HC Deb 06 December 1972 vol 847 cc1556-75

4.38 a.m.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

The debate that I seek to initiate relates to a variety of anomalies, as I see them, which affect the administration and practices of certain criminal courts. I have given the Minister notice of probably all the points that I wish to cover, and while I appreciate that he may not be able to give categorical assurances that would satisfy me on all the points, I hope that some such assurances may be forthcoming. I hope that at this time of the morning I am not being unduly optimistic about that. They are a number of points, which I take at random.

The Minister will be aware that in a debate on the rule of law last Friday I mentioned one matter which is not terribly important but can nevertheless cause a certain amount of frustration and injustice to a small number of accused persons, particularly those appearing before magistrates' courts. This relates to the facilities available to have interpreters.

The Minister will remember that I then referred to a case which had been drawn to my attention by a lecturer at the London School of Economics, of whom he will know. This is about one of his students who was due to appear at Ealing magistrates' court on a criminal matter which was not very serious. This young man received an indication from the court, I am told, just the day before the hearing, that an interpreter would be available but that if he was convicted he might have to pay the costs of the interpreter. No opportunity was given to him to say whether he wanted an interpreter. When he appeared, there the interpreter was. In any event there was some evidence in this case that it was desirable to have an interpreter.

The young man was convicted, and a small fine was imposed. He was then ordered to pay the costs of the interpreter, amounting to £5.25—not a vast sum but one which he had difficulty in affording. He unquestionably felt a great sense of injustice, because he felt that he was being penalised because he did not understand sufficiently the language in which the court was conducting its proceedings.

I do not know the scale of the injustice, or whether representations similar to mine have been made in some measure to the Home Office. Probably they have not, but that does not mean that people are not suffering from a sense of grievance. All too often it is just the people who require interpreters who do not know how to articulate their grievance.

In any case, I would have thought that it was an utterly bad procedure, and—what is worse—there seems to be some evidence that at that court there is not simply a discretion vested in the magistrates but almost a policy decision. Policy decisions, of course, can be dressed up as an exercise of discretion when in reality they are nothing of the sort.

I hope the Minister will give the assurance that this matter will at least be looked at, and that there is some authority for suggesting that this is a situation which the House has considered and legislated upon.

I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elysian Morgan) for drawing my attention to the position in Wales in respect of which specific provision was made that any parties or witnesses who would otherwise be at a disadvantage by their natural tongue being Welsh should have an interpreter free of charge. This right is absolute in the Welsh Langauge Act 1967.

There is authority under article 6(3)(e) of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the Government are a signatory, which provides that anyone charged with a criminal offence has certain rights. One is the free assistance of an interpreter if he cannot understand the language being used in court. It is a matter of concern, because it would be wrong for a man to be penalised because he was not fluent in the language normally used by the court.

My second point relates to bail. I shall not go into all the long arguments that we have had on the issue in a number of debates. What success has been achieved by the circular that the Home Office issued about the remand of people in custody for reports? I understood that the Minister was as deeply anxious as any other hon. Member because people were being remanded in custody for reports for too long, and that that necessitated the publication of the circular, I believe in the middle of 1971, which suggested that governors of prisons or detention centres should advise the court when an accused person had been examined by a doctor, or probation or other officer, and the report was available, so that the accused could be brought before the court earlier than the normal three-week period. I believe that the circular has had only limited success, but I shall be delighted if the hon. and learned Gentleman can say that I am wrong.

The prison governor would no doubt find it a considerable administrative trouble and inconvenience to have to get in touch with the courts and all interested parties with a view to putting forward the date of the hearing. It is easier to forget about it and just wait for the usual period of three weeks to elapse. I hope that that is not happening. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be urging from the Home Office that courts should exercise their discretion much more readily to grant bail for the purposes of obtaining reports than has been the case, and that where reports have been made the opportunity of bail should be given to the accused person before the hearing. Obviously, that will not happen in every case there will be many where it will be inappropriate to grant bail. But in this day of terribly overcrowded prisons there must be quite a number of people who will be eligible in almost every respect to obtain bail once the reports have been completed.

