Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the announcement made by the Home Secretary this morning about the mode of trial of either-way cases. We are given to understand that the decision was made on the basis of the report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice and the Narey Review of delays in the criminal justice system.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, identified a number of organisations which are absolutely against the idea. Perhaps I may add to the list. As well as the Law Society, the Bar Council, the Black Lawyers Association, Liberty, Justice, the Legal Action Group, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, have all expressed concern about the diminishing of rights.

The reality of the Government's proposal is that more than 18,000 defendants per year would lose their right to a jury trial. The Government's decision requires a number of clarifications. I do not object to the fact that the Home Secretary, when he was in Opposition, said that the reform was wrong, short-sighted and likely to prove ineffective. I am entitled to ask what factors have determined his change of heart. The bottom line advanced is that the measure could save millions of pounds. Again we are entitled to ask whether it is based simply on financial considerations or were matters of civil liberties and the rights of the individual established since 1855 taken into account.

The argument that no other country has a system similar to that in England and Wales where, in certain cases, defendants can elect to be tried by a jury, does not mean that it is right to remove that particular right. Scotland was cited by the Minister as an example of a country where there is no ability to elect as to trial and where the prosecution decides the venue. In Scotland defendants do not elect; similar cases are heard by a professional judge, in contrast to magistrates' courts in this country.

Is the Minister aware of the considerable concern expressed by representatives of ethnic minority communities? Research evidence indicates that black defendants get a worse chance in magistrates' courts than they do before juries. A higher proportion of black defendants elect for jury trial because they believe that they have a more reasonable chance of being acquitted in the Crown Court.

The argument is advanced that the change is designed to end the abuse of the system, which leads to delay, waste of resources and a prolonged wait for justice. The number of cases where defendants elect to go for jury

19 May 1999 : Column 361

trial has been falling for the past 10 years. It is not a growing problem. No one would argue that there are cases where the system is abused, but that does not mean that the right should be removed for others.

There are cases which affect the livelihood, respect and dignity of individuals. How would the new appeal system work in cases where the decision of a magistrates' court not to allow a trial by jury is contested? Will legal aid be available for such an appeal? Would not the appeal system simply create a new bureaucratic process which will diminish the aim of simplifying the justice system? What costs will be involved in such an exercise?

I have not been in the House as long as many noble and learned Lords on all sides, but I recollect that since 1974 a number of administrations have tried and dropped the idea because it failed to command support. It will be nice to know whether the Minister has revisited the earlier argument; if so, how has the situation changed?

My final concern has not been explained. It can no longer be guaranteed that a case will be heard by three magistrates sitting in a magistrates court. Many cases these days are heard by a single stipendiary magistrate. In a case heard by a jury there are at least 12 people to balance out any prejudices and reach a decision, which is not the case with one person.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am grateful for the responses of the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. Perhaps I may deal first with the last point of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. He pointed out that the question of Scotland was not a perfect analogy because those trying the cases in Scotland are legally qualified. He then rather spoilt the perfect symmetry of his approach by raising a serious question about the independence of the stipendiaries; he said it was not appropriate for people to be tried by a single stipendiary. But all stipendiaries in our jurisdiction are fully legally qualified as a necessary pre-condition of their appointment.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, will not mind me teasing him. He began by making one or two of the usual House of Commons points. The Question appeared on Tuesday's Order Paper and the Answer was given. It is an Answer simply of the Government's response to the consultative document. We have not got anywhere near a Bill and it seems to me that answering in such a way was appropriate. Subsequently, the Answer having been put down at 11.30, at 12.30 the Home Secretary was due to address the Police Federation--which is certainly a body with interest and expertise in this field. I see nothing inappropriate in the Home Secretary wishing to inform it of his current thinking. I stress, it is a response to consultation.

The noble Lord asked specific, more detailed questions about figures. The figures are still being worked on. I think that the savings may well be rather greater than he mentioned. It would be inappropriate for me to speculate on savings, but they are likely to be significant.

