HC Deb 13 July 1977 vol 935 cc576-81

'An accused charged with an offence triable either way shall be served with a notice in the prescribed form either when he is charged or when a summons is served upon him.

(2) The prescribed form of the notice under subsection (1) above shall be as set out in Schedule (Prescribed form of notice of choice of court) to this Act,'.—[Mr. Thorne.]

Brought up, and read the First tune.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

I beg to move, 'I hat the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this we may discuss Amendment No. 127, the new Schedule—Prescribed Form of Notice of Choice of Court.

Mr. Thorne

The new clause and the amendment will be easily understood by anyone who has been associated with the Bill since they stem from the James Report on The Distribution of Criminal Business between the Crown Court and magistrates' courts. Page 85 of the James Report deals with defendants' choice. The report states that the procedure is not understood by the defendant. It refers to the provision that The court shall also explain to him that if he consents to be tried summarily and is convicted by the court he may be committed to the Crown Court under section twenty-nine of this Act if the court, on obtaining information of his character and antecedents, is of opinion that they are such that greater punishment should be inflicted than the court has power to inflict. The report states that that is garbled and that the average defendant would have difficulty understanding his position and the choice open to him. Page 160, Appendix J, recommends the words that form part of Amendment No. 127. They show clearly what the defendant is faced with, his choice, in which court he may appear and various other aspects. I am not clear why the architects of the original Bill did not see fit to translate into it the recommendations of the James Report in this regard. Maybe in their later thinking, no doubt resulting from seeing the clause, they have decided to remedy that omission and to take on board new Clause 16 and the amendment.

Mr. John

I sympathise with what has just been said, but I feel that it is unnecessary for the Government to advise the House to accept the clause. I do not believe that it is necessary to embody it in the Bill because under the power to make rules of court under Section 15 of the Justices of the Peace Act and Section 122 of the Magistrates Courts Act 1952, all these matters can be specified by rules of court. I understand that the James Committee recommended in paragraphs 188 and 189 of its report that the comprehensive note should be given. I suggest that it should not be made a statutory requirement because once a form is made statuory it can be altered only by statute if it proves to be fraught with difficulties. Rules of court are much more easily changed if difficulties should arise.

Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)

I can see the force of not having a provision that can be altered only by statute. But have any Government considered making this a rule of court? If so, why have they not done it?

Mr. John

I was coming on to say that in the light of what has been said I am prepared to initiate discussions about incorporating the provision in the rules of court, but I ask my hon. Friends not to make this matter rigid by enshrining it in a statute. I shall adhere to that undertaking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) went further and asked why the James Committee was not followed in this matter. The Justices' Clerks Society, amongst others, raised problems. That is why discusions as well as the less rigid formula are necessary. The Society doubted very much the advisability and value of this provision and took the view that a much better way of explanation was to have a duty solicitor or a solicitor available to the court. All this can be sorted out in the discussions that I undertake to initiate if the clause it not pressed.

Sir A. Meyer

I support the clause and the related schedule, if only because they will bring home to accused people the importance of the choice they will have to make. Many accused people, particularly those who are appearing in court for the first time, do not quite realise what is at stake. They probably imagine that if they are accused of a relatively trivial offence, the informal, easy-going atmosphere of the magistrates' court will cause them less distress than the formal and awesome procedure in a Crown court, and so opt for the swift, rough justice of the magistrates' court, to get it over and done with. That could well turn out to be the most disastrous mistake of their lives.

It should be borne in mind that for many people who appear in court the real punishment is not the penalty imposed by the court but the verdict itself. Indeed, for many people a mere court appearance followed by an acquittal may completely blight their lives. Many people nowadays appear in court on certain charges, particularly shoplifting charges, where there is no shadow of criminal intent. The growth of self-service, in particular, has enormously increased the number of such cases. Sometimes it is absent-mindednes which has led them to take goods and leave the store without paying—

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is straying to an amendment which was not called. This one is very narrow and I must ask him to keep to the question, which is outlined in very simple language.

Sir A. Meyer

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I shall come very closely to the point.

People find themselves, to their horror, having to face charges on trifling offences and tend to think that because magistrates cannot impose such severe penalties as can a Crown court, they stand a better chance of getting the case dismissed in the magistrates' court. That is a classic non sequitur. It may very well be that, precisely because the penalties which may be imposed are relatively trivial, the chances of the court finding the case proved are correspondingly increased.

