HL Deb 12 March 1957 vol 202 cc440-58

2.50 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD AILWYN in the Chair.]

Clause 1:

Plea of guilty in absence of accused

1.—(1) This section shall apply where a summons has been issued requiring a person to appear before a magistrates' court, other than a juvenile court, to answer to an information for a summary offence, not being—

  1. (a) an offence which is also triable on indictment; or
  2. (b) an offence for which the accused is liable to be sentenced to be imprisoned for a term exceeding three months,
and the clerk of the court is notified by or on behalf of the prosecutor that the accused has been served, together with the summons, with—
  1. (i) a notice containing such statement of the effect of this section as may be prescribed; and
  2. (ii) a concise statement in the prescribed form of such facts relating to the charge as will be placed before The court by or on behalf of the prosecutor if the accused pleads guilty without appearing before the court.

(2) (iii) if the court convicts the accused in his absence under this subsection, the court shall not without adjourning ender the said subsection (3) sentence him to any term of imprisonment or to any other form of detention, or order him to be subject to any disqualification.

LORD MERTHYR moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "other than a juvenile court,". The noble Lord said: This is a Bill which I welcomed very much when it was introduced, and I still think that, though small, it is an excellent Bill. There is, however, one feature of it, which was mentioned on Second Reading, which I regret: it does riot carry out the recommendation of the Departmental Committee that the Bill should apply, not to children but to young persons. It is true that on Second Reading the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, said the reason was that the Government wish the matter to be left to the Ingleby Committee, who are at present considering the whole position of the law and juvenile courts. I do not find that statement a very convincing one, because the fact is that this Departmental Committee, the Sharpe Committee, affirmatively recommended that this Bill should apply to young persons.

If your Lordships will permit me, I will read a sentence from, first of all, paragraph 48 of the Report: We see difficulty in denying to a young person, who may be earning and contributing to the support of a family, the privilege of being allowed to plead guilty without appearing before the court, a privilege which would be enjoyed by somebody over seventeen. Then again, in paragraph 49, the Committee say: We think that there are few cases in which the prosecution would wish the new procedure to be applicable to young persons, or in which a juvenile court would be willing to deaf with a case in the defendant's absence. Here, may I say that I entirely agree with the Committee. I think that the number of cases in which the new procedure would be applied to young persons is few. It would not be applied to cases in which young persons are charged with offences involving dishonesty. The sort of case I have in mind, which I gave on Second Reading, is that of a lad of sixteen summoned for riding a bicycle without a light, particularly if he was accompanied at the time by a man over seventeen committing a similar offence. It seems to me that it would be a bit hard that the procedure should he different as between the two, one perhaps just under seventeen and the other just over seventeen.

When it is borne in mind, as it must be, that the whole of this procedure is entirely voluntary; that it cannot be brought into force at all unless the prosecution elect that it shall be; and, further, that even if the prosecution so elect, it cannot be used unless the court decides that it should be, it seems to me that this Bill might well be applied to young persons. I should make it plain that if this Amendment is accepted, there would have to be a consequential Amendment to make clear that it would not apply to children. I feel that it is right that this matter should be raised again on Committee stage because I am sure that your Lordships will agree that if the Government mould a Bill on the Report of a Committee and then deliberately ignore one of the recommendations of the Committee—though I admit that they are entitled to do so—I think it needs an explanation, and I was not quite satisfied with the explanation made on Second Reading. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 7, leave out (" other than a juvenile court,").—(Lord Merthyr.)


I should like to support the Amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr. As he said, if the Amendment were passed, it would allow the new procedure to be used in juvenile courts for such offences as riding a bicycle without lights or with inefficient brakes. At the present time, in many juvenile courts defendants in minor cases do not attend but send a letter, and after the case has been proved, they are dealt with in their absence. This is more especially the case where these junior defendants have left school and are at work, in which case attendance would mean the loss of a day's work. Another advantage I find in the Amendment is that the use of the new procedure in such cases would relieve police officers of the necessity of attending court. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, whether it is not the case that if the words in Clause 1 were deleted, as he proposes, it would also be necessary to delete similar words in Clause 3, so as to bring the whole procedure within the ambit of the juvenile courts


My noble friend Lord Merthyr has stated with complete frankness that, while the Bill does not go so far as the Sharpe Committee's Report, his Amendment as it stands at the moment goes further than the Report. Of course, I came here to face the Amendment as it stands on the Order Paper, and I think that, as the Amendment is in this form, we ought to consider the question fully and get the sense of your Lordships upon it. My noble friend limits this to the elder class of juveniles and cuts out children. I think he will appreciate that there would be considerable difficulty in applying this procedure to children. I am sure that your Lordships will think that there is something incongruous about allowing a child to be dealt with in his absence by a criminal court, even for one of the type of offences which my noble friend mentioned.