I turn to a third, unrelated issue—the problems facing unrepresented defendants in magistrates' courts. We all await with considerable interest the consequences of the Legal Advice and Assistance Act and the Criminal Justice Act in this connection. We know that through the £25 scheme there will be additional facilities for representation at court. Although I had my reservations about some aspects of the scheme, which I think is inadequate, I do not want to prejudge it. It will also be interesting to see what will be the effect of the last-minute amendment of the Criminal Justice Bill—as it was—concerning the availability of legal aid to a person who might be at risk of a custodial sentence.

An interesting article written by Michael Zander in the 23rd November issue of The New Law Journal on the subject of unrepresented defendants in magistrates' courts clearly stresses the need for the two new schemes to be a success. He points out that in 1969 the majority of those who were given custodial penalties were not represented, and that the majority of those who were charged with more serious offences were not represented before magistrates. That information was based on a survey of about 1,141 cases in London and a large number of other cases.

Mr. Zander has brought the position up to date, and research this year indicates that of 840 completed trials that were observed 729 resulted in pleas of guilty—that is, 87 per cent.—but only 9 per cent. of those pleading guilty in magistrates' courts, which were the subject of the survey, were represented, contrasted with 37 per cent. of those who pleaded not guilty who were represented.

Of 111 pleading not guilty there were 72 per cent. findings of guilt and 28 per cent. findings of not guilty. Of those unrepresented who pleaded not guilty 30 per cent. were found not guilty, whereas for those who were represented the figure was 64 per cent. According to Mr. Zander this indicates that there is twice as great a chance of someone's being acquitted if he is represented than there is if he is not. That accords with my own personal observation, which has not been scientific but is the result of practising as a solicitor in magistrates' courts for a number of years. This is not to criticise magistrates, but it is clearly true that if an accused person is represented by a competent solicitor or barrister the chances are that points which would not altogether appeal to an unrepresented accused person would be taken, and taken successfully, correctly and honourably.

All that this illustrates is that it is essential for the new £25 scheme to be a success, and I hope that the Department will keep it under careful scrutiny not merely in the first year but beyond that, and will be open to arguments about its extension if it can be seen that it is not having the degree of success which I am sure the Minister would want it to achieve.

I turn to the fourth point which relates to legal aid. Again, I am not going over all the arguments that we have had since June 1970. There have been a number of occasions on which the Minister and I have been in debate on this issue. I am a little worried about an apparent development in a court close to my constituency—the North London magistrates' court. I have an enormous regard for the two magistrates who sit there, and I have therefore a certain degree of reservation about pointing out what could be an anomaly. But it is necessary, because I am told that the practice is also occurring in other courts.

There seems to be a decision that—again, it operates within the cloak of the exercise of discretion—where, after the committal proceedings, a magistrate feels that the case could have been dealt with reasonably and successfully by him instead of going through the paraphernalia of trial before judge and jury, legal aid should not be rendered available to the accused person. If that were a policy decision I should deeply regret it.

So long as there is the right of election for trial the magistrate should not take it upon himself to say that he could have dealt with the case and that the accused person was wrong to go for trial, and to penalise him by denying him legal aid, which might be his only opportunity of being represented. Where this has occurred the crown court may have put it right—I do not know—but I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will have something to say about it.

I have dealt on previous occasions with the evolution of a practice at Marlborough Street whereby shoplifters are all too frequently not granted legal aid, and where people involved in offences arising out of demonstrations are also not granted legal aid. There is some evidence that where a person is found to be in possession of a small quantity of drugs and the court considers that there should be no custodial treatment, legal aid is not granted by certain courts. I came across that situation about two years ago at North London. I do not know whether it is a continuing practice; I hope not.

