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Earl Russell: My Lords, I wonder whether I might ask the noble Viscount to accept the assurance given by the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, that those of us who support this amendment do not intend

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any criticism of the lay magistracy. Those words were spoken for the overwhelming majority of those involved.

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Earl for that interruption, made in his usual gracious and graceful manner. Of course I accept what he has said but, on reading some of the comments that have been made in the media as well as certain remarks recorded during the passage of the mark 1 Bill, there appeared to be some feeling about that.

Perhaps I may dispel one further myth. We have been told repeatedly that magistrates take advice from their clerks behind closed doors and, after coming to a decision, do not elaborate on how they got there. That did not happen in any court in which I have sat in recent years. Furthermore, a practice direction from the Lord Chief Justice in 1981 has effectively blocked this bolthole. If that were not assurance enough, Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights will make that become even more relevant after next week. I beg noble Lords not to trot out once again that old canard. I cannot stop myself from thinking that if a similar discipline were to be required of juries and the steps by which they arrived at their verdicts were to be made public, there would be red faces and wig tearing all round in the legal profession, as well as throughout the country as a whole.

For a variety of reasons I commend this Bill to the House. I am almost tempted to refer to it in the terms of a winegrower's recommendation. It is a robust, no-nonsense Bill which will stand the passage of time and which should be laid down without delay.

I hope that I will not be thought presumptuous on this, but to noble Lords behind the Government Front Bench I say: be of good cheer, despite the forces of reaction ranged against you. To noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches--with whom in related matters I often find myself in agreement--I say that I respect their opinions on this matter, which I believe to be wrong but which at the least have been expressed consistently. To noble Lords on the Conservative Benches, I can only express--I am trying to find the right word--polite incredulity. I hope that they have not allowed the frenzied atmosphere of the spill-over period unduly to cloud their judgment.

Unusually for the conventions of this House, the Bill is to be divided upon at Second Reading. If that is the case, I hope that there are sufficient numbers of noble Lords to see the Bill for what it is--a long overdue attempt to correct an anomaly and a scandal--and therefore resolutely to support it, as I shall.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, unlike almost all previous speakers, I do not have the advantage of being a lawyer or of being a magistrate. My experience is limited to two terms of learning about law at Oxford and of being successfully defended by the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, in an indefensible case before a stipendiary magistrate. That has given me a great respect for the process, as well as for the judgment and expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson.

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It is no offence to magistrates to describe summary proceedings as "done quickly and without formality", because that is the dictionary definition of such proceedings. The fact that that is not always the case in magistrates' courts trials is one of the main reasons for opposing the Bill. By imposing a heavy caseload on magistrates' courts, the Bill goes against the very concept of summary justice.

Whatever the arguments of justice and tradition which support the continuation of a right to jury trial--a right which, I understand, actually pre-dates Magna Carta--my party, the Green Party, is always more concerned with the realities of life. If enormous savings were to be made as regards time or money, then it should possibly be considered--although those are not the most important considerations in the administration of justice. However, as the debate continues, it has become increasingly clear that no such savings will be made.

Previous reforms have improved the situation. Any temptation to "manipulate the system" has been more or less eliminated. That has had the effect of reducing the number of cases going to the Crown Court from more than 30,000 to around 18,000, a spectacular reduction of 50 per cent.

The savings in time and money are so small as to make only a minor improvement in the criminal justice budget. Is it really worth the sacrifice of principle which is involved? Is it, as some have said and as has been hinted at by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, an attempt to bring the English criminal justice system closer to that which prevails on the Continent? Is it because the inability of juries to provide explanations makes it harder to accommodate their decisions within the European Convention on Human Rights? Such an approach would be misguided. Legal hegemony is not an essential part of the European vision. Harmonisation of legal procedures is not a key objective for Europe. On the contrary, it is being realised at last that diversity is a strength and not a weakness.

My respect for the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, has not diminished in the slightest, but a conversation conducted immediately in front of me does rather lengthen the delivery of my speech, which no one would want--not even myself.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, more important, is the Bill really an improvement to the system at all? To say that a magistrates' court trial is less fair than a jury trial is not to make a criticism of the magistrates but is based on an inherent flaw in summary trials; namely, that there is no independent arbiter or judge to decide what evidence is or is not admissible so that such matters as previous convictions, an irrelevant but prejudicial background, improperly adduced parts of an interview and so forth may have to be considered, even if only to decide that they should not be taken into account.

