Select Committee on Constitution Seventh Report

Criminal Justice Bill

1.  A bill has been introduced into this House to make provision about criminal justice (including the powers and duties of the police) and about dealing with offenders; to amend the law relating to jury service; to amend Chapter 1 of Part 1 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and Part 5 of the Police Act 1997; and for connected purposes. The Criminal Justice Bill was brought from the House of Commons on 21st May (HL Bill 69), and received its second reading in the House of Lords on 16th June.

2.  The Bill proposes to make changes relating to the conduct of trials on indictment, including provision for (a) the holding of certain trials before a judge alone; (b) supersession of the common law rule against double jeopardy; and (c) the admission of evidence relating to an accused's bad character. We considered that the bill raised matters of constitutional significance, particularly in respect of the law on trial by jury and in respect of the composition and functions of the proposed Sentencing Guidelines Council.

3.  With respect to the law on trial by jury, we noted that this had already been reported on, both by the Home Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons,[1] and by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.[2] We therefore considered that no further action was called for on our part. As regards the composition and functions of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, we wrote to the Home Secretary to seek further information on the proposals and are grateful for his reply. Our correspondence is appended.

4.  We also wrote, in similar terms, to seek the views of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, of Professor Andrew Ashworth, Vinerian Professor of English Law at the University of Oxford, and of Dr David Thomas Q.C. at the University of Cambridge. We are grateful to them for their full and prompt replies, which are also appended.

5.  We consider that this correspondence will be of assistance to the House in its consideration of the proposed Sentencing Guidelines Council. There is however a specific matter to which we wish to draw particular attention. With the exception of the Home Secretary, our correspondents were concerned by the proposal that a serving civil servant should act as a member of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. Professor Ashworth had "grave misgivings" about the proposal; Dr Thomas noted that a civil servant "would be constitutionally bound to convey and to reflect the views of his minister"; and Lord Woolf considered it "wrong, as a matter of principle, for members of the civil service…to be on the Council." The Lord Chief Justice further noted that, even if the actual independence of such a civil servant was assured, there would still remain the perception that such a person would not be independent.

6.  In the light of these opinions, we draw particular attention to our concern at the proposal that a serving civil servant should act as a member of the Sentencing Guidelines Council. We note also Dr Thomas' alternative proposal that a recently retired civil servant would be familiar with the civil service perspective, but would no longer be obliged to express the departmental or ministerial view.

7.  We draw this specific matter to the attention of the House as raising a question of principle about a principal part of the constitution.

1   2nd Report, Session 2002-03 (HC 83). Back

2   First Report, Session 2002-03 (HL Paper 24; HC 191); 2nd Report, Session 2002-03 (HL Paper 40; HC 374); 7th Report, Session 2002-03 (HL Paper 74; HC 547); and 11th Report, Session 2002-03 (HL Paper 118; HC 724). Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003