Once again, I am indebted to my hon. Friend for drawing to my attention a point about legal aid of which I have not given the hon. and learned Gentleman prior notice. It arose only a few months ago. I am informed that legal aid is not available for prisoners who are in breach of prison regulations and are to be tried before visiting magistrates. I am told that such persons are held in solitary confinement pending trial. If the hon. and learned Gentleman says I am wrong about that, I may be, but that is my information. That is the very case where legal aid should be granted.

The criteria governing sureties are obscure and imprecise. I have looked at Archbold to try to find clear authority on this, and it is just not there. The Cobden Trust, in a recent publication cited an authority called Padger v. Cartwright, reported in 1843, 4 Queens Bench, at page 468. I have not given prior notice of that authority because I cannot find it.

I was also concerned that in that publication it was stated that all that the court could inquire into when considering the question of sureties was the sufficiency of the means and not the character of the proposed surety, or his political opinions. I could find no authority for that proposition. All that I could find in Archbold was the proposition that the bail must be of ability sufficient to answer for the sum in which they are bound. They are usually householders, but it is for the magistrate or judge to act upon his discretion as to the sufficiency of the bail, and the proposed bail may be examined on oath as to his means.

Presumably all that that refers to is the sufficiency of the surety's means. It also says: The court or magistrate may, at discretion, order that reasonable notice shall be given to the prosecutor and the police, to enable him or them to inquire or object as to the sufficiency of the bail. It does not disclose whether "sufficiency" relates to questions of general character or of political opinions in a political case; it would seem to relate only to issues of sufficiency of means. It continues: No person convicted of any crime for which he had become infamous was allowed to be surety for any person charged or suspected of an indictable offence. Clearly that would seem to suggest that a person of previously bad character, in the sense that he has been convicted, would not be a suitable person to act as a surety. But I suggest to the hon. and learned Gentleman that this is a matter which the departmental committee looking into the question of bail should be asked to examine. It is very important that courts should know what are their rights and duties in determining whether a person should act as a surety.

I asked a number of lay justices what they considered to be the appropriate criteria, and it appalled me that in almost every case they thought that the recommendations of the police should be adopted almost without question. Certainly that is not an issue which receives anything like the same scrutiny that the general question of bail obtains from courts. I am talking here primarily of lay justices, because I think that they need guidance on this point.

In certain instances, perhaps too many, there is almost a supine obedience to the word of the police on the question of sureties. This can be disastrous for an unrepresented accused person. All that I am asking for is that the committee looking into the question of bail examines this matter with some care.

I turn next to a point about which I raised a Question some time ago, which relates to the dock. I have long thought that the dock was a ludicrous anachronism in our criminal courts. In America they have long since done away with it. They take the view that it has no useful purpose. Indeed, it seems to me that its only purpose is to offer some measure of security in cases where it is thought that an accused person may seek to escape or cause some trouble during the proceedings. I always think that it is a considerable indignity for a person to have to go into the dock. When he enters it he is immediately placed in an exposed and somewhat prejudiced position. The mere fact that we have had the dock for an enormous number of years is no argument for continuing a tradition which has long since become otiose.

I asked the Minister of State a Question about that matter some time ago and he said that magistrates had a discretion, which he thought they exercised sufficiently, to allow accused persons not to go into the dock. I know that with driving offences hardly ever does an accused person enter the dock, and quite rightly so. No doubt there is a number of other fairly minor offences in which that is the case. A young person does not have to enter the dock; he sits in front of it, with his parents. But there is a burden to establish that it still has some useful purpose.

The defending advocate suffers a certain amount of inconvenience in this way. He finds—the Minister of State must have found this when he was practising at the Bar—that, particularly in magistrates' courts, he does not have the opportunity before the case to take instructions on all the points likely to arise, and that he must go to the dock to take instructions. That sometimes means that the proceedings are interrupted because the magistrates say, "Would you like us to stop while you take instructions?". The inexperienced advocate may choose the wrong moment to do it, because if a telling point is made by a prosecution witness he will go to the dock and take instructions at once, thereby underlining the point. However, that is not the most serious part of it.

