HC Deb 17 January 1997 vol 288 cc596-600

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr.Carrington.]

2.36 pm
Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Sackville). He has had a busy morning again.

I wish to draw the Minister's attention to failures in the criminal justice system that have led to cases painstakingly investigated by the police and brought before the courts being frustrated by one means or another. The fact that such cases have occurred in Salford is a coincidence. I have made the title of the debate "Criminal Justice, Salford", but it is of little significance, for the failures could have happened anywhere. In fact, some of the courts involved are not in Salford; among those involved are Bolton Crown court, Manchester Crown court and Salford magistrates court. I am certain that we shall find parallel cases throughout the north-west and, indeed, throughout the country.

The Minister represents a Bolton constituency. I live in Bolton. He must be aware, as I am, that the matters before the House apply equally to Bolton, Salford or anywhere else. I also urge the Minister to consider, when I have concluded my remarks, whether there is a need to inquire into the way in which the lawyers have conducted themselves in the three cases that I shall pray in aid for the purpose of this short debate.

The first case that I wish to bring to the Minister's attention is one about which I have engaged in conversation with the Home Secretary and Ministers in the Department. To some extent it has been investigated, but I continue to challenge some of the conclusions that Ministers have drawn about it.

Two masked men entered licensed premises. Ammonia was thrown in the manager's face and the manager's wife was attacked for the jewellery that she was wearing. In the fracas, the mask was displaced, revealing clearly the features, and therefore the identity, of the robber, who was well known to the police and, as they say, had form.

The people involved were subsequently arrested. The Greater Manchester police witness protection team came into play, as did the Salford city council witness liaison officer. The witness was placed in safe housing, with the usual paraphernalia of safe keeping: a pendant alarm and other protective measures were installed.

Before the court hearing, the victim telephoned the police to report, with some dismay, seeing the accused outside the safe premises where she was then living. The police were able to reassure her that she was mistaken, and that in fact the accused was still in custody, remanded in Strangeways prison. No significance was attached to the call by the police at the time. When the case reached court, however, defence counsel raised the question of the telephone call out of the blue, exploited it to the full and cast doubt on the victim's observation skills. The case fell.

The Minister of State, Home Office responded to me in terms which my subsequent inquiries still challenge. I maintain that the defence lawyers posed the question to the victim; the Minister of State claimed that it was the prosecution lawyers. As I have said in correspondence, the case has sinister overtones, suggesting a sophisticated method of intimidating witnesses. I do not retract my remark that lawyers may have been implicated in the scheme.

The second case raises questions about the competence of the Court Service and—again—about the lawyers. To be fair to him, the Attorney-General has to some extent acknowledged that in letters to me, especially the one dated 6 August 1996. He is still consulting the leader of the northern circuit, so in this case at least I am prepared to be less critical of ministerial activity.

The case was a catalogue of errors that would not have occurred had the trial been conducted expeditiously. Three young women, two of them my constituents, were assaulted by three youths when returning home from an evening out. Three middle-aged men went to their assistance and, in the ensuing fracas, were badly beaten up and eventually hospitalised. Some police passing the incident intervened and arrested the three youths. Subsequently, one pleaded guilty and two pleaded not guilty.

After four Crown court adjournments, some misleading by a trial judge who was new to the case, and a catalogue of legal incompetence, the judge decided to stay the proceedings. That is wholly unsatisfactory and yet another example of the system failing the public.

The two cases I have outlined took place in early and mid-1996. The third occurred later in the year. Here again I do not know whether to blame deficiencies and incompetence in the system or more sinister forces contriving to interfere with and undermine the criminal justice system in my area. It concerns a serious robbery. Two men responding to an advertisement in a newspaper for computer equipment entered a house in Salford, where they were threatened with a machete and disabled by ammonia, and more than £3,000 was stolen from them.

Later, a man was arrested. He was picked out at an identification parade and committed for trial in September of last year. The day before it was due to be held, the trial was cancelled owing to a lack of court time. The witnesses were stood down, and a new date was arranged for November. When that date was reached, the witnesses again attended and were sent away with no future date given.

A December date was arranged, and witnesses were alerted for a third time. This is where it becomes tricky. The day before the new trial date, the case was omitted from the list given to the police. On checking with the court, the police were advised of a further cancellation, again due to lack of court time. The police stood down the witnesses yet again.

The next day—the original trial date—the Crown Prosecution Service contacted the police seeking the witnesses. It was told by the police that the case had been cancelled, but the CPS advised that it had been relisted. The excuse was that court administrators had mistakenly omitted the case in the first place. In seeking to reinstate the original date, a correction was faxed—so it is alleged—to police headquarters on the previous night when the police office was unmanned. It was too late and, despite the best efforts on the trial day, the willing witnesses could not be mustered. The incredible consequence was that the case was thrown out again due to non-attendance of witnesses.

Was there a genuine mistake, or are forces at work in which the criminal fraternity is involved? I do not know; it may be my suspicious mind, but the matter is serious and the fact that at least two hardened criminals who are well known to the police and the community are now at large because of the malfeasance that I described—and three others who are not habitual criminals as far as I know were not brought to trial for serious offences—is ample reason why Ministers should investigate these matters thoroughly. Indeed, some kind of inquiry should be set up to give the public some confidence.