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Decisions of law are taken on the advice of court clerks, who may or may not be professionally qualified and certainly do not have the training and experience of Crown Court judges. It would not be entirely surprising if either stipendiary or lay magistrates occasionally became "case hardened" and it is not too outrageous to say that summary trials--as the name suggests--are not as full a form of justice as jury trials.

On Sunday, the Home Secretary suggested that it was to the benefit of victims that matters were dealt with by magistrates because it meant that matters were tried sooner. In fact, on average, two-day cases are brought to trial in the Crown Court within five weeks of committal, whereas the average delay in contested cases in magistrates' courts is 21 weeks.

There is one final practical point against the proposed changes--that is, that the Crown Courts are designed to deal with trials whereas the magistrates' courts are not. The bulk of the business of magistrates' courts is taking pleas, sentencing and processing, and of course nearly all aspects of motoring offences. Any case which lasts longer than a day causes re-listing problems because, as has been said, it is always difficult to find a date when the same three magistrates are available unless the time estimate has been correctly predicted.

The hustle and bustle of a modern magistrates' court is not entirely conducive to a trial setting. For example, there are no witness support facilities and already a distinct lack of consultation rooms. On the other hand, the Crown Court has all of these things and the logistical expertise and experienced personnel to handle all the complexities of a reasonable justice system, with all that that entails, including variable timescales.

As the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said, the Bill goes against the grain of this country. That matter should be borne carefully in mind as we decide how to vote. I also bear in mind that the only two speeches made in defence of the Bill--the first by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, and the other by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby--relied largely on the argument that because we do not necessarily give some people the right in some cases we should take it away from other people in other cases. That seems to me a bad argument. It is with considerable enthusiasm that I shall go into the Lobby in favour of the amendment.

7.42 p.m.

Lord Brennan: My Lords, an occasion for a debate such as this presents an almost irresistible opportunity to my barrister colleagues to make resounding jury speeches. I propose to decline that temptation because it has led some of them, in their forensic enthusiasm, to assign motives and strategies to the Government--and to the Home Office in particular--which I completely reject.

This Government and the Home Office have undertaken considerable reform of our criminal justice system: greater protection for vulnerable witnesses;

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more imaginative and, where necessary, tougher sentencing; and, recently, assisting offenders not to reoffend by programmes such as "Custody to Work". All these are welcome. They are welcome because they are all reforms necessary in the public interest. But this Bill to abolish the right to elect trial by jury in either way offences is a step too far.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, one of our most considered and profound commentators on our constitution and on liberty, has said:

    "The jury system is an integral and indispensable part of our constitutional arrangements...Only the most compelling grounds of public interest could ever justify the abandonment of trial by jury in any area".

With that in mind, I ask three questions about this Bill. Can it now be said that there is such compelling evidence? Is this Bill the subject of careful research and convincing data? Will it give the public confidence that the criminal justice system will be the better for it? I shall seek to answer those three questions by addressing your Lordships to four considerations, which I would describe as democratic and not reactionary considerations. Although I was chairman of the Bar last year, none of them represents lawyers' interests.

The first consideration is the role of the juror. Citizens occasionally act as electors and so participate in the life of this Parliament and of local authorities. As taxpayers, our citizens have a constant and often lively interest in the actions of government but little or no control over that government. But, above all, in our criminal justice system, when they act as jurors, our citizens fulfil a vital role--they become the judges of their fellow citizens. They do so because our society believes, first, that judgment by one's peers is fair justice; and, secondly, that judgment in significant criminal cases should be by a jury of the people and not by magistrates or judges. As my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale said in a previous debate:

    "The jury is a microcosm of a democratic society".--[Official Report, 2/12/99; col. 968.]

With this Bill, as I calculate it, 85,000 fewer people will act as jurors than presently do so. In times when people are ever more questioning of government and Parliament, and are ever more concerned about their own lack of involvement in public processes, can it really be said that public confidence in our criminal justice system will be increased by reducing the involvement of the citizen as the juror in this system? I think not.