It would be much better if an accused person were able to sit alongside or behind his advocate, as people are able to do in civil cases. Only rarely is it thought that there is a security risk, and that other precautions need to be adopted. This also applies to the Crown courts, where exactly the same criteria govern the argument.

I come to two points relating not so much to the practice of the courts as to administrative questions. The first concerns the poverty of accommodation for accused persons in many magistrates courts and Crown courts, first, as to the way in which they are kept in very uncongenial cells and, secondly, as to the circumstances in which an accused person can consult his legal advisers. This affects some of our older magistrates courts—and again I think of North London—where, despite the very friendly and co-operative assistance given by police officers and prison officers, the circumstances in which an accused person gives, and an advocate takes, instructions are almost demeaning.

There is no available facility in which such interviews can take place that can in the least be regarded as reasonable. The cells are miserable, dank and ill-lit. What sort of impression of justice can be given to an accused person who is placed in that sort of situation?

It is not very convenient for a defending advocate either. I was recently involved in a very serious case at Winchester. The circumstances in which one was able to take instructions were appalling. This is a situation that exists throughout the country.

It is obvious that the question of modernising our courts and the facilities that are available is uppermost in the mind of the hon. and learned Gentleman. I know that a considerable programme of modernisation is now going on, but in the construction of the new buildings has sufficient emphasis been given to the provision of suitable facilities for interviews, particularly for people who are in custody, or who have surrendered to bail?

It is not only the accommodation in that respect that is so bad in many courts. We still have situations in the older courts where witnesses attending court, persons who have not yet surrendered to bail, and solicitors and barristers find that they have to use lavatories outside, where the ability to be able to interview people who are not in custody is frustrated simply because there are no facilities available. I hope that even with the old courts some action will be taken to remedy such situations.

My last point concerns another matter about which the hon. and learned Gentleman will have had notice, because I have tabled Questions about it. A practice seems to have developed at the Inner London Crown Court, and elsewhere, of handcuffing accused persons when it is found necessary to have them taken from one part of the court to another—a journey which might involve using a public thoroughfare. I can understand that happening when an accused person has been deemed to be a security risk and has not been granted bail, but I can see no justification for it when an accused person has previously been granted bail and has surrendered to it. It is an administrative nicety or an administrative convenience, but it imposes great indignity upon a person who is subjected to that sort of treatment. There can be no justification for it whatsoever.

When I asked the hon. and learned Gentleman about this he said—I am not able to quote him directly, but I think I quote him accurately—that handcuffing was applied only when there was a risk of danger to the person's own safety, or when there was a risk of escape. That is a monumentally irrelevant argument to a situation in which a person has previously been granted bail and has just surrendered to bail. It may be that it happens in only a minority of cases, but it has occurred and it should not continue to occur. It may be that if some positive response is offered by the hon. and learned Gentleman this debate will produce an end to this appalling position. Of course, it does not affect a large number of people, but even if it affects one or two wrongly it is a practice which should be stopped.

I apologise to the hon. and learned Gentleman and the House for taking so long, but these points, unrelated though they may be, are worthy of investigation, even at 5.15 a.m.—burdensome though it is for the hon. and learned Gentleman, for whom I have high regard for the way he carries out his duties, which I hope I have not impeded unnecessarily. I hope that he will be able to give me some assurance that these matters are being investigated.

5.15 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) for raising these matters at this hour of the morning. I hope that he has had a rather longer break than I have had since he was last sitting in this House on another part of the Consolidated Fund Bill. I will do my best to answer the various points that he raised. He was good enough to indicate to me pretty well every one of the matters that he has mentioned, and the Home Office was able to anticipate the type of subjects that he was likely to raise.

