HC Deb 16 November 1925 vol 188 cc132-7

I beg to move, in page 13, line 16, at the end, to insert a new Sub-section: (9) In the event of a court of summary jurisdiction sitting in petty sessions being of opinion that the witnesses in an indictable offence about to be brought before the court are numerous, or that for other reasons the examination before them is likely to last for a long time, the court may, by order, direct that the depositions shall be taken by a shorthand writer to be approved by the Lord Chancellor. For the purposes of this Section rules shall be made by the Lord Chancellor, in conjunction with the Secretary of State, for the taking of such depositions and the transcript of the same, and for adapting the provisions of Section 11, Sub-section (1), of this Act to meet the circumstances of the depositions being taken in shorthand and the transcription thereof before being read to the witnesses, and for providing for the expenses of the taking and transcribing the evidence and directing by whom the same shall be borne. I move this Amendment on behalf of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ealing (Sir H. Nield). The suggestion is that there should be a shorthand note taken in the police court in cases where the magistrates think it is desirable. Of course, apart from the expense, this would be a great advantage, because depositions are frequently drawn up in such a way that you cannot say whether the answer given by a witness is to a leading question or a question of any kind.


I am sorry my right hon. and learned Friend has moved this. The subject was discussed in Committee, and the point is that the depositions which are taken in thousands of cases all over the country are not meant to be verbatim records, but they are meant to give an idea of the main lines of the evidence given by witnesses and taken by an experienced lawyer, so that, in the event of a person being sent for trial, the judge shall know what the evidence is. Immediately they are taken by the Clerk of the Court, they are read over and signed by the witness as his depositions. If there is going to be a shorthand note of every piece of examination, cross-examination and re-examination, it cannot be read over and signed by the witness immediately after, and the unfortunate witness will probably have to come again the following day to have it read over, making two attendances at the police court instead of one. It will also mean sending, at enormous additional expense, to the Quarter Sessions or Assizes, a long and perhaps irrelevant mass of matter, instead of the concise statement there now is. That was the position in the Committee stage, and I promised my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ealing (Sir H. Nield), who took a great deal of interest in this—and I did not want to force my opinions upon the Committee—that I would communicate with the Lord Chief Justice on this matter. I sent to the Lord Chief Justice a transcript of the OFFICIAL REPORT, including the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend, and I am authorised by the Lord Chief Justice to say that he would not regard this as an improvement in our criminal procedure. In these circumstances, as my right hon. and learned Friend appealed to Cæsar, I ask him to accept Caesar's decision.


I am not prepared to say I am not altogether satisfied with the particular Cæsar appealed to, but, at the same time, I think it is in the interest of the prisoner that such a note should be taken. I have frequently been impressed by the remark being made that an answer does not appear on the depositions. Again and again that objection has been urged, and I have had to point out to the jury that it is impossible for a longhand note, taken down by the Clerk of the Court, to contain everything that was said during the course of the investigation before the Bench or the police Magistrate. It is only in cases that are-likely to be long and intricate that this is asked for. In the Court of Quarter Sessions you have the shorthand writer officially appointed, taking down every word that is uttered, except the speeches of counsel. That is part of the criminal system of the country. I do not call attention to any particular case in my county, but sometimes longhand notes are abominable. First of all you cannot decipher them, and the typing clerks who duplicate them often make mistakes, and, naturally so, by reason of the difficulty of deciphering the handwriting. In difficult cases requiring long investigation, these shorthand notes would be invaluable to the prisoner, and it is on behalf of the prisoner that I ask the House to accent this Amendment. I do not propose to put the House to the trouble of a division after the answer of the Home Secretary, but I am satisfied that hon. Members opposite, having had their attention called to it, will see the desirability before long of this change being made.


Out of courtesy to my right hon. and learned Friend, who, I know, needed sustenance of a kind other than mental, I undertook to move the Amendment. I cannot go further with the matter, but I am not quite convinced by the Home Secretary's remarks. After all, the House of Commons has to form its own opinion. The real answer to my Motion is that it would be far too expensive to carry out. Therefore, I ask the leave of the House to withdraw it.