But the major difficulty, which I should like my noble friend Lord Merthyr to consider, and my noble friend Lord Winster also to bear in mind, is to reconcile the application of the new procedure to juveniles with certain provisions of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933. These provisions were not mentioned by the Departmental Committee in their Report. As my noble friend will remember, because I am sure he has had to deal with this point often, Section 34 of the 1933 Act provides that: ." Where a child or young person is charged with any offence or is for any other reason brought before a court, his parent or guardian may in any case, and shall if he can he found and resides within a reasonable distance, be required to attend at the court…unless the court is satisfied that it would be unreasonable to require his attendance. I think that my noble friend would agree that this section clearly envisages that a juvenile charged with any offence shall be present at the hearing and that the parent shall normally be present as well; and I think that my noble friend will also agree that any change in that policy should be brought about only by a measure dealing with juvenile courts and not by a side wind.

If I may now take my noble friend twenty-one sections further on, Section 55 of the Act of 1933 provides that, instead of imposing a fine, damages or costs on a juvenile, …the court may…and shall if the offender is a child, order that the fine, damages, or costs awarded he paid by the parent or guardian…unless the court is satisfied that the parent or guardian cannot be found or that he has not conduced to the commission of the offence by neglecting to exercise due care of the child or young person. It is further provided that an order to this effect may be made against a parent or guardian who, having been required to attend, has failed to do so, but that in all other circumstances no such order shall be made without giving the parent or guardian an opportunity of being heard. If the procedure of this Bill were to be applicable to juveniles, it would be necessary to require that notice of the various documents which are to be sent to the defendant be served also on the parent or guardian; and unless the parent had been required to attend, and had failed to do so—and such a requirement itself would be incongruous where a juvenile had been told that he, the juvenile, need not attend—the court would have to adjourn after conviction to give the parent an opportunity to attend and make out a case against being ordered to pay a fine, and so on. Alternatively, the parent might be allowed, on receipt of the documents, to submit in writing his reasons for not being required to pay the fine. But whichever method was adopted, a more extensive modification of the Bill would be required than is provided for by this Amendment. That is a serious point, and, in the case of juveniles, I think it creates a difficulty which has to be faced.

As I have said, the Departmental Committee, in the paragraphs to which my noble friend Lord Merthyr referred, recommend that this procedure should apply to young persons, but they make no recommendation with regard to children. I agree with my noble friend that there are unlikely to be many cases in which it would apply, and I think that in a great many of these cases it would be a good thing if the juvenile was brought before the court in order to realise the importance of the offence. There is the other point, to which my noble friend referred: that the Ingleby Committee has been set up to inquire into and make recommendations on the working of the law in England and Wales relating to proceedings and the powers of the courts in respect of juveniles brought before the courts as delinquent, or in need of care, and so on; and a number of other sections of its terms of reference are, I am sure, well known to my noble friend. The three years that I spent at the Home Office made me most interested in the workings of juvenile courts. I think they have done a great job, and without in any way wishing to prejudice the position of the Committee, I do not think anyone who has had much to do with the work of juvenile courts would take a contrary view. But I do think there is something to be said—I do not say this in any delaying way; I merely ask your Lordships to consider it—for not pre-judging any alteration in juvenile court procedure and for awaiting the Report of the Ingleby Committee.

As my noble friend said, I do not think this will affect a great many offences. I do riot like standing by calculations on a point as difficult as this, but I should be surprised if it affected more than something between 1 and 2 per cent. of the offences otherwise within the Bill. We must remember that the main purpose of the Bill is to save the time of witnesses. The third point that I to my noble friend is the point that I have raised about the technical difficulties concerned with the provisions of the Act of 1933. I think we are all agreed that the Amendment as it stands would not be enough in itself. What I suggest is that my noble friend Lord Merthyr should withdraw his Amendment at this stage, and that he should, if he will be so good, apply his mind to the difficulties I have raised with regard to the Act of 1933. I, in turn, will apply my mind to the real purpose of his Amendment, which is to exclude children and to try to do something for young persons between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. It is a difficult point, and I hope that my noble friend may think that this is a reasonable way of considering the difficulties with which we are faced.


