HL Deb 19 February 1957 vol 201 cc1025-48

4.41 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, having so recently opposed the Second Reading of a Bill, I trust that in proposing the Second Reading of this Bill noble Lords who voted in the other Lobby so recently will heap coals of fire on my head by assisting the passage of what I hope your Lordships will agree is a useful measure. In dealing with a Bill which I genuinely believe to be uncontroversial, I find it rather difficult to know exactly how far I should go into detail. To some extent, I am compelled to do so by the fact that the Bill is really a series of different details in procedure. With some minor exceptions the Bill is designed to carry out the recommendations of the Departmental Committee under Sir Reginald Sharpe, to whom I am sure your Lordships would wish me to offer a tribute of thanks for the public work that he and the fellow members of his Committee gave in shaping the recommendations which are so largely embodied in this Bill.

The purposes of the Bill can best be expressed, I think, by looking at its clauses. The first clause is designed to give to magistrates' courts the power to act on a written admission of guilt. The present situation is that where a defendant to summary proceedings writes to admit his guilt, the magistrates are not empoyered to act on the admission to the extent of dispensing with the attendance of witnesses, and, in particular, even where the attendance of some of the less important witnesses is dispensed with, a sufficient number in each case, including the prosecuting policeman, have to be in attendance, notwithstanding that the defendant himself has not thought it worth his while to come and notwithstanding that he admits his guilt in writing. The Committee found that this defect, as I am sure your Lordships would consider it to he, in the Metropolitan Police District alone took the equivalent of the full time of 89 policemen a day and I should respectfully suggest that this fact alone would give an overwhelming case for accepting the recommendations of the Committee on this point.

The recommendations are limited to summary offences, for reasons which I hope will seem good to your Lordships. It was not thought right to confine it to motoring offences in name, although it is supposed in practice that the procedure will be invoked for motoring offences rather more commonly than for other cases. The criterion is whether a sentence of net more than three months' imprisonment can be imposed, although your Lordships will see from a particular provision in Clause l that before the court proceeds to the imposition of any sentence of imprisonment or disqualification, it is necessary to grant an adjournment in order to provide the defendant with an additional opportunity to attend. The procedure is voluntary; that is to say, whether it is invoked at all depends upon the concurrence of the prosecutor, the defendant and the court. To that extent, therefore, the defendant's position is safeguarded. Moreover, it your Lordships will look at the provisos to Clause 1 (2), you will see that a number of safeguards are provided, including the option to the defendant to withdraw his notice of a plea of guilty at any time before the hearing.

The second clause in the Bill deals with a somewhat similar kind of difficulty in relation to the identity of drivers of vehicles. In the absence of a witness, it is at the moment impossible to prove the identity of a driver of a vehicle who was guilty of a minor offence—for instance, a parking offence—simply upon a written admission. An oral admission, of course, has to be proved by a witness indeed, a written admission would have to be proved by a witness who saw the document made or knew the handwriting. The provisions in Clause 2 deal with that situation. It is considered necessary since, upon the introduction of the new codes relating to parking meters and to parking, there will be a large number of cases of this kind, and it is proposed to use this clause in connection with Section 113 of the Road Traffic Act in order to dispense with the attendance of witnesses in that case.

Clause 3 of the Bill deals with the proof of previous convictions. As the law stands at the moment, a defendant who does not attend the hearing cannot have previous convictions proved against him owing to the practical impossibility of adducing evidence that the person supposedly before the court but not in fact present is the same person who was convicted on the other occasions of which the police may know. To some extent, of course, endorsements on a driving licence provide a safeguard against that, but they are by no means a complete safeguard: and, in any event, even in cases to which they apply, they are removed after a lapse of time, or may be removed on the application of the driver after a lapse of three years, I think, from the time of the offence to which they relate. The result is that under the existing law it is wise for persons with a long record not revealed on their driving licence to absent themselves from court when charged with motoring offences and to leave the police in the position of being unable to prove previous convictions, with the result that those offenders are dealt with as first offenders. This is not considered satisfactory. The police can, of course, have a warrant issued for the arrest of the offender who adopts this course, but they usually consider (and, in my judgment, rightly consider) that such a course is extreme and unduly harsh. The result is that the offences are not proved at all.

Clause 3 of the Bill provides that: Where a person is convicted of a summary offence by a magistrates' court, other than a juvenile court, and it is proved to the satisfaction of the court, on oath or in the prescribed manner, that not less than seven days previously a notice was served on the accused in the prescribed form and manner specifying any alleged previous conviction of the accused of a summary offence proposed to be brought to the notice of the court in the event of his conviction of the offence charged, and the accused is not present in person before the court, the court may take account of any such previous conviction so specified as if the accused had appeared and admitted it. That really concludes the provisions of the Bill since Clause 4 covers machinery. Her Majesty's Government consider it provides a useful amendment of the law relating to summary offences. The interests of the subject are adequately safeguarded, and in those circumstances I would commend the Bill to your Lordships for Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Hailsham.)