The second consideration is the effect of this Bill on ethnic minorities. Public confidence in the criminal justice system should embrace all the community, including ethnic minorities. As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, reminded us in the previous debate, the late and distinguished Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, was right when he said that,

    "Race issues go to the heart of our system of justice which demands that all are treated as equals before the law. It is therefore a matter of the gravest concern if members of the ethnic minorities feel that they are discriminated against by the criminal justice system, more so if their fears are borne out in reality".

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I do not question the integrity or competence of the magistracy. I do listen to what those in ethnic minority communities say. There has been and will be much debate about the statistics as to whether such minorities are discriminated against in the magistrates' courts and in our police system. Professor Bridges and his team at the University of Warwick have produced conclusions at odds with the Home Office statistics referred to by my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General. Neither report can claim to be conclusive. What is clear is that no one in this House can say with confidence that there is no discrimination against ethnic minorities, whether by over-charging, more severe penalties, or discrimination by the police and magistrates, albeit institutional rather than intentional.

As was pointed out by Lord Taylor, a vital question is whether ethnic minorities feel that there is such discrimination against them. The evidence that they do is overwhelming. Nearly 50 per cent of all ethnic minority defendants who have the right, elect trial by jury; 90 per cent of Professor Bridges' cohort of ethnic minority defendants say that they will receive a fairer trial before a jury. Right or wrong, that is what they feel. And they are not just defendants, are they? They are the sons, daughters, husbands or wives of black people in a responsible ethnic minority community whose feelings we should respect.

The Home Secretary showed considerable foresight after the Lawrence inquiry in setting up the working group that he chairs. Its purpose is to implement the Macpherson recommendations, and in particular to make sure that patterns of discrimination are not sustained, especially in our justice system. I do not know of any--I repeat, any--representative of any ethnic minority in this country who supports the Bill. On the contrary, ethnic minorities want the right to elect trial by jury. It is no reassurance to that community to tell them that their fears are based on statistical misconceptions. The Bill will undermine their confidence in the criminal justice system. Such a result should not be accepted.

Thirdly, is the Bill constitutionally appropriate? That consideration is at the heart of the democratic debate in which we are engaged. When similar changes were introduced previously, they were decided by Parliament. A democratic vote determined who would and who would not have the right to elect for trial by jury. This Bill gives that decision to magistrates and judges. It forbids them to consider the circumstances of the offender; it limits their discretion. Surely it will lead to inconsistency, and that will lead to injustice. For my part, I prefer my liberty to be dictated by a vote of this Parliament rather than by the decision of a particular group of magistrates, no matter how well intentioned.

The fourth consideration is whether the Bill is necessary now. At the beginning of his remarks, my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General said that the resources of a Crown Court are limited and that they must be properly directed. I entirely agree. That no doubt explains why the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor appointed Lord Justice Auld to

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carry out his review. I am sure that it is intended, if it can, to produce savings, such as those identified by the National Audit Office only a month or two ago: £20 million could be saved simply by improving the administration of our criminal justice system--£20 million! How much more will Lord Justice Auld identify for saving? If such savings are available, the right to trial by jury should be the last, and not the first, of our rights which are endangered in the cause of economy.

When Auld delivers his conclusions, that will be the beginning of the debate, not the end. We in this House inevitably assume that we--the lawyers, the professionals--know everything that there is to be known about what the public want from the criminal justice system. We have no idea. That is why, last year, the Bar Council promoted, at its own expense, a project by the Institute for Public Policy Research into what the public think about, and what they want from, our criminal justice system. The Home Secretary welcomed it and it is now being progressed. That debate is necessary. Before I take away, as a voter in this House, the rights of any citizen in matters as grave as this, I should like to know what those citizens think. The debate is starting, not ending.

In closing, I remind myself that I am a professional and a personal friend of my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General. I have thought most carefully about whether these four democratic considerations could properly be castigated with the intellectual sobriquet, "totemic beliefs". I sincerely hope that he will not so treat them. They are meant to be reasoned, democratic arguments against the Bill.

