HC Deb 22 October 2002 vol 391 cc114-6
28. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

How many (a) lawyers and (b) others were held to be in contempt of court for delaying court proceedings in the last year for which records are available; and if he will make a statement. [73604]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Yvette Cooper)

The Lord Chancellor's Department does not collate the requested information, but I am informed by the Bar Council and the Law Society that it is rare for lawyers to be held in contempt of court, but that where they are informed of cases, they can pursue disciplinary action. We are looking at new measures to reduce unnecessary delays in the courts.

Mr. Allen

I congratulate my hon. Friend and her Department on their input into the criminal justice White Paper, which will be a great step forward for many people, especially in my constituency, who need the nuts and bolts of the criminal justice system to be attended to. Before the proposals are considered in Committee, will she meet Inspectors Emmott, Wilson, Windmill-Jones and Whitmore from my constituency and hear their frustration about some of the difficulties that they encounter when witnesses are intimidated by yobs, youths and others in the constituency and fail to attend court? Will she talk to those people and listen to their concern that certain defence lawyers—not many, but significant numbers—abuse the system? Will she also consider using contempt of court and waiting cost orders to a greater degree in the Criminal Justice Bill when it finally comes before the House?

Yvette Cooper

I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend and any delegation that he chooses to bring from his constituency to discuss the issues. He is right that there can be immense frustration among victims and witnesses when court cases do not go ahead on the day for which they are scheduled for trial. About 24 per cent. of trials do not proceed on the scheduled day, compared with 28 per cent. in 1997, so progress has been made but we need to go further. That is why we are considering a series of measures, including different incentives and sanctions for those involved in the process.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Delays and adjournments are not entirely the responsibility of defence lawyers. In magistrates courts, they are often due to the distances between courts following closures or the lack of availability of solicitors in criminal practice. May I make a positive suggestion to the hon. Lady? Will she consider applying a new rule to the Crown Prosecution Service requiring that all cases be prepared at least 36 hours before the listing of a case? Such a rule would ensure that all parties can be advised in due time if difficulties arise and that a costly adjournment that is pointless to everybody concerned can be avoided.

Yvette Cooper

The hon. Gentleman is right that there are a series of reasons why cases do not proceed on the scheduled day, including the failure of witnesses and defendants to show up. About 6 per cent. of trials in 2001 did not go ahead on the scheduled day because either the prosecution or the defence said that they were not ready on the day. We are considering a series of ways of improving case preparation, involving judges, lawyers and other court users. Part of the issue is that nobody takes responsibility when the case does not go ahead on the day. We need to specify who is responsible in what circumstances and what the different sanctions or incentives might be when something goes wrong. That is what the case preparation project is dealing with and I shall certainly take on board the points that he made.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

We have not mentioned one matter: the cover-up in the courts, to which we cannot refer in the House of Commons. Under the contempt rule, we cannot draw attention to cases that have been delayed by wealthy, greedy barristers who cannot agree their diaries. Cases have been drawn to my attention that I cannot mention on the Floor of the House because of our arcane contempt rules. Will the Minister go to the relevant file and discuss with the House authorities whether, without trespassing into the substance of criminal cases, we can, as custodians of the public purse, at least draw attention to the fact that the legal brethren are manipulating their diaries and maximising their profits and earnings at the expense of justice delayed?

Yvette Cooper

I shall certainly look into my hon. Friend's points. Anxieties have been raised. For example, last year's Audit Commission report stated that the current fee structure for lawyers may be seen to offer an incentive for legal representatives to prolong cases in the judicial process unnecessarily. That could be countered by the establishment of a culture in the courts that challenges inadequate preparation and measures the performance of lawyers, and a payment scheme that rewards the expedition of cases where possible. We are keen to consider such matters as part of the case preparation project. There is a series of different issues involving the courts, the police and other players. However, I shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's points.