HC Deb 18 July 1984 vol 64 cc309-11
37. Mr. Martin

asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland if he will make a statement about the cases which have been deserted at recent High Court circuits because of a failure to serve the indictment with 29 days' clear notice in terms of section 111 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 as amended by paragraph 31 of schedule 7 to the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980.

41. Mr. Ewing

asked the Solicitor-General for Scotland if he will make a statement on the disruption of courts as a result of adequate notice of trial not being given by the Crown Office to accused persons.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland (Mr. Peter Fraser)

As a result of the High Court decision of 20 June 1984 that a trial could not proceed because the requirements of sections 75 and 111A of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 had not been met, which decision was subsequently reversed on appeal, 40 High Court cases involving 67 accused had to be put off. In the sheriff court 23 cases involving 40 accused were similarly put off. These cases will proceed to trial in the near future on fresh indictments.

Mr. Martin

Is the Solicitor-General aware that there is a great deal of disquiet in the country about the fact that trials such as those for homicide and drug offences had to be delayed until a decision was made about the matter? Surely the Solicitor-General's Department should try to get its act together and ensure that things are done properly. If incompetence continues in his Department he should do what his predecessor did, and that is resign.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

That question was plainly carefully rehearsed before the decision of the five judges in the High Court in Edinburgh had been announced. In their judgment the judges said: We have no hesitation in holding that the learned Lord Advocate's criticisms of the decision taken on 20 June are well founded and must receive effect. In view of the fact that a decision had been made by judges in Glasgow, it may seem extraordinary to the hon. Gentleman that Conservatives believe that the appropriate way to deal with that matter is to go to the Appeal Court and have the matter satisfactorily resolved. The decision which was originally made by the court has now been unanimously overturned by the Appeal Court in Edinburgh. As I said in my first answer, although that means that it will be a difficult job for the prosecution services to deal with all these cases, they will in fact go to trial.

Mr. Ewing

Is the Solicitor-General saying that as a result of the decision reached by the five judges yesterday the Crown Office will continue in the future as it has in the past? What on earth happened in the Crown Office on this occasion? Will the Solicitor-General tell us, because he must know, what this fiasco has cost public funds? The cost must be enormous. Who is responsible for that?

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

Once again, the hon. Gentleman has not considered the result of the appeal. The Appeal Court said that the attitude struck by the Crown in relation to the original decision was correct. The trials should have gone ahead on that day. If those trials had gone ahead then there would have been no additional cost, but there has been some additional cost. That I regret. However, I do not accept that the additional cost is the responsibility of the Crown. The decisions taken and the attitude adopted by the prosecution has been confirmed by the Appeal Court in Edinburgh, whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, to be correct.

Mr. Wallace

Does the Solicitor-General accept that, notwithstanding the court's decision, the court really decided that, despite the defect in citation, that defect had been cured? None the less, there was a defect in citation and that was the responsibility of the Crown Office. What was the cost to public funds of these trials being discharged? The public should decide who was responsible.

The Solicitor-General for Scotland

Although the hon. Gentleman is a member of the faculty, he clearly has not bothered to see what the court's decision was. If he had bothered, he would have seen that the judges said: We should add, also, that it was not and could not be suggested"— by those representing the accused— that the notice given had in any way prejudiced the respondents in the exercise of their rights … or in the preparation of their defence.

Mr. Millan

The Appeal Court judges have said that the trials could stand, despite the errors that have been made. We are worried that the errors were made. They are part of a series of errors made recently by the Crown Office. They call into question the efficiency of that office, for which the hon. and learned Gentleman bears responsibility.

Why is he saying complacently that there is nothing to worry about? There is a good deal to worry about when, in another recent case, some persons on very serious charges were not prosecuted as a result of simple errors by the Crown Office. We want these errors to be put right, and not to happen again.

Mr. Fraser

The right hon. Gentleman is clearly unhappy that what he hoped would be a cause celebre has not occurred. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Advocate and I have said that there was a misconstruction of one section of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act, by the prosecution as well as by all the defence lawyers in Scotland who were involved. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman can mutter as much as he likes. The Appeal Court in Edinburgh said clearly and unanimously that the Crown's attitude was correct and that we should have been entitled to take those cases to trial earlier last month. If that had happened, there would not have been problems of relocating the trials, or additional expense.

Mr. Wilson

Will the Solicitor-General accept that his attitude to the matter is incomprehensible to us? Has he not stated that a defect was involved, which led to the breaking of the trials? Whether or not the Appeal Court said that it was a curable defect, there was maladministration in the hon. and learned Gentleman's Department. If there is maladministration there, does he or does he not accept the responsibility?

Mr. Fraser

What was said, and what is accepted, is that an additional day should have been granted, as a matter of citation. According to the criminal procedure of Scotland, any consequence flowing from that must be taken before the trial. No one made any effort to take that point. The Appeal Court has said unanimously that we should have been allowed to proceed to trial. It was not a matter of fundamental nullity, which were the words first used.

Mr. Dewar

Does the Solicitor-General accept that, although the matter is not a cause celebre, it is a bad case of continuing incompetence? The reason for the shambles is that the Crown Office, which is primarily responsible for the serving of indictments in High Court cases, lamentably failed to interpret properly the plain words of the statute. It is no defence for the Crown office to say that the relevant point was not picked up later by defence solicitors. The responsibility lies with the hon. and learned Gentleman and with his staff at the Crown office. Is it not deplorable that we have had a long list of abandoned cases, and much public expense and inconvenience? Does it not reflect much discredit on the hon. and learned Gentleman's stewardship of the Crown Office? What steps will he take to rehabilitate his battered credit, especially as it has been badly damaged by the fact that the prosecution of serious embezzlement charges had to be abandoned because of further incompetence in serving an indictment from his office? Was that not very unfair to the accused in that case, and bad for the administration of justice?

Mr. Fraser

I regret that the hon. Gentleman has such an inflexibility of mind that he anticipated that an appeal decision would go against the Crown Office. The circumstances are completely different. I have said to the hon. Gentleman before that there was a misconstruction of the relevant provision of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act. I thought that the hon. Gentleman, alone among Scottish Opposition Members, would understand that it is important to consider the consequences flowing from the case. The hon. Gentleman should look to what the Appeal Court said unanimously, namely, that the trial should have been allowed to proceed in the High Court. If that had happened, no inconvenience would have been caused to the prosecution or the defence; nor would there have been additional cost. It is unfortunate for the hon. Gentleman that the Appeal Court in Edinburgh took that decision.