So I answer the three questions that I posed. First, there is no well researched and convincing data that justifies the abolition of the right to elect trial by jury. Secondly, the public do not think that the Bill is necessary. I know of no evidence that there is any public desire for it. Lastly, and most importantly, the Bill runs the risk of damaging public confidence in the role of the jury in our criminal justice system.

I therefore conclude that there is not the compelling evidence which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, thought vital. I, like the Home Secretary who reportedly said this, feel anxiety in relation to the Bill. My noble and learned friend the Attorney-General was generous enough to say that it was a debate on an issue on which there could be genuine disagreement. My anxiety leads me to disagree with the Home Secretary. Therefore, with regret, yet with resolve, I come to the conclusion that I cannot support the Bill.

7.56 p.m.

Lord Windlesham: My Lords, the speech to which we have just listened was not only notable, but was courageous for a recently appointed recruit to the Government Benches. I remember the letter written by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, in his capacity as chairman of the Bar Council before he took his seat in this House, which was circulated to all Members of the House of Commons and to selected Peers at the time of the Queen's Speech at the start of this Session. It was

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highly critical of the proposals regarding jury trial that were included in the Queen's Speech. The proposals to limit access to jury trial in the manner indicated in the Bill are part of the Government's presentational imperative. They are encapsulated in the phrase, "tough on crime".

The Queen's Speech contained a package of "tough on crime" measures, of which the restriction on jury trial was one. It had already been previewed by the Home Secretary to the somewhat unpromising audience of the Police Federation. I say that in the knowledge that I am to be followed shortly by an acknowledged spokesman for the police, the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie. No doubt the Home Secretary chose that audience because of the nature of what he was about to reveal.

I believe we can all agree that limiting access to jury trial is regarded by Ministers as fitting in with the presentational imperative that drives so much government policy. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, will remember that loss of social security benefit for offenders alleged to have failed to comply with the terms of a community order was another item. There were four others, making six in all. Fortunately, through the efforts of the noble Baroness and others, as well as the willingness of the Government to meet us halfway, the loss of benefit proposals were subsequently modified following opposition in this House.

Since the original mode of trial Bill was withdrawn after the defeat in this House by nearly 100 votes earlier this year, Ministers have made further amendments. I say to them with a sense of sympathy that they must despair at the consequences of those changes, some of which, as the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General pointed out, were intended to meet concerns expressed in this House and outside. Not only did the changes fail to placate their critics in the House of Commons, including many on the Government's own side, but they also jeopardised the backing of the two most influential sources of support claimed for the original measure.

The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, has already pointed out that while the main reservation expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, (the Lord Chief Justice at the time) was met by the provision of a right of appeal for any defendant denied trial by jury for an offence triable either way, it is now evident from his correspondence with the Home Secretary, which was placed in the Library of the House of Commons shortly before the noble and learned Lord was appointed as Senior Lord of Appeal, that he was not happy with another change in the No. 2 Bill; namely, the provision that specifically prevents a magistrates' court from taking into account the "circumstances of the accused" when making its decision. Those are the words used in the Bill now before us, and they cover any previous record of offending. Even the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, who spoke in support of the Minister, had reservations about that particular change.

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Similarly, the report of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice can no longer be cited in support of the No. 2 Bill, as was the case in the earlier stages. As we have heard more than once in this debate, a leading member of the Royal Commission, Professor Michael Zander of the London School of Economics, has gone on record as saying that emphasis was placed by the Royal Commission on the view that access to jury trial was important for cases involving potential loss of reputation. That no longer applies; it has been deleted from the present Bill.

In her trenchant speech the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, warned--and it was a timely warning--against the danger of covert redesign of the system of criminal justice without any proper forethought or public consideration. The impulse to communicate, to share and reflect the public mood, is so powerful in the present Government that it can have its perils.

More significant even than the loss of the dwindling band of claimed supporters is the review of the criminal courts currently being carried out by Lord Justice Auld, to which reference has been made by several speakers in the course of this debate. The review was set up by the Lord Chancellor in December of last year with a tight timetable of about 12 months. In some ways it is a counterpart to the review by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, on civil justice, and is expected to report in December of this year. Lord Justice Auld has made good speed; he has not wasted any time. The outlines of some significant changes in court structures are not only beginning to emerge, but recently have been the subject of consultation.

