. The Government have, however, decided that the more sensible course would be to defer implementation until

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it has been possible to amend the primary legislation. Once implemented, the transfer for trial procedure will replace committal hearings in magistrates' courts. It will remove the requirement for lengthy committal proceedings, ensuring that valuable witnesses are not required to give evidence twice and improving the efficiency of pre-trial case management in the magistrates' courts.

The amendment to Schedule 2 makes two minor repeals as a consequence of the new schedule. I commend them to the House.

The new clause after Clause 37, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh of Haringey and Lord Williams of Mostyn, would repeal the transfer provisions in favour of reforming the present committal system. I wonder whether I should stop at this point--

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No.

Baroness Blatch: In that case, I shall continue to speak to that amendment. The amendment envisages retaining the present system in its current hearing-based form, but limiting the evidence which may be considered at a full committal hearing to written evidence only, thereby sparing witnesses the potential ordeal of being cross-examined. In uncontested cases, it would also give magistrates the ability to commit an accused for Crown Court trial in his absence, at the request of his legal representative.

As the Committee will be aware, there has been widespread agreement that changes should be made to the present committal proceedings which act as a filter to stop weak cases from clogging up the system in the Crown Court. Reform was recommended in several reports, most recently the report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. Over 90 per cent. of committals are a "paper" exercise, taking up valuable court time and with no consideration of the evidence. The rest are very often little more than a dry-run for the Crown Court trial, used to test the evidence of the prosecution witnesses.

Prior to the introduction of the transfer provisions in last year's Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, considerable thought was given as to how reform of the committal system might best be achieved. As the Committee may recall, the arguments were exposed during the passage of that Act. I do not propose to set them out again in detail, but will confine my remarks to the specific points raised by the amendment.

Although the amendment achieves one of the main objectives of transfer for trial--the removal of the requirement on witnesses to give evidence twice, once at committal and again at Crown Court trial--it fails to offer the other benefits of the transfer system. Transfer will greatly improve the efficiency of the courts by removing the need for court-based hearings, and by introducing the discipline of time limits thereby giving the court greater control of the pre-trial process.

The amendment proposes that, where the defence does not agree that there is a case to answer, a hearing should be held for the purposes of considering written evidence only. That is similar to what is proposed under the transfer procedure save that, under that procedure,

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it is envisaged that hearings involving prosecution and defence representatives will be the exception--most cases will be dealt with entirely on paper. Under the amendment there would be a hearing in every such case attended by both the parties. The noble Lords' proposal would not therefore deliver the savings which we expect to flow from the transfer procedure. Nor would the process benefit from the discipline of time limits which comes with the transfer procedure.

In addition to improving the efficiency of pre-trial procedure, it is also anticipated that transfer will lead to considerable efficiency savings in court costs and legal aid, as well as in prosecution costs, prisoner escort services and probation service costs. Under the proposed amendment, any savings are likely to be marginal.

Although the noble Lords' amendment may seem inviting to some in that it appears on the face of it not to involve wide changes to existing legislation and practice, it does not tackle the inherent problems which lie at the heart of the existing committal system. It also leaves unanswered many detailed questions about the procedure which should apply for the submission and consideration of written evidence under their proposal. The more fundamental changes to the system envisaged by the transfer procedure have been developed after much debate and much consultation with practitioners and following the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice.

The Bill provides the opportunity to refine that procedure further. The Government's proposed amendments to the transfer provisions contained in the schedule to the Bill will ensure that the new system provides a genuinely effective and efficient alternative to the committal system. For the reasons that I have given, I hope that on reconsideration the noble Lords will not move their amendment in favour of the Government's amendments. I leave the matter for their consideration. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: In what she has just said, the Minister acknowledged that this is an extremely difficult problem, and one to which it is not easy to find an answer which will satisfy everyone. That is evidenced by the fact that the Government and the Home Office have been trying for a long time to find a formula which will deal with the problems of repetition, delay, and cost, and the imposition upon prosecution and defence which is involved in committal proceedings, and yet solve the problem of how to transfer trials from the magistrates' courts to the Crown Court without risking letting the guilty go free, which is one of our prime concerns in this matter.

I shall not press Amendment No. 135. I have listened carefully to what the Minister said about it. She acknowledged that it achieves some of the main purposes of the Government in seeking amendment to legislation. But it would not be surprising if there were differences between us since, after all, schemes to reform the transfer proceedings have been announced by the Government no fewer than three times, and delayed three times, because they could not be sure that they had it right. I suppose that we should be grateful that they now propose to put the provision into primary legislation.

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We all have the same objectives in this: we all want to ensure that there is no unnecessary possibility of guilty people escaping justice, and we are all looking to avoid unnecessary delays. We do not want to have people released without trial, not because they are not guilty but because of the inflexibility of the rules or because the time limits cannot be met. So we are agreed that the existing transfer system has to be abandoned and replaced by something better. However, I am not yet convinced that the Government's proposals achieve that. As I understand it, the prosecution will still have to serve notice on the defence within a statutory time limit. The reality is that the prosecution will have to do that or make up its minds to do that very much before the end of the time limit. That could lead to the CPS abandoning cases.

I am not going to use the opportunity, as I might, to expand upon the proportion of cases abandoned by the CPS. There are all sorts of very good reasons why the CPS should abandon cases--because of the probability of conviction and in the public interest. It should not be abandoning cases because of time limits or procedural difficulties. I expect that even with the amendments we will still have increased delays, an enforced wait, increased costs, and a degree of inflexibility which is unacceptable. We shall still have cases which are, to some extent, in limbo.

I do not say that our Amendment No. 135 solves all the problems, and I shall not be moving it when the time comes. The Minister will appreciate how difficult it is, when we have these amendments before Committee rather than in the original Bill, to consider as rationally as we would like the complicated issues which the Government have been considering for many months. So we shall have to hold our fire and, if necessary, come back on Report on the whole range of issues raised by the amendments.

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