The very title of the debate, Anomalies in the administration and practices of criminal courts in England covers a massive range. It is bound to, because it includes any variations in practice from one court to another. Those variations are inevitable because of the way we run our system of criminal justice, in practice leaving a great deal to the discretion of the individual courts. Where much is left to the exercise of discretion by the individual courts there are bound, in practice, to be differences in the way in which such discretion is exercised.

But it has always seemed to me—and I have argued this on various aspects with the hon. Member, on many occasions—that if the independence of the courts is to be a reality one cannot tie their actions entirely by legislative decisions of the Government. It is bound to be the situation that Parliament should lay down the general powers within which the courts should act but the courts should have freedom to exercise their discretion over the use of those powers.

Whilst some of these anomalies—particularly those in sentencing—clearly exist, I make the point that the courts do all they can to avoid them, through such things as sentencing conferences. In any case, the anomaly is often more apparent than real. Often, the complaint of anomaly is based on a somewhat incomplete Press report which may not provide all the various and necessary factors on which the court acted.

I turn now to what the hon. Gentleman described as his points taken at random. He spoke first about the payment and use of interpreters, and suggested that the payment of an interpreter by the accused individual was an injustice.

With respect, I think that to describe the system as an injustice is putting it somewhat high. Under English law, responsibility for providing an interpreter rests with the party requiring it. Beyond that, the courts are guided by a decision given by Lord Reading in 1916, when he said that where the accused might not be able to understand English, it was for the courts to see that the necessary means were adopted to convey the evidence to his intelligence, notwithstanding, either through ignorance or timidity or disregard of his own interests, whether he makes any application to the court. Clearly and rightly, it is the final responsibility of the court to see that there is an interpreter present so as to ensure that the accused understands fully what is going on.

In practice, an interpreter is almost inevitably provided, where necessary, by the prosecution in the magistrates' court, through the police. Most police forces maintain lists of capable interpreters. In practice, the prosecution anticipates that there will be a need for an interpreter, and to save adjournments and matters of that kind it provides an interpreter at that stage.

The interpreter's fee has always, therefore, come to form part of the prosecution costs, and where we are dealing with a summary case, those expenses have to be met by the prosecutor. But if there is a conviction the court has discretion to order the accused to pay the costs of the prosecution. The court may or may not in its discretion include the costs of the interpreter. There is no suggestion or power for the court, the prosecution having arranged for the interpreter to be present and the court having found the case not proved, in any way to charge the defendant for the provision of the interpreter. The power is limited in the normal way to ordering the accused to pay the cost of the prosecution, and this may include the cost of the interpreter. In practice I doubt that it is any more galling or frustrating for the individual defendant to have to pay the costs of an interpreter provided by the prosecution than, for instance, the costs of any witnesses brought by the prosecution.

In terms of financial penalties, in practice the overall amount of the costs, whether or not limited to a particular sum depending on the income of the individual defendent, are matters likely to be taken into account in deciding the overall penalty.

Mr. Elystan Morgan (Cardigan)

May I put this case? Let us suppose that a person is charged with dangerous driving, that he has had the bad luck to collide with a person who comes from, say, the Highlands of Scotland. The costs of that latter person appearing in court, travelling and losing work, would amount to £25; another person who has had exactly the that is his bad luck. Let us now imagine same bad luck but who happens to have almost no knowledge of the English language. Why should that second person be charged on account of a matter that is no part of the prosecution's case against him and that stems out of his own basic indigenous disability? That is where the element of injustice arise.

Mr. Carlisle

I accept that there is some validity in that, but I do not see that in practice the fact that the defendant had to pay a fee of five guineas for an interpreter instead of £25—I am conscious that using the word "guineas" dates me somewhat—£5.25 for the interpreter instead of £25.25 for the witness coming from the north of Scotland—

Mr. Clinton Davis

Twenty-five guineas is £26.25.

