HC Deb 31 May 1956 vol 553 cc474-85 Upon the trial of a person who is indicted for an offence under section eleven of the Act of 1930 (which relates to reckless or dangerous driving, it shall be lawful for the jury, if they are satisfied that he is guilty of an offence under section twelve (which relates to careless driving), to find him guilty of that offence whether or not the requirements of section twenty-one of the Act of 1930 (which relates to notice of prosecutions) has been satisfied as respects that offence.—[Mr. Royle.]

Brought up, and read the First Time.

Mr. Charles Royle (Salford, West)

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

This Clause deals with quite a different subject from any that we have been discussing this afternoon. I am happy to see the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in his place. I feel sure that he will be interested in this subject. I sincerely hope that we shall have the support of both the hon. Gentleman and the Minister of Transport.

This is a simple matter. It demands only very short explanation and argument, but that does not take away its importance. If a defendant is charged before a court of summary jurisdiction under Section 11 of the 1930 Act for reckless or dangerous driving, the magistrates, after hearing the evidence, and if they feel that a case has not been made out on that charge but a case of careless driving has been proved, have power to reduce the charge accordingly, to deal with the defendant under Section 12, and to impose the appropriate penalty.

The anomaly is that if a case of reckless driving is committed to a higher court which sits with a jury, to quarter sessions for example, the jury must find the defendant guilty or not guilty on the charge before it and has no power of reducing the charge. A defendant often gets away in a higher court with something of which he is guilty, careless driving, because a case of reckless or dangerous driving has not been strong enough in the eyes of the jury to convict him, unless the police start the case afresh by introducing the lesser charge before a court of summary jurisdiction.

In our system of law many serious matters are dealt with in this way. A jury can reduce a charge of murder to one of manslaughter. Surely it is not a very big thing to ask that a jury might reduce a charge of reckless and dangerous driving to one of careless driving. I put the new Clause to the House because of the enormous pressure of these cases on courts of summary jurisdiction. The Joint Under-Secretary knows as well as most hon. Members that a very important committee has recently been considering timesaving methods for minor offences and that we may hope to hear very shortly from the Home Secretary whether legislation will be introduced to put the Committee's recommendations into operation.

In the case I am raising the time of courts could be considerably saved by giving juries a right to do what magistrates in lower courts can do. I beg the Minister to consider this suggestion seriously and to accept the proposed new Clause, which I am sure will help the ends of justice.

Mr. James MacColl (Widnes)

I beg to second the Motion.

It is purely a coincidence that the three names attached to the proposed new Clause are those of Lancashire Members. There is no reason to think that there is more of a problem in Lancashire in this regard than there is anywhere else. It also happens that my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) and myself are members of the Council of the Magistrates' Association and have a very special interest in this matter. I do not pretend to have the experience of my hon. Friends in this matter, because in London, where I serve on the Commission of the Peace, we have little to do with traffic offences. Magistrates who have experience of traffic offences find that this is a real problem and they are very much concerned about what happens to cases which they have heard in the early stages.

The Clause does not propose any great departure from precedent because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, West (Mr. Royle) has said, there are other cases in which it is possible for a jury which does not feel that a case is made out on a particular offence to record a conviction upon an alternative offence. My hon. Friend mentioned the reduction of murder to manslaughter. There is an even more germane analogy. Under the 1934 Act, where there is provision for courts of summary jurisdiction to reduce a charge of reckless driving to that of careless driving, there is also provision for a charge of manslaughter to be changed into one of reckless or dangerous driving.

If it is possible to move from the greatest offence to the next in that way, it should be possible and in accordance with common sense to be able to move from the middle to the lower of these three charges which are likely to be involved in a driving incident. Only some strange anomaly can have brought about the difference between the two. My hon. Friend's new Clause is a sensible proposition, and I have much pleasure in seconding its Second Reading.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

If my hon. Friend intends to accept the new Clause, as I hope he does, perhaps he will consider one point on the wording. It seems just possible that with the present wording a conviction might take place under Section 12 even though no notice of intended prose cution had been given under Section 11 That, of course, is not the intention of the hon. Members who moved and seconded the Motion and it would be unfortunate if it were to have that effect.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

