HL Deb 28 March 1957 vol 202 cc865-74

3.15 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, in moving the Third Reading of this Bill, I am sure that your Lordships will not expect me to occupy more of your time than a few moments, as the Bill was discussed so thoroughly on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report. There are just one or two things that I should like to say. The Bill aims at saving the time of witnesses who would otherwise be called in proving cases which the defendant admits, and I think that, with the assistance of the whole House, we have secured that no injustice will be done to the defendants themselves in achieving that result.

The second point which I should like to make is one of gratitude. Useful Amendments were made to the Bill in its passage through your Lordships' House. These were made on the initiative of my noble friend Lord Merthyr and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. I should like to express my gratitude to them, not only for the helpful Amendments which they have made to the Bill but also for their consideration in not pressing the other Amendments which I was unable to recommend to the House. The third point is that the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has been good enough to give me notice of certain points on which he would like a statement from me. I think it will be for the convenience of your Lordships and of the noble Lord if I postpone that statement until after he has addressed your Lordships, when I can deal more specifically with the points which he is about to raise. With those words, I commend the Bill to the House and move that it be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(The Lord Chancellor.)

3.17 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack for adopting this course, and I thank him for the nice things he has said about the Opposition in their attempt to improve the Bill. I should like to say one thing in general. It has surprised me that this Bill, which in one respect revolutionises the procedure of our courts of summary jurisdiction, has caused such little disturbance amongst those whom perhaps it will affect most of all. But that is it not your Lordships' fault. We have done our best to see that in future the law and the procedure through magistrates' courts will be streamlined, to save the waste of police time and a considerable amount of inconvenience to a number of other people, but that in the process justice is not sacrificed. In that regard I must offer a word of thanks to my noble friend Lord Silkin, who stepped into the breach when, unfortunately, I was detained and could not get to your Lordships' House for the Report stage. The noble Lord resisted an Amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr. If I had been here I should have attacked that Amendment in much stronger terms than did my noble friend. I am grateful, too, to the noble and learned Viscount for resisting the Amendment on behalf of Her Majesty's Government.

The points that I have to raise to-day are really procedural, but I think they are important. One of the difficulties with this Bill, as I realise and as I fully realised on the Committee stage, is that these points are not such as could be put into the Bill in the form of Amendments, because they affect the rules of magistrates' courts; and, of course, that is a matter for the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack.

The points I have to raise are three in number. Your Lordships will remember that on the Committee stage I took exception to the procedure under Rule 76 of the Magistrates' Courts Rules, where delivery of a summons on a defendant was effected by leaving it for him with some person at his last-known or usual place of abode. I said that that was wrong in the ordinary procedure of summons. It is certainly wrong if at some future date, if he is found guilty, it is necessary to serve upon him notice of adjournment, so that he can appear before the magistrates and details of previous convictions can be given. I also raised the point as to when those previous convictions should be given. The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack, with the courtesy which he always shows to any Member of your Lordships' House and which is always appreciated, wrote me upon these points, but I thought it would be of interest, not only to your Lordships but to magistrates in general and those clerks of the peace interested in this matter, if the noble and learned Viscount would make them in your Lordships' House so that they can be on the record. These are the three points.

I understand from what the noble and learned Viscount has said that what I may call the offending method of procedure will not be used in future for the purpose of proving delivery of a summons. I hope I also understand correctly that in giving notice of adjournment, which is tantamount to another summons to appear before the court, the same procedure will be adopted—that is, that the offending method will be dropped. I believe that the noble and learned Viscount agrees with me there. I wish to raise with him one matter which may still be a point of issue between us, though I am not going to press it because I can see some reason in what he says. I pressed that notice of previous convictions should be sent at the time of the summons; in other words, that an intimation of the full circumstances should be given to the accused person, so that he may know not only the statement of the case to be made against him but also that his previous convictions will be mentioned. In this way, he would be made fully aware of all the circumstances before he makes up his mind whether to plead guilty or not guilty.

