HC Deb 15 April 1948 vol 449 cc1206-15

Where an information or complaint in writing is laid before the Court in accordance with the provisions of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1848, or the Indictable Offences Act, 1848, or in accordance with some particular Act of Parliament in regard to some offence thereunder, such information or complaint as well as any documents exhibited thereto shall be fully disclosed to the accused person and such accused person shall be supplied on demand with copies thereof.—[Mr. Weitzman.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Weitzman

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

Hon. Members will be aware that under the Summary Jurisdiction Act, 1848, an information is laid before the justices alleging that a person has committed an offence and a summons is issued on such information; if he does not appear a warrant is issued. Under the Indictable Offences Act, 1848, a summons or warrant is issued on the information, but only where it is intended to issue a warrant is the information required to be on oath. The position, therefore, is that assuming a written information is laid, whether it is sworn or not, it contains the details on which the charge is made, whether the charge be by way of summons or warrant. It may well be that the magistrate who issued the summons, and who knows what is contained in the information, is the magistrate who will adjudicate on the matter; it may be that he is the person who will try the case to ascertain whether there is a prima facie case for committal of the person for trial by jury.

There are cases, and I suppose they are the rule where the contents of the information are disclosed, but there are cases where magistrates have refused to disclose the information. I venture to suggest that this House will accept the position that an accused person ought to know in detail what is alleged against him, and he ought to be in a position to be able to deal with any charge brought against him. If the information and any documents annexed are not disclosed, then I suggest that the citizen, in effect, is being accused upon a secret document which is being withheld from the court. Furthermore, the defence is in the position that it cannot cross-examine the mind of the magistrate because it does not know what is in his mind. Then there may be the case where a lying accuser gives evidence in the witness box contradicting the private story he has told to the magistrate who, on the information, issued the summons.

5.30 p.m.

Often it is only where that information is fully disclosed that cross-examination can be made in detail of witnesses in the witness box. It may well be that the magistrate has something in his mind of which the accused person knows nothing and that may prejudice the case from the start. If the average Englishman were told that a person in a foreign country was being accused on a secret document he would say, "It could not happen here," but it does happen here, and from my personal experience I know that there are cases where magistrates have refused to disclose the contents of an information to accused persons.

If one looks through the sections of the Summary Jurisdiction Act, or the Indictable Offences Act, one sees that the whole tenor of those Measures is that informations should be disclosed to accused persons, but nowhere is there a direct obligation laid on the court they they should be disclosed. Obviously, a strong case can be made out here, and I suggest that it is of the greatest importance to thousands of persons who pass through the conks, and who are affected by this matter. I hope the Government will see their way to give favourable consideration to this new Clause.

Mr. Royle (Salford, West)

I beg to second the Motion.

In doing so there is no necessity for me to say a great deal about the new Clause in addition to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman). I feel there is some association between the new Clause which we have just been discussing, and this new Clause, and I hope my right hon. Friend will see his way to take the same view in regard to this matter. I believe the suggestions contained in this proposed new Clause are in accord with the best traditions of British justice. If the State, or private persons, prosecute a man, the accused should be entitled to know in full detail what is the case against him. I hope that today we may take this further step in the reform of British justice as a further manifestation of the essential fairness of our code of justice. I have not used many words, but my enthusiasm fur this proposal is none the less.

The Attorney-General (Sir Hartley Shawcross)

The House will appreciate that it is not in every case that there is any information in writing to disclose. Although in summary cases there is an obligation to have an information in writing, the vast majority of informations are in fact almost identical with the summonses and in indictable offences there may be no written information to disclose at all. Under the Indictable Offences Act informations may, it is true, sometimes exist in writing, but I am told that very frequently in proceedings initiated by summons—and proceedings are initiated by summons in a very large proportion of cases—no written information exists. This new Clause does only apply and could only apply, to the minority of cases in which there was a written information. It seems rather illogical that the right of the accused to know the information on which the charges against him have been based, if such a right should exist at all, should depend on the fortuitous circumstance whether such information exists in writing, or not.

No doubt the real question which the House will wish to consider is whether any such right should be given in any case, even in those where written informations do exist, to the accused to have it disclosed to him. The great objection, it seems to us, is that to provide the accused with a copy of the written information in advance of the trial would necessarily involve disclosing to him, not only the general nature of the evidence upon which the charges against him were based, but also the names and addresses of possible witnesses. That, of course, would enable unscrupulous persons—and there are such persons—to attempt to get in touch with those potential witnesses before their evidence has come to be given and to seek to induce them in one way or another to alter their stories.