Mr. Carlisle

With his Welsh oratory, the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Elystan Morgan) would be able to persuade the court that the cost of £25—let us stick to £25—incurred by the witness from the north of Scotland was a matter that should be carefully considered by the court when deciding the amount of any fine that might follow on conviction. In principle, the same might happen with the cost of an interpreter.

The hon. Member mentioned the Welsh Courts Act. It was a valid comment. As long ago as 1962 this matter was considered. What the hon. Member said about Article 6(3) of the Convention on Human Rights was interesting and, on the face of it, appeared to have considerable validity. I think that the matter has not previously been raised with the Home Office.

To the extent that I may assure the hon. Gentleman that I am prepared to consider the whole subject, I will do so on the basis of considering whether the practice is contrary to that article and whether, at some appropriate moment, legislation should be introduced. I cannot promise early legislation. I have shown why in practice this is not anywhere near the injustice the hon. Member suggested it to be.

I turn to the subject of bail. I have often said the proportion of people being remanded on bail as against being remanded in custody in the magistrates' courts has been going up. In 1967, those remanded in custody amounted to 34 per cent. of all remands; by 1970, that figure had fallen to 27 per cent. of all remands. I do not believe that magistrates willingly remand in custody except when they are satisfied that it is necessary to do so.

I was asked about the effect of the circular issued by the Home Office about the period of a remand in custody for reports to be obtained. I agree that the effect of that circular, sent out in May, has been disappointing. It informed the courts that when a defendant was remanded for a report, the governor of the prison or remand centre to which the person was remanded should inform the court when the report had been prepared, with a view to the hearing's being advanced, or the release of the defendant on bail being considered until the date of the adjourned hearing. I think that the reasons for the disappointing result are practical. I suspect that it was not, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, that prison governors were unwilling to draw the matter to the attention of the court but, rather, that there were administrative difficulties in shifting the date of a hearing once it had been fixed so long ahead, and with regard to magistrates' appointments, and so on.

However, what came out of it was a clear indication that reports could, in practice, be produced in a much shorter period than 21 days. Disappointed though we were, therefore, at the number of cases advanced in that way, in June this year we sent a further circular to the courts suggesting that, as a general rule, they should in future reduce the length of time for which they initially remand for reports from the hitherto normal 21 days to a period of 14 days. I hope that that will have the effect that the majority of remands will be for 14 days rather than for 21 days as in the past. Moreover, the Department of Health and Social Security has drawn the attention of regional hospital boards to the desirability of producing reports for courts quickly. Magistrates had sometimes had difficulty in obtaining reports on defendants remanded on bail and may, therefore, have been tempted to remand in custody.

The hon. Gentleman will have in mind that we have made arrangements at Holloway prison, at Durham prison, at Brixton prison and at Risley remand centre for the medical examination, on an out-patient basis, of defendants remanded for medical and psychiatric reports who otherwise have had to be remanded in custody for such reports though they are otherwise suitable for bail.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Can the hon. and learned Gentleman give the House any information about the success of what I should have thought were thoroughly worthwhile projects? What possibility is there for enlarging those projects elsewhere in the country, and particularly in London?

Mr. Carlisle

It is difficult to give a detailed answer. We found that the outpatient facilities at Holloway were not as widely used as we thought they would be. We have widened the catchment area, so to speak, of the courts to which this service was available. We have only recently instituted a similar service at Brixton prison and at Risley remand centre, which is the remand centre for the north-west of England.

I do not think that I can at this stage comment on the success of these important experiments. I am sure that we must do everything we can to reduce the number of those being remanded in custody, and the time for which they are remanded, but, in the end, there will always be a proportion remanded in custody, because it is necessary that that should happen.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware—he did not raise this matter—that during last year we opened the first voluntary bail hostel in London. The Criminal Justice Act now enables the Home Office to give grant support for bail hostels and probation centres, and we hope that probation and after-care committees will set up similar hostels. We are anxious to see an extension of the bail hostel system.