19 May 1999 : Column 362

I would not wish to overlook the serious problem-- I had intended to refer to it but the noble Lord, Lord Elton, with his invariable courtesy, has given me notice--of whether or not this new scheme of things, if it is approved in another place, would attack the very serious problem of remand prisoners awaiting trial. I visit prisons every week. A constant, recurring theme is how badly we treat remand prisoners; how long a time they wait for trial, normally in the Crown Court; and how their presence in the prison regime distorts the good work of rehabilitation, education and training on which the Prison Service should be focusing. Despite time limits, there are lengthy delays for some people awaiting trial at a Crown Court. If, as the figures demonstrate, a large number of people elect trial in the Crown Court only then to plead guilty, is it not fair to ask with an open mind why they elected trial in the first place? On the basis of evidence and experience, I have no doubt that many people elect trial in the Crown Court to put off the evil day. That is partly because they do not want to come to a finally concluded view on sentence. In many cases, it is an attempt to manipulate the system, hoping that the victims, complainants or witnesses will not bother to turn up or that their memories after so long a period--many months in many cases--will have faded. I have never found a satisfactory explanation for people electing to be tried in the Crown Court and, many months later, having made that expensive election, simply pleading guilty.

I am bound to say that when this proposal was originally floated there was considerable concern about it. I want to reiterate what has been built in by way of safeguards. First, the magistrates come to their conclusion, but they do so bearing mind certain indicative tests that will be provided for them. They have to listen to both sides and the representations made. Thereafter, if the proposal is accepted, there will be a right of appeal to the Crown Court judge who will be able to come to his own conclusion. I am not so dismal about the quality of the Crown Court judiciary as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, appears to be in thinking that they will not approach these matters with a fresh mind.

I am well aware of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, which have virtue and value. Certainly, representatives of some ethnic minority groups are deeply concerned. The noble Lord pointed out that representations have been made by the Law Society and, it was said, in an open-minded way, even by those belonging to my former profession. But even when I was chairman of the Bar I never believed that we had a monopoly on all virtue. Occasionally, when the poachers take over a bit of the gamekeeping, they recognise some of the poachers' devices.

It is true that some people opposed change. Many favoured it: the Magistrates' Association; the Association of Chief Police Officers; the Justices' Clerks' Society; the Crown Prosecution Service; Sir Iain Glidewell, who carried out what most people thought was a masterly review, extremely critical in many ways of the then experience of the Crown Prosecution Service; Customs and Excise; the Royal College of Psychiatrists; and a number of judges. I come not least--I deliberately mention him at the end in order to give him due regard--

19 May 1999 : Column 363

to the Lord Chief Justice. I do not think it can be seriously suggested in this House that the Lord Chief Justice has not been the most diligent, careful examiner of proposals for reform in the criminal justice system.

We hope that there will be savings, and not simply financial--although they are extremely important, particularly when resources are strained. But one has to bear in mind the effect of delay on witnesses. Delay pollutes the system. It alienates many people from the system. They are so disappointed, fundamentally and deeply hurt, by the delays that the Crown Court system sometimes inflicts upon them.

I repeat that this was a change in the law as recently as 1855. There is nothing fundamental about the alleged right which is claimed. It seems to me that if the magistrates approach their duties in the way that I have indicated, subject to the right of appeal to the Crown Court on venue, subject to the further automatic right which your Lordships know exists for appeal to the Crown Court against conviction and/or sentence, those are reasonable safeguards.

I believe that I have answered the questions put to me. I should repeat, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that this proposal is not based simply on finance. When one addresses pressure in the system and the question of resources and consequences, one should not forget victims, complainants and witnesses. The Crown Court system is significantly more expensive than the magistracy--not simply because members of the magistracy are volunteers and Crown Court judges are paid. Given the expense of running a Crown Court trial with jurors--and alternates in effect, in case of illness on the first day--and the whole panoply of running the system, one is entitled to ask in many cases, particularly when the election is resiled from, whether we have got matters right. I do not believe that we have. In due time, when the Bill comes before the House, I hope that it will be given favourable scrutiny--proper, but open-minded scrutiny.

7.4 p.m.

Lord Renton: My Lords, I assume that primary legislation will be needed to implement these proposals. When will it be introduced?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page