4.51 p.m.


My Lords, having had some mildly critical observations to make about the speech of the noble and learned Viscount upon the last measure, may I now, not heap coals of fire on his head but rather turn the other cheek and say how much I applaud the conciseness with which he has explained this Bill to your Lordships. Perhaps he has been a little too short, because although this is a Bill of only three clauses, it marks, in my view, a turning point in the legislation of this country, and as such is deserving of considerable attention. I propose to ask the noble and learned Viscount a few questions, of the majority of which I have taken the opportunity of giving him prior notice.

This Bill is a compromise—and I believe a very good compromise—brought about, as the noble Lord has said, as the result of the deliberations of the Sharpe Committee, as between having in this country traffic courts solely concerned with road vehicle offences, which take up such a large amount of ordinary police time, and going to the other extreme, which is in vogue in other parts of the world, of fining on the spot. There was difficulty in seeing what was the proper thing to do between these two courses while at the same time—and this is very important—seeing that justice was done. Although I have some slight mental reservations, I believe that Her Majesty's Government, in accepting this Report, have done the right thing. My mental reservations may be a sign of old age, but I must confess that I still rather cling to the old-established precedent in British law that it is not at any time advisable to convict anyone of a crime in his absence. I am quite prepared to admit that the modern procedure is for the majority of motorists to write pleading guilty, because it has proved cheaper to do so than to spend time and money in attending court to defend their case.

That brings me to my first point. I remember having, upon all stages of the Road Traffic Bill, some most friendly and enlightening discussions with the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack. If he will permit me to repeat what I then said, he was extraordinarily helpful not only to us but also to those who have the administration of justice all over the country. As the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Hailsham, has said, this Bill deals with the hearing of summary offences, in the absence not only of those who have pleaded guilty but also of the prosecution. I should like to have the opinion of the noble and learned Viscount—it can be only his opinion—as to whether he thinks this will have the tendency of removing the present police practice of giving warnings. Statistics show that in 1955, the last year for which figures are available, there were 543,018 offences. Of those, 176,389 were never brought to court because the police thought justice was done by giving warnings. I hope that that practice will still prevail, and that we shall not see an increase in the number of people brought to court for what I might call really petty offences which the police to-day consider are met by a warning.

The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, during the debate which we had on the severity of sentences, in countering the view that was expressed that one of the real reasons for the increase in accidents was that the law had got into disrepute through the laxity of magistrates, resisted pleas that heavier sentences Should be imposed by saying that he thought the right course was for magistrates to use the greater, more salutary weapon of suspension of licence. This Bill really nullifies itself if that advice of the noble and learned Viscount is taken to any great extent, because while magistrates can impose a fine in the absence of one who has pleaded guilty, they cannot impose either suspension of licence or imprisonment unless they adjourn for the purpose of giving the convicted man a chance of attending. It may he that that will not be so, but I should like an expression of view from the noble and learned Viscount on that question.

The Sharpe Committee went into this matter very thoroughly. Does it rest with the police—[...]f it does I do not mind—whether they issue the summons under the old or under the new procedure? If they issue it under the old procedure will it be for some specific reason? If so, for what reason? I suggest that the reason would be Oat the police viewed the matter so seriously. Would that prejudice the magistrates and prejudice the case of the accused person? It might be that the police had knowledge of his previous convictions, and if the magistrates dared to ask why the procedure under the existing law had been adopted, and not the procedure under the law now proposed, would that in any way prejudice the case of the accused? It may be that it would not but I should imagine that nineteen times out of twenty the chairman and the bench of magistrates would hazard a guess that the reason the police had not brought the proceedings under this Bill—Act as it would then be—was because of the previous bad record of the accused. I think that that is a point which might be looked at. I believe that it is mentioned on page 18 of the Sharpe Committee's Report. It was discussed by the Committee, who came to the conclusion that that ought to be the procedure. I believe, though, that there was some discussion as to whether the clerk to the justices, and not the police, should state the case.

A further matter which I have in my mind is tins. Will the benches of magistrates of the country have any instruction from the Home Office about the way they should deal with an accused person?—or a guilty person, if you like, because I am thinking of a person who pleads guilty by letter because he thinks he will get away with a smaller fine than if he attends court. Perhaps he writes a very nice apologetic letter the thinks that that will be cheaper than paying the expense, perhaps of a long journey, engaging a solicitor, and so on. He thinks that the most that can happen is that he will be fined. The worst case of road offences with which this Bill, I believe, can deal, is that of driving without due care and attention. The maximum penalty, on first conviction, for that offence is, I think, £40—a not insignificant sum. The usual fine imposed is from £3 to £5, and the man concerned may well think that to pay a fine of £5 is cheaper than paying his fare to the court and the other incidental expenses.

