HC Deb 29 November 1955 vol 546 cc2124-6

3.30 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law of criminal procedure relating to the preferment of indictments. I expect that the Bill will have the support of all parties in the House and of all hon. Members, because it is useful, nonparty, short, simple, and designed to prevent obvious injustice of a very grave character. A few years ago the present learned Attorney-General strongly supported the principle embodied in the Bill. In the ten minutes that are available to me I shall do my best to outline very briefly the problem with which the Bill deals.

Under our system of law a person accused of a crime, has, among others, three elementary rights: first, to be deemed innocent until he is proved guilty; secondly, to know exactly the charge against him; and, thirdly, to defend himself against that charge. The Bill deals with the second and third of these rights, which are not at the moment fully and clearly protected. At present, a loophole exists in our law by means of which a prosecuted person may be brought to trial without being told the exact charge against him and without having a full opportunity of defending himself against that particular charge or of getting legal advice directed to it. He may, therefore, be made the victim of an injustice.

The Bill is designed to close that loophole by enacting that every accused person shall be entitled, as of right, to a copy of the indictment against him at least five days before his trial. The need for this rectification of the law was recognised by the present Attorney-General when he was in opposition, and I hope that he will recognise it now that he is in the Government. It was recognised by the authoritative "Modern Law Review" so far back as July, 1954, in a learned article by Mr. Peter Solomon, a member of the Bar, who recommended the very improvement which I am now suggesting. It is recommended by practitioners in the criminal courts and by the twelve hon. Members of this House—all lawyers—who support me in it.

The present position is that when a person is charged with a serious crime he comes first before a magistrate who, if he finds that there is a prima facie case, sends the person for trial to a higher court. For the purpose of bringing the accused before that higher court the prosecution prepares an indictment, which is a legal document charging the person named in it with one or more crimes which are therein specified. It is here that the injustice which the Bill seeks to prevent may arise. The indictment may, without notice to the accused, include other offences in addition to that with which he was charged before the magistrate. If that happens—and it has happened—the accused may be taken by surprise and prejudiced in his defence. He may come to court to defend himself on one charge and at the very last moment, find that he is charged with another offence.

It is, therefore, essential that every accused person should be supplied with a copy of the indictment at least five days before his trial, so that he may seek legal advice, prepare his defence, and bring the appropriate witnesses in support of that defence. At present, there is no obligation upon the prosecution to tell the accused that another charge has been added to the indictment or to give to the accused, in advance, a copy of the indictment. The absence of this obligation tends to defeat justice. The absence of notice to the accused; the element of surprise; the absence of opportunity to prepare a defence and to obtain skilled advice and the absence of opportunity to obtain witnesses, all tend to defeat justice.

There are two wise and sensible aphorisms. Not only must justice be done, but it must appear to be done—and the accused must be deemed innocent until he is proved guilty. Neither of these is fully observed as the law stands at present. I am sure that the House will agree that it is abhorrent that a person should be put into the dock for one offence and be indicted for an additional offence without being given notice that that additional offence is about to be preferred against him. It is not enough that the accused should have a general notion of the offence with which he is charged; he should have a specific notice of the actual offence upon which he is to be tried. Some offences carry a light sentence and others a heavy one.

The kind of thing of which I complain is the negation of justice and is repugnant to our system. My small Bill will cure this defect. As I have said, the present Attorney-General thought as I did in 1948. On 15th April of that year, when the Criminal Justice Bill was before Parliament, the right hon. and learned Gentleman then moved a new Clause to embody the very principle which is embodied in my Bill. I have the new Clause here, but I shall not trouble the House with it. In support of his Amendment, the right hon. and learned Gentleman then said: The Attorney-General will probably agree that he has had the experience which I have had of defending an accused person, of being briefed, and knowing what the charges are according to the brief, and then being suddenly faced with an indictment read out and having to meet additional charges of a new character, charges added by the prosecution at the last moment, giving no opportunity to the defence to consider what course of action should be taken. That can be done under the present law and is done."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th April, 1948; Vol. 449, c. 1199.] In that debate six hon. Members spoke upon that new Clause. Five supported it, and the then Home Secretary opposed it, although he said that he would look into the matter and see that something would be done. Nothing has been done from that day to this. It is a surprising thing that such a loophole in our law should have remained during all those years. My Bill is designed to close it and see that justice is done. I hope that the House will give me leave to bring it in.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Hector Hughes, Mr. de Freitas, Mr. Anthony Greenwood, Mr. Glenvil Hall, Mr. Willey, Mr. R. Williams, Mr. Janner, Mr. S. Silverman, Mr. Hale, Mr. L. M. Lever, Mr. E. L. Mallalieu, and Mr. Weitzman.