HC Deb 23 July 1980 vol 989 cc608-11
Mr. Dewar

I beg to move amendment No. 168, in page 17, line 30, leave out from '(2)' to end of line 31 and insert 'for section 331 of the 1975 Act there shall be inserted the following sections— Maximum periods within which trials to be commenced. 331.—(1) All proceedings under this part of this Act shall, unless any statute fixes any other period, and subject to the provisions of section 331A below, be commenced within the period of six months after the date of the commission of the offence, and, in the case of a continuing offence, within the period of six months after the last date thereof; and it shall be competent in such case to include the entire period during which the offence has occurred. (2) A trial in any proceedings under this section shall be concluded within a period of twelve months from the date of the commission of the offence.".'. The clause is a useful one, which improves a number of safeguards of fundamental importance to those of us who are interested in criminal defence work. In particular, it deals with the 110-day rule and the prevention of delays in trials.

Subsection (2) substitutes a new section 331A in the 1975 Act and brings in a useful equivalent, in summary procedure, to the 110-day rule, so that a trial has to be started within 40 days if the accused person is in custody. That is an overdue reform. I am trying, through the amendment, to push the boat out a little further and to tempt the Minister to burnish his halo further.

I seek not only a new section 331A but a replacement for section 331 of the 1975 Act, which provides a six-month limit on statutory offences. A trial has to start within six months. The amendment suggests that there should be a similar limit of six months in the case of non-statutory offences.

There is a glaring anomaly in the present situation. If, in the course of my family celebrations in Glasgow at the weekend, I bomp a policeman in the face, I can be charged either under the Police (Scotland) Act or with assault under common law. If I am charged under the Act, section 331 of the 1975 Act provides that my trial must commence within six months. Otherwise there can be no trial, and the matter will lapse. If a prosecution is brought under common law there is no such time limit.

The amendment provides that the six-month limit should apply to all summary complaints and not just to those brought under specific statutory provisions. Of course, it would mean that there would have to be less drift in court administration. We should have to pull our socks up and make sure that trials got started. But that is another advantage, on top of the arguments of equity and consistency, for accepting the amendment.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) was good enough to acknowledge the major new rights for accused persons in Scotland that are encompassed in clause 14. He pointed out that an accused person who, in solemn cases, can be held for a maximum of 110 days preceding his trial will now, in summary cases be able to be held in custody for a maximum of 40 days In solemn cases a prosecution has to be brought within a miximum of 12 months.

Those are major reforms which it has not yet been possible to make in other parts of the United Kingdom, and they indicate the Government's great concern and anxiety to ensure that for those who are in custody or under threat of prosecution the matter should be resolved at the earliest possible opportunity, in order that they should know how they stand and that the public interest is protected.

I exempt the hon. Member for Garscadden, but those who have made criticisms of other parts of the Bill have a responsibility to ensure that a balanced view is presented. Some of those outside the House who have made wild comments about the Bill have not been prepared to acknowledge the major advances in the rights of accused persons that are to be found in various parts of the measure.

There is no objection in principle to what the amendment seeks to provide. In statutory cases at the present time, a maximum of six months is permitted. Unfortunately, the past few years have seen a substantial increase in the number of cases dealt with by sheriff courts. There is substantial pressure on those courts. It is only a problem of administration that prevents us from implementing the additional reform that the hon. Member for Garscadden suggests.

We hope to introduce such a reform one day, but the hon. Member will know from his considerable experience in sheriff courts, particularly in the West of Scotland, that the burden that would be imposed on sheriff courts would be far more than they could cope with. I do not object to the principle of what the hon. Gentleman seeks. The Government have shown their good faith, both in solemn cases and in the other reforms that the clause encompasses.

Given the clear evidence of the Government's good faith and our desire to make all possible progress, within the administrative capacity of the courts, I hope that the hon. Member for Garscadden will agree that the imposition of such an obligation at this stage would be unreasonable, even though the reasons in favour of the proposal are to be commended.

Mr. Dewar

I anticipated that the administrative argument would be used. I am glad to have confirmation that there is no difference between us in principle. Even in Glasgow sheriff court the average delay in a summary trial is probably only three or four months between the first calling and the trial date. Given the Government pledge that law and order is exempt from the normal stringencies and the sceptical eye turned on public expenditure, I would have thought it possible to introduce my proposal even at this stage. I hope that the Minister will recognise that this is a matter on which I shall continue to nag when the opportunity occurs. In order to get me off his back he should take an early opportunity to see whether the administrative difficulties can be overcome.

I do not wish to press the matter to a vote at this stage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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