There is now the prospect of a unified, national and centrally-funded administration of all courts of criminal jurisdiction. The unified court is envisaged as having three tiers--with the middle tier comprising of a professional judge sitting with lay magistrates, probably between two and four in number. Although it is not yet resolved where the jurisdictional boundaries should be drawn, the most likely of the possibilities is for offences to be triable at this level if, on conviction, they would attract a custodial sentence of between six months and two years' imprisonment. More serious contested cases would be tried by a jury in the Crown Court as now. Less serious offences would be tried summarily by the magistrates, as now.

Reform of the criminal courts may, or may not, follow this pattern. We do not know what the recommendations will be, or what the Government's reaction will be. The work is, however, well advanced. There is now the prospect of a reform that would eradicate the fundamental cause of all the difficulties that have been experienced: that is the either way category of offences. It is a typically British compromise. It was designed with the best of motives, but the situation is now changing. There is unlikely to be any going back to the earlier concept of either way offences because we have experienced its inherent weaknesses and contradictions.

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These changes may, or may not, emerge in the form that I described. However, of one thing we can be certain; changes in the organisation of the criminal courts there will be. Moreover--pace the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy--they will be carefully considered changes. They will not arise out of a political decision, but will be the result of a review by a highly experienced criminal judge in the Court of Appeal. So the review is timely, and provides an opportunity to get away from the increasingly sterile arguments over the present mode of trial, and the variations that are now under consideration.

Eliminating the either way category would enable us on both sides of the House to look to a more rational and properly considered future when we know the shape of the forthcoming recommendations. It would be a way to avoid--I am sure that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General would be the first to welcome this--getting bogged down in the quicksands of the present controversy. I urge the Government to consider the proposal seriously.

8.9 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Lymington: My Lords, in January of this year I supported the Government on the Committee stage of the No. 1 Bill. I now wish to explain, as briefly as possible, why in the case of this new Bill I find myself in the ranks of the opposition. Let me make it clear that that is not out of a desire to get out of a minority position; that is one with which every Cross-Bench Member of this House is familiar.

As has been said over and over again, for a long time it has been accepted that the most serious offences should be tried by a judge and jury and the least serious by magistrates. It has again been said--it needs to be emphasised--that this is not because one is better than the other but simply because the more elaborate procedure of jury trial is generally accepted as being appropriate only in the case of more serious offences.

The either way offences are those which, according to the circumstances, may fall into either category of not being very serious or being very serious. As the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, suggested in the context of the No. 1 Bill--I believe that this has also been suggested again here today--there may well be offences in the compulsory summary trial category which share those characteristics and ought therefore to be in the either way category. However, that matter is not before us today.

Although in form the dispute is as to whether the accused can insist upon a jury trial in either way cases, the real issue is whether the mode of trial shall be decided in the interests of justice or in those of the accused. The story goes that a lawyer giving the news of acquittal to his client was once ill advised enough to say, "Justice has triumphed" only to be met with the immediate retort, "Appeal at once". I am sure that that is apocryphal but it contains more than a grain of truth.

I must not speak for your Lordships, but I confess that if I were accused of an offence, my interest in justice--which has been an abiding interest all my

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life--would be suspended for the duration. What exactly self-interest would dictate I do not know--obviously that would depend upon the circumstances--and I prefer on the whole not to find out.

The only real reservation which I had about the No. 1 Bill was that it expressly directed the magistrates' attention to the effects which conviction could have upon the accused's reputation or livelihood. Contrary to the belief of many, those factors have always been taken into account in deciding mode of trial, and rightly so. Therefore, I was distinctly surprised and perturbed when the Government in this Bill forbade consideration of those two factors. You can only do justice in relation to deciding on mode of trial if you can take account of any circumstance which seems to you to be relevant. There can be no restrictions.

I appreciate the reverence in which the jury system is held in this country. However, whether too much importance should be attached to a special form of jury service acting as a little parliament which seems to consist of returning perverse verdicts in the interests of sending political messages on GM crops and Polaris submarines must be open to doubt. I also have personal doubts whether young people or ethnic minorities are justified in thinking that juries are more sympathetic than magistrates. But they may think that, and they may even be justified in thinking that.

