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Vera Baird: May I make it clear, first, that I have not proposed an amendment either now or in Committee and, secondly, that I made the suggestion in July or thereabouts, so there has been ample time for anyone else to table an amendment along those lines if they wanted to do so? It is hardly fair to blame the Minister for the fact that the Opposition did not table an amendment.
Mr. Heath: We are always careful not to tread on each other's toes by taking amendments that other hon. Members suggested. It is not at all good parliamentary procedure. Let us return to the case in point. We are seeking to address the issue that the Government have put before us, which is
Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I feel obliged to point out, in respect of comments about pinching other people's amendments, that it was well established in Committee that the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) was extremely sensitive on that topic, when there was any suggestion that anybody might be running with an amendment that she was interested in.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I wanted to intervene on his opening remarks, but events overtook me. I bemoan the fact that we do not have time to debate the Bill. As this may be my only opportunity, may I say how disappointed I am that we could not debate the two groups of amendments on domestic violence and restraining orders, especially those on domestic violence, which contain the precious
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provisions on the domestic violence advocacy service? I have therefore been even more alarmed at the sparsity
There is a serious concern about what is to some extent an anodyne suggestion about fitness to plead. Somewhere deep within the recesses of the Home Office, there is a Department whose sole interest and mission is to find ways to reduce access to jury trial. Every single Home Office Bill that comes before us nibbles away a little bit more at the concept of recourse to jury trial in this country. Some hon. Members in all parts of the House, but particularly on the Opposition Benches, believe that jury trial has stood us well over the centuries and we wish to protect it. We have had to fight off such depredations time and again.
It may be that economic issues are involved and that it will be cheaper to proceed as the Government propose. It may be that the measure will make little difference in most cases, but there will be instances in which it does make a difference. Where there is dispute, as the hon. and learned Member for Redcar said in her suggestion that fell short of an amendment, it is appropriate that the case should be referred to a jury for the protection of the defendant and in the interests of justice.
As the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said in what I thought was a very apposite contribution, the point is that we are not talking simply about the initial decision on fitness to plead in terms of the conduct of the criminal trial; we are talking about everything that flows from that in the future determination of what will happen to the individual concerned. That could, in effect, involve incarceration, albeit in the context of mental health treatment, and that could mean sine die if it happens. That is an important issue, and I believe that it is appropriate for a jury to be involved, which is the situation at the moment.
If we are to make this change, the Government must produce a very cogent reason as to why it is essential for us to do so. We have not heard that argument in Committee, on Second Reading or in the debates in another place. Indeed, those who were exercised about the issue in another place felt that the points that they were raising were simply not addressed by the Minister who responded to the debate.
The only assumption that we can make is that the provisions are part of the war of attrition against the process of jury trial that this Government have for some reason chosen to wage. That is not good enough reason. On the contrary, it is good enough reason in itself for us in this House to say no. Until and unless the Government produce arguments that what is proposed will not only be cheaper, but will improve the quality of
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justice in our courts, I think that we are entitled to take not just a sceptical attitude, but a hostile one, to something that is not of proven value.
When the Minister responds, I hope that he will do one of two things. He should either provide a definitive argument as to why the Government must have the measure at this time and what the benefits arewe have yet to hear such an argumentor say "No, we were clearly mistaken; there are better ways of doing this. The debate that we have heard has perhaps provided some signposts as to where that eventual resolution may come, and although we do not like making announcements at the end of proceedings in the later stages of a Bill's passage in the House of Commons, we will nevertheless give the matter careful consideration and table an appropriate amendment in another place, even at this late stage in the proceedings, and before the Bill comes back." That seems to me to be the right way of proceeding, and I hope that it is an avenue that he will consider.
Mrs. Gillan: It would be most appropriate if the Government were to agree to our requests and make the amendments in another place, where the noble Baroness Scotland of Asthal deployed the argument that to convene juries in such instances would be a waste of time and resources, which is not an adequate basis from which to advance the proposals.
Mr. Heath: The worst possible argument against having a jury in a trial is that it is a waste of time and resources. Those of us who are interested in the quality of justice and the process of our courts say that juries are not a waste of time and resources, but the bedrock on which the British system of justice is based, and we should not resile from that position.
Mr. Malins : As always, I declare an interest: I sit as a recorder of the Crown court and as a part-time district judge in the magistrates courts. My hon. Friends on the Front Bench have done the House a service by tabling the amendment, which addresses the important issue of fitness to plead. I am bound to say that the issue has not arisen very oftenif at allin my experience of magistrates courts. Of course, certain cases may only be tried summarily, so one can envisage a situation in which it might arise, but I have not come across it in some 10 years of part-time judicial sitting. That is not to say that mental health issues do not arise in those courtsthey dobut I have not come across the issue of fitness to plead. I imagine that it occurs fairly infrequently in the Crown court and, as was said earlier, I imagine that in many such instances the Crown and the defence agree on the proper way forward.
When one deals with fitness to plead, one inevitably deals with a defendant who is, for one reason or another, vulnerable and who may need more protection than a less vulnerable defendant. So far as such a vulnerable defendant is concerned, the consequences of a finding and a disposal may be severe, which is a point that was made earlier in the debate. Such individuals may be detained for almost indefinite periods in very difficult situations, which is the point that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) made very well in his intervention a moment ago.
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Vera Baird: I have not actively practised for some little time, but is it right that if a judge decides that someone is unfit to plead, they can automatically send them away? I think not. In that case, a second process is undergone to establish whether that person has committed the alleged acts that would form the crime, if they were not unfit to plead. A jury must hear the second stage, which it is not proposed to change.
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