HC Deb 07 May 1965 vol 711 cc1757-60

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

11.5 a.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill follows the recommendations of the Fifth Report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Sellers. This was published last year as Cmnd. Paper 2349.

Until 1925, if a juror died or was discharged, the trial had to begin again. Under Section 15 of the Criminal Justice Act, 1925, this was altered. As the law now stands, if a juror dies or is incapacitated from acting, it is necessary to have the consent of both prosecutor and the defence given in writing before the trial can continue. It can continue only so long as the number of jurors does not fall below the figure of 10.

Although both parties usually agree and it is rare for the number of jurors to be reduced to as low as 10, it is only as regards long trials that there is ever any difficulty and the problem can arise and the present rule causes some inconvenience. In a long trial either party may refuse consent in the belief that it would be more likely to succeed in a fresh trial, or the defence might refuse in the mistaken idea that it would be putting off the evil day of inevitable punishment.

Two courses seem open in revising the present law on jurors. The first course would be that there should be alternate jurors, as is done in some American States, where they are sworn at the outset of the trial and listen to the evidence and replace any juror who falls out. But I believe that this would be wasteful of manpower, inconvenient and much resented.

Therefore, the second alternative, which is what I propose in my Bill and which entirely follows the recommendations of Lord Justice Sellers's Committee, is that so long as the total number of jurors does not fall below nine, it should not be necessary to have these consents in writing, except, of course, in capital cases. I provide in the Bill that this is subject to an overriding power of the court to discharge the whole jury and to order a fresh trial if that seems to be in the interests of justice.

There are many good precedents for having smaller numbers of jurors. During the war, Regulation 15 of the Administration of Justice (Emergency) Regulations, 1940, allowed trials to continue with 10 jurors left out of 12, or five left out of seven, which was the more usual figure during the war in non-capital cases. This reduction of juries to as small as seven in standard cases was allowed in the war under Section 7 of the Administration of Justice (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1940. There are other good precedents, besides those in our own country, in other Common-wealth countries. In Victoria and South Australia the minimum number of jurors is five-sixths of the total in non-capital cases.

In suggesting nine as the minimum number, I am following the recommendation of Lord Justice Sellers's Committee. It pointed out that juries of seven had given general satisfaction in the war but that it was a big change from our present tradition and pattern and it felt that a change to so small a minimum would be a rather large change. Indeed, it is extremely unlikely that the number will ever fall as low as nine, but it leaves a certain amount of comfort to the 10 surviving jurymen to feel that, if one of them is suddenly taken ill, the trial can still go on.

As at present we still have the death penalty, Clause 1(2) is generally desirable, because most people would expect consent in capital cases. Obviously, I would not wish to comment this mornning on another Bill which is before a Committee of the whole House. The fact remains that this subsection should be left in, irrespective of what may happen to that other Bill, because it might be possible for the death penalty to be reintroduced at a later date and I would not like my modest little Measure to be in any jeopardy because of failing to include such a subsection.

I hope that the House will give the Bill a Third Reading. I am grateful to the House for having given it a Second Reading on the nod.

11.11 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Miss Alice Bacon)

When the Bill was considered in Standing Committee, I made it clear that the Government fully supported it. I am glad to have this opportunity of congratulating the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) on introducing it and, I hope, getting it successfully passed through the House.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, the Bill derives from the Fifth Report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee. We welcome the implementing of yet another of the useful reforms proposed and prepared by that Committee. The proposals in the Bill involve no more than some small changes in the procedure at criminal trials. They do not involve any radical departure of principle. It has long been accepted that the death or illness of a juror during a trial, or his discharge for some other reason, ought not to prevent the continuation of the trial, subject to certain safeguards.

The Bill simply adjusts these safeguards to enable the procedure to operate a little more smoothly and without unnecessary impediment.

As the Criminal Law Revision Committee pointed out in its Report, the problem arises only in relation to long trials; but, as such, it is a problem which is increasing rather than decreasing. It is, I believe, a fact that there are many more long criminal trials than there used to be. This is no more than a reflection of the complicated world in which we now live. A complex society inevitably makes for complex rules and procedure for dealing with those who are thought to have broken the rules.

A prosecution under the highly technical laws which are now necessary, for example, for protecting the public from commercial fraud, may involve the examination of a mass of detailed evidence and require the patient attention of a judge and jury for many days. The longer trials become, the greater the risk of their interruption through death or illness and the more important it becomes to avoid the cost and the inconvenience of starting again, unless it is clearly necessary in the interests of justice.

Under the terms of the Bill, it will still be open to the court to order a fresh trial if justice requires it, but the possibility of either prosecution or defence being able to insist on this without a good reason will be removed.

The Bill, quite properly, makes an exception in the case of a trial for murder or for an offence punishable with death. Like the hon. Gentleman, I do not want to talk about another Bill which is before a Committee of the whole House. It is right that it should be a trial for murder or for any offence punishable with death because, even if the death penalty is abolished, a trial for murder could mean imprisonment for life. Because of that, I think that the words which the hon. Gentleman has included in the Bill are the right ones. The gravity of the charge in a trial for murder is such that a decision ought not to be imposed on the accused, and I am glad that in this instance the requirement of the written consent of both parties is preserved. Since the exception applies to all trials for murder, irrespective of what punishment may be imposed on conviction, it will not be affected in any way by the proposals of the other Bill which the hon. Gentleman and I have mentioned and which is before a Committee of the whole House.

The Report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee on this subject received a good Press and the changes now proposed have, I understand, the full support of the General Council of the Bar and of the Law Society. I hope that the House will now add its final approval.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.