Now, legal aid. The hon. Gentleman hopes that the £25 scheme will be successful. I have no doubt that the implementation of the £25 scheme, under the Legal Advice and Assistance Act, will assist in the availability of advice for defendants on bail before their appearance in court and, through the power to invite a solicitor in the building to represent an individual defendant, in the representation of individuals in court where this is clearly desirable.

I listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said about Mr. Zander's article. I am not sure whether I necessarily drew from it the same conclusion—that it proved that there was twice as much chance of being acquitted if the accused were represented than if he were not. I see members of the legal profession on both sides of the House. At least that shows how good they are at staying up late at night. One hopes that the chances of those who are legally represented are better. The article might show no more than that more people are advised to plead guilty when represented and that only cases with a better chance of success are being fought.

Since we last debated this matter the Criminal Justice Bill has become law. and as from 1st January 1973 Section 37 of what is now the Act will apply. That section was introduced by the Government in the House of Lords. It says that in future no person can be sent on first custodial sentence—whether sentenced to a first sentence of imprisonment or to a borstal or detention centre—unless he has been given an opportunity of being represented.

I gave an undertaking during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act that the Home Office would commend the Widgery criteria in a circular to the courts. That circular should be going out on 19th December 1972. The percentage of cases in which legal aid applications are granted has been going steadily up both in the higher courts, where the figure is very nearly 100 per cent., and in the lower courts, where it is about 83 to 87 per cent. of the applications made.

The hon. Gentleman specifically referred to the problem of applications not being granted in those cases on committal for sentence or trial when the court felt that the offence was of such a trivial nature that the case could have been dealt with adequately in the magistrates' court. I know of no such general principle being followed.

So far as the committal for trial is concerned, in 1970 the percentage of applications for legal aid on committal granted by the magistrates' courts was 99.3 per cent. of the applications made. In 1971, although I do not have the percentages, 40,540 applications were granted out of 40,834, which means that somewhere between 99.3 per cent. and 99.6 per cent. of all applications are granted.

Regarding the case in North London to which the hon. Gentleman referred, I am advised that it is true that the stipendiary magistrate questioned the need for the case to go for trial. But, contrary to what was reported, he did grant legal aid, although he indicated that he did so with reluctance. One must remember the pre-sure that exists today on the higher courts with committals up about 20 per cent. during the first 10 months of this year on the corresponding period last year and the amount of time being taken in the higher courts by trials of, on the face of it, somewhat minor offences. I see nothing wrong in stipendiaries, as they have from time to time, questioning the necessity for cases of that nature to go for trial rather than be dealt with summarily in the higher court. In the case to which I believe the hon. Member was referring in North London, the metropolitan magistrate made this point but nevertheless granted legal aid, although with reluctance.

The hon. Member asked whether I had any comments to make on what he believed to be a principle that in certain courts legal aid was not readily granted in drugs cases where the amount of drugs in possession of the individual was such that a custodial sentence was not in question. He will remember that the Widgery criteria were that legal aid should be granted where there was a genuine risk of a custodial sentence being imposed and therefore on the type of case that the hon. Member postulated the first principle of the Widgery criteria would not be met when, to use the words of the criteria, the accused is not in real jeopardy of losing his liberty". I can confirm that legal aid is not available for prisoners appearing before disciplinary proceedings in prisons. It never has been either before the governor or before a visiting magistrate. Whenever this has been looked at there have been found to be very real practical difficulties in altering it in any way.

The hon. Member then turned to the question of sureties. He asked various questions about sureties on bail. I can answer them all in one general way by saying that the question of sureties is one of the matters before the working party on bail which has been set up by the Home Office. For what my opinion is worth, I listened to what the hon. Member said about the legal situation, and I would have thought that in common sense the suitability of a surety is equally important as his sufficiency. I see nothing wrong in that. Though sufficiency of surety may be the heart of the matter, surely magistrates have a responsibility to satisfy themselves as to the suitability of the surety. I can see nothing wrong in the police objecting to a surety on the grounds not of his money but of his criminal background and the likelihood for example, of him doing his best to get the defendant before the court or not.

