HC Deb 23 February 1977 vol 926 cc1404-6
39. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

asked the Lord Advocate if he will make a statement on why, when and how accused persons may state their address as being care-of the sheriff court.

The Lord Advocate (Mr. Ronald King Murray)

This practice applies when an accused person is released on bail. Section 36 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 provides that all bail bonds must specify the domicile at which accused persons released on bail may be cited for trial. The practice of specifying that domicile as the sheriff clerk's office has grown up over a long period of time and is used in many sheriff courts. The main reason for it is that it is administratively convenient for those concerned with the service of indictments. Recommendations were made in the Thomson Report to change the practice, and this is presently under consideration.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Is the Minister aware that on 28th January five separate accused persons in the sheriff court in Edinburgh gave their addresses as care-of the sheriff court? If this becomes general practice in Scotland, will not many people fear that too much emphasis is being placed on protecting accused persons rather than on protecting those who are the victims of criminal activity?

The Lord Advocate

I am aware of the matter to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Perhaps it would be useful if I referred him to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) on 21st July 1976, in which I canvassed the general principles applicable, including the point that the hon. Member has just made.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

While taking the point made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), may I ask whether this practice does not also hurt the interests of the defence, because the indictment is served at the sheriff court and the defence lawyer does not necessarily know that this has happened? Is the Minister aware that sometimes a very short time, perhaps only 10 days, is available to prepare the case and that the indictment could be lying at the sheriff court without the defence lawyer knowing? Is not this wrong from the point of view of both the defence and the Crown?

The Lord Advocate

The hon. Lady has expressed a point of view that is without doubt held by some practitioners. I would have thought, however, that the majority of practitioners would find this a more convenient way of dealing with the matter, because a solicitor knows with certainty where he can get the indictment. When the indictment is served on his client, it is often some time before he has access to it.

Mr. Fairbairn

The Lord Advocate has been good enough to tell the House the history of how the practice has grown up, but he also told us that the Thomson Committee recommended that it should not continue. Since this is one of the many recommendations of the report that would involve no finance and little legislation, will the Lord Advocate say when we can hope to see brought forward some of the sensible reforms proposed in that report?

The Lord Advocate

I have already indicated in previous answers that the Government have the matter under active consideration. Obviously, in such a large field as this, it is a matter of priorities, and priorities must be set in their proper context.