But suppose that a man finds the penalty imposed is £25. In such a case, how are the means of the person taken into consideration? I believe that it is the duty of magistrates to take an individual's means into consideration before they fine him: they have to pay some regard to his ability to pay. Can the noble Viscount tell me at what stage in the proceedings the accused person's means can be considered? If I, as an accused person, write to the bench and say, "Yes, I am guilty; I am very sorry ", at what period do the bench learn what are my means? The police, when they stop me and warn me that proceedings may be taken, cannot very well say to me: "In case proceedings are taken, will you tell me what your means are?" And if I do not appear in court how are my means made known to the magistrates and taken into consideration? I have searched the Bill and I cannot find anything in it which covers that point.

Another matter is this. Supposing I have pleaded guilty, hoping that I am going to get away with a small fine, but the police evidence and the facts generally lead the magistrates to adjourn the case. That would give me a broad hint. They will, no doubt, have to write to tell me that they are adjourning, and I shall gather from that, and the fact that they are requiring my presence, that they take a serious view of the case. Can I alter my plea? I pleaded guilty hoping that I was going to get away lightly; it has become obvious, however, that I am not going to get away lightly as the magistrates have adjourned the case. So I know that I am probably going to get it "good and strong", and that my licence may be suspended. Can I alter my plea to not guilty, and ask whether I can have a lawyer to argue my case in mitigation of sentence? Or, having once pleaded guilty in the hope of getting off lightly, am I bound by that plea?


A plea in mitigation of sentence could be made only if the plea of guilty was not altered. I am sure the noble Lord appreciates that.


Does the noble Viscount think that that is fair? Is that what is intended in this Bill? It may be that it is right. I only want the noble Viscount to tell me. I am raising these points only with a view to obtaining information in order to see what action it is necessary to take on the Committee stage, and whether we shall want to alter the Bill in any regard. We might want to amend it on the point with which I have just dealt. I speak with a certain diffidence because I am not a magistrate. I should think that I am the only Member of your Lordships' House present at this moment who is not a magistrate.


I am not a magistrate.


Then I am in good company for once. What we have to remember is: let justice not only be done, but appear to be done. In our efforts to streamline legislation like this and turn it into mass-production, conveyor-belt production, do not let us overstep the mark either way.

Next as to the matter of service of summons. I do not like it. We see that service of summons can be by personal service, it can be by registered letter, it can be by leaving the summons for the individual concerned at his last known address with someone who is there to give it to him when they see him. There might not, in the ordinary way, be too much objection to that, but when the case is adjourned and previous convictions are going to be brought up I do not think it is right for notice of a person's previous convictions to be sent by post for anyone at his address to open and read in his absence. I do not think it is right, and neither do the Committee. The Committee recommend that one of the methods of serving a summons prescribed by Rule 76 of the Magistrates' Court Rules, 1952—that is, by leaving it for the defendant with some person at his last known or usual place of abode—should not be a permissible way of effecting service of a notice of previous convictions. I think your Lordships will agree that that is right. The man's employer or his wife might get it.

Then what is the acknowledgment going to be that the man concerned has received the notice? I suppose he will have to acknowledge it. The notice can be sent seven days before proceedings. I suggest that that is not long enough. It should be sent to him at the time when he is notified that the court has adjourned the case for his appearance, because that is the only time when previous convictions will come up. What kind of receipt will be given? I should be aghast if I thought that the receipt I was asked to sign as a true record of my previous convictions was not so. What would I do? Am I to admit it?—because there have been cases where records of previous convictions have not been accurate. If the noble Viscount will look at paragraph 55 of the Report, he will see that it is the Committee's view that there should be same better procedure, and I see nothing about it in the Bill.

I have only two more points. The whole facts of the case have to be sent to the accused. Suppose the chairman of the bench is not satisfied with the fullness of the statement sent to the accused and asks the police a question and they answer it? Does that nullify the whole proceeding? Are magistrates going to have instructions on that point? My second point is, why is it that the Fourth Schedule of the Road Traffic Act, 1956, is excluded? The last paragraph of Clause 2 reads: Provided that this section shall not apply in relation to any offence mentioned in the Fourth Schedule to the Road Traffic Act, 1956 (which relates to offences in respect of which disqualification for holding, or endorsement of, a driving licence may be ordered). If the courts have to be satisfied with the procedure in Clause 2 for the identification of drivers in the case of parking offences, why cannot it be so in other cases? In many cases where drivers have to be identified, they have to pay heavy costs, because sometimes it is necessary for a police officer to travel from one end of England to another to give evidence of identity. I should have thought that Fourth Schedule offences could be included with the others under this new identification procedure.