I have no hesitation in concurring with the suggestion that has fallen from the noble and learned Viscount, and I shall certainly withdraw this Amendment. As I think I indicated, I never had any intention of applying it to children. However, I must confess that I had not realised all the difficulties that would arise because of the terms of the Children and Young Persons Act, 1933. I am grateful to the Lord Chancellor, and I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

LORD MERTHYR moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "the clerk of the court is notified by or on behalf of the prosecutor that." The noble Lord said: Thy words which I propose should be left out of this Bill seem to me on the face of it unnecessary. It appears that this is simply a piece of unnecessary machinery. I want this Bill, which, as I have said before, I think is a good one, to be a simple one and one that is easily worked, because it has to be worked by the clerks and magistrates in nearly a thousand courts up and down the country. The words which I want to leave out are, the clerk of the court is notified by or on behalf of the prosecutor. It is simply a compulsory notification which must happen in every single case in which this Bill is operated It seems to me—and I may say that this has been pointed out to me from at least two entirely independent sources—that that little piece of machinery is really redundant or unnecessary.

It may be asked: "If this Amendment is made, how will the clerk of the court get to know that there has been a service?" The answer surely is that he will hear from the defendant himself or from his solicitor. Could we not so arrange it that it should be presumed that if the clerk hears from the defendant or his solicitor, he should be entitled to assume that the service has been duly effected? That is all there is in the point. I am not moving the Amendment because I think the words are objectionable, but simply because, as I said, I think they are unnecessary, and, being unnecessary, they will take up a little time that may be spared. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 12, leave out from (" and ") to the first (" the ") in line 13.—(Lord Merthyr.)


This is purely a utilitarian Amendment, as I understand my noble friend, and did it meet the situation entirely I should accept it without any difficulty at all. But I am not sure that it does. The Amendment would have the effect that the prosecutor would not be required to notify the clerk of the court that the accused had been served, together with a summons, with the notice containing the prescribed statement of the effect of Clause 1 of the Bill, and the concise statement of the facts relating to the charge which will be put before the court if the accused pleads guilty without appearing. In the normal case, where the accused uses the form which will accompany the notice sent to him, the clerk of the court will know, from receiving this form, that the prosecution are content that the Bill procedure shall apply and have sent the necessary documents to the accused, which, of course, is a very important matter. But the defendant, human nature being what it is, may easily spoil the form—one knows how easily this may happen—and send in his plea by ordinary letter. Or he may, in any event, prefer to send a letter instead of the form, since he is not obliged to use the form, and no doubt letters purporting to be pleas of guilty and advancing mitigating circumstances will continue to be sent, as they are at present, in some cases in which the defendant has not been given the option of pleading guilty in absence under the new procedure.

This is the difficulty as I see it. When the clerk received such a letter, he would not know, if the Amendment were accepted, whether the case was one to which Clause 1 (1) applied, because he would have no means of knowing whether the defendant had been served with the documents required to be served on him before the new procedure can operate. I think my noble friend will see what that would entail. If the clerk did not have this information, he would not know whether to put the case in the non-witness list. I think my noble friend will agree that it is likely that all cases within the Bill will be heard in a batch, either before or after the witness cases, or by a separate Bench, and it would be difficult to arrange the court business in the most efficient manner.

That is the difficulty that I see, and my noble friend will appreciate that the position we are dealing with here is the notification that the documents have been served on the accused. It is important that the court should know that, and I do not think that without this procedure the court can be certain and can arrange to take full advantage of the provisions of the Bill. If my noble friend sees an answer to that objection, I shall be pleased to consider it. That seems to me to be the practical difficulty, and if my noble friend agrees there is something in it, perhaps he would like to consider the matter again. We have both the same objective, which is to get the Bill to work as speedily and as equitably as possible.


