HC Deb 15 July 1963 vol 681 cc273-8
Mr. Mapp

I beg to move, in page 14, line 43, at the end to insert: (2) Where a child or young parson who has attained the age of 12 is charged with a criminal offence and such child or young person is in the possession of and under the control of both parents then both parents shall be required to attend the Court before which the case is heard if the Clerk of the Court having regard to the nature of the case deems it desirable. At this time of the morning and as there has been little victory so far, I am optimistic that the Home Secretary may agree that the Amendment should be accepted.

The Clause states: Where a child or young parson is charged with any offence or is for any other reason brought before a court, any person who is a parent or guardian of his may be required to attend at the court". It suggests that both parents should be there so that the court can dispense with one of them, and in practice that is what happens.

There is a little history about this. The Ingleby Committee recommended in rather loose language—I say that carefully, and do not want any wrong impression to be gained from it; the language was not tight—that both parents should in future be in the juvenile court. The Bill carried that provision when it originally went to the other place.

In another place a noble Lady, perhaps largely sharing the approach of this side of the House, proceeded with an argu- ment which, in effect, is the kind of argument with which those of us who have sat in juvenile courts are very familiar. We were faced with the fact that the Bill spoke of both parents being present, including for trivial cases. But those of us who have sat in juvenile courts know that it is not a question of black or white. Another member of the other place put the case of the long-distance driver when his child is before the courts charged with a trivial offence, such as taking a comic from a shop counter. The case was strongly put for the Government that it would be a hardship on the parent if he were compelled to attend the court and thereby lose a day's wages. That is clearly the case.

The Government spokesman said he would think of some form of words which would take account of the representations. Lord Ingleby said that both parents should normally be there but that having heard the debate, he felt there was a drafting problem and that, broadly speaking, both parents were not required in respect of trivial cases. In Standing Committee, no Amendment on this point was moved, although I did refer to the subject.

I have experience in provincial courts. In the vast majority of cases, in juvenile court, there is no real need for both parents to be present. But consider the magistrates' problems in the other cases. If only the mother is there and they would like to adjourn the case in order that the father can attend as well, they have to take into account whether and when witnesses can be present on a future date. Not least is there the problem of the magistrates themselves, for the same ones should be present when the case is resumed. In the provinces we work on a rot a system.

In the first instance, the Government said that both parents should be there, even for trivial cases. That was a mistake, although unwitting. Now they have changed their minds, but I still think that the father should also be present in a serious case. The problem is how to define the sort of case when both parents should be present. I have explained the difficulties facing the court, having regard to the witnesses, the boy and his parents and the magistrates themselves. Can it be arranged that some responsible person should be able, before the hearing, to determine whether a case is one where the presence of both parents is desirable?

Clearly, the police are not the people to do that, for they are parties to the case. The magistrate who signs the summons may be a party. The person nearest to the court and the person who has nothing to do with the merits of the case and who most understands his bench is the clerk of the court. He knows the general attitude of the magistrates and he is in a position to obtain information about the family from the various agencies available to him. He would be able to make it clear in appropriate cases that the presence of both parents was required.

It is my experience, an experience shared by other magistrates, that it is a waste of time having both parents present for trivial cases, but in the one case in a dozen when it does matter, the difficulties of getting both parents in court are such that the case is heard with only the mother there, and the man who ought to be practising the leadership of the family escapes his responsibilities and criticisms.

I hope that the Government will accept this happy medium between their original approach of having both parents present for even trivial cases, which went too far one way, and their second thoughts in another place which went to far in the other direction and that whether the circumstances justify the presence of both parents will be decided by the only person we can allow to decide—the clerk of the court.

Miss Pike

I am sorry that at this late hour I should have to disappoint the hon. Member's optimism. He has given great thought to this problem. He discussed it in Committee when he gave notice that he would try to bring forward some Amendment of this nature. It is a problem which has been thought over very carefully. We all want to do what he is trying to do—to ensure not only that a parent, but that the right parent is in court when the case is being tried. The method the hon. Member has suggested is inappropriate and I hope that I shall be able to convince him that there is no practical need for it. I hope that I shall also be able to convince him that we have got it about right. As he said, in the first place we went too far one way.