I apologise to your Lordships for raising these detailed points, but this is the only chance we have of raising them until we see what attitude we shall adopt on Committee stage. Of course, we shall give the noble Viscount this Bill because, by and large, we are in favour of it; but this is a new type of legislation and there may be snags. Let us see that in the desire to save thousands of pounds in police time, wasted day in and day out with pettifogging cases, we do not swing the other way; because it will be possible to convict people who plead guilty without even the attendance of the prosecution. Many noble Lords have experience as magistrates, and I think it is the duty of this House to tidy up this Bill so that it can go to another place without blemish, a tidiness which is always a feature of the legislation which leaves your Lordships' House. We wish the Bill well. It goes a long way to meet the views of the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Woolsack, who gave such thought and attention to this matter when the Road Traffic Bill was before the House. I take it that this Pill is an aftermath of the discussions on that Act. We on this side give it our blessing.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Viscount rises, I should like to put a special plea for the inclusion in this Bill of either a clause or a subsection which would prevent magistrates from endorsing a driver's licence without due reason for doing so. I do not think we realise how serious this endorsing of a licence is, it labels a driver for the rest of his driving life as an irresponsible driver, or as a dangerous one, and prevents him from joining certain motoring organisations. It is a serious penalty for any driver to pay. Unfortunately, at the moment, a magistrate who has not due conscience en the matter can endorse a licence for a slight offence. The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, is here in the House and I hesitate to speak about magistrates in front of him, but I fear that there are a good many who have a virulent attitude towards motorists and who do the worst they possibly can within the law towards them.

I would mention the case of a young motorist, whom I know to be a responsible driver, who was driving in a restricted area at about one o'clock in the morning. There could hardly have been anything else on the road at the time. He was driving, I suppose, slightly over the thirty-mile limit, and he was overtaken by a police car. For that offence, which caused danger to nobody and which was purely what I might call a theoretical offence, his licence was endorsed and he was fined £5. I would not say that a fair-minded magistrate would have done so, but one must admit that there are magistrates who are not fair-minded towards motorists. Therefore, I think that this serious penalty of having one's licence endorsed should be restricted to offences which either have caused physical injury to another person or have caused serious damage to another person's car or property. I hope that the noble Viscount will think of this as a serious suggestion.

5.19 p.m.


My Lords, I could not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Somers, when he said that some magistrates have a virulent attitude towards motorists. He also spoke of the action of magistrates in endorsing licences without due reason. I can speak only of one bench, but that certainly has not been my experience. I think that magistrates consider the matter carefully before endorsing a licence. I do not think that they are infected by a virulent attitude towards motorists, but they are possessed by a deep sense of duty towards the community in view of the appalling figures of road casualties. That, in my view, does affect their attitude.

As regards the Bill itself, I am most favourably disposed towards it, but I think my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth raised some pertinent questions to which an answer is required, and I am sure the noble and learned Viscount in charge of the Bill will, to the best of his ability, give answers which will satisfy my noble friend. I confess that, as a magistrate, I have been repeatedly shocked by the spectacle of the court filled with policemen waiting to give their evidence, which, when it is given, amounts to a recitation of a formula. At a time when the police force in London and the suburbs is so much under strength, I think it is a desirable object to try to save this waste of time on the part of the police. That waste of time is not confined to their appearance in court, because there is a preliminary meeting when they consult about their evidence. Moreover (though I am not absolutely certain about this), it is within my recollection that I have been told that when a policeman comes into court to give evidence in one of these "speeding in a built-up area" cases, while he may be occupied in the witness box for only a matter of minutes, he has the rest of the day off.

Mention has been made about letters which are received by magistrates from offenders who do not wish to appear. It was said that those who write those letters have some hope that they may get off more lightly; and it is no doubt in that spirit that these letters almost invariably contain a final paragraph to say how much the offender appreciated the courtesy and the politeness of the policeman who stopped him and told him he would be summoned. I do not think it is the case that the court impose a lesser fine because they have received a letter of that sort. I believe that, even with such a letter before them, they proceed upon well-recognised principles. On the question of taking means into consideration when the fine is imposed, again I do not think that that operates in the case of motoring offences. If the offender wishes to point that out, he can do so in the letter that he writes. Offhand, I cannot remember any cases in which the question of means has in any way arisen in respect of a fine which a Bench has inflicted. But it is the case, of course, that an offender who has been fined beyond his means can always apply for time in which to pay, and I have never known a Bench reject that plea.

I am sure that a man with anything like what he thinks is a good case will come to court to argue it. I have noticed that about motorists as a class: if they feel they have any sort of answer, they like to argue it out, and they do so with great pertinacity and often with great ingenuity. Then it is said that the court "may" adopt this procedure. I do not think they will opt to do that if they think the case before them presents any points about which they feel that, for justice to be done, it is desirable to see the man.