What I do accept, based on personal experience, is that if juries get it wrong and a miscarriage of justice results, it almost invariably takes the form of a misguided acquittal. I have been involved in one or two high profile trials and I have never met a case in which I disagreed for one moment with a jury's decision to convict. Whether the same is true of magistrates I just do not know, but in their case there is the safeguard of an appeal on the facts in the form of a complete re-hearing.

So what is new that has caused me to change sides? Essentially there are two things. First, the No. 2 Bill--I have already mentioned this point--in new Section 19(2)(b) forbids the court to consider circumstances affecting the accused when considering the seriousness of the offence. This goes much further than removing the false emphasis given to those factors in the No. 1 Bill. As has been said, it has led to Professor Zander pointing out that it invalidates the Runciman Commission's view and has caused him to withdraw support.

Secondly, I entertain grave doubts about the Government's motives in putting forward this Bill at this time. Why not wait for Lord Justice Auld's recommendations? What on earth is the hurry? The Government must know that such changes as have been made in the No. 2 Bill, as compared with the No. 1 Bill, will not cause this House to change its collective mind. The only explanation must be that they wish to lay the foundation for the Bill's reintroduction and passage under the Parliament Acts, notwithstanding this House's objection.

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This, in my view, raises an issue of some constitutional importance. I did not agree with the majority view on the No. 1 Bill, but I respected the sincerity and depth of professional and other experience which underlay it. Above all I was impressed by the fact that while I supported a change in the law which I thought would be an aid to efficiency, those who differed from my view opposed it in the belief that a fundamental right and freedom was under attack. Such depth of feeling, whether right or wrong, should not be disregarded.

In principle, I of course accept the supremacy of the elected House, but it is a supremacy which needs to be asserted rarely and sensitively and probably only when a failure to do so would frustrate a vital part of the Government's strategy. That is not the case here. To seek to override the opinion of this House would in my view, in present circumstances, be to display unmitigated arrogance and a total contempt for the existence and purpose of this House.

8.16 p.m.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, not for the first time in this House I sense that I am in a minority. I was abroad in August watching "Breakfast with Frost" by satellite--that is sad in itself--when I heard Mr Simon Hughes MP, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, talk about the Government,

    "getting rid of jury trial".

The Government are doing no such thing. This Bill simply carries out a manifesto commitment to modernise the criminal justice system to make it swifter, more efficient and more effective.

This Bill simply places the responsibility for deciding where either way cases should be heard where, in my judgment, it belongs; namely, with the magistrates' courts. In Scotland such a decision is determined not by the court or the accused but by the prosecutor.

When considering why it is necessary to change the law, let us have no nonsense about jury trial being a fundamental right. What is a fundamental right is the right to a fair trial. I have not heard any evidence tonight--in fact, quite the contrary is the case--that a fair trial will not be provided in either way cases by magistrates' courts, which try over 95 per cent of cases.

Justice is not served by an abuse of the criminal justice system. I suggest that leaving the decision as to venue with the accused or his legal adviser is both costly and can lead to an abuse of justice. I intend to address my remarks to that aspect this evening.

We all know that juries are fallible and can get things wrong. Indeed, most of the celebrated miscarriages of justice in recent years have followed jury convictions. But juries can also be got at. Indeed, one of the reasons for bringing in majority verdicts, against much opposition from what I shall describe as the "usual suspects", was to tackle "jury nobbling" by professional criminals. But we need to do more.

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The National Criminal Intelligence Service recently took the unprecedented step of publishing its annual report--its threat assessment of criminal activity which is normally restricted to Ministers. That report showed that organised crime in this country is booming as never before. Collapsed prosecutions and surprise acquittals are becoming the bane of British justice, with juries being bribed or threatened and witnesses intimated. Criminal families still dominate certain parts of this country.

