HC Deb 04 July 1930 vol 240 cc2313-22

"Any person charged with an offence under any of the three preceding sections of which the marginal notes are 'Rate of speed,' 'Reckless or dangerous driving,' 'Careless driving,' shall be entitled, on written application to the police authorities, accompanied by a fee of one shilling, to receive a copy of the particulars in possession of the police upon which the charge is based."—[Colonel Howard,-Bury.]

Brought up, and read the First time.


I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

This Clause has reference to the three Clauses in the Bill dealing with the rate of speed of motor vehicles, reckless or dangerous driving and careless driving. The object of the Clause is to enable the person who is alleged to have offended to obtain, on written application to the police authorities, and on payment of 1s., details and particulars of the offence with which he is charged. The ordinary form of summons is extremely vague. We are told only that in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and thirty, in the month of August, in the county of Essex, so and so did unlawfully drive a motor car on a certain highway there situated in a manner dangerous to the public, contrary to the form of the statute. We say that the person charged ought to be able to obtain further particulars of the offence alleged against him. On any particular day he may have driven in that county over half-a-dozen roads, made half-a-dozen journeys, and he ought to have further particulars to enable him to prepare his defence.

When this point was raised in Committee the Government told us, on behalf of the police authorities, that such a requirement was unprecedented and impracticable, and that it would impose an enormous amount of additional work. My answer to that is that the police have to support this charge in court when the hearing takes place, and what additional work would there be in furnishing these full particulars a few days beforehand on payment of 1s? I should have thought the Minister of Transport would have been attracted by the bait of 1s. All the motoring organisations, which deal with more motoring offences than anyone else in the kingdom, are very anxious to see this amendment made. They know how vague the charges are. The Solicitor-General, whom we are glad to see back again, said in Committee that he would consult with his friends at the Home Office, with the Home Secretary and with the police authorities, to see whether they could come to some arrangement regarding the form of summons. He said they had every desire to assist, and that if the Committee would accept that assurance he would look into the matter. I would like to know what he has done in the meantime, and whether the Home Office agree to the proposal I am making.


I beg to second the Motion.

I would appeal to the Minister of Transport and to the Solicitor-General to consider it very seriously. In this Bill we are making many changes in the penalties to be imposed upon motorists. We propose to send people to prison for the new offence of careless or reckless driving. As these penalties are being increased, it is only right that an accused person should be able to get beforehand particulars of what is alleged to have taken place, so that he may prepare his defence. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Colonel Howard-Bury), has said, very little information is given on the summons.

The SOLICITOR-GENERAL (Sir James Melville)

In accordance with the undertaking which I gave to the Committee, I went into this matter with the Under-Secretary of State of the Home Department and the Officials of that Department. I think I said in Committee that, so far as I was aware, there was in practice, no real difficulty in connection with these cases, which come before a court of summary jurisdiction. At least, I was not aware of them, although I could not say that I had had much experience of police court practice in recent years. As a result of my inquiry into the matter I find that the point was carefully considered in connection with the Criminal Justice Act, 1925, and the law was brought up to date as compared with the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1S48. The Criminal Justice Act, 1925, provides in terms that necessary particulars shall be set out without using technical language, and I think that is quite sufficient. As regards the demand for the supply of particulars in the hands of the police on payment of 1s., I could not possibly ask the House to accept that proposal. I have used this argument before, but I would like to repeat it, that it is desirable to avoid setting up a separate kind of administration of criminal justice for the benefit of motorists. If the motorists are to have the advantage of all the details in the hands of the police upon which a charge has been based so, I suppose, must the burglar, the coiner, the forger and other offenders. It would be most undesirable to introduce this innovation in the administration of our criminal law, and I hope that as this proposal was not pressed to a division in the Committee it will not be insisted upon now.

Colonel ASHLEY

I cannot agree with the Solicitor-General in the analogy he has drawn between the motorist and the burglar and——



Colonel ASHLEY

I hope the hon. Member will wait a moment. I have not completed my first sentence. What happens to the motorist? In many cases where he is alleged to have been driving dangerously he is not stopped at the time, and a week or it may be a month after the alleged offence he gets a summons to say that on the 23rd of June, 1930, in the High Street, he committed the offence of dangerous driving; and that is all. I do not want to delay the proceedings or obstruct the Bill, but I put it to hon. Members that it is difficult for the alleged law breaker—it might be anybody in this House—to get rebutting evidence unless he is supplied with further details as to what part of the High Street it was and what form the dangerous driving took. That is all that is asked for. The unfortunate motorist, who may very well be an innocent man, should be given such details as will enable him to collect evidence to prove that he is innocent when the charge is taken before the magistrate.


