HL Deb 12 June 1951 vol 172 cc1-4

2.37 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Lord Chancellor a Question of which I have given him private notice—namely, whether His Majesty's Government have any statement to make in relation to the recent case at South Shields, where a woman was remanded in custody for a night for picking three tulips and was fined on the following morning the sum of £5.


My Lords, my attention has been called to this case, and I have obtained a full explanation from the magistrates concerned. The magistrates have been greatly disturbed at the increasing practice of damaging flowers and shrubs growing in public places. I agree with the magistrates in thinking that this is an obvious anti-social act, which should not be passed over as a matter of no consequence. Such conduct, if unchecked, would make it impossible by planting flowers and shrubs to beautify places to which the public have access. I can, therefore, well understand that the magistrates, particularly in view of the prevalence of this type of vandalism in their area, thought that the matter should be severely dealt with. The maximum penalty which the law provides, under Section 23 of the Malicious Damage Act, 1861, which was the section under which these proceedings were brought, is a fine of £20 or six months' imprisonment.

I have no reason to doubt the competence of these magistrates, who arrived at their conclusion after careful consideration of all the circumstances. Nevertheless, whilst not wishing to imply any censure I feel bound to say that in my opinion they made a grave error of judgment in the course which they took, though I am satisfied that they were endeavouring to do their duty. To keep this woman in custody overnight, and then to fine her the sum of £5, a substantial sum, on the following morning, looked like punishing her twice for the same offence. Justices have power to remand the accused person after conviction for the purpose of enabling inquiries (including inquiries into the physical and mental condition of the defendant) to be made, or of determining the most suitable method of dealing with his case. A remand for this purpose may be in custody or on bail.

It would obviously be undesirable for me to attempt to lay down any general rule as to the occasions on which these powers should be exercised, or upon the question in what circumstances, when these powers are exercised, the remand should be in custody and not on bail. Two propositions seem, however, to be clear. First, a series of cases establishes that this power to remand in custody ought not to be used merely as an additional means of punishing the accused. Secondly, the power of remanding in custody should be used, in the case of a woman with young children, only in very special circumstances. I hope that what I have said may provide some useful guidance to magistrates, and I have ascertained that the Lord Chief Justice agrees with the opinion which I have just expressed. After careful consideration of the whole of the circumstances of this case, I do not propose to take any further action, and I have caused the magistrates to be informed of my views on this matter.


My Lords, while thanking the Lord Chancellor for his full answer, which I hope will be widely reported, may I ask my noble and learned friend one supplementary question? It is on a point which I think is involved in what he has said, but it is a point which ought, I submit, to be emphasised. The power of magistrates to remand an accused for the purpose of making necessary inquiries, or in order to have time to reflect on his punishment when he is convicted, is, of course, an essential part of our criminal law, though, as the Lord Chancellor has said, the accused ought not to be remanded in custody unless there is reason to think that, if left at liberty in the meantime, he is likely to abscond. But would the Lord Chancellor think it right to make it very plain in a supplementary answer that magistrates are not entitled to remand in custody for the concealed purpose of teaching the accused a lesson, when there is no real justification at all for postponing sentence? If, as I understand was the case, this woman was brought up before the magistrates in the morning following her wrongful act in damaging the Corporation's display of flowers the night before, and she then pleaded guilty, the effect of the remand was to punish her, a mother with small children, with twenty-four hours' imprisonment before the magistrates imposed the fine. I submit to the Lord Chancellor that it might serve a useful purpose if he thought it well to say something in supplement to his original answer.


I am obliged to the noble and learned Viscount; it is desirable that this matter should be made completely plain. I respond to his question by saying quite categorically that in my view it is wrong for a court to use the power to remand in custody for the purpose of teaching the accused a lesson, or indeed for any purpose of punishment. It is a power which is given to justices for a wholly different purpose—for example, to make inquiries or to determine what is the most suitable method of dealing with the case.

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