I only came into the House at a time when my hon. and learned Friend opposite seemed to have made out an excellent case as to why this proposal should be carried. I cannot for the life of me see why what is proposed cannot be done. It seems to me to be a pretty rational thing that evidence should be taken clown in shorthand. If the argument against it is that evidence should be taken down in longhand to be certain that you get it down correctly, then if the hon. and learned Gentlemen are right, let us have their reasons for supposing that we shall not get it correctly in the other case. I had some experience of gentlemen who take down evidence in longhand. They have made me say what I did not say, and what I did say they have distorted in an extraordinary manner when it was given in evidence against me at the next Court. The position is an extraordinary position for the two hon. and learned Gentlemen to take up. They make excellent speeches in support of the Amendment and upon a subject of which they know a great deal, and then they run away from that position. Having made speeches in support of the Amendment, now, because the Government will not do the right thing or the thing that they want done, and which they say is the proper thing to do, they run away from their Amendment—

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. James Hope)

The hon. Gentleman is addressing hon. Members opposite: he should address the Chair.


The hon. and learned Gentleman opposite led me astray by addressing me, and I thought it was only courteous that I should reply to him.


The hon. Member for Bow and Bromley has convicted me of not calling to order the hon. and learned Gentleman who led him astray.


The point I want to make is a perfectly simple one. I am sure every Member of the House understands it. Two hon. and learned Gentlemen, who thoroughly understand the position, have put a case to the House, and because the Government choose to say "we do not think it is convenient," or for some other reason, "do not let us do it," they run away from their Amendment. I think we ought to keep them to the Amendment, especially we people who come under the clutches of these gentlemen occasionally, and who suffer from their inability to get down evidence in longhand as quickly as other people do in shorthand. I sat in a court the other day. It was a perfectly montrous waste of time while an old gentleman was getting it down. We ought to have proper, correct, and efficient note-takers to take down the evidence so that when it is subsequently read over in Court you may have some sort of confidence that you are repeating what was really said. I hope my hon. Friends on the front bench will not hold themselves back, but support this view, and prevent this Amendment being withdrawn.


I hope before this Amendment goes to the Vote we shall have the views of the ex-Law Officers of the Crown. It. docs seem to me it would be an enormous simplification of legal procedure if the note could be taken in shorthand instead of long hand. While I do not profess to know whether this Amendment is right or not. I should like to have counsel's opinion, so to speak, as to whether it is not possible to simplify legal procedure by in the way suggested.

9.0 P.M.


The hon. and gallant Gentleman has made an impassioned appeal to me, and I certainly shall respond to that appeal, and say what I have to say about this Amendment. That is, that I absolutely and entirely disagree with it. I take a very strong view, and always have taken the view, that it would be far better to have in every Court of Justice in the country a shorthand writer to take down the evidence, so that if necessary it is subsequently available. We are asked to support an Amendment which states that a shorthand note is only to be taken in a ease where the Court of Summary Jurisdiction being of opinion that the witnesses in an indictable offence about to be brought before the Court are numerous, or that for other reasons, examination before them is likely to last for a long time, may by order direct that the depositions shall be taken by a shorthand writer … It seems to me that the view the Home Secretary has put forward as to this being necessary in one case and not in another is entirely avoiding the point. In other words you never know whether you are going to have a shorthand note or not. There may be the case of the long firm fraud which lasts for days, where a shorthand note is taken, and a murder case which lasts a day, equally important to the persons concerned, where a note is not taken. It is most important that in every case we should have a shorthand note taken of every word that is given in evidence so that afterwards there shall not be, as now sometimes happens, any dispute as to what a witness did or did not say, or whether the words appearing on the depositions are the words actually used by the witness. If we can have a shorthand note taken in every Court I shall he perfectly prepared to support it.


In this matter we seem to be following the usual English practice not to do the thing in one bite, as suggested. We always do this sort of thing gradually. I certainly shall oppose the withdrawal of the Amendment.

Amendment negatived.