On this Motion, I must support the Solicitor-General. Perhaps I can approach this matter from a different angle from that of most Members of the House, for I have had occasion to prosecute and also to defend a number of persons who have been charged with motoring offences. I do not know a single case where any one has suggested that a defendant has been placed at a disadvantage in regard to this matter. I do not think it is suggested by those who support the Clause that there has been any hardship in this respect in the past. The hon. and gallant Member for Chelmsford (Colonel Howard-Bury), who proposed the Clause, has referred to the form of the summons, but I have never seen a form of summons of so vague a character as that to which he has referred. Hon. Members may have had the misfortune to have been defendants in respect of offences of this kind. We realise that there must be a certain amount of detail in the summons stating that it was served at So-and-So in the parish of So-and-So, in the County of So-and-So, and such details. If that is not sufficient, I do not know what is expected unless the suggestion is that the summons should contain the whole of the evidence in the possession of the police. The form of the Amendment goes as far as that. It provides not merely that the particulars of the summons should be extended, but also that the defendant should be supplied with a copy of the particulars in possession of the police upon which the charge is based. Surely that would deprive the whole of the evidence of its value. Why should motorists be singled out for special treatment in this way? Every other person charged with any of the offences dealt with under this Bill receives exactly the same treatment as the motorist, and there is no reason why motorists should be singled out for special treatment.


The House will remember that under the Motor Car Act of 1903, where a person is prosecuted for an offence against the speed limit, he cannot be convicted unless he has been warned of the intended prosecution at the time the offence was committed. That is a very valuable protection, because the motorist has to be stopped and told what he is supposed to have been doing, and informed that he will be prosecuted. That Section ensures to the motorist the kind of information which this Clause asks for, and it is not reproduced in this Bill. That is one argument in favour of the new Clause.

Under this Bill, the offences which are to be dealt with are of a vague kind. There has never been anything in our jurisprudence as vague as the offence of driving a motor vehicle without due attention or without due consideration for other persons. One can conceive nothing so vague as that. The charge is not merely one of careless driving or driving without reasonable consideration far other persons. The motorist will not have the faintest idea what is going to be alleged against him. When you are creating offences of this kind, it is very important that a man should know exactly what he is charged with, and all the particulars which the police have in their possession should be given to him. This new Clause will not help the guilty person, but it will help the innocent person to establish his innocence. The Solicitor-General asks why we should give motorists special treatment which we do not give to other persons. At the present moment the law provides that all the evidence which is going to be called against a defendant at the trial shall be produced before the magistrate when he comes up to be tried in the first instance. When the coiner or the forger comes to be tried he has the protection for which this new Clause asks. In this case, all the evidence has been given before the magistrates, but even the coiner and the forger can be supplied with a copy of the depositions, and, if they wish it, they can have copies of the evidence supplied to them. In cases of that kind, the law secures for the men who are charged the fullest details of the evidence which is going to be given against them.

Now the Government are proposing to deal in a summary way with a serious class of offence, and I think it is only reasonable to ask that the defendant should be supplied with all the particulars of the offence with which he is charged. The object ought not to be to secure convictions which are not well founded, and we ought to place all the cards on the table. It is very hard upon a defendant to have evidence brought to light of which he had not the faintest idea before he appeared in the court. In that case, if the defendant had been supplied with the evidence, he might have been able to call witneses, and a man who is innocent should not be deprived of the oportunity of doing so.


Unfortunately, I did not hear this new Clause moved, but I have been induced to intervene by the observations which have been made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Altrincham (Mr. Atkinson). The claim which he has put forward is so vague that it is very surprising to hear it supported by hon. Members who have had a long experience of the administration of justice. In a sentence, the claim which the hon. and learned Member has put forward is that a defendant should be supplied, before his trial, with all the evidence which he has to meet. The particulars asked for in this new Clause are matters which the defendant has to meet. It is a claim that before a summons is heard the defendant should be supplied with all these particulars. No such claim is entertained by law in respect of any section of the community. Why should it be granted in respect of motorists?

The case which has been referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Altrincham is where a, man, baying been sent for trial, has the right to be supplied with copies of the depositions, and all the evidence of the court below is available to the defendant, but in no case where summary proceedings are taken is it customary, or it is in accordance with justice, that the defendant should be supplied with the evidence which he has to meet. The suggestion that a man having to meet these summary charges is not aware of the circumstances upon which the charge is founded is a suggestion which may come from excited motorists, but ought not to come from any experienced member of the Bar.


I rise because of the observations of the hon. Member for Flint (Mr. Llewellyn Jones), who has spoken of his experiences since the passing, of the Act of 1903. I would remind the House and the hon. Member that this Bill very materially alters the law as to motoring offences, and that the penalties under it are very much increased. Furthermore, under the Bill it will be within the right of any person to make a most serious charge, which may have to be tried by a judge and jury and may involve a long term of imprisonment. If it is to be possible for a motorist to be told that a long time previously, in some obscure place many miles from his home, he was driving to the danger of the public, when he has not the remotest idea that he was driving in any other than the ordinary way and was not warned at the time, it is preposterous that he should be so limited in his defence as not to have the particulars necessary for the preparation of that defence. If the hon. and learned Member for South Nottingham (Mr. Knight) will read the terms of this proposed new Clause, he will see that it provides that the motorist charged shall be entitled to a copy of the particulars in possession of the police upon which the charge is based. Surely, that means particulars as to where he was driving, who has given the information, and what is the precise form of the objection to his driving on that occasion. I think it is quite reasonable that the person charged should have that information, and, if I may say so, I think that the cases of the burglar and the coiner, to which the Solicitor-General has referred, are in quite a different category, for the reason that the burglar or the coiner knows quite well what is the charge that is being made against him. The motorist, however, under this Bill, may be charged with a very serious offence involving imprisonment, and may not have the remotest idea of the nature of the offence with which he is charged or the place where it is alleged to have been committed.