Perhaps I might interrupt my noble friend. My reading of the Bill is that the prosecution, meaning the police, decide whether they are going to proceed along the lines of the new or the old legislation—not the court, but the police.


In the Explanatory Memorandum the words used are "the court may ".


Possibly I can help here. If the noble Lord will look at lines 10 and. 14, on page 2, he will see that the court, as well as the police, has an option.


I imagine that in any serious motoring offence—and I confine my remarks to motoring offences, although I know that the Bill has a wider application—in a case of driving without due care, for example, it is unlikely that the bench would proceed without first seeing the offender. I know that so far as my yoke was concerned on the bench, in the case of driving without due care or dangerous driving—


Dangerous driving is outside the scope of the Bill.


That is so, of course. But in a case of driving without due care, which may involve a serious penalty, I should want to have the defendant present because, in my experience, in such a case it is desirable to see and hear the witnesses. I think it is desirable to hear the answer to the questions put by my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth. Whilst I have said that I am favourably disposed towards the Bill and deplore the waste of time, which the present procedure imposes upon the police, yet I feel That even that waste of time would be preferable any procedure which made the defendant feel in any way that he had not had a fair chance. On my reading of the Bill, I think the procedure outlined is such that an offender must continue to feel that he has had every opportunity of putting forward his case, if he so desires, and the procedure will be adopted only by motorists who know very well that they have not a leg to stand on and do not want to waste their time.

5.28 p.m.


My Lords, I think there is a slight tendency for the debate to range rather outside the provisions of the Bill. With regard to what fell from the noble Lord, Lord Somers, I would only say that I am sorry I cannot agree with him; but I am strongly tempted to invite the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, to dinner together and then quietly disappear and leave them to it.


I might accept that invitation.


I should be glad to have a record of what was said. This Bill, which in my view is an excellent one, has for its prime object, if I understand it aright, the saving of time. In my opinion, it will save a great deal of time, and it that way, although it is a small Bill, it will be nothing less than a landmark in the history of justices' courts. I agree with what fell from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, and the noble Lord, Lord Winster, and other speakers, when they said that, however valuable the saving of time is, none of it would be justified if it resulted in the smallest injustice. I have said on many occasions that if there is one virtue above all others which is required in a magistrate it is patience and the ability to waste time in a good cause, because, after all, no one need be a magistrate unless he wants to. Therefore, I entirely agree with what has been said, and no amount of trouble on the Committee stage of this Bill will be wasted if we can make absolutely sure that in this process of saving time no injustice is done. I will say only that, in my reading of the Bill at present, if there is any risk it is not an appreciable one, and that, if it is found to be one of substance, it can be removed.

There are some Committee points with which I will not trouble the House to-day, but I should like to mention one recommendation of the Sharpe Committee which has not been carried into effect in this Bill. The Committee recommended—I think it is in paragraphs 49, 50 and 66—that this Bill should apply to young persons—not to children, but to young persons. I see that there may be administrative difficulties in carrying out that recommendation. If it were applied to young persons it would save more time. But one gets this sort of case. A boy of sixteen and a boy of seventeen are jointly charged with the same offence. It is inevitable, but awkward, that one has to go to the adult court, and the other to the juvenile court. Apply this Bill to that situation, and you get yet a wider difference in the treatment of those two persons. I bring that point to the attention of Her Majesty's Government to see whether they can carry out the recommendation of the Committee in that respect. Many people have asked me since this Bill was published: Is it not a pity that it does not apply to young persons? None of them wished it to apply to children.

May I say a word about Clause 3? I am especially interested in this clause, if only because in 1948 I introduced an Amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which, if I remember aright (I have not compared it) was almost word for word what is now Clause 3 in this Bill. But the noble and learned Earl who then sat on the Woolsack was not impressed by my Amendment and rejected it on behalf of His Majesty's Government. I am only the more glad to see Clause 3 in this Bill because for twenty years at least I have been asking for this very thing. The noble Viscount said that it was illegal to hear the previous convictions in the absence of the defendant. I am not disputing that statement, but I am saying that, illegal or not. I believe it is frequently done to-day in, among other courts, the courts of the Metropolitan magistrates in London. It certainly is done, to my knowledge, in courts in the country, and in order not to get myself into trouble I think I had better not say any more about that aspect.

Of course, it is almost intolerable to the interests of justice that any man should escape punishment, or should receive a lighter punishment, merely by absenting himself from the court. Yet to-day, if the strict law is carried out, that must happen time and time again. A man may have twenty convictions for the same offence and be charged, and then absent himself. Either the police must take immense trouble to prove those convictions formally and legally, maybe by calling witnesses from distances away, or, if the law is carried out strictly, those twenty convictions will be unknown to the court in passing sentence. That, as I say, is something which is almost intolerable in my view, and I am delighted to see that this Bill sets that position right. Of course, it must be hedged about with qualifications to make it absolutely safe.