I am bound to confess that I am still not quite happy about this matter. Perhaps I should have said this before, but may I point out to your Lordships how the Bill would read if this Amendment were passed? Going back to line 5, it would read: This section shall apply where… then, in line 13— the accused has been served… Now that is a question of fact, and the court would have to be satisfied that the accused had been served. In the same way as now, if the defendant does not appear, the court have to be satisfied as a matter of fact that the summons has been served. I should have thought that that was sufficient, and that it was not necessary to go on to say not merely that the court must be satisfied that the accused has been served, but that a formal notification has been sent to the clerk to that effect.

I will certainly pay great attention to what the noble and learned Viscount has said, but although I do not wish to press this point, I still think there could be a useful simplification if this Amendment, or something like it, were passed. If I withdraw this Amendment, as I certainly will, perhaps the noble and learned Viscount will consider just a little further whether it would not be sufficient if the court had to be satisfied that, in fact, the accused had been served. I leave it at that for the moment, and beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.16 p.m.

LORD MERTHYR moved, in subsection (1), to leave out "together" and insert "simultaneously". The noble Lord said: The noble and learned Viscount may say at once that my word means the same as the word in the Bill, but I would say that quite a number of people have independently made the point that they are not satisfied that the words, "together with" mean, "simultaneously with" or, "at the same time as". This is another case where everybody wants the same thing there is no dispute about what is required. I suppose the draftsman might not agree, but other people might, that the words, "together with" are capable of ambiguity. It may be that they have crept into the language in such a form that people use the words, "together with" without meaning them absolutely strictly—without meaning "simultaneously". In fact, they may mean simply, "with". The point is as simple as that. If the noble and learned Viscount can give me an assurance that the words, "together with" mean the same as "simultaneously"—in other words, that the notice must be served at the same time as the summons—that will go a long way to meet my point. But I justify this intervention by saying that several minds besides my own have raised this doubt. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 13, leave out (" together ") and insert (" simultaneously ").—(Lord Merthyr.)


This is a logical philosophical and psychological refinement which presents me with the very greatest difficulty. May I refer the noble Lord to another paraphrase? The Departmental Committee recommended that the statements of facts should be served on the amused "along with" the summons. I think my noble friend will find that in paragraph 41 of the Report. As he will remember, they did not consider that separate proof of the service of the statements of fact and the summons would be necessary. That is the position. I have honestly tried to see whether I could find any difference between, "together with" and, "simultaneously", but I have not been able to find any—except this. I suppose that, in a land of high fantasy, if someone had read one document first you might have a sort of argument as to whether there was true simultaneity, but I do not think my noble friend is really thinking of points of that kind. So far as the actual receipt of the documents by the accused is concerned, I cannot find any difference. Whether, in these circumstances, it was my proper course to accept the Amendment or to stand by the Bill I was in grave doubt; but I thought that, after all, if someone proposes a change, there is some onus on him to show that the change makes a difference. Therefore I should prefer the original draft. I cannot myself see any difference at all.


I am grateful to the noble and learned Viscount for saying that he cannot see any difference. That will comfort a number of people who have raised this point, but I was wondering, if only because people are doubtful, whether there would be any harm in making this change. If it be a fact, as appears to be the case, that people do understand "simultaneously" and do not understand "together with", would there really be any harm in putting in the word? I will leave it at that for the moment. Perhaps the noble and learned Viscount will be good enough to think it over before the Report stage.




In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.22 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CIBLWORTH moved, in subsection (2), to acid to proviso (iii): or order him to pay a fine in excess of five pounds.

The noble Lord said: May I preface my remarks on this Amendment by saying how delighted I personally am to see the noble and learned Viscount in charge of the Bill at this particular moment, when the series of Amendments down in my name will appear before your Lordships for discussion. I say that because I am very conscious still, if he will permit me to say so with respect, of the most distinguished part he played in the discussions we had in this House in 1956 on the Road Traffic Bill which did so much to strengthen the law upon traffic offences. The noble Viscount may think it rather incongruous that I should have this Amendment upon the Order. Paper, but may I assure him that it is put down purely for the purpose of interrogation, and I do not intend to press it.

The reason I put it down is a simple one. Your Lordships will remember that under the Road Traffic Act, 1956, by and large the penalties for road offences were stepped up to practically double. With that I have no quarrel whatsoever, but when one comes to think what the maximum penalties can be in the future, and what the average penalties have been up to now, I think perhaps it may be advisable for the Home Office to give some direction to the magistrates as to how to lighten the initial load. I have no fixed ideas upon this matter. I should like to have the opinion of the Committee and of the noble and learned Viscount.