Practical experiences in matters of this sort are more powerful than arguments. I myself have been in this position, that, some 14 days after passing through a certain part of England about 120 miles away from my home, I received a summons from the local police stating that I drove to the danger of the public. I had no means whatever of knowing what the accusation was and upon what it rested, and I had to take my solicitor and my chauffeur down, and to take a day from my business, which I could ill afford on account of important affairs that I had in hand, to defend myself against a charge about which I knew nothing. I considered that I suffered a very great injustice in not being supplied with the details of the accusation made against me, and that experience convinces me that this proposed new Clause deals with a real and actual hardship on motorists who are not informed definitely what the charge is in such cases.


Were you convicted?


I understand, from the speeches of hon. Members above the Gangway, that they fear that there may be some hardship and injustice done to individuals if no alteration in practice and procedure is made in this regard. At the same time, the speeches of other hon. Members and of the Solicitor-General himself show that this proposal would introduce an entirely new departure, and might set up a most inconvenient precedent. May I suggest to the Government that, as soon as the Bill is passed, a circular should be issued by the Home Office to the police authorities throughout the country with regard to the methods of enforcing the Act? It should be quite possible in such a circular for the Home Secretary to express a desire that the police authorities, in issuing summonses of this character, should specify more precisely, perhaps, than they otherwise would, the charge that is made against the individual, in order that grievances should not arise such as that referred to by the last speaker. Since a circular must be issued, it would be proper that this matter should be included in it, and perhaps, if the Government would give an undertaking in that sense, it might satisfy the apprehensions which have been expressed.

The MINISTER of TRANSPORT (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

The suggestion of the right hon. Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel), that a circular should be issued by the Home Office, will not only be taken into account, but, in spite of the fact that the suggestion has only just been made, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department informs me that it will be adopted. I think it has been forgotten, in the discussion on this Clause, that, in any case in which the defendant is in difficulty in regard to evidence for which he is not ready, the courts are never backward in granting an adjournment in order that the defence may be the better prepared, and I really think that all points of substance in this connection are already met. The procedure suggested in this Clause would be unusual in cases of this kind. It would mean that one side would be put in possession of a great deal of detail regarding the case of the other side, whereas a similar courtesy in regard to exchange of information would not be extended simultaneously by the ether, so that the one side would really be in a position of advantage over the other. Having regard to the undertaking which I have given on behalf of the Home Office, that the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen will be adopted, I trust that the hon. and gallant Member who moved the Clause will not press it. In any case, I suggest to the House, with great respect, that the point is now clear. I hope that all Members present are seized of the facts and arguments on both sides, and, in view of the length of the Bill, I should be obliged if the House could come to a decision.


In view of the statement of the Minister of Transport, which does meet this difficulty and this grievance, and as all that we want to ensure is that the motorist should obtain rather more details in such cases, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.


I object to this Clause being withdrawn. I am not sympathetic towards motorists at all, and never have been. I should never have been allowed on the roads. Seeing, However, that the motorists are there, they ought to get fair play. The Lord Advocate will be able to tell us what the exact rule is in Scotland with regard to criminal charges, but my recollection is that the Crown supplies the defendant with the names of all its witnesses in order that he may have the opportunity of knowing the whole ground upon which the case is brought. The whole of our jurisprudence is in favour of the accused, but, when you come to deal with police practice, you very often find the opposite. It will be recollected that, at the time of the miner's strike, there was often an opinion, that there was a kind of weight against the accused, and that is undoubtedly so in regard to motorists in Scotland. It is shown by the way in whilch police traps are set, and so on.

This provision is very similar to what has been provided in the civil law. For a long time in Glasgow it was very difficult to discover the names and addresses of people injured by tramcars, but we succeeded after some years in getting the names of those witnesses, so that we could meet such cases. This is something of the same. It cannot do any harm in a bonâ fide case that this information should be supplied to the accused. A circular will be forgotten in a week. If you employ people to secure convictions or to detect offences, they become like sleuthhounds. Their business, when a charge is made, is to bring it home. We all know that magistrates like corroboration of police evidence. This will give the accused an opportunity as a matter of right, and not as a matter of grace from the Home Office, to get the necessary particulars. The penalties here are just as severe as for fairly considerable crime, and yet the people who commit them are not guilty of crimes in the sense that they have a criminal intention. It is more carelessness, and they ought to get fair play.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.