It has been pointed out to me, in criticism of this Bill, that it is too com- plicated, but I think the answer is that, if it it is to achieve its purpose satisfactorily, that is inevitable. Another probable reason is that this Bill must not formally contravene any of the sections of Magistrates Courts Act, 1952, with which it will be considered in future. Another suggestion I should like to make is that the prescribed forms which, I suppose, will be necessary if this Bill is passed, should be incorporated as Schedules in the Bill. I do not know whether that would be too difficult, but I feel that it would be helpful to magistrates and justices' clerks to have the Bill and the forms all together in one document. I should like to throw out that suggestion to the noble Viscount.

I was very interested, if I may say so, in the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, who, I do not hesitate to say, although not himself a magistrate, must know a good deal more about the work of magistrates than many magistrates do themselves. The noble Lord asked: Will warnings cease to be given by the police because they will no longer fear that they will lose time in bringing the case to court? I think that is a good point. I can only say that it is a matter not for the justices but for the police to answer, and I cannot attempt to answer it. For myself, I think the answer is, "No". I certainly hope so. But if the answer is not, "No", I can only repeat that it is a matter for the police authorities and not for the courts. The noble Lord asked: Will justices fail to disqualify because, after they disqualify, they will have to adjourn the case? That is a question for justices and, if I may say so, another good question. Time alone will supply the answer. We cannot say to-day what justices will do. I will say only that of course the answer ought to be, "No", and that I hope and think it will be. It is a point which ought seriously to be considered, if, of course, the noble Lord's fear turns out to be justified, it would be a bad mark against this Bill but, as I say, I hope and think that it will not.

The noble Lord then asked: Would the use of the old procedure after the passing of this Bill prejudice the accused's case? Again, I think not. I concede that there might possibly be cases, if the justices were not carrying out their duties properly, when it might, but I really cannot think of a case in which it would be allowed to do so. Most certainly it ought not to be allowed to do so. The noble Lord must remember that the prosecution, if they want to prove the previous convictions, can use this Bill. Therefore, I cannot see why they should insist upon the old procedure merely in order to bring the previous convictions before the court. I do not quite follow that part of the noble Lord's argument.


Would the noble Lord allow me to see if I can help him? My point is this. Suppose, from the initial stages, the police decide that they are going to proceed in the ordinary way and not under the new procedure. The magistrates then, I should think, would guess in nineteen cases out of twenty that the reason is that the police treat the case very seriously and are going to ask not only for a heavy fine but also for the suspension of the licence. Would that prejudice the magistrates hearing the case?—because, if this procedure in this Bill is adopted, the magistrates will not know whether or not it is a serious case until the man has pleaded guilty or not guilty.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord's fears are groundless. AS I have said, whichever choice the prosecution make, the previous record of the accused will not be kept out. The noble Lord said: "The police might ask for a heavy sentence." I severely discourage prosecutors from asking me for any sentence. It is a thing that is, to my mind, more reminiscent of Continental law than of British law. Anybody who comes to me and says, "I want a very severe sentence" does not always get exactly what he wants. It is something which ought to be severely discouraged. It is perfectly permissible for the prosecution to suggest in proper terms that this is a serious case of its kind. Supposing that that happens, the question is, will the accused be prejudiced? I have not had an opportunity to think this matter out beforehand, but I see no prejudice to the accused, because, after all, if it is a serious type of case I do not see any objection to acquainting the magistrates with that suggestion. They will decide, sure enough, whether they agree with it or not. Although do not think the noble Lord has a very good point there, I certainly think there is no harm in raising the matter to-day.

The noble Lord said, "Will a man plead guilty because he thinks that he will get a smaller fine if he does?" I doubt whether that point is relevant to this Bill. I am not sure; I do not think it is. But if a man thinks that, I do not think anybody can step him. Then the noble Lord said—and this I do not think is relevant to the Bill—"Will this Bill make any difference to the question of taking the means of the defendant into consideration? He also asked: "How do the bench know of the means of the defendant?" That is an interesting and important question, because, and your Lordships know, ever since the Criminal Justice Administration Act, 1914, it has been compulsory for magistrates to inquire, so far as they are able, into the means of the defendant before assessing a line. Of course, the truth is that it is not always possible to do so. I agree with the noble Lord that if, under this Bill, neither the prosecutor nor the defendant is present, it will be almost impossible to do it.


They need never be present.


They need not be present; but if neither of those persons is present, he must take the consequences of his absence. I do not pretend that I have always been able to take into account the means of a defendant, but I always try to find them out. It is perfectly permissible to ask the prosecutor, after conviction, if he knows anything about the defendant's occupation or how much wages fie gets, and very often a useful answer can be obtained in that way.