I do not want to go into the matter in detail, but only recently there was a very important case in which the name of a witness slipped out in the preliminary proceedings, before the witness had come to give his evidence, in which the witness altered his story considerably at the magistrate's court, and disappeared before the trial. That is the sort of danger which might arise if some time in advance of the day on which he comes to give evidence his name and the substance of what it is thought he is likely to say has to be disclosed to the other side.

In view of those dangers it seems difficult to say that the accused must be given in advance, not the evidence upon which he is going to be tried, and upon which he may be convicted—that has to be given on oath, in public, in court—but what may have been said, or may not have been said on the information which has nothing to do with the evidence upon which an accused person is tried and eventually convicted. It seems to us in those circumstances that it is not right that the information upon which the prosecution has sought to initiate proceedings, but on which it can no further and no longer rely, should be disclosed to the defence.

After all, there is no obligation on the defence to disclose their information, although it might be very useful in cross-examination of witnesses called by the defence to see the stories they gave to their solicitors, and to compare them with the evidence they actually give in court. No doubt that would be of advantage, but there seems no good reason when dealing with cases which have to be tried on the evidence given in court on oath, and in public—which is what matters to disclose what witnesses may, or may not, have said on some previous and private occasion. The defendant is not concerned with the grounds which may have led the prosecution to initiate proceedings, or even with the grounds which may have led a particular magistrate—who is not usually the magistrate who tries the case, although I agree sometimes he may be—to agree to the issue of a summons, or the issue of a warrant. What the defence are concerned with is the evidence given on oath, in court. It is only on that that the accused can be committed for trial, or, in the end, convicted. It does not seem to us to be in the interests of justice that there should be any compulsory disclosure, any general disclosure, in all cases of the information which may have led up to the initiation of the prosecution, of the granting of the summons, or warrant. In those circumstances, we are not in a position to accept the new Clause.

Mr. Solley (Thurrock)

I have listened, as always, with great interest to what has been said by my right hon. and learned Friend, but I venture to submit that there has been an ambiguity of thought in his argument. As I understood that argument he said that if the accused was given a sight of the written information he might, were he of an unscrupulous frame of mind, upset the due administration of justice, possibly by getting into touch with the proposed witnesses for the prosecution, thereby preventing the fair and due course of the trial. In practice, in indictable cases the accused is given not merely the names and addresses of the witnesses for the prosecution, but the contents of their evidence. Those who practise in criminal courts know full well that it is not frequently, in indictable cases, that the accused puts the defence before the stipendiary or the bench; the defence is reserved. In practice, what obtains is that the defendant is made aware of all the names and addresses of each and every one of the prosecution's witnesses and the actual evidence already given.

The Attorney-General

Is my hon. Friend saying that it is the practice anywhere to give the defence copies of the names and addresses of the prosecution's witnesses and of the evidence which they may be going to give before they have actually given it? They are, of course, entitled to the evidence when it has been given on oath; those are the depositions upon which the committal is based. I do not know of any practice in any court with which I am familiar of giving copies of the evidence in advance.

Mr. Solley

I am sorry if there should have been any misunderstanding. If it is due to the inadequacy of my explanation, I apologise. The point I was making was that, in so far as the defendant might be tempted to interfere with the administration of justice because he knows of the identity of the witnesses for the prosecution, he can do it as easily under the present system, whereby the prosecution's witnesses actually go into the witness box in the court of summary jurisdiction, as he could do if the Clause which we are now discussing were adopted.

I understood the Attorney-General's argument to be that if this Clause becomes law an unscrupulous defendant will be able to tamper with the prosecution's witnesses. It is true that under the proposed new Clause such tampering could take place before the evidence is given by those witnesses, but under the present system the defendant can still tamper with those witnesses, because he knows who they are, it is true after evidence has been given openly in a court of first instance, but before the case goes before the jury, which is really the substantive trial in a case which goes to assize or quarter sessions.

Another point to be borne in mind is that it is on the basis of the written information that the prosecution normally presents its case. It is by no means unusual for maliciously minded individuals, for their own purposes, to swear to facts or give as evidence statements which ultimately form the basis of this information, which are totally inaccurate and false—probably false to the knowledge of the deponent, the person who lays the information. Why should not the defendant, in such a case, have the opportunity, at some stage or other, of seeing what was said originally by the prosecutor, of seeing to what extent in a particular case such a statement was maliciously and falsely made, and to what extent, if any, the defendant could have his remedy in a civil court as a result of any such false or malicious statement?