The police are solidly in favour of this Bill, as is the Magistrates' Association. The principle was a recommendation of the Royal Commission in 1993. It is supported by Customs and Excise. Sir Iain Glidewell, who reviewed the Crown Prosecution Service in 1988, supports it, as do the majority of Her Majesty's judges. That is why Parliament has a duty to support the prosecuting authorities in streamlining justice and making abuse by criminals and their legal advisers more difficult.

Perhaps it will be useful if I give some examples of the abuses which could be prevented by restricting the right of the defendant to elect trial by jury in either way cases. In London it is common knowledge that "dips", or pickpockets, target tourists because they know that if they are caught all they have to do is cause delay by electing trial and the likelihood of the victim being brought back from abroad to give evidence is slim. That is a miscarriage of justice.

Devon and Cornwall Police have told me of a persistent shoplifter who recently moved into the West Country and is currently committed for trial at Exeter Crown Court for theft from a shop. The value of the goods is £2 or £3. Is that really a sensible use of public money?

Devon and Cornwall Police also describe how a man was arrested for theft of articles from a flat. He left without paying rent. He was driving a car without documentation. He was already subject to a suspended sentence at the time. He elected trial for theft even though the articles were found in his possession. He pleaded guilty to the theft at the Crown Court but the suspended sentence was not invoked because he argued, untruly, that the theft occurred before the original sentence. Because of his plea this could not be refuted by the prosecution. The motoring offences for which he could have been disqualified were left on the file as they were considered stale. That is lawyers playing the system.

Kent Police tell me of a professional criminal charged with handling, deception and driving while disqualified. There are eight prosecution witnesses and the evidence is overwhelming. The trial was listed for 26th June at Truro Crown Court. It has now been put back due to lack of court time. Some witnesses had already travelled from Kent on that date and are now considering withdrawing their evidence. Justice delayed is justice denied to the victims as well as to the accused.

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Northumbria Police describe how thieves stole two pairs of denim jeans from a shop and handed them nearby to two accomplices who were also arrested by a shoplifting squad. The two thieves pleaded guilty at the magistrates' court. The two handlers elected trial and as professional shoplifting is a major problem in the area the Crown Prosecution Service committed the handlers for trial. The Crown Court recorder refused to deal with the matter on the grounds that it was too trivial and a waste of court time. I agree with him. This Bill would prevent that type of abuse. Justice is not served.

Durham Crown Court recently had a case of a recidivist thief electing trial for the theft of a 75p can of lager. The Crown Prosecution Service offered no evidence at the hearing.

What a way to run a justice system. Suffice to say that the police are frustrated at the waste of time and effort, not to mention money, that goes on by this abuse of the right to jury trial. A recent study in Wales showed that 26 cases resulted in the prosecution accepting lesser pleas because witnesses failed to attend. Sixty-one per cent pleaded guilty prior to trial listing and 20 per cent pleaded guilty at the trial itself.

This is evidence of serial abuse of due process. It brings the criminal justice system into disrepute. It is the same professional thieves, retaining the same legal aid solicitors, briefing the same barristers chambers, all from public funds. The gravy train is still on track and has not been affected by the fuel dispute! My simple question is this. How many of these criminals would care to exercise their so-called fundamental right to be tried by jury if they had to pay for it from their ill-gotten gains?

On Wednesday, I heard the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, on the Jimmy Young show wearing his hat as the "legal beagle". He waxed lyrical about the legal profession doing too much "lawyering"--an interesting term--and said that they were about to exploit financially the forthcoming Human Rights Act unless judges were draconian--I think that was his word--in resisting frivolous claims. I agree with him. I only wish the same rhetoric were applied to the abuses discussed today, because abuses they are.

An old detective inspector once told me of a case where he had three suspects: a rich lawyer, a poor lawyer and a tooth fairy. He told me that he had arrested the rich lawyer because the other two were figments of his imagination. I do not know whether there is any truth in that; I certainly do not impute that there is.

We hear of fundamental rights. I should like to hear more about the fundamental rights of the victims of crime as opposed to those few in society who prey on them and then exploit our liberal justice system to avoid paying the penalty that most decent people believe to be just and proper. We need to change the rules for those who know no rules. This Bill does just that.

28 Sept 2000 : Column 1016

8.26 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Fraser, seems to assume that everyone whom plod arrests is automatically guilty.

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