I ask the noble Lord this question only because of his eminent position as Chairman of the Magistrates' Association. This is something new. I always thought it was an injunction to the magistrates that, before passing sentence, they must take into consideration the means of the man to pay. He is adjudged guilty, the fine is assessed, the case is over and. under this Bill, the man never appears in court. Is it justice that, because a man lives a long way away and is of poor means, he has no opportunity of establishing his means?


I quite see the noble Lord's point, and I think it is a good point; but he must remember that very often the same difficulty arises now, and this Bill, whilst it may slightly accentuate that difficulty, will not do so seriously, in my humble opinion. It is the case now, time after time, that nobody in court can tell what are the defendant's means. It happens to-day. The only remedy, is to insist on the presence of the defendant so that he can be asked. But nobody in this House this afternoon is seriously going to suggest that we should have the defendant present in every case, because that would not only defeat an object of this Bill but would increase enormously the waste of time in the courts, which it is our very purpose to avoid. We all know that the old criminal law was not intended for the summary trial of a Northumberland motorist in Cornwall, but we have to adjust our law to the circumstances. I do not want to take more time, but there is one more point of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, which I should like to mention. I do not agree with him when he says that the notice of previous convictions should only be sent on an adjournment. I cannot agree with that, because, if that were done and insisted upon, the value of this Bill would go.


I think the noble Lord misunderstood me.


As I understand it, in only a few cases would there be a necessity under this Bill for an adjournment, and if this Bill insisted that the notice of previous convictions should go out only after an adjournment, very much of the value of the Bill would be lost. I do not know whether the noble Viscount would agree with me on that. At any rate, I hope he will deal with the point. This is a very good Bill and I hope it will be passed into law in the early future.

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, when I moved the Second Reading of this Bill, I expressed the hope that noble Lords might heap coals of fire on my head. I have been deluged with coals of fire, especially from my noble friend who has not only supported the Bill but largely relieved me of the task of answering in detail the interesting questions put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. The noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite indicated that perhaps I was too concise in my opening speech. In that case, I must apologise, but it is a difficult task to know where to draw the line in a Bill of this kind. Personally, I had thought it better to find out first by experimentation what questions interested noble Lords who had attended your Lordships' House for this purpose, rather than anticipate what might interest them and possibly choose the wrong points.

It is important that we should all get an absolutely clear picture of the purpose of Clause 1, because it is in the light of that purpose that the questions which have been raised can best be answered. At present, defendants do not come to court on offences which are not very serious, and they habitually write letters saying that they are guilty, believing that the court will act upon them as courts may do, though not legally. The question is, what is to be done when they do? That is the question which this Bill seeks to answer by saying that, provided that certain conditions are complied with, the magistrates shall be entitled to act on an admission of guilt.

Having that circumstance clearly in mind, one can see the answer to a number of the noble Lord's questions. For instance, there is the question of the defendant's means. The noble Lord wanted to know how the magistrates would divine the means of a defendant who, under the new procedure, was not there. The answer which I give to him and which I hope for the purposes of this Bill, at least, he will consider an adequate one, is that they will act exactly as they do now when the defendant is not there. Either they will think that the case is one with which they can deal in the defendant's absence, or they will send for him and make him come in order to find out his means. The defendant is neither better nor worse off because of this procedure. This procedure simply provides that if he writes an admission of guilt the police witnesses need not come in order to prove it. Therefore, on the question of means the situation will be no worse for him in future than it is now.

The same answer applies to the question which was raised about whether the failure of the police to use the new procedure might prejudice the defendant. With respect, that becomes relevant only if the defendant takes the trouble to write admitting his guilt. Therefore, I should have thought that, so far as conviction is concerned, it could make no difference; and so far as sentence is concerned it could make no difference either, because the sentence would not be imposed until all the relevant circumstances had been disclosed. The only circumstances in which a defendant's case could be prejudiced by the failure of the police to invoke the new procedure would be if it were possible for magistrates to convict, suspecting that the defendant had a bad criminal record concealed behind the failure of the police to use the new procedure. That cannot happen because, for the reason that I have indicated, the new procedure applies only where the defendant has written admitting his guilt. I think that is the answer to that point.

I would respectfully agree with what my noble friend Lord Merthyr said about the warning system, which, incidentally, does not depend upon the Government either, except possibly in the Metropolis, where the police come under the orders of my right honourable friend. We imagine that the warning system will go on as before. On the question of disqualification, the view of those framing the Bill has been that where so serious a step as disqualification is contemplated, the motorist who writes to the bench admitting guilt should be given a special opportunity of knowing what is afoot. That is a provision in the interests of the accused, and therefore no person, I think, could complain that the accused's rights were being infringed. I see no real danger that, in proper cases, benches will fail to disqualify when the new procedure is invoked.