This Bill seeks to do something which we all agree is advisable. It seeks to ease the burden of police power. It seeks to bring into the law of this country the novelty of being able to get over the overcrowding of magistrates' courts for road offences. As I said on Second Reading, it is a compromise by the Government, and I think perhaps a very wise compromise, between having specific traffic courts, on the one hand, and fining on the spot, on the other. And so the prosecuted can plead guilty and be dealt with, up to a point, by the magistrates' court if a plea of guilty is put in without either the defendant or the prosecutor appearing before the magistrates. I say "up to a point", because if your Lordships will look at proviso (iii) of subsection (2) of Clause 1, you will see that if the court convicts the accused in his absence under this subsection, the court shall not without adjourning under the said subsection (3) sentence him to any term of imprisonment or to any other form of detention, or order him to be subject to any disqualification. So, broadly speaking, the magistrates cannot inflict a penalty which involves disqualification upon a motorist unless the court is adojurned for the purpose of the motorist or the alleged offender being present. But, under the Act of 1956, the court may impose a penalty up to, I think I am right in saying (the noble and learned Viscount will correct me if I am wrong) a monetary fine of £40, whereas, before, the average fine for a similar offence was something in the region of £5, without disqualification in his absence.

I am wondering whether the magistrates' court should not be given some indication by the Home Office that some discretion should be used in this matter, and that, if they feel that anywhere near the maximum fine should be inflicted, they should exercise their right to adjourn the court so that the prosecuted individual has the opportunity of attending if he so desires. In many cases up to now the poor individual has written a letter to the magistrates' court pleading guilty, more often than not thinking that it is far cheaper to plead guilty than to pay the railway fare to the court—a process which has been profitable in the past, though it may be far from profitable in the future. Until it is generally recognised throughout this country that the infliction of these penalties by the magistrates is real, and that in future a defendant will not be able to get away with writing a very polite letter to the court pleading guilty, so escaping with a fine of a few shillings; until that sinks into the minds of the vast number of motoring public in this country. I think it would be advisable for the Home Office to give some directions to the magistrates' courts as to how they are to deal with these cases. I have no strong feelings upon this Amendment. Perhaps the weighty words of the noble and learned Viscount in reply to me may do as much good as this Amendment could ever do. As the noble and learned Viscount has made some very weighty pronouncements in the past, during the passage of the Road Traffic Act, on this question of penalties for road offences, I thought I would seize the opportunity of elaborating the reason why I put down this Amendment, now that the House has the great advantage of having the noble and learned Viscount here to answer. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 2, line 47, at end insert (" or order him to pay a fine in excess of five pounds.").—(Lord Lucas of Chilworth.)


I fear that I am not quite clear about the reason behind this Amendment. It is of course, quite open to my noble friend to say that he can only give me his reasons, and that he cannot give me the wits to appreciate them. The noble Lord has quite correctly quoted the words of proviso (iii) of subsection (2) of Clause The words which the noble Lord now seeks to add to this proviso are: or order him to pay a fine in excess of five pounds. It seems to me that to do this would mean that, although the court had convicted the accused, its powers of penalty would be limited to £5 unless the magistrates adjourned the case. That would surely be detrimental to the working of this Bill. In many cases, at the present time, a penalty exceeding £5 is inflicted in the defendant's absence. If this clause were amended in the way proposed, this might possibly influence magistrates to keep the penalty down to £5, in order to avoid adjourning the case and the particular magistrates coming to court again on the adjourned hearing.

I fully appreciate that under the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, the magistrates who inflict the penalty need not be the same as those who convicted. I feel sure that the noble and learned Viscount will agree that in practice it is most desirable that the magistrates who have convicted should, if possible, also deal with the question of penalty. If the Amendment were accepted, for example in a case of first or second conviction for exceeding the speed limit, where the justices thought that owing to the circumstances of the case the penalty should be in excess of £5, they would have to adjourn the matter. Alternatively, they would have to keep the fine down to one of £5 or less. Thuse are the reasons why, to my personal regret, feel unable to support the Amendment proposed by my noble friend.


I, too, should like to say that I hope that this Amendment not be accepted.


I did not intend it to be.