To take up the point just made by the hon. Mew ber for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell), it is, of course, the practice in the courts of summary jurisdiction for the two alternative charges to be taken and then, if the magistrates feel that there is not sufficient evidence to convict on the more serious charge, they usually dismiss it and proceed on the lesser charge. Unfortunately, if they decide to send the case for trial on the graver count the alternative charge does not go to the court of quarter sessions, so that in that court there is only the more serious charge before the jury. It is rather galling for the magistrates afterwards to hear that the case has been completely dismissed in the higher court when, had it not been sent there, they might well have convicted on the lesser charge and inflicted the appropriate punishment.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) has said, it is an anomalous position. It is probably one of those little matters which were overlooked when the law was last altered. Parliament probably overlooked at the time the fact that both alternative charges did not go forward to the higher court. There is the safeguard in the 1930 Act that nobody can be faced with the alternative charge after fourteen days. That is quite a sensible idea but it does prevent the alternative charge being lodged in the higher court if the jury there decide that the case for dangerous driving has not been substantiated.

A further point that sometimes inhibits magistrates, and possibly juries, from convicting on the graver charge is, of course, the fact that a conviction for dangerous driving carries with it an automatic disqualification whereas a conviction for careless driving does not. Sometimes a jury, or the magistrates, feel that in all the circumstances they do not wish to disqualify someone and that, therefore, they should not convict on the more serious charge. There is undoubtedly that disinclination to convict of dangerous driving because of this automatic disqualification.

I believe that the Minister could quite safely accept the new Clause, or something on the same lines, as its only effect is to leave a certain amount of discretion to the jury in the higher court such as magistrates already have in the lower court. Magistrates do exercise that discretion, and I suggest that juries, under the guidance of the judge in the court of quarter sessions, could equally exercise a wise discretion whenever the circumstances justified it. I do not think that the Minister should have very much difficulty in accepting the proposed new Clause, although he may wish to alter the wording and just accept the principle.

Mr. Elwyn Jones (West Ham, South)

I am not at all sure about this new Clause. Having had a certain amount of experience in the criminal courts, particularly in regard to the reaction of the average jury to the average motoring offence, my feeling is that there is already a considerable reluctance—and here I must measure my words carefully—on the part of some juries in some districts to convict motorists of dangerous driving.

I think that it was the Lord Chief Justice who said in another place "No one has yet been able to find a way of depriving a British jury of its privilege of returning a perverse verdict," and the tendency to do so in regard to motoring offences is perhaps more manifest than it is in perhaps any other branch of the criminal law. What I fear is that if the Clause is passed there will be an open door for weak juries to say, "Well, all right—careless driving". It will be an easy let-out.

I fear, therefore, that so far from the Clause having the purpose intended by my hon. Friends—whose judgment in these matters, of course, I greatly respect—of securing the punishment of criminally bad driving in a manner which the interests of justice require, it might have the exactly opposite effect of weakening the force of the criminal law in its action against the driver guilty of committing such offences.

It is for that reason that I am very reluctant indeed to give the Clause my support. Indeed, I think that on the whole I am against it. My hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) has put his finger on one of the factors which perhaps do discourage juries from convicting of dangerous driving—the power of disqualification. I am sure that we in this House feel satisfied that the weapon of disqualification is one which should very properly be exercised, and should perhaps be exercised more frequently by the criminal courts than is the case at present. I appreciate that there is a real difficulty confronting us, because it sometimes means that a weak jury returns a verdict which results in a guilty man getting off altogether, whereas my hon. Friends say that if the Clause is accepted there may at least be the chance of getting a conviction for careless driving. I fear, however, that the result would be that the genuine case of dangerous driving would resuIt in a weak verdict of careless driving. Therefore, on the whole, I am against the Clause.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, North West)

I rise in trepidation now, because there seems to be some difference of opinion. Nevertheless, I must throw in my weight with Lancashire as against my hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones), who comes from a district which I very highly respect. After some little experience extending over a fair period of years I disagree with my hon. and learned Friend. I think that he is right as to the reluctance of a jury to convict for dangerous driving, but I think that that fact should lead him to a conclusion quite different from that which he has adduced as a reason for rejecting the Clause.

The fact is that many juries, if they knew that they could return a verdict for reckless or negligent driving—or careless driving, which is even smaller—would return that verdict, because to a very considerable extent their minds are affected not only by the desire to prevent a person from losing his licence but by considerations of the safety of the public as a whole. If a person has been careless in driving I am quite certain that the average jury will come to the conclusion that they ought not to allow the offence to go by without some kind of penalty.