The effect of his Amendment would be to confer on the clerk of the court in a limited class of cases a discretion which would be independent of and concurrent with a similar discretion given to the court in subsection (1). We believe that to be inappropriate. As the hon. Member with his very wide experience of these matters knows, justices usually delegate to the clerk the preparation of summonses and warrants for their signature.

3.15 a.m.

We see no reason why, if the justices think fit, the clerks, with their wide experience, and their knowledge of the facts of the case, should not indicate in the summons which parents should attend. Then, having given advice to the court, the court could sign the summons and the purpose which the hon. Gentleman seeks to achieve would be achieved by a more appropriate method. The hon. Gentleman is looking a little bewildered. I hope that I have explained this adequately.

Mr. Mapp

I was getting a bit mixed up because at the point of signing a summons it is not the duty of a magistrate to make any inquiries about the merits of the case. He may be called on later to deal with that case in court. The hon. Lady, by inference, is saying that at the point of issuing the summons the magistrate could, by inference, ask some questions and, by inference, the clerk would summon one or both of the parents. If that is the hon. Lady's argument, I am not with her.

Miss Pike

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has got me right. I am not saying that at this stage the magistrate should make any judgment. I was trying to say that the clerk, with his knowledge of the case, in preparing the summons, could include a requirement that one or other of the parents should attend the court. In this way I believe that we would achieve the practical end which the hon. Gentleman wants to achieve without the improper powers which this Amendment would give to the justices' clerk. With that assurance, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that the point made by him has been met.

Mr. MacColl

The hon. Lady will remember that this point raised a good deal of discussion in Committee upstairs, and in the other place, and that it gave rise to a good deal of disagreement. I started with the point of view that this campaign to get parents into court was over-emphasised. I considered that it was possible to get parents into court if one was prepared to be tough enough, but my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East (Mr. Mapp) pulled me up sharply and said that this was very much a London point of view, because where one has a court which sits weekly one can talk about adjournments and remands and holding children in custody until the parents appear, but that this is not practical in courts which meet only occasionally and which work a rot a which does not provide—as I think it should—for continuity of the panel to listen to cases which have been remanded.

The difficulty about a straightforward direction that parents should always come is that it is difficult, without inquiry, to discover whether the parents really are the parents; whether they are married; whether the child is the child of both parents; whether the father is in fact a hopeless mental case; whether he is an invalid who cannot walk; and all the other complexities that might arise. Without a certain amount of investigation it is difficult to decide these things, and of course it is extremely undesirable for the magistrate who is to hear the case to have preliminary inquiries into the family life of the boy before the case has been heard. Nothing could be more prejudicial to a fair hearing than to be told that the father of the boy is in prison. To be told that the boy comes from a family of criminals could make one sceptical of the boy's story, and I therefore think it is undesirable that the magistrate should probe too much into the case before hearing it.

Where the court meets frequently it would be possible to say that in any case which is serious there should be a remand for inquiries, and there might be a standing order for the probation officers, when they got in touch with the parents, to indicate to them quite clearly that they should attend court. My hon. Friend pointed out that that was all very well for a court that met frequently, but that it could not be done when a court did not have regular meetings for remand cases.

The Amendment seems to offer the best solution to the problem. It is necessary that somebody should look at the case beforehand, and there is no harm in the clerk's looking into the matter beforehand. He sees various statements before the hearing, and he could easily go through the cases and, with his knowledge, pick out those in which the parents should be present. I am disappointed that the hon. Lady has not been able to offer my hon. Friend a little more hope in this matter I am sorry that the matter has been raised at this late hour, because it is a useful and constructive attempt to meet the problem, and I would have liked there to be a more detailed examination of it. That would have been possible if we had been dealing with it at a more civilised hour, but who wants to talk about adjournments of courts when all that we are thinking of is the Adjournment of the House?

Amendment negatived.