I think that the noble Lord, Lord Winster, has put his finger on the right place. There is, of course, real danger that benches of magistrates might be tempted to keep the fine down to £5 in order to avoid an adjournment. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, may say that the same thing applies the case of disqualification or imprisonment. I think he raised that particular point on Second Reading—and it is a very real point. It cannot be denied that, if this Bill goes through, there must be a temptation to reduce the penalty in order to avoid adjournments. I, for one, hope and think that that temptation will be resisted; but to deny that it exists is quite unrealistic. Therefore, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Winster, who made that point. But when it comes to a fine, or the amount of the fine, which is purely a question of degree, it seems to me that the danger will be increased, and there will surely be some cases in which a fine of £5 would be imposed in order to avoid an adjournment; whereas if the Amendment had not been passed, as I hope it will not be, the fine might have been £10. It the noble Lord, Lore Lucas of Chilworth, will allow me to say so, it comes a little strangely to hear him moving this Amendment, which will undoubtedly be for the benefit of defendants, and in particular of motorists. Yet, if I remember aright, it was not many months ago that he was proposing a minimum fine of £50 for dangerous driving, a proposal which nobody could accept and which had never been heard before. Be that as it may, may I just say that I think the wording of this proviso is just right as it stands. I think it is reasonable that, before a court disqualifies or sends a man to prison, it should insist on his being present at an adjourned hearing. But when it comes to a fine, the position is different. After all, a man who is charged, let us say with a motoring offence, and who pleads guilty, expects to be fined. All too often, what he does not expect is to go to prison or to be disqualified. Sometimes he is greatly surprised when either of those two things happens; but he is not a bit surprised if he is fined. Therefore, I see no harm at all in rendering him liable to a fine of more than £5 without insisting on his presence.

There is just one further point. I am the last person to say that we should not adjourn cases. On the contrary, time and tame again I have said that magistrates should adjourn more cases than they do. But we should all remember that circumstances are a great deal different in small country courts from those in London. In rural districts there are a great number of courts which sit only once a month, and where to adjourn means at least one month's delay. That is very different from a metropolitan court, where a case can be adjourned until two days hence, and the defendant has only to pay a bus fare in order to attend court. It may he absolutely different in the country, where a man may have to come twenty miles and may have to wait a month before he does so. For those reasons, I venture to hope that this Amendment will not be passed.


Before the learned and noble Viscount replies, I feel that my noble friend has raised a question which requires some consideration. It may be that £5 is too low a figure, but both my noble friend Lord Winster and the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, have addressed themselves much more to the fact that a maximum fine of £5 without attendance might induce the magistrates to impose that fine in order to avoid the need for adjourning the case. But they have not addressed themselves to the dilemma which my noble friend put forward, the case where a person writes and pleads guilty in the belief that, as it is his first offence, and possibly not a serious one, it is much cheaper to plead guilty by sending a letter, and risk the sort of fine that one expects, rather than to attend court.

If, however, the fine is anything of the order of £40 it becomes rather a different matter, and those involved are leaving themselves entirely in the hands of the court, who may not have the opportunity of hearing any extenuating circumstances. Of course, the person concerned has pleaded guilty, and that is the end of it. But there may be extenuating circumstances. After all, this is not the case of dangerous driving; it is the case of a first offender and careless driving. I hope that the noble and learned Viscount will find some way by which, if the fine is intended to be much heavier than a person might reasonably anticipate, or can afford, such a person should be afforded the opportunity of stating his case by way of extenuation.


I hope that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, suggested, the words that I speak in reply to this Amendment may meet his purpose, which I fully appreciate. I think it would be useful for that reason if I quoted the words in the Report from which we began consideration of this matter—I quote from paragraph 45: We have already recommended above (paragraphs 33 and 34) that, before a court decides to impose imprisonment or order disqualification for holding a driving licence, it should first be required to adjourn the case and summon the defendant to attend. We think that the courts will also adjourn, and summon the defendant, where they have it in mind to impose a large fine, or where they regard it as desirable to have information about his means. That being so, we consider that there is no need to require that the defendant should be informed of the maximum penalty to which he will be liable if convicted. I think it will be useful if I say to-day that I entirely approve of what is suggested in paragraph 45. And I believe that I am not being immodest in thinking that magistrates will pay attention to that as a suggestion from me—which, of course, is all that I can make.