5.45 p.m.

I put it before the House as a matter of principle that not only should a defendant have the opportunity of knowing with complete particularity the case which is to be made against him; he should also be in a position to check the information which was given to the prosecution, and which initiated the prosecution, with the actual evidence which was subsequently adduced by the prosecution, in order to test, if necessary by cross-examination in court, the bona fides of the prosecution. For these and certain other reasons which have already been referred to, I ask the Government whether they can reconsider their attitude, and if they cannot accept this Clause, whether they can accept the principle and embody it in a clause of their own drafting, at some stage in the proceedings on this Bill.

Mr. Janner

I wish to add a few words on the point which has been made. It may be that the difficulty which the Attorney-General has seen in this matter lies in the fact, as he himself said, that at the commencement of the proceedings he does not desire that the name of witnesses, or somebody who may be called, should be disclosed. That may be very well at the commencement of the proceedings, but surely there is some stage of the proceedings at which this information should be available to the accused person. If my right hon. and learned Friend could devise some method by which the defendant would be entitled to have placed before him the statement on which he had been brought before the court, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke Newington (Mr. Weitzman) would probably be satisfied.

As I understand it, the proposal is not intended to give an opportunity to a defendant to utilise information for the purpose of evading the consequences of any acts that have been committed by him. What is really intended is that an accused person shall know the exact details of the accusation which has been made against him when the proceedings were begun, and so not be placed in a position whereby someone who is prosecuted has not had the information which the court has had. It is reasonable to ask the Government that at some stage before the preliminary proceedings are finished the defendant should have an opportunity of cross-examining on those points or of having a witness recalled if necessary, and of taking such other steps as may be necessary when a malicious prosecution has been instituted against him without there being any real foundation for the information which has been laid. I hope the Attorney-General will reconsider the matter from that point of view.

Mr. Weitzman

May I have the leave of the House to deal with one or two of the points that have been raised by the Attorney-General? The apparent difficulty put forward about this Clause is simply that if the information is supplied the names and addresses of witnesses may be disclosed, and an accused person or someone connected with him may, in some unscrupulous fashion, approach witnesses or do something wrongly in regard to the case. In that matter there may be a difficulty to be dealt with. On the other hand, we have to face the fact that we desire to see that an accused person has every opportunity of knowing what case is made against him, and of dealing with it in the greatest possible detail.

It is wrong that a magistrate who tries the case should have in his mind information which is not disclosed to the accused person. It is wrong that the accused person should not have the opportunity of being given that information. I think the suggestion made by the hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. Janner) is a good one. If it is thought that disclosing the information at a very early period would bring about the danger of witnesses being tampered with, I suggest that the difficulty would easily be overcome by making the information available to the defence if necessary at some period after the person is committed for trial, but at any rate in such a manner that the accused person would have the opportunity of having that matter before him.

I am sure that there must be many hon. Members who know of actual instances of persons going into the witness box and telling stories quite different from the stories set out in the information. Many magistrates allow the information to be disclosed, and them the defence is in the happy position of being able to compare the information and the statements made in the information with the actual evidence given on oath. It can then be demonstrated immediately when a false charge is being made. No accused person should be put in peril in a matter of this kind, and I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to say that consideration will be given to this matter to remedy what I suggest is a very real grievance.

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend has now made a rather different suggestion from that contained in the proposed new Clause. He has suggested that copies of the information ought to be made available in those cases where there is a committal for trial, and after the committal. That is a substantially different proposition from the one he originally advanced. I obviously cannot give any undertaking in the matter, but I will give consideration to it and see whether it may be possible to make some such provision in another place.

I do not think the practice is that the trial court, certainly in indictable cases, has the information before it. It may happen, it may be so in summary cases, that the magistrate who issued the summons, or authorised the warrant is the magistrate who actually tries the case. That is fortuitous. It is no part of the ordinary system of administration of justice that the information should be considered by or be before the judge or justice who tries the case. So far as the defendant is concerned, he knows what the charge is when he gets the summons, or is charged. He knows what the evidence is when it comes to be given. If it takes him by surprise, he is entitled to some adjournment in order to consider it. But he cannot be convicted on anything except the evidence given in the court, and the vital thing for the defendant is not what may or may not have been said on the application for the original warrant or summons, but the evidence against him in the court. I will consider the modified proposal of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Weitzman

Having heard what has been said by my right hon. and learned Friend, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.