I quite appreciate the point which the noble and learned Viscount makes, that in some cases that might delay the issue of the summons. It is a matter of procedure, and I should not like to see it written into this Bill. But could the noble and learned Viscount go so far as to issue instructions, under the procedure which is open to him, that notice of previous convictions shall be sent to the accused person as early as possible? Under the Bill, seven days' notice must be given, but sometimes that is not enough. If, without any inconvenience to the police authorities, notice of these convictions could be given to the accused person rather earlier than would be the case if the strict letter of the Bill were put into operation, I should be very grateful, and I believe that others would be also. Those are all the points I have to raise. May I end by thanking the noble and learned Viscount once again for the courtesy and consideration with which he has dealt with all the points that have been raised by the Opposition and, though perhaps I ought not to say this, for the unusually generous manner in which he has treated our suggestions.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, without wishing in any way to denigrate the points just made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, it is probably understood by general agreement that this is an excellent Bill which has been supported by all sides of the House. Such Amendments as have been made have been more or less technical, and certainly have not been put forward in any Party spirit. The Third Reading is not the occasion to make a speech, but I should like to repeat what was said on Second Reading: that it is a very good Bill; and I feel that we may all congratulate ourselves on having put it, or helped to put it, on the Statute Book.

3.26 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I wish to raise a point on procedure in connection with this Bill. The procedure in court envisaged by the Bill for dealing with a case in the absence of the prosecutor and defendant is this: the court considers the notification and statement of facts and then decides whether it will hear the case or adjourn it. That is provided for in Clause 1 (2) (a). If the court decides to hear and dispose of the case, then, having accepted the plea of guilty and convicted the defendant, the court causes the statement of facts and the submission of the defendant to be read out before the Court. That is provided for in Clause 1 (2) proviso (ii).

It seems likely that what will actually happen in practice is that the clerk will call out the defendant's name and, unless it has already been done, the court will be informed that the case is being dealt with under the new procedure. The statement of facts and defendant's submission will be placed before the magistrates, who will read them and then decide whether to hear the case or to adjourn. If they decide not to adjourn, they will proceed to hear and dispose of the case. As the written case for the prosecution and for the defendant will already have been read by the magistrates, this will mean that the chairman will only announce that the court has decided to convict. He will ask for details of previous convictions and announce the penalty. The court will then cause the statement of facts and the submission of the defendant to be read out before the court. The magistrates, as I have said, will previously have read these papers, but at this point they will cause them to be read out in court. I see some objections to this procedure.

The initial consideration of the statement of facts and the submission of the defendant is done, so to speak, sub rosa. The magistrates read these documents. From the public point of view, the magistrates will be reading and considering something which has not been brought out in open court; and to my mind this procedure is open to some objection. The defendant is convicted without a single word being spoken in court and, after conviction and the announcement of the penalty—which hitherto has been the final procedural act in such cases—the statement of facts is read out before the court. It seems unnecessary for these documents to be read twice and, furthermore, the double reading will lengthen the hearing of the case. It seems to be of doubtful advantage to save the time of policemen at the expense of the time of magistrates. I suggest that a better procedure would be for the clerk to call out the name of the defendant, for a police officer not below the rank of inspector to read out the statement of facts and for the clerk to read out the submission of the defendant; and that the chairman should then announce a conviction or an adjournment of the case. In the event of a conviction, he would inquire as to previous convictions and announce the penalty. A necessary consequential amendment, if the procedure which I suggest is adopted, will be to enact that any police officer not below the rank of inspector shall have authority to read the statement of facts.

Even at this late stage of the Bill, I feel it worth while to call attention to these facts and to put my proposal upon the record, and I venture to hope that it may receive some consideration. Otherwise, I have only to join in the chorus of praise with which this Bill has been welcomed. I am quite sure that magistrates and magistrates' clerks will welcome it and find it of substantial assistance in their proceedings.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words on much the same point as that raised by the noble Lord who has just sat down. But may I say, first, that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rea, that this is a very good Bill, and that we ought to thank Her Majesty's Government for introducing it in a comparatively short time after the publication of the Report of the departmental committee. I am sure this Bill will make a substantial improvement in proceedings in the courts, but there is one point in it that still troubles me. As I say, it is much the same point, though not exactly the same, as that raised by Lord Winster. The Bill has as its main object the saving of time, but it cannot be repeated too often that, while we all want to save time, we want to ensure that we do not, in the process, incur the slightest risk of doing an injustice. The problem is how far can we go in saving time without incurring any substantial risk, or, indeed, any risk.

I wish to draw attention to the point I raised on the Report stage. We then had a most interesting little debate which resulted in my withdrawing an Amendment which I had moved. I respectfully agree with the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor, after hearing that debate, that it was wise to come down on the side of safety and to say that the whole of the defendant's statement, however long it may be, should be read out in court. But I think that there is a risk that, however much time it may save for witnesses, the procedure in a busy London court, or in a court in any large city, is actually going to take more time than it did before.

