HC Deb 24 November 1980 vol 994 cc200-2
45. Mr. Stanbrook

asked the Attorney-General what progress has been made in reducing the length of time between the committal and trial of accused persons and between the conviction and hearing of the appeal of convicted persons since 1 May 1979.

The Attorney-General (Sir Michael Havers)

Since May 1979 the previous steady worsening of delays before trial, and appeals, in the Crown court has been arrested. Though committals and appeals have continued to increase, backlogs of cases are beginning to come down. In London and the South-East, where the situation is worst, the backlog has been reduced by 800 cases.

Mr. Stanbrook

That reply is satisfactory, as far as it goes. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider some new ideas for reducing court lists? For example, will be consider offering an automatic reduction in sentence in return for a plea of guilty?

The Attorney-General

Any idea or proposal to reduce the backlog will be considered. I should be grateful for any suggestions.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman's reply refer to Northern Ireland, of which he is Attorney-General? If not, will be publish in the Official Report a note of any difference in respect of Northern Ireland?

The Attorney-General

We have been very conscious of the delays in Northern Ireland, and over the past 12 months they have been reduced markedly. I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman and give him the information.

Mr. Edward Gardner

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in far too many cases the delay between committal and trial is intolerably long? Does he further agree that the passage of time affects the memory of witnesses and adds considerably to the anxiety of defendants and of all those involved in the trial? Will be take steps to treat this as a matter of urgency?

The Attorney-General

My right hon. and noble Friend is very conscious of this problem. He has treated it as a matter of urgency. Although there was a 50 per cent. increase in indictable offences between 1972 and 1978, and although committals this year increased by between 10 and 12 per cent., the backlog has been reduced by 5 per cent. That is due largely to a huge increase in the number of sitting days and a big increase in court building programmes, which means that there will be up to 71 new courts by 1982. In particular, I pay tribute to the Lord Chief Justice, who has done so much to encourage that, and to the many circuit judges from all over England who have come to help the worst area, the South-Eastern circuit.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Does the Attorney-General agree that there is a marked and unjustifiable difference between the conventions as regards bail on conviction in the magistrates' court on appeal to the Crown court, and bail on conviction in the Crown court on appeal to the Court of Appeal? That can create great injustices. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman discuss that with his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary?

The Attorney-General

Of course, I shall discuss that with my right hon. Friend. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that a conviction at a Crown court usually involves a much more serious offence than does a conviction at a magistrates' court.

Mr. Grieve

When my right hon. and learned Friend deals with that matter, will be bear in mind the difficulty that courts face when long periods of time inure between committal and trial, particularly as regards sentencing young people? When my right hon. and learned Friend commends the Lord Chief Justice and the judiciary, will be also commend the efforts recently made by the Lord Chief Justice to persuade courts in London to sit at 10 am, thereby ensuring a much longer court day?

The Attorney-General

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend on that point. It is a great tribute to the Lord Chief Justice that he has succeeded in getting the courts to sit earlier, when everybody else failed. The young are one of our great worries. However, a tribute is owed to my right hon. and noble Friend for the improvement that he has achieved, despite the rising incidence of crime.

Mr. Jeffrey Thomas

Does the Attorney-General agree that the present delays amount to a public scandal and a blot on the administration of justice? As the present measures are not working, how does he propose to tackle the situation? What is the average delay between committal and trial? Will be and his noble Friend bear in mind the principle that justice delayed is justice denied?

The Attorney-General

I am sorry that the hon. and learned Gentleman did not listen to what I said. These things are working. I said that committals had increased from 10 to 12 per cent. but that in spite of that the backlog had been reduced by 5 per cent. It is a great tribute to those involved that that has been achieved in a year when crime has increased so much. Outside the South-Eastern circuit there are delays of between eight and nine weeks in custody, and 14 weeks on bail. On the South-Eastern circuit the situation is more grave, with delays of 14 weeks in custody and about 27 weeks on bail.