HC Deb 21 May 1965 vol 712 cc1938-42

Amendment made: In page 7, line 36, at end insert:

The Writ of Subpoena Act 1805. 45 Geo. 3. c. 92. In sections 3 and 4 references to a writ of subpoena requiring the appearance of a person to give evidence shall be construed as including references to a witness summons under section 2 of this Act.
—[Mr. McLaren]

11.52 a.m.

Mr. McLaren

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

As the House gave a Second Reading to this Bill without debate, I may perhaps be allowed to say a few words about it. This is a Bill which simplifies and modernises the procedure for securing the attendance of witnesses at courts of assize and quarter sessions. The Bill carries out the recommendations of the Criminal Law Revision Committee in its Sixth Report published last September.

The Chairman of that Committee is Lord Justice Sellers. The members include four other High Court judges and other distinguished members of both branches of the legal profession. This House has been giving close attention to the work of that Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) brought in the Criminal Justice Bill to implement the Fifth Report in regard to juries, and the present Bill seeks to implement the Sixth Report. We are indebted to Lord Justice Sellers and the members of the Committee for their fruitful work.

The Report shows that the present procedure for securing attendance of witnesses is somewhat complex and antiquated. The procedure depends on whether or not the witness has given evidence before the magistrates in committal proceedings. If he has, he is bound over by recognisances to give evidence at the trial. If he has not been bound over at the committal proceedings, it is necessary to serve him with a subpoena and there is a great deal of ancient learning concerning the difference between Crown Office subpoenas and quarter sessions subpoenas.

Surveying that procedure, the Committee felt that the complications and the obscurities involved made it desirable to replace the system with something simpler. In particular they thought that the system of binding witnesses over was unnecessarily elaborate. So Clause 1 of the Bill provides that examining justice should merely make an order, which is called a witness order, requiring the witness to attend and to give evidence before the higher court. If his evidence is likely to be unnecessary, a conditional order may be made.

By Clause 2 other persons who have not given evidence before the magistrates may be served with a witness summons and the old procedure by way of subpoena is abolished. Clause 3 provides for the punishment for disobedience of a witness order or witness summons. Such disobedience is treated in the Clause as a contempt of court and penalties are provided either by way of fine or by a maximum of three months' imprisonment.

Clause 4 deals with the question what should be done to secure the attendance of a witness who is unlikely to attend. It provides what may at first sight seem a strong power, that if a judge of the High Court is satisfied by evidence on oath that the witness is unlikely to come, the judge may issue a warrant for the witness's arrest. This question is discussed on page 18 of the Committee's Report. The Committee considered on balance that this was a power which ought to be conferred and it gave several reasons for this view.

The first was that it was very important that all relevant evidence should be available at the trial. The second was that the recent trend of serious crime by gangs in cases where often large sums of money are involved might lead to pressure on witnesses to abscond. Thirdly, the Committee thought that if a bad case were to occur it would be unfortunate that the court should have no power to prevent a witness from disappearing. Fourthly, they thought that, as a similar power already exists under the Magistrates' Courts Act for a witness to be arrested to attend before a magistrates' court to give evidence, it would be strange if the same power were not available to the higher criminal courts.

I agree with this view, and in discussion the Standing Committee also thought that it was suitable that this power should be included in the Bill. It is worth bearing in mind that the protection for the witness is that the power is exercisable only by a High Court judge who would be disposed in favour of the liberty of the subject and he would first have to receive evidence on oath. When a warrant for arrest had been executed, it would always be possible in a suitable case for a witness to be bailed.

Later in the Bill there are subsidiary and detailed provisions, which I need not mention to the House, covering particular cases such as trials transferred from one court to another. The Second Schedule lists some provisions in old Statutes which are to be repealed because they refer to the binding over procedure which is now to be abolished. I hope that the House will think that this is a useful and helpful Measure. It is supported by the General Council of the Bar. I gratefully acknowledge the generous help I have been given by the Home Secretary and his staff, by the Law Officers, and also by Parliamentary Counsel.

11.59 a.m.

Sir Barnett Janner (Leicester, North-West)

May I offer my congratulations, and I am sure the congratulations of the House, to the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren) who introduced this Measure? I suppose that at this stage you, Mr. Speaker, would rule that we cannot refer to any proposals for amendment, but in spite of proposals which came forward some of which were not accepted, I am quite convinced that the Bill will act in the interests of justice. Those of us who have practised in the courts know how difficult the position is in relation to bringing witnesses before higher courts when a matter has been tried by a lower court. The provisions of the Bill will help the courts at the earlier stages to decide in which instances witnesses should be compelled to attend at a later stage.

I underline the point which has been made about the attendance of witnesses who otherwise might by intimidation be prevented from giving their evidence. It is highly important that the machinery of the courts should be such that a witness of that type who would be in a position to give essential evidence should at least have the compulsion of the court to attend, accompanied by something which is perhaps even stronger than the threats which are made against him, so that the maker of the threats might find himself in considerable difficulties if he carried them out. Every step taken to ensure that justice will prevail is a step important to us all. The hon. Gentleman has done us a valuable service by introducing the Bill.

12.2 p.m.

The Solicitor-General

I, too, would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren) on introducing the Bill and also on the manner in which he piloted it through Standing Committee. When it reaches the Statute Book, as I assume that it will within a short time, the hon. Gentleman will join the select body of private Members who have been responsible for actual legislation. I regard the hon. Gentleman with a certain amount of envy, because in the course of what is now a fairly lengthy Parliamentary career I have introduced quite a number of Bills at one time and another, all of them, as it seems to me looking back, admirable Measures, but none of them has ever even secured a Second Reading. Therefore, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his success, which I have never been able to achieve.

I join him in expressing, I hope on behalf of the whole House, our appreciation of what has been done by Lord Justice Sellers and his colleagues on the Criminal Law Revision Committee, not only in relation to this Bill, but also for the extremely valuable work that they have done in revising various parts of our criminal law.

I do not think that I can add anything to what has been said by the hon. Gentleman and by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner). It is true, as the Criminal Law Revision Committee said, that the present system has not worked too badly. Undoubtedly, the great majority of witnesses are law-abiding. They are ready and anxious to do their duty as citizens. Therefore, the defects in the present system are not usually apparent. None the less, the law as it stands is old-fashioned, it is clumsy, it is obscure, and it is high time that it was replaced.

There will be a general welcome for the abolition of the binding over of witnesses, because at present a quite unnecessary amount of time is wasted in complying with the formalities of this very elaborate procedure. The procedure is not particularly effective in the case of a reluctant witness or, indeed, an intimidated witness of the type to which my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-West referred. No one will regret the disappearance in this context of the subpoena and its substitution by the simple statutory procedure proposed in the Bill. This is a thoroughly useful Measure, it is welcomed by the Government, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.