My justification for making that suggestion is simply this. If your Lordships will look at line 10 of page 2 of the Bill you will see that the court have to consider notification and statement of facts. It seems to me that in order to consider a document properly there is no escape from reading it. I do not think that, strictly, you could consider it properly without reading it. That is the first time it has to be read. Then at line 33 on the same page there comes the second time of reading, when the same statement and document have to be read—this time out loud. I confess that I have not got any perfect solution of this little difficulty. All I want is to draw attention to it once again and to ask the Government whether they will once more look at it before the Bill reaches the Statute Book. I would add that the apprehensions are not mine alone. From several sources up and down the country I hear that those who have been reading this Bill are a little worried by the fear that there will result from it what appears to them to be unnecessary duplication of reading of documents in court. If the Government can find some solution of this apparent duplication, then I am sure the Bill will be still further improved.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to those of your Lordships who have spoken for what has been said with regard to this Bill. As I said a moment or two ago, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, was good enough to give me notice of the fact that he intended to raise the points which he has mentioned, and I should like to accept his suggestions and deal with them fairly fully and clearly, so that it is on the record for the guidance of those who are interested in those points. The noble Lord's first point concerns the method of serving a summons on the accused by leaving it for him with some person at his place of abode or last known address. I can confirm that when I consult the Rule Committee for magistrates' courts on the making of the rules that will be necessary to implement this Bill I will suggest to them that service by this method ought not to be treated as proved unless there is evidence that the summons did come to the accused's knowledge; that is, that service by this method should be put on all fours with service by registered post. I think that meets the noble Lord's first point.

I should like to point out to him—I think this ought to please the noble Lord—that such an amendment of the rules would then apply to all summonses, whether the case came within the scope of the Bill procedure or not. I would say again that I am grateful to the noble Lord for making this useful suggestion. I can assure him that every step will be taken to see that an adjournment such as is contemplated under the Bill will be brought to the notice of the defendants, and I shall give that point personal consideration once again.

The noble Lord has repeated his suggestion that the notice of previous convictions should be served on the accused at the same time as the summons. I mentioned in the Committee stage that the difficulty was that this would delay the service of the summons, since the chief constable of the area in which the alleged offence had been committed, might have to write to the chief constable of the accused's place of residence in order to find out his previous convictions. I have given this point careful thought, and I still think that an early service of the summons is the most important factor, and that the present form of the Bill should remain.

I was influenced in this by another consideration that I did not mention to your Lordships in the Committee stage. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, will see that proviso (i) to Clause 1 (2) empowers the accused who has sent in a written notice of intention to plead guilty to withdraw that notice at any time before the hearing, and provides that if he does so the case is to be dealt with as if the clause had not been passed—that is, that the court shall deal with the case under the existing procedure. I intend to suggest to the Rule Committee that the notice of the effect of the clause which, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, will see, is to be prescribed under Clause 1 (1) (i), should inform the accused in clear and unmistakable terms of his right to withdraw his written notice of intention to plead guilty at any time before the hearing.

If, therefore, on receipt of a notice of intent to cite previous convictions the accused wishes to withdraw his written plea of guilty, there is nothing to prevent his doing so; and if he does so the case will go forward as if he had never sent in notice of intent to plead guilty. Therefore if, on learning that previous convictions are to be cited against him, the accused thinks, perhaps because of his liability to a higher penalty, that it would be better for him to contest the case, he is at liberty to do so, and he can withdraw his notice of intention to plead guilty and the court will not be informed that he had so intended. I shall take up the noble Lord's point and do my best to secure that notice of these convictions will be sent at the earliest opportunity.

I will certainly look at the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Winster, and see whether there is the slightest doubt about the statement of facts of the prosecution and the statement which the defendant makes being read out before the sentence is announced. It would be curious indeed if the sentence were announced and then the statements were issued. I should have thought that the other was the better and more logical method and one more in accordance with our rule of making justice appear to be done. I will read carefully what the noble Lord has said and see how the general impression which he desired to create can best be made.

The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has returned to the charge with a difficult point which we discussed in an interesting debate. I was glad that, with his usual generosity, the noble Lord conceded that the feeling of the House was that it was better to risk allowing the defendant's statement to be read, so that he would not feel that there was any chance that that would be omitted from consideration by the bench. I think that all the noble Lord will expect me to do is to repeat to-day my promise that in later stages this will be considered by my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General and myself. We will certainly look into it and see whether we can find any solution. Perhaps this is taking too optimistic a view of human nature, but I can only hope that we shall get greater brevity in the statements in mitigation than the noble Lord fears. On that optimistic note, I thank your Lordships for the reception given to the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 3a, and passed, and sent to the Commons.