Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I am embarrassed to admit that the more I listened to the debate, the more I felt that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire had a point. Perhaps inadvertently, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) has one as well. I am not a lawyer, so I have greater difficulty understanding such matters. However, if the summons and notice were served together, the individual would not get any subsequent notice of a trial date. Such notice would be given only at the time that the penalty and warning notices were served.

The hon. Member for Reigate talked about such notices being used in cases of public order problems. I tried to envisage what would have happened during the 1980s miners' strike if such powers had been available. A number of miners were caught up in what were alleged to be public order offences, and were subsequently successful in appealing those cases. In such states of confusion, where the police are being forced to deal with large numbers of people, there is clear disorder and it is reasonable to say that people are frightened, the notices might not be issued properly. That could happen as a result of pure error rather than any deliberate act.

It would also be possible for someone deliberately to fail to issue proper notices. If we were being cynical or pursuing conspiracy theories, clause 4(5)(a) and (b) could appear to mean that people could be told that they were being prosecuted and paying one and a half times the penalty without necessarily knowing that they had received the penalty or warning notice in the first place. I do not think that that is the intention. The idea is to speed up the process with penalty notices and to use the warning notices to prevent the duplication of paperwork when someone requests a trial.

Listening to the debate and re-reading the documents, I notice that the explanatory notes and the clause do not entirely tally. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary might like to reconsider the wording of the clause, so that the law carries out the intention with which most hon. Members agree, and to prevent any misapplication of the legislation that might result from the current wording.

Mr. Lock: I shall deal first with the points raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. In some parts of the country, there is indeed considerable physical distance between people's homes and their local magistrates court. There is devolved justice in the UK, so it is for the magistrates courts committees to decide how best to use their resources to provide local justice. I know that the Liberal Democrats are very keen on the delegation of power, and on locally taken decisions being respected by the centre, rather than the centre always thinking that it knows best. Decisions about the precise location of magistrates courts are entirely a matter for the committees, because power was devolved to them by an Act of Parliament passed by the official Opposition when they were in power.

Mr. Hawkins: Will the Parliamentary Secretary give way?

Mr. Lock: No. I will give way in a moment, but first I want to answer the point.

There is a serious point that defendants who have been caught—I appreciate that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey would never be caught, because he insists that he would run away—

Mr. Hawkins: On a point of order, Mr. Gale. Is it in order for a Minister to refer to the policy of the official Opposition and then decline to accept an intervention from an Opposition Front Bencher?

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that Ministers are entirely responsible for their conduct and words in the debate. If he wishes to catch my eye once the Parliamentary Secretary has sat down, he may be able to do so.

Mr. Lock: I was not raising a question about the official Opposition's policy, but pointing out that magistrates courts committees have jurisdiction over where their own courts are located, and that they exercise that under an Act passed under the previous Government.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey made a good point. Where long distances are involved, people caught for relatively minor public order offences, such as drunkenness, are in a better position if fixed penalty notices are served on them, because they then have the option of avoiding a long trip to the magistrates court. They can dispose of the matter by simply paying a fine rather than turning up in court and pleading guilty. They will still have the opportunity of contesting the matter in the magistrates court, as at present, if they so wish. The clause creates no new offences but provides a mechanism for dealing with existing offences that have been committed. It assists people in rural areas whose local court is a considerable distance away, because it gives them the option of having the matter disposed of without going to court.

Mr. Hughes: That rebuttal is superficially persuasive but in fact mischievous. Someone who lives next to Camberwell magistrates court, and who can get there easily, has an advantage that someone who lives 60 miles from the magistrates court at Lampeter—or at Dolgellau, as it now is—does not have. I think that even the Parliamentary Secretary might be persuaded that that is unfair justice.

Mr. Lock: It is perfectly true that those of us who live in rural areas and are far from public and private major services have to travel further for a whole range of things. There are enormous benefits to living in the countryside, but some downsides as well. One downside is that longer trips might be necessary to access all public and private major services. I accept that. The point that the hon. Gentleman makes is part of a much wider debate, and I hope that the rural White Paper that was published last year results in significant improvements in that situation.

11 am

Mr. Hawkins: The Parliamentary Secretary must not be allowed to get away with his specious suggestion that the Government are carrying on the previous Government's policy of allowing magistrates courts committees to make unfettered decisions about courts. The Government have imposed huge bureaucratic pressure and all the costs of the Human Rights Act 1998 on magistrates courts committees, so the closure of those courts throughout the country is directly the Government's fault.

Mr. Lock: I am attempting to deal with the consequences of fixed penalty notices and in particular to respond to the debate on clause 7. The hon. Gentleman has made that point on a number of occasions. The Committee will not be assisted by endless arguments on it.

I understand the valid concern of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire that if subsection (7) is not removed, someone who asserts that they did not receive the warning notice will be unable to raise that as a defence in respect of the proceedings that have taken place, presumably in his absence. I assure him that as a matter of construction—my officials will assist me if this is incorrect—if a defendant says that he did not get the warning notice, even with subsection (7) in the Bill, the court has full discretion to make a finding of fact on that assertion. The court will decide either that he received the warning notice, in which case he was properly served in exactly the same way as if a summons had been served and he had not responded to it, or that he did not receive the warning notice. In that case, clause 7 will not come into play because, as he was not served with a warning notice, the procedure will not have been activated. He would be in exactly the same position as any other person who had not received a summons for a hearing and would therefore be able to swear a statutory declaration under section 14 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.

Assuming that procedure, the fine is likely to be the way in which the matter first comes to the defendant's attention. If he was served with a warning notice but made a genuine mistake because he did not know that it was a warning notice, even though he has now been properly served, the court could set aside the fine. That would address the right hon. and learned Gentleman's concern. Under clause 12(5), the court has total jurisdiction to set aside a fine in the interests of justice. There is that wider discretion.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: The Parliamentary Secretary 's argument seems to be that it would be as good to leave out subsection (7) as to leave it in. I urge that it be left out. What exactly does section 14 of the 1980 Act say?

Mr. Lock: Section 14 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 says:

    ``Where a summons has been issued under section 1 above and a magistrates' court has begun to try the information to which the summons relates, then, if—

    (a) the accused, at any time during or after the trial, makes a statutory declaration that he did not know of the summons or the proceedings until a date specified in the declaration, being a date after the court has begun to try the information; and

    (b) within 21 days of that date the declaration is served on the clerks to the justices,

    without prejudice to the validity of the information, the summons and all subsequent proceedings shall be void.''

Further subsections develop that.

The effect is that an individual who finds out after the event that a trial has taken place in his absence about which he was not served with a summons and was therefore ignorant and so could not contest it, can invoke a procedure whereby the proceedings that took place without his knowledge are declared void. The court can then take whatever course is appropriate.

A warning notice given under clause 7(7) is the same as a summons saying when a trial that has been requested will take place. If the person is not given a warning notice, the procedure under clause 7 does not apply. However, clause 7(7) is necessary so that, in a case where a warning notice has been issued stating where the proceedings are to be tried, if election for trial is made, the court need not serve a further notice on the defendant saying for a second time where the matter is to be tried.

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