I stand with humility before those who practise in the higher courts. Although I do not always agree with their views, nevertheless I stand in their presence with considerable fear and anxiety. I think that if one were asked in the lower courts whether this provision enabling the court to return a verdict on the smaller offence is a good thing or not, the average person would say that it is a good thing and, in the interests of the public, that it is essential.

When the court comes to the conclusion that a person has been careless, and imposes even a small fine, or a warning, or even only orders him to pay the costs, it has the effect of preventing the person concerned from being careless in future—not entirely, obviously, but at least it has some effect in that direction.

I think the Minister would be well advised to concede the point that is being asked for here, in the interests not only of the public in general, but of the motorist themselves, because it would be a warning which would help them to retain or obtain a proper outlook on their duties towards the public when they are driving.

Mr. George Isaacs (Southwark)

I am afraid I am going to add a little more to the differences of opinion that have been expressed. I want to ask the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to think very carefully before he accepts this proposal.

In the area in which I have been serving as a magistrate, we act very diffently from the way in which magistrates act in other areas. I do not think that in my court the magistrates have the right to reduce the charge of dangerous driving to one of careless driving.

Mr. H. Hynd

Only if there is an alternative charge.

Mr. Isaacs

They have no right to reduce the charge. Usually what happens is that two charges are preferred. There is never any reduction of the first charge to the second charge. The accused person is told, "You are charged with driving in a manner dangerous to the public. There is also a charge of driving carelessly. We do not propose to deal with the charge of driving carelessly until this other charge has been disposed of. On a charge of driving in a manner dangerous to the public you have the right of being tried by a jury. Do you wish to be tried by a jury?"

If the accused says "Yes ", that settles it. The case goes to a jury. But the second charge remains adjourned sine die until the first charge is dealt with. That is how these matters are dealt with in Surrey, and, I believe, in many other courts. If the lower court decides that dangerous driving has not been proved, the case is dismissed. The other charge is then brought up and the accused is told, "You have this alternative charge to answer." It is not a question of reducing a charge. It is a question of dismissing one and then taking the other. If the case of dangerous driving goes to the sessions to be tried by a jury, and it is then dismissed, it automatically comes back to the lower court.

The only advantage that I can see in procedure such as is suggested in this proposed new Clause would be that the jury would know that there was an alternative charge, and it would be dealt with there instead of being sent back to the lower court. But there is the danger to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones) referred. I am afraid that if the jury knew that they could throw out the dangerous driving charge and try the accused on the alternative one, too many cases of dangerous driving would be dismissed in favour of charges of careless driving.

5.45 p.m.

It is my experience that the most severe punishment which can be imposed on a motorist who has driven carelessly or dangerously is to suspend him from driving for a month or two. Driving about the roads as I have done for many years, I think the vast majority of the motorists in the country are careful, reasonable and courteous. It is the odd one here and there who acts carelessly, and it is the most careful drivers who would like to see that type of driver dealt with. The man who is driving carelessly is a risk not only to pedestrians but to other drivers. Therefore, people who drive carelessly ought to be taken off the road for a time.

Mr. McColl

Both my right hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones) are confusing the issue. Surely there is power for the chairman of quarter sessions to disqualify on a conviction for careless driving. If the jury's verdict is perverse, and if a conviction is returned for careless driving, it remains with the chairman of quarter sessions to disqualify.

Mr. Isaacs

The careless driver does not go to the sessions. Careless driving is dealt with summarily by the justices. It is only in the case of dangerous driving where there is an option of going to the sessions.

In my experience, if a man has been fined £5 or £10, he will pay up with pleasure. But, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you should see the look on his face when he is told that he will be suspended from driving for a month. That is the safeguard for other road users. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) says that the fact of fining a man even a small sum of money or even giving him a caution has a great impression upon him. I say to him: Don't you believe it, brother. These men appear in court a second and third time, and it is only when the magistrate has an option of imposing a suspension that these people sit up and begin to take a bit of notice.

When I first saw this Clause I was inclined to favour it, on the ground that if a man was sent to the sessions with a second charge hanging over him the matter would be cleared up there and then. It would give the jury an opportunity to decide whether there ought to be some severity in the penalty. I think I have convinced myself—

Mr. H. Hynd

Can my right hon. Friend say whether in his experience he has ever heard any legal explanation of the difference between dangerous and careless driving?