The hon. Member used one phrase which I cannot let go by without comment and rejection. He said for example, their political opinions in a political case". With great respect to the hon. Member, as a leading member of his profession, we do not have and never have had political cases in this country and political opinions are not a matter of concern to the criminal court.

Mr. Clinton Davis

I accept the Minister's stricture. Perhaps I may be forgiven at 5.15 a.m. for one slip at least. Of course, he is right in saying that we do not have political trials. What I meant to refer to was a trial in which there is some measure of what some people might deem to be political content but, nevertheless involving a criminal charge which must be dealt with on a criminal basis.

Mr. Carlisle

The hon. Member went on to the question of the dock. It appears that the situation varies in different parts of the country. In London the dock always seems to be in the most inconvenient place for the counsel and solicitors. In the North of England counsel and solicitors sit just in front of the dock and it is convenient for taking instructions. But the hon. Member can make too much of this. It is in the discretion of the court whether the dock is used; it is merely a place of convenience where the defendant sits. Of course I take the point that in such matters as driving offences it would be inappropriate for the dock to be used and in most of the new accommodation being provided for the smaller courts there are no docks.

I was alarmed that the hon. Member seemed to indicate with approval, that we might necessarily go down the road of the American practice in the way in which we operate some of our court procedures. Having seen criminal cases being conducted in the American courts, I am not sure whether it would be a wise course to follow. He said with approval, for example, that the defendant does not sit in the dock. I am not sure whether he is giving a good precedent for us to follow if we are to maintain the atmosphere of dignity in which the English trial takes place.

The hon. Member raised the question of poor accommodation. No one who has practised in the courts in this country will claim that all courts are perfect. The Home Office responsibility is not direct in this matter, however. We are not responsible for provision of the higher courts and the lower courts are the responsibility of the local authorities although, I agree, in conjunction with the Home Office. A lot of rebuilding needs to be done along with the building of new courts and the renewal of old courts. Local authorities have built more than 100 new courthouses in the last 10 years. They have carried out major improvements and adaptions to many others. A major programme is envisaged for the next five years and expenditure is rising from about £7,500,000 in the current year to £11 million in 1976–77. Like so many other matters it is a question of progressing as fast as we can within reasonable financial limits.

The hon. Member raised the question of the handcuffing of accused people, and he is right about the answer that I gave. It was that this should be done only—and it is done only—where there is a danger of escape or injury. Once a person has surrendered to his bail—he does not do so until he is called to come up to trial—his safety passes to those who are responsible for him and they must have the discretion to decide whether it is necessary to put handcuffs on him if they are moving him around, say, a thoroughfare of London. Of course, this is done only exceptionally. Prison governors have been instructed that handcuffs should not normally be used with escorted defendants who have surrendered to their bail, although there might be occasions when that would be justified. Even a man who surrendered to his bail might be felt in a particular adjournment to be under exceptional strain and it might be thought that there was a genuine likelihood that he would attempt to escape. But it is not a custom which is widely practised. I believe I am right in saying that invariably if they have to take defendants through the streets handcuffed, the police, where possible, do so in transport rather than by foot. I know that the hon. Member can say that there have been cases in inner London quarter sessions where people have gone to outside courts. That is correct.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Would the Minister agree that perhaps this administrative difficulty would be overcome by simply arranging for the accused to surrender to bail at the court where the trial is to take place rather than where he normally surrenders to bail?

Mr. Carlisle

Judging from my experience, that happens at inner London quarter sessions, although one might have cases going from one court to another because of cases collapsing or a judge might decide not to renew bail over an adjournment and an accused person might have to be taken from the court for sustenance during an adjournment.

I apologise for the time I have taken to reply, but the hon. Member raised wide and varied matters.