The noble Lord also asked me about an alteration of plea. There again, I venture my answer on the same consideration. People nowadays who write letters admitting their guilt cannot alter their plea because they do not like the sentence. They will be no worse off under this Bill. The only difference will be that the magistrates will act on the letter by itself, without the attendance of the police witnesses. In either event the accused is found guilty, at present by the rather cumbrous and expensive procedure of bringing witnesses to court in spite of his admission, and under the Bill by the rather cheaper process of acting on the admission which he has sent. Of course, if he desires to alter his plea, if the magistrates adjourn the case for his attendance under the new procedure, he can do so; in fact, the Bill is so framed. But if the magistrates have adjourned for sentence only, he cannot do so, because by that time the letter has already been acted upon. Of course, in any event he can, as now, appeal against sentence if he considers it excessive. There is always the quarter sessions to supervise the magistrates. He will never be worse off, therefore, as I venture to remind your Lordships, than he is now; and in certain circumstances he may be better off.

The point about the service of the summons and the service of the notice of previous convictions I think perhaps we had better deal with on Committee. I see that there may be some justification for what the noble Lord has said about it, and I do not want to prejudice the possibility that we may make an alteration; but at the moment I have no sufficient advice on the subject. He then asked why there was the proviso to Clause 2. The answer is that Clause 2 is the clause which deals with proving the identity of the driver by an admission, and it was the intention of the Government, in introducing Clause 2, to limit its provisions to minor offences, such as parking offences. The introduction of the Fourth Schedule to the Road Traffic Act as a rule-of-thumb method of dividing the really minor offences from the rather more serious offences is a convenient way for which there is no philosophical but every practical justification. That was the reason for that.

My noble friend Lord Merthyr asked me why the Government had not followed the recommendation of the Sharpe Committee in applying the procedure to juvenile courts. He quite rightly reminded the House that in this respect the Government were departing from the Report of that Committee. The Sharpe Committee recommended that the procedure should be applicable to young persons, although they made no recommendation for children. The reason for our departure from the Report of the Committee here is that there are special difficulties about applying this sort of procedure in juvenile courts, and since the whole of the procedure in juvenile courts is now being considered by another Committee under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Ingleby, the Government have thought it best to leave the procedure of juvenile courts unchanged for the present, at any rate until we have the Report of that second Committee in our possession.

I turn now to the speech of my noble friend Lord Som[...]ers. I am bound to say that I think he rather misunderstood the present law and the purpose of this Bill. His friend who had the misfortune to have his licence endorsed was not the victim of an unfairly-minded magistrate, but of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, which compels magistrates to endorse licences for offences of this kind, unless a special reason is given. As his friend apparently had no special reason, his licence was, quite properly, endorsed on that occasion. It would not be open to me to accept an Amendment at any stage of this Bill to amend the Road Traffic Act in this respect, since this Bill is not a Bill for the amendment of the substantive law on motoring offences, but only for the procedure to be adopted when a defendant admits his guilt by post. For that reason, I do not think the suggestion would be a practical one. Whether we should accept it as an amendment of the substantive law is a question upon which I confess I have my own reservations. There are some people who think that the endorsement of a licence, which does no more than show that the person whose licence was endorsed has been convicted, and gives particulars both of the conviction, of the offence and of the fine, is a suitable penalty, which motorists mind and which does them no injustice, since it does no more than record the facts. I should like to advise my noble friend that, should his licence have been endorsed, he can relieve himself of the indignity after three years.


But it is on the permanent record. A number of people think that once they have expunged the tell-tale evidence on the licence, that is the end of it. To their sorrow, it is not; it is on the police records for ever and ever.


Yes, but you would be surprised how often the police lose it. As far as the police record is concerned, the conviction will be recorded until the end of time. As the Greek poet said, the only thing which Providence cannot do is to alter the past. Although one can feel compassion for those who, like myself, have been convicted of exceeding the speed limit, one does not need to think that for that reason they ought to be converted into "plaster saints."


Would the noble Viscount mind my interrupting him? I only wish that what he has told me were more widely known, because I think there is a wide opinion in the country that to have one's licence endorsed is a very serious blot on one's motoring character.


Well, I think that is so in a sense, but it is an experience which many of us who have reached the ripe age of fifty have experienced more than once. For all that, I certainly do not wish to imply that it is not a serious blot on one's motoring character, even for exceeding the speed limit. After all, the law is there to be kept, not broken.


My Lords, surely it is most important for the magistrates to know the previous record of the defendant.


My Lords, that is one of the reasons for endorsing the licence, as I ventured to point out in parentheses when I opened this Bill. I believe that covers all the questions to which I was asked to reply. I have not thanked the noble Lord, Lord Winster, for his speech but I do so now. I think it requires no special reply since it was generally in support of the Bill. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have given this Bill the welcome that I am sure the House will consider it deserves.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.