The only figures I have been able to find are those relating to 1975, which show that 52 per cent. of cases of shoplifting dealt within magistrates' courts resulted in acquittal. That may seem a fairly normal percentage, but in view of the lightness of the penalties it—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry. I hate interrupting an hon. Member for a second time, but this clause simply deals with the serving of notice and the prescribing of the form. He has made a gallant effort, but the hon. Member must not continue on that line.

Sir A. Meyer

I am just about to conclude, Mr. Speaker, on the very point you mention about the serving of notice. I must record a strong belief that anybody accused in such cases must be made fully aware of what is, at stake and of the differences of procedure between the magistrates' courts and the Crown courts. In cases such as those I have quoted it is all the more important that that should be brought to the attention of the accused. I have no hesitation in supporting the clause and amendment.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

I also support the new clause and amendment. I shall do my best not to cause you to rise, Mr. Speaker, but I think there is some reason to elaborate on the wording of the new clause relating to an offence triable either way. Many of us in the House are not lawyers and have to rely on experience of constituency cases. Particularly with shoplifting, there are people who find themselves on a charge for the first time and who have no experience of going before a court or finding themselves on a criminal charge and who have no knowledge, even, of having a choice of court. I understand that the new clause seeks not just to leave people in a never-never land of taking the law as it comes, but to give them some rights to know the choice before them. The hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne), when he moved it, rightly referred to the James Committee.

It will be within your knowledge, Mr. Speaker, that when the Bill was originally drafted—and the Minister of State will confirm this—it included a clause which would have deprived people accused of shoplifting goods worth£20 or less of the right to go before a Crown court. That clause was removed from the Bill. As the hon. Member for Preston, South said, it was removed in another place, but it was that which gave rise to this new clause. We should spend a minute or two looking at this new crime of shoplifting.

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is where the hon. Member will follow his hon. Friend the Member for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) down the path he should avoid. I am sorry to speak in theological terms, but I must ask him to do the same as I asked his hon. Friend to do.

Mr. Adley

I shall do my best, Mr. Speaker. The only other item in which I have taken an interest is rabies, and when one is concentrating on shoplifting and rabies one has to be fairly careful in what one says.

As to the choice of courts, a magistrates' court may well, as has been said, appear to be the quick and simple method by which to get a case heard and dealt with, but the available statistics indicate that in the crime of shoplifting—if I may mention that again, Mr. Speaker —those who elect to go before a Crown court have a better chance of being acquitted than have those who go before a magistrates' court. The reason is that the magistrates' court or the Crown court have to ascribe the motives to the person concerned. In the case of the particular crime that I have mentioned, a Crown court with a jury is far more likely to give a person a fair hearing and not to jump to hasty conclusions than is a magistrates' court. That is why I hope that the hon. Member for Preston, South will press his new clause as hard as he can. There is an important point at stake here.

Sir M. Havers

I had not intended to speak in the debate until my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) used his last few sentences. I cannot sit here and allow to go unchallenged what he said about magistrates' courts. It simply is not true. Indeed, the figures indicate that accused persons have a greater chance of acquittal in the magistrates' court than in the Crown court.

Although the principle is sensible, there is another objection to the wording of the prescribed form of notice of choice of court in Amendment No. 127. I remember debating in this Chamber on two occasions the form of words of a referendum. There is plenty of expert evidence from Australia, in particular, as to how the wording can make a difference of up to 20 per cent. in the result.

One must not load the question in this way. In our view it has to be put much more informally when trying to press the person who is receiving the document to go either for a Crown court or for a magistrates' court. I think that the principle is sensible, but I hope that, after it has been aired today and no doubt discussed in a number of learned journals, and further discussed in the Home Office, it will not be necessary for the House to proceed to a vote. If it does, we shall be against it.

Mr. Thorne

Will the Minister clarify for me precisely the way in which he will implement what is desired through the new clause, without in fact accepting it? If he will spell that out, it may be possible for me to ask leave to withdraw it.

Mr. John

I will respond to my hon. Friend. The rules of court are made by the Rules Committee, and I have undertaken to initiate discussions with the Rules Committee to see whether it is desirable and appropriate to do it in that form. That is what I have undertaken, and that is the limit of my undertaking. If it can be done as a rule of court, it is much more flexible than to enshrine it in a statute, because hon. Members would all be waiting for another Criminal Law Bill in order to be able to change it if things had gone wrong in the meantime.

Mr. Thorne

I am grateful to my hon. riend. In that case, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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