HC Deb 07 December 1992 vol 215 cc586-7
28. Mr. Bennett

To ask the Attorney-General if he will make a statement about prosecutions in cases not leading to a custodial sentence.

The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)

Prosecuting authorities apply the principles set out in the code for Crown prosecutors. Sentencing is essentially a matter for the courts.

Mr. Bennett

What discussions has the Attorney-General had with his colleagues about the question of withdrawing legal aid in cases where someone probably does not face a custodial sentence? Does he not realise that everyone has the right to maintain their good name? Ought he not to ensure that legal aid is either available in all cases or, if it is to be withdrawn, at least to consider ways in which the Crown prosecution service can be selective in the cases brought? Might it not be a better approach to saving legal aid to deny the fat fees that some Queen's counsels receive in legal aid cases, rather than to deny such aid to poor people?

The Attorney-General

On the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question, representations that have been made to me do not show that that applies in the great run of legal aid cases, although it might be said to apply in some long and detailed cases. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that questions of legal aid are for my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor. The Crown prosecution service, when deciding on any case, considers carefully not only the sufficiency of evidence but whether it is in the public interest to prosecute.

Mr. John Greenway

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is not merely a case of using public funds to defend those accused of crimes, but often a case of using them to help the victims of crime? Has he been made aware of the evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee during its current inquiry into domestic violence, which shows that many such cases can be resolved without a custodial sentence, but that that requires the Crown prosecution service to bring a prosecution first?

The Attorney-General

I recognise that there is force in the considerations that my hon. Friend has just mentioned. When the Crown prosecution service considers cases of domestic violence, it does not consider sentencing but is looking to a sensible solution, including the justice of the matter, which it will take into account when considering whether it is necessary to prosecute.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Attorney-General agree that the number of cases discontinued by the Crown prosecution service is on the increase? Does he welcome such an increase, especially when we bear in mind that that stops the prosecution of many petty and minor matters which have hitherto clogged up the courts?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One of the principal functions of the Crown prosecution service is to review each case and, where appropriate, to keep it under review at every relevant stage. At present, it discontinues about 12.5 per cent. of cases and there is a sign that that figure is slightly on the increase, but it is not out of hand and it shows that it correctly keeps the question of reviewing cases very much in mind.

Mr. Hawkins

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, in cases where a non-custodial sentence is passed by a court when it is strongly felt by many people that a custodial one would have been more appropriate, he now has the power to refer the matter to the Court of Appeal for it to consider whether a more serious custodial sentence is more appropriate?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important new power, which was introduced in 1989, which may be exerted in cases that can be tried only at the Crown court—we are therefore talking about the most serious type of case. That power is designed to maintain and improve public confidence by enabling the Court of Appeal not only to reduce over-severe sentences, but, when it appears to me or to my right hon. and learned Friend that the sentence is unduly lenient, it can be referred for reconsideration of a possibly more serious sentence.