The police are totally frustrated in their efforts to bring people to justice—and, I accept, to make life not too difficult for themselves—and to make life better for the people whom we represent and whom they are paid to protect. The Minister and his colleagues must do more to restore public confidence. In the extremely short time left to them, I hope that they will make some move that can be picked up after the general election by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

2.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Tom Sackville)

I cannot be expected to agree with the thrust of the last remarks of the hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) but I concur with his alarm at the outcome of the cases that he described. He was kind enough to give me notice that he had corresponded with the Attorney-General and others. So, with his permission, I shall answer with a considered commentary on one of those cases—the Crown v. Hodgkiss, Dixon and Boyd. He can then judge whether what I shall say demonstrates not only concern but a willingness to ensure that such chains of events do not occur again.

As the hon. Gentleman said, in that case three men were charged with serious offences. They were committed for trial and a pre-trial hearing took place on 5 May 1995. Thereafter, the case was listed for hearing on three occasions: 31 July 1995, 12 December 1995 and 12 February 1996. On all those dates, the case was listed as what is called a "floater" and, in the event, it did not come before the judge until the last date. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a "floater" is a trial not allocated to a specific court or judge but which may be taken in any court within a court centre whenever a gap appears in any of the lists during the day. It is not tied to a single courtroom and can be taken in the first one that becomes free. It is necessary to run such a system because it is impossible to predict the precise length of trials and, if there were no such system, a court in which the fixed list finished early would simply be left with nothing to do, which would represent a waste of public money and increased delays. However, it is clearly unsatisfactory that a serious case such as this should be listed as a floater on three separate occasions. The Court Service is well aware of that fact and is taking steps to prevent a recurrence.

On 12 February 1996, when the case finally came to court, the defence applied for an adjournment as an expert witness was not available. Furthermore, prosecuting counsel was unable to reach the court due to adverse weather conditions. Although the court was told that the prosecution could proceed on the following day, the judge decided to grant the defence request for an adjournment.

The case was then listed for a fourth time, but this time as a fixture, on 30 April 1996. On that day, prosecuting counsel instructed by the CPS—who was new to the case—decided to seek an adjournment so that clothing from two of the defendants could be examined forensically. That was counsel's decision and contrary to the view of the police and the CPS, which did not consider such an examination necessary. The defence had not sought an examination either, despite being informed of its availability early in the proceedings.

The judge retired overnight to consider his position. The following day, he was informed by prosecuting counsel—following consultation with the CPS—that the trial should proceed. However, he was not informed that the defence had earlier been offered an opportunity to examine the clothing and declined. He was also told that the reason for the adjournment on 12 February was the unavailability of prosecuting counsel—the unavailability of the defence expert witness was not pointed out to him. On the basis of that incomplete information, the judge directed that the case should not proceed as the defendants would be put at a considerable disadvantage. He therefore stayed the proceedings.

Mr. Lewis

The Minister will acknowledge that I referred obliquely to that point in my speech. Were disciplinary proceedings taken against anyone found guilty of misleading a High Court judge in that way?

Mr. Sackville

No. I gather from the information that I have received from the Attorney-General that the situation did not lend itself to disciplinary proceedings—it may have been a case of incompetence rather than malevolence. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.

Mr. Lewis

Have we stopped dealing with incompetence in a disciplinary manner?

Mr. Sackville

I shall deal in correspondence with the general point as to what extent disciplinary procedures would be available in an extreme case.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has raised the case with the head of the Court Service. He in turn, together with the service's senior managers, has looked to see what steps can be taken to prevent the overuse of floating trials. The practice of floating cases involving a large number of witnesses and occurring on several occasions is contrary to guidelines. Three points in the guidelines are: floaters should be short and uncomplicated cases; they should involve few witnesses and no expert witnesses; and, if they are not reached on the first day they are listed, they should receive priority in subsequent listing arrangements. In light of this case, the head of the Court Service has re-emphasised the need for the guidance to be followed.

My right hon. and learned Friend has also contacted the leader of the northern circuit Bar to express his concern at the contribution that the change of prosecuting counsel had made to the unsatisfactory outcome of the case. The heads of chambers have been reminded of the need to ensure that the number of returned briefs is kept to an absolute minimum. More generally, the CPS, in liaison with the Bar, has issued service standards on returned briefs that are designed to ensure continuity of counsel throughout a case—something that was sadly lacking in the current case. The fundamental principle of the service standards is that the advocate who is instructed initially should conduct the case.

Finally, the Court Service and the CPS are arranging a conference for staff at senior levels to agree general principles, processes and mechanisms to ensure that cases are handled properly. That will take place on 3 February and, I hope that it will help to prevent a recurrence of this unfortunate episode.

Mr. Lewis

Can the Minister let me see a copy of the guidance to which he referred in the correspondence that he is to send me?

Mr. Sackville

I am sure that that will be no problem at all. I shall arrange that.

I can only sympathise and apologise through the hon. Gentleman to his constituents for the way in which they have been let down by the criminal justice system. I hope that the events that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, the Court Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Bar have set in train will avoid similar results in future cases.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that sinister forces might be at work. I hope that that is not the case. Even assuming that the case involved a certain amount of bad luck, but principally incompetence, it is very serious. I believe that lessons will be learnt from this particular case—and another case, about which I shall be happy to give the hon. Gentleman a more detailed commentary in correspondence—and that, in future, we can tell all our constituents that when there is a case to be heard following a serious offence, it will be heard promptly.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Three o'clock.