Mr. Isaacs

I have heard legal explanations of the difference between careless and dangerous driving given by the Lord Chief Justice, but I still do not understand them.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

The hon. Member for Salford. West (Mr. Royle) began by stating the facts quite fairly and he provoked a most stimulating and instructive discussion, at the end of which I think the right hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Isaacs) correctly stated the position, at least as I understand it, in relation to the higher and the lower courts.

This proposed new Clause has a reasonable objective which we all appreciate. The hon. Gentleman is concerned that the motorist who is acquitted on the more serious charge in the higher court should not get away with it on the lesser charge, which one of his hon. Friends thought was galling for the magistrates.

Perhaps I should deal first with the point made that juries can convict of an offence other than the offence charged. I think the hon. Gentleman the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) also suggested that there are many charges on which juries can convict of an alternative. What, I think, should be stressed—I am sure the hon. Member will take the point when I make it—is that wherever a jury now has power to convict of an offence other than the one charged, both those offences are indictable; for example, murder and manslaughter, larceny and receiving.

The difficulty here is just this: that careless driving is a summary offence not sufficiently grave to be made an indictable offence, and there is no precedent for giving juries power to convict of a summary offence. Where they have power to convict on the alternative, both the offences are indictable.

The real difficulty in which we become involved was put forward, with much more forensic persuasion than I can hope to achieve, by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for West Ham, South (Mr. Elwyn Jones). There is, I think, substantial evidence to suggest—like him, I wish to choose very carefully my language on this point—that juries are known to be reluctant to convict of dangerous driving, and that if they are given the alternative of the lesser offence, that is to say, of careless driving, there will be a very strong tendency for them to take it on more occasions than perhaps the mover of the new Clause would desire. In other words, offered it, they will take the softer option.

Mr. Royle

I want to suggest to the Joint Under-Secretary and to my hon. and learned Friend that they have a lot less faith in British jurles than I have.

Mr. Elwyn Jones

If my hon. Friend is suggesting that I doubt the value of the jury system, he is doing me an injustice. I think the jury system is invaluable to secure the acquittal of the innocent. I am not certain that it is invaluable to secure the conviction of the guilty.

Mr. Deedes

I certainly will not be drawn into a discussion on the merits of the jury system. The point which is really relevant to the new Clause is this. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Salford, West is anxious—and the purpose of his new Clause really leads to this—that the motorist on either charge, and particularly on the charge of dangerous driving, shall not get less than his deserts, that there shall be no chance of his receiving a punishment less than the punishment which he deserves. All I am saying is that there is evidence, factual evidence, as the hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South has stated, that the consequence of the new Clause might be precisely to the opposite effect. It would perhaps lead to increasing difficulty in getting convictions for dangerous driving, and to more defendants electing to go for trial on charges of dangerous driving, which, of course, among other things, would tend to increase the work of the superior courts.

Perhaps I might add as a third, if subsidiary, factor that the effect of the Clause would increase the difficulties of summing up. because juries would have to be instructed that it is open to them to convict of careless driving, and the degree of negligence involved in the two offences would have to be distinguished. I do not seek to make heavy weather of that, but it is an additional factor which the House may wish to take into account.

I have no doubt that the principal objection, which I hope the House will accept, is to be found in the grounds first advanced by the hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South and by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Southwark. On those grounds, the House would do well to think twice before accepting the new Clause, and I hope the hon. Member for Salford, West will not press it.

Mr. Janner

Before the Joint Under-Secretary concludes, I should like information on one matter. The point has been made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southwark (Mr. Isaacs) about cases being tried after there has been a discharge at quarter sessions on a charge of dangerous driving, the charge of careless driving being afterwards tried in the police court. Can the Joint Under-Secretary give us any idea how many such cases there are, or whether there are in fact very few? In my experience, I have not come across any in which that charge has been afterwards levelled. Has he any idea what the numbers are in this respect?

Mr. Deedes

Since the question is asked, perhaps I should say that I think the right hon. Gentleman was not quite right in saying that the case automatically went back to the lower court. My impression is that the answer to the question of the hon. Member for Leicester, North- West (Mr. Janner) is that this is some thing which varies in different parts of the country. I would certainly not like to give, or attempt to give, any statistical answer to his question.

Mr. Royle

I am not disposed to with draw the Motion.

Question put and negatived.