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Perhaps I may conclude my remarks. The promoters of this Bill cannot expect any support from the serried ranks of barristers, apart from some notable exceptions among my noble friends. But then, as we have been told repeatedly during these discussions, the legal profession has not, in the past, been noted for its eager acceptance of change. So it is down to the rest of us to remove that highly questionable anomaly as we enter the 21st century and roundly defeat these amendments this afternoon.
The majority of cases are tried in the magistrates' courts, as we have heard. Some criminal cases must be tried locally. Those to which I wish to draw attention are the quite serious offences for the victim which would be tried in the lower courts--some assaults, taking without consent high-value cars, and serious drinking and driving offences, as we heard from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice. Those are not minor offences and they may have a very serious effect on the reputation of the accused if he is convicted. For example, a police officer who is charged with a drink-driving offence would lose his job, and quite rightly so. David Beckham recently lost his driving licence. That was extremely serious for him. Of course, it was restored to him on appeal. Had the policeman accused of careless driving in the accident involving Sheena McDonald been convicted, that would have had serious consequences for him. So let us not run away with the idea that minor offences only are dealt with in the lower courts.
This Bill is concerned with those middle-ranking offences, either-way offences. We have heard examples of a bar of chocolate valued at £1 or, indeed, a fraud involving several thousands of pounds from a pension fund. The idea that there is some absolute principle that both cases must be dealt with in the same way because they are offences against Section 1 of the Theft Act in my view is fanciful.
I have not changed my mind. I have always been of the view that there was a good case for reducing the right to trial by jury in those either-way cases. We provide a justice system as a service for the victims of crime. If we focus on victims and on the witnesses--the innocent parties--involved in the criminal justice system, then we shall be persuaded of the correctness of these provisions.
Certainly it is in the interests of victims to speed up justice. I declare an interest as a patron of the North East Victims Association and also as a patron of Kidscape, the children's charity which looks after the interests of abused children.
To castigate these modest proposals as a fundamental attack on civil liberties is totally wrong. Some of the misinformation I have heard on this subject would have done justice to Goebbels. Opponents of these moderate measures are chanting slogans such as, "Jury trial is good but magistrates' trial is bad", which are totally erroneous. Let us kill that fallacy from the outset. The magistrates' system has been with us for some 700 years. As far as I am aware there has been no case before the European Court alleging that it is not a fair tribunal. There is certainly no lack of possible cases because 1.8 million cases are heard annually before magistrates' courts. Only a small proportion of those exercise the right to a rehearing in the Crown Court.
The jury as we know it today does not go back to Magna Carta. It was handed down by that ancient and much-loved British leader Edward Heath in 1972. It was then that the ancient property qualification for sitting on a jury was abolished so that it no longer confined those eligible to sit on a jury to one-quarter of the population who held land above a certain value. Even the modern jury is not a cross-section of society. For example, it is unlikely to include the judiciary, lawyers, CPS staff, court staff, prison staff, police staff, forensic scientists, the clergy, Members and staff of both Houses of Parliament, devolved assemblies as in Wales, members of the Armed Forces, doctors, dentists, nurses, midwives, vets and chemists. All those are examples of good citizens who are either ineligible or may be excused from sitting on a jury as of right. By contrast, a large number of criminal convictions is no bar in many cases.
The jury does have potential disadvantages. Findings of fact cannot be appealed by the Crown, however perverse. Juries never give reasons for their decisions, unlike magistrates. Rulings in favour of the accused, however wrong in law, cannot be appealed by the prosecution. I remind the Committee that it was a jury of his peers who acquitted O. J. Simpson of murder.
Magistrates' courts are doubtless far from perfect. Every sensible Member of this Committee would agree with that. But at least the magistrates are checked for good character and undergo initial training and refresher courses. It is an illusion that magistrates are prosecution-minded. It is a myth; an absurd calumny that no objective observer sitting in a court would conceivably support. Magistrates are justice minded.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I can ask him a simple question. He says that the jury system has disadvantages; he took some pains to explain that. But does he accept that the people of this country trust the juries? Does he accept the point made by his noble friend Lady Mallalieu that it is the public perception of this matter which is of crucial consequence?
Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: I agree; that is an important point. The people of this country trust the justice system. To divide it, as the amendment does, and suggest that the magistrates do not provide justice is a dangerous step when 95 per cent of all defendants are dealt with in magistrates' courts.
There is no evidence, as we will hear from the Attorney-General, that there is any discrimination against black defendants. There has been Home Office research which satisfies people on this side of the Chamber of that fact. Often statistics are used in this House rather like a drunk uses a lamp post--more for support than illumination--and I will not go into the range of statistics on the criminal justice system. But for far too long the system has been skewed in favour of guilty defendants, career criminals and repeat offenders and against victims, their relatives, future victims and the law-abiding public.
It is an interesting fact that in the Crown Court there is a risk of receiving a sentence two-and-a-half times longer than in the magistrates' court. That makes one wonder why defendants elect for trial by jury. There must be some other reason. That reason, in my experience as a police officer, is that the longer they can delay the trial, the more likely it is that elderly witnesses will forget evidence or be frightened to give evidence, and it gives them more opportunity to intimidate witnesses. It is not unheard of for jury members to be intimidated. That is something we should certainly bear in mind; juries are "got at".
The truth is that this was a recommendation of the Royal Commission in 1993, with the amendment that there is now a right of appeal, which satisfies most of us that it will provide justice. It is not the magistrates who decide. It can be the Crown Court in the end. It prevents the accused from dictating the venue, as in Scotland and in most other democratic countries. Sixty per cent of defendants, once they arrive at the Crown Court, plead guilty--an absurd waste of money in my judgment. And it is 17 times cheaper to try a case in the magistrates' court.
This provision is backed by the whole of the police service: the Lord Chief Justice supports it, as does the Magistrates' Association and Customs and Excise. Sir Iain Glidewell, who reviewed the CPS, was in little doubt that the right to elect trial was being abused. In my judgment this measure is a sensible, moderate
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