HC Deb 05 December 1972 vol 847 cc1095-8
Q3. Mr. Clinton Davis

asked the Prime Minister if he is satisfied with the coordination of the Home Department, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Department of the Environment concerning questions of law reform; and if he will make a statement.

Q8. Mr. Peter Archer

asked the Prime Minister whether he is satisfied with the co-ordination between the Lord Chancellor, the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the Secretary of State for the Environment relating to questions of law reform; and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. There is full consultation on law reform matters between my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Davis

Is the Prime Minister aware that it has been reported in the Press that certain discussions have taken place between these Departments concerning proposals to eliminate the right of trial by jury in connection with certain petty thefts and serious driving offences? Is that right? If it is right, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that these proposals would be regarded by many sections of the public and by a large section of the legal profession as being a serious erosion of the liberty of the individual?

The Prime Minister

As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, the burden on the higher courts increased sharply during the first nine months of this year. From January to October 1972 the number of committals for trial was 20 per cent. higher than during the corresponding period of 1971. The Lord Chancellor and those who are concerned with servicing the Crown Courts have been examining possible ways of dealing with this additional burden. As the House knows, the number of courts has been considerably increased, and that programme is continuing. It is, therefore, right that these matters should be looked at. If the Government were to come to the conclusion that any particular method should be adopted they would have to come to the House.

Mr. McLaren

Has not a great deal of useful law reform been carried out in recent years, and have not the reports of the Law Commission received prompt consideration by Parliament?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, that is so. A great deal of excellent work has been done, and the House has been willing to implement as speedily as possible the recommendations of the Law Commission. There have been other recommendations on the reform of the law which have been more controversial, particularly in the recent report of the Criminal Law Revision Committee, on which we have said that we do not intend to legislate this Session, so that there will be time for full public discussion.

Mr. Archer

Does the Prime Minister agree that the right to trial by jury, with proper financial provision for representation and with such traditional rights as the caution and the right to silence, are important practical safeguards of individual liberty and worth the price we pay for them, particularly to the less affluent and the less articulate? If any inroads arc to be made on these principles, will the Prime Minister undertake that it will be after proper debate in the House and not by way of a measure introduced in a telescoped form and debated in the bleak hours of the morning?

The Prime Minister

Yes, the right to trial by jury is an important aspect of our legal system. It does not extend to all offences and it is right that this matter should be examined. If recommendations are made which the Government decide to implement, legislation would of course have to come to the House.

Mrs. Knight

Is my right hon. Friend aware that spokesmen from all these Departments join the Magistrates' Associations and others in their universal concern about some aspects of the way in which the Children and Young Persons Act is working? Can he hold out any hope of an early reform of that law?

The Prime Minister

I should like to consider that matter. I do not think I can hold out early hope but I am certainly prepared to discuss it with my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Harold Wilson

In the law reform discussions, have the Government taken a decision on the Franks Report, with particular reference to Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act? As the Department of the Environment is mentioned, does the right hon. Gentleman recall the exchanges in the House during business questions last week about the raid on a newspaper office and the document that was alleged to have come from the Department of the Environment? Will he give an assurance that there will be no question of legal proceedings for the holding of a document in which the copyright is elsewhere, which arises out of a legal decision by the late Mr. Justice Ungoed-Thomas?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been in contact with the right hon. Gentleman since business questions last week, and I have seen the correspondence he has had with the right hon. Gentleman. I would not like to give the right hon. Gentleman an undertaking on the matter because it is somewhat controversial, but I am quite prepared to examine it further and write to him.

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