HC Deb 28 October 1997 vol 299 cc721-3 4.15 pm
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that a person indicted for a serious criminal offence shall be brought to trial within a period of not more than 110 days; and for connected purposes. The Government say that they are committed to speeding up the justice process, bringing people to trial sooner. They have suggested that they want to halve the time that it takes for youth offenders to be brought to trial. I believe that the introduction of a statutory time limit would help, in particular, to ease the overcrowding in prisons and prevent people from being allowed out on bail. Such a time limit would also comply with the Government's promise to bring young offenders before the courts earlier and prevent them from reoffending while awaiting trial.

Such a provision could usefully be introduced into English law to expedite the process of youth justice. Will the Government consider incorporating into English law the 110-day rule, which is highly regarded as one of the cornerstones of the criminal procedure and justice system in Scotland, and which recognises protection for the accused by providing that he may not be detained for a total period of more than 110 days?

Under common law, there is no time limit for commencing an action brought by the Crown. A prosecution may therefore be commenced at any time after the alleged offence. The prerogative writ of habeas corpus, which is enshrined in the Habeas Corpus Acts 1679 and 1816, is a means of securing the release of a person unlawfully detained, but it is a prerogative writ and not a statutory requirement.

The Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 provides for a regime of statutory time limits for the prosecution of criminal cases, but it has yet to be implemented. As there are no mandatory time limits set for the detention of prisoners on remand in England and Wales, the length of imprisonment does not constitute unlawful detention. At any given time, 20 per cent. of the prison population are prisoners on remand. At the end of August, 12,000 prisoners were on remand in England and Wales.

Under Scots law, the 110-day rule prevents people from being detained without trial for more than 110 days. After that period, they must be released. The introduction of a time limit for detention on remand in England and Wales would help to speed up the operation of the judicial system and would avoid people being detained in custody indefinitely. Allowing trials to be brought at an early date would assist witnesses in presenting their evidence before diminishing memory weakened the case against the accused. The Bill would assist both the defence and the prosecution in any trial.

The new legislation is needed to protect the civil liberties of those detained by the police. If the Government are serious about legal reform—as they claim to be—and earnest in their desire to modernise the English legal system, they should consider introducing the 110-day rule in England to improve the rapid delivery of justice and to protect the rights of the accused.

The 110-day rule exists under Scots law and could usefully be applied in England. The rule simply states that if a person is taken into custody, his trial must commence within 110 days. If it does not, that person must be released. As a Scottish advocate, I can vouch for the benefits of such a system. The reform would avoid the problem of people languishing in custody indefinitely, which is unacceptable when people are later acquitted at trial. We have a duty in England and Wales to process people's cases as quickly as we can. Going to court can be the most stressful and disruptive occasion in many people's lives and to keep them waiting in custody, without a definite 110-day limit, is unacceptable both to the prosecution and defence.

Allowing trials to be brought at an early date assists witnesses in presenting their evidence. While I concede that exceptions will have to be made to the rule, especially if the defence has not had time to prepare its case, we should offer a minimum guarantee to protect people's civil liberties. The 110-day rule is seen as a peculiarly Scottish concept, but it is a vital safeguard which protects the civil liberties of those detained by the state.

How does the rule work? If the trial has not started by the time the accused has spent 110 days in custody, he must be liberated forthwith unless the period is extended. A trial starts when a jury is sworn to try the accused. Once an accused person is liberated under the provision, he cannot be pursued for that offence and he shall be for ever free from all question of process for it. An extension of the 110-day rule may be granted by a single judge of the High Court if the delay in beginning the trial is due to the illness of the accused or a judge, the absence or illness of any necessary witness, or a sufficient cause not attributable to any fault on the part of the prosecutor. The defence or the Crown may appeal against the granting or refusal of the extension to the Court of Appeal.

There is sufficient evidence for the Government to be interested in applying the rule in England. Today, I obtained copies of two consultation papers from the Library. The first dealt with reducing remand delays. The Government remind us of their manifesto commitment to reduce remand delays to national targets, but it has taken longer for cases to be completed in recent years, despite significant reductions in the number of cases coming to the criminal courts. In far too many custody cases, statutory custody time limits are not being met, and urgent changes are needed to improve current performance. I remind all those who are interested in the subject that we have until 14 November to submit responses to the consultation paper.

In a third consultation paper, which sets out the Government's proposals for reforming the youth justice scheme and tackling delays, the Government remind us that one of their top priorities is faster, more efficient youth offender proceedings. They specify that a key target—indeed, one of the Government's five election pledges—is to halve the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders.

We are told that it is currently taking an unacceptable average of four and a half months for a young person who commits an offence to be sentenced. In the worst cases, the offenders are not dealt with until a year or more after the offence is committed. Such delays anger and distress the victims and do not help the young offender, as the link between the offence and society's response to it is broken. The new system would enable the youth justice system to operate more effectively.

On the question of people being allowed out on bail, I remind the House that in the tragic case in which the woman police officer was murdered at the weekend, the accused had been released on bail. That is another argument for the Government adopting the measure. I think that I have given sufficient reasons for the 110-day rule to be introduced into English and Welsh law. I urge the Government to support my proposal.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Anne McIntosh, Mrs. Eleanor Laing, Mr. Keith Simpson, Mr. James Gray, Mr. David Prior, Mr. Andrew Tyrie, Mr. Christopher Fraser, Mr. Robert Walter, Mr. Tim Collins, Mr. Desmond Swayne, Mrs. Theresa May and Mr. Nick St. Aubyn.