HC Deb 17 October 1990 vol 177 cc1251-3

'In section 453 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975 (consent of prosecutor to set aside the conviction) the words in subsection (3) "not exceeding £40.00" shall be deleted and the words ", the amount of which to be decided at the discretion of the Court," added.'.—[Sir David Steel.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

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

I express my gratitude to Mr. Speaker for selecting this new clause. It was not in the provisional selection list yesterday, but Mr. Speaker paid some heed to my representation which was, in short, that one of the purposes of our being here at all is to seek the redress of grievances. The new clause seeks such a redress which cannot be achieved for one of my constituents, whose case I shall shortly outline. However, it will be of benefit to others who find themselves in a similar position.

Time is short and I shall not go into the details of the case. Suffice it to say that in 1987 a constituent living in Melrose was convicted in the Clydesdale district court in Lanark on a charge of speeding. Some two years later it came to light that the conviction was an error and should not stand. He then received a letter from the procurator fiscal in Lanark setting out the procedure to be adopted in order to appeal by way of bill of suspension. It was explained to him that the procedure is laid down in section 453 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975. That is the section which I seek to amend. This is the only procedure that Parliament has provided for such cases where a conviction is in error and the Crown, like everyone else, must follow it.

The procedure is relatively straightforward. In particular, the parties do not require to be heard in a court at all and the matter can be dealt with expeditiously by a judge sitting in chambers. Section 453(3) of the Act allows expenses not exceeding £40 to be awarded to the appellant and paid by the Crown. My constituent pursued this procedure and his solicitor's fees were a not unreasonable £170. He was therefore out of pocket in achieving the lawful redress of his grievance which Parliament has allowed. I took the matter up with the Lord Advocate and had a helpful reply from the Solicitor-General. It states: I recognise that in fact your constituent was left out of pocket. I have noted this point and can reassure you that any future review of procedure will consider whether this particular aspect can be further simplified in some way. I received that letter during the summer recess. It seems wrong to allow a miscellaneous provisions Bill of this kind to go through the House without taking the opportunity to put this matter right since it is acknowledged by the Crown Office that an amendment should be made.

The 1975 Act allowed for expenses of £20 and by statutory instrument in 1984 that was raised to £40. I am assured by those who know about these things that inflation alone means that in real terms £40 in 1984 should now be £150. My basic point is why we have a fixed sum in the principal Act at all. My proposal is that the expenses awarded to an aggrieved person should be at the discretion of the court. I do not think that that discretion would be used irresponsibly. The new clause is a sensible amendment to the criminal law of Scotland and the House should seize the opportunity to adopt it.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) described the position accurately. I was interested to hear the details of his constituent's difficulties. The amount of compensation—£40—was set by statutory instrument in 1984, and the time may have come to review that figure. When it was set, it represented an appropriate limit on expenses. In the light of the circumstances mentioned, I propose to consider—in consultation with interested parties and taking account of the terms of the 1975 Act, which enables the Secretary of State to substitute a new sum, having regard to the changes in the value of money—what adjustment is necessary by means of a further statutory instrument.

The right hon. Gentleman wanted me to go a little further and consider whether this matter could be dealt with more thoroughly by further legislation. I will consider that matter in the future, but the immediate option is a statutory instrument, and that can be proceeded with relatively quickly.

Sir David Steel

I shall press the Minister on two points. First, this is not compensation—the hon. Gentleman may have made a slip of the tongue—because we are talking about the expenses incurred by an aggrieved individual in seeking redress of a grievance. My contention is that, within reason, these expenses should be met. It is far better for a court to judge that matter than for the House to judge it in abstract.

Secondly, if I simply accept the Minister's assurance on a statutory instrument, I shall not have done my duty. We all know the pressure on both the Scottish Office and the time of the House. How do we know when a statutory instrument will be introduced? The erosion of money values since 1984, when the matter was last examined, is serious. Would it not be more simple to accept the principle that the court should determine the right limit on expenses, rather than establishing a sum that has to be constantly updated by statutory instrument? I hope that the Minister will give me a rather more cheerful reply.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I hope that we can introduce a statutory instrument before too long. There should be no problem.

On the second point, before we introduce any legislation, it will be necessary to consult the interested parties.

The right hon. Gentleman has raised relevant points and we shall consider them carefully.

Sir David Steel

Is the Minister saying that a statutory instrument will be introduced fairly quickly?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton


Sir David Steel

On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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