We all agree on the difficulties that have been put forward in regard to this matter. The Committee suggested two considerations; one, where a large fine was to be imposed; and the second, where it was regarded as desirable to have information about the means of a defendant. I should like first to say a word on the second consideration, because it is important that your Lordships should have that in mind. Section 31 (1) of the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, requires a magistrates' court, in fixing the amount of the fine, to: take into consideration among other things the means of the person on whom the fine is imposed so far as they appear or are known to the court ". One knows from experience in these courts that in many cases knowledge of a defendant's means may be derived from a letter which he has sent to the court or from the facts of the case, or from the police after conviction. That happens constantly, and in a great number of cases it works all right.

There may well be a case, however, where the court is doubtful about the means of a defendant. I want to make it quite clear that I am giving my view that in proper circumstances that, also, may prove a reason for an adjournment. I wish to make that clear. I am sure noble Lords will appreciate that the courts will be in exactly the same position under this procedure. There is no alteration here with which we have to deal. I wish to make clear first that I entirely endorse the suggestion of the Committee and to express the strong hope that magistrates will abide by it. I am rather doubtful about the imposition of a limit. Two points have to be borne in mind. We all agree that this Bill meets a great need, for there has been a great waste of police time and defendants' time in consequence of defendants' being kept about the court while police give evidence in other cases, although the facts are not really in dispute at all. This Bill is a good one and it would be a pity to endanger it by encouraging too many adjournments; for if there are too many the purpose of the Bill is ipso facto defeated.

A second point has been made by two noble Lords and indeed was made perfectly clear by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, in introducing his Amendment. He said he was not wedded to the figure of £5 and had put that amount as an exploratory basis for the remarks that he had to make. I think he would agree that £5 would be too low and might have the effect which I know very well he is the last person to desire—that Benches would not impose a proper penalty for a road traffic offence because of the difficulties which an adjournment might cause. I should prefer, therefore, to leave the matter fluid and to make it mandatory that there should be an adjournment in the case of imprisonment or disqualification; but that in regard to the line we should leave the position as I have suggested, with these remarks of mine on record as to the course which I desire magistrates to pursue. If your Lordships would leave it like that, I believe it would meet the situation. If, on consideration, your Lordships have any doubt and would like to get in touch with me, I shall be very pleased to discuss the matter.


With his very clear perception, the noble and learned Viscount seizes my point immediately, and had I written every word of what he has said I could have said nothing better to suit my own purpose. That was the only reason at all why I raised the question. I thought of putting not £5 but 1s. and I prefaced my remarks by saying that I did not propose to press the Amendment but had put it down only for the purpose of trying to tempt the noble and learned Viscount to say precisely what he has said—that magistrates, before they invoke the increased penalties under the 1956 Act, must "temper the wind to the shorn lamb", the shorn lamb being the defendant of very moderate means who may be fined £40 "out of the blue" when his past experience is perhaps that all his friends have got off with a fine of £5.

May I say to the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, who is Chairman of the Magistrates' Association, that I am surprised that he should fall into the trap of quoting against me what I said in the case of dangerous driving. This has nothing to do with dangerous driving. In all questions of dangerous driving where there is suspension of licence involved, there must be an adjournment. I am quoting the fact that a fine can be imposed without any of the penalties set out in the clause to which I am addressing myself, so that there need be no adjournment at all. My power of exposition must be getting very weak, because neither the noble Lord, Lord Winster, nor the noble Lord, Lord Derwent, seized upon my argument, which I am very glad the noble and learned Viscount seized upon immediately.

To take this matter one stage further before I withdraw the Amendment, may I suggest that the words which the noble and learned Viscount has just uttered be conveyed by the appropriate authorities to the benches of magistrates? That was my purpose. Because unfortunately the Press do not seem to be much interested in this Bill that widely affects the welfare of three million people in this country; and the only means by which to bring it to the notice of magistrates is via the machinery of the Home Office. Perhaps a copy of what the noble and learned Viscount has said could be addressed to all Benches. I feel sure that not only the administration of the Bill would benefit. I agree that the acceptance of any Amendment like mine would nullify the whole purpose of the Bill, its purpose being to enable summary and petty offences to be dealt with summarily and without full expense on both sides. I put the Amendment down to get that point established and to make it clear beyond any doubt. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

House resumed.