HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc856-8

'There shall be added to Schedule 1 of the Magistrates' Court Act 1980 the offence of assaults on constables under section 51 of the Police Act 1964. '.—[Mr. Dubs.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Dubs

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

The clause tries to change the law whereby a defendant brought before a court on a charge of assaulting a police constable does not have the right of trial by jury, and his trial must therefore take place in the magistrates' court. On the other hand, if the prosecution so chooses, the case can be heard in a Crown court before a jury. The new clause wishes to make the offence triable either way.

It is, by any standards, adjudged to be a serious offence. According to criminal statistics, in 1980 there were more than 12,000 proceedings against individuals accused of assaulting police constables, with 88 per cent. of the men and 86 per cent. of the women so brought before courts found guilty. By comparison 44 per cent. of all men and 35 per cent. of all the women brought before magistrates' courts on charges of common assault were found guilty—a much smaller number. It may not be valid to make a direct comparison between the offence of assault on a constable and the offence of common assault, but it is remarkable that the percentage found guilty of assaults on constables was about double that of the percentage found guilty of common assault.

11 pm

The matter was investigated in some detail in a report published in November 1975. That was a report of the interdepartmental committee under the chairmanship of the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice James. It was entitled: The Distribution of Criminal Business between the Crown Court and Magistrates' Courts. The case in favour of the new clause was made most succinctly in paragraph 156 of that report. I can do no better than to quote it: On the basis of the existing law the offence would fall within the intermediate category and so carry a right to elect trial by jury. In our view, the present position, whereby in effect the prosecution can choose to take the case on indictment but the defendant has no choice, is indefensible. Where the case is contested there is often a straight conflict between the evidence of the defendant and that of the police; if there is such a conflict, it can be said that the prosecution has a special involvment in the case and that therefore it is particularly suitable for resolution by a jury. If the offence is retained, we recommend that it should carry a right to trial by jury unless the maximum penalties are severely curtailed. We must, however, draw attention to the fact that this recommendation, which was strongly supported in the evidence we received, is likely to result in substantially more of these cases going to the Crown Court for trial on the defendant's election. I should mention that the James report was concerned with the means of reducing the amount of business going to the Crown court. Nevertheless, that committee recommended that this offence should be such that the defendant could elect for trial before the Crown court.

I want to mention one other argument. As I understand it, where a defendant is up for an assault on a constable, the Crown court has the right to alter the verdict to one of common assault. This discretion is sometimes used, and it is a useful one. However, that discretion does not lie with magistrates' courts.

This issue was dealt with by the Standing Committee considering the Criminal Law Bill in 1977. Regrettably, the Committee did not reach the conclusion that I hope that the House will reach this evening.

Since 1977, we have had the Scarman report. We have had a detailed review of relationships between the community and the police. The whole question of assaults on the police and by the police has come under more detailed scrutiny. It has become a matter of greater concern than previously. In instances where a defendant may be brought before the court because he is alleged to have assaulted a police constable, sometimes the defence is that the police constable had assaulted the person who has become the defendant. Scarman was much concerned with this issue, and it is an issue which is at the heart of some of the difficulties that arise in inner city areas and in the relationships between the police and local communities, particularly the black communities.

It is my contention, supported by the James report, that the present law is anomalous. The fact that there would be more business before the Crown courts would be a small price to pay for getting rid of this anomaly and ensuring that justice in these difficult and controversial cases is seen to be done. I hope that the House will support the new clause.

Mr. Mayhew

I am sorry to tell the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) that I cannot advise the House to accept the need for his clause.

It has to be remembered that the offence in question has never, since its incorporation into the Police Act 1964, carried with it a right for the defendant to elect trial by jury. Prior to 1977, the offence was a hybrid offence. It was open to the prosecution to seek trial on indictment; but it was not open to the defendant to elect jury trial. At the same time, the maximum penalties for the offence were considerably higher than they are now. Conviction on indictment carried with it a liability to a penalty of 2 years' imprisonment or an unlimited fine, or both. Following recommendations made by the James committee, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the maximum penalty available for the offence was reduced to its present level, and at the same time the option of trial on indictment available to the prosecution was abolished. Since the 1977 Act came into force the offence has been a purely summary one.

It is clear from the wording of the amendment and from what the hon. Gentleman has said that his concern is not to increase the penalties available for assaulting a constable but to secure for defendants a right to elect trial by jury at the Crown Court. I am afraid we cannot agree that there is any aspect of this offence that could justify confining the sentencing powers of a Crown court to the range of sentences that is available for a magistrate's court after a summary trial, which would be the effect of the new clause.

I have noted the implication at any rate that the prosecution in these cases has a particular axe to grind. I do not accept it. It is also argued that magistrates are often seen as accepting police evidence too readily and, furthermore, that prosecution of members of ethnic minority groups, and in particular black youngsters, for these offences can badly affect police community relations. I do not think that those arguments are sustainable. I believe firmly that magistrates recognise and fulfil the duty to give to the evidence of a police witness a scrutiny that is no less judicial than that which they must apply to any other evidence. They do not accept the evidence merely because the witness is a policeman or because they see him again and again in their court.

There is no evidence to suggest that magistrates are more likely to convict a black youngster of the offence because of his colour; I do not think that that was argued by the hon. Gentleman, but it is sometimes suggested. Nor, indeed, do magistrates appear more likely to convict youngsters of any race for this offence than for any other. The 1980 statistics show that in cases of assault on constables 90 per cent. of the defendants in the age range 17 to 20 were convicted and 88 per cent. of defendants over 21, figures which are very similar to the conviction rates of over 90 per cent. for all offences tried in magistrates' courts.

I think I understand what lies behind the new clause. The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to a disparity between the conviction rates for assaults on constables and for common assault on people who are not police officers. Whatever the reason for the disparity, in regard to assaults on people who are not police officers, the question of liability and responsibility may well be one of six of one and half a dozen of the other. I do not think that the arguments adduced by the hon. Gentleman would justify my advising the House to accept the clause.

Question put and negatived.

Forward to