HL Deb 14 December 1961 vol 236 cc450-60

4.41 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, your Lordships will remember that at the conclusion of the Report stage, the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, asked me to make a short statement on Third Reading about the matters on which he and my noble and learned friend Lord Goddard, had put down Amendments on the Committee stage and about which I had subsequently written to both the noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said he thought this would save time on Third Reading, and I readily undertook to do as I was asked.

I will deal first, if I may, since the point is a short one, with the Amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, which would have placed clerks to justices under a statutory obligation to notify probation officers at the higher courts as soon as a prisoner had been committed to one of those courts. We are all, of course, anxious to ensure that the necessary information should be given to the higher courts' probation staff at the earliest possible moment. The only question is how best to achieve this result.

As your Lordships will remember, the recommendations in Part B of the Streatfeild Report deal with the information with which the courts ought to be provided to enable them to select the most appropriate treatment for offenders. These recommendations all hang together, and they appear to me to be essentially matters to be dealt with by administrative arrangements. The provision of reports for probation officers will require close co-operation between the probation service, the police, the prison service and the courts. This was, I think, a point that was very much in the mind of my noble friend Lord Raglan, when he spoke on Lord Silkin's Amendment. Arrangements are being made to issue instructions and guidance to all concerned so that the recommendations in Part B can be brought into effect by administrative means, and I think it would be inappropriate to single out this particular matter for a statutory provision. I should prefer to leave the arrangements as flexible as possible, unfettered by any statutory requirements, until we have had time to see how the new scheme of things is working.

However, I want to assure the noble Lord that I am satisfied that I have power under the Justices of the Peace Act, 1949, and the Magistrates' Courts Act, 1952, to make a rule to the same effect as the Amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, should the need arise. On the principle that one should not flog a willing horse, if I may so refer to clerks to justices, I should much prefer to trust to the co-operation which they have habitually given whenever I or, for that matter, my successors at the Home Office have suggested any improvements in administrative practice. But I say again to the noble Lord that, should it be necessary the remedy is there.


My Lords, before the noble and learned Viscount leaves that point, I think it would save time and a speech from me if he could give me an assurance that in fact the clerks will be asked to do this. I follow what the noble and learned Viscount has said—that he does not want it to be made statutory or even want to make a regulation at the moment—but if the clerks will be asked to do it and the results watched and, if necessary, a regulation made, I think that would go a long way to satisfy me.


My Lords, that is certainly the intention of the Home Office, as I understand it. To be quite frank, I have not the actual method more fully in my mind that I have explained in my speech, but I know that that is the intention and I am sure that everything will be done to see that the noble Lord's wish is achieved.

I now turn to the Amendment which my noble and learned friend Lord Goddard withdrew on the Committee stage on my undertaking to look at the matter again. It was designed to enable me to compel boroughs with more than 65,000 inhabitants to petition for a separate Committee of the Peace or a separate court of quarter sessions. I undertook on the Committee stage to consult the Association of Municipal Corporations about this proposal and I have now done so. The Association say they are confident that persuasion will secure the co-operation of borough councils in achieving the end which my noble and learned friend has in mind, but they are strongly opposed to any form of compulsion. They rightly point out that if a recorder were to be forced on an unwilling borough, it might lead to a great deal of unpleasantness and to disagreements which could do nothing but harm to the good administration of justice.

I have no reason to think that any borough council would decline to petition for a separate court of quarter sessions if it were suggested to them that it was their duty to do so. I can find no instance of this ever having happened, and the task of those responsible for these matters has been to restrain unsuitable applicants rather than to stimulate petitions. There has, I think, been some misapprehension about the financial advantage to a borough of not having its own court of quarter sessions. In general, this is negligible.

Although the theoretical justification for increasing the number of separate courts of quarter sessions may appear to be strong, I do not think there are many places where there is any practical need to do so. But I should like to consider this point, in view of the most interesting speech of my noble and learned friend. One can rule out straight away boroughs like Newport, which was the instance given by my noble friend Lord Raglan, where county sessions are held but which do not have separate sessions for the borough itself. In cases of this kind, there could be little advantage and a good deal of wasteful duplication, if a separate court were to be set up for the borough. There are a number of other cases where any inconvenience arising from the distance of the place at which county sessions are held from the larger centres of population in the county can be counteracted by holding county sessions at different towns in turn or by their sitting in more than one division.

I concede, however, that there may be a small residue of cases where a borough's size and geographical position justifies its having a separate court of quarter sessions. Barrow-in-Furness, which has recently been granted its own court, is a case in point. The special position of this borough may be familiar to other noble Lords. My noble and learned friend Lord Goddard referred to Swindon and to the difficulties of getting from Swindon to Salisbury or Devizes where the Wiltshire Quarter Sessions are held. However, I understand that Swindon has now resolved to petition for a recorder of its own. I must not say anything which may appear to prejudge the consideration of its Petition, but clearly the geographical factors mentioned by the noble and learned Lord will be borne in mind.

He also mentioned other large towns, such as Ilford, Slough and Luton, which have no recorder; but in this connection I think it is most important to bear in mind the proposals for the reorganisation of local government, not only in the Greater London area but elsewhere. The review of local government areas now in progress throughout the country does in many cases provide a very good reason for postponing action on these matters at the present time. I can, however, assure your Lordships that I shall not hesitate in appropriate cases to take the necessary steps to ensure that separate courts of quarter sessions are available in the bigger centres of population which clearly ought to possess them. I am sure, however, that your Lordships will agree with me that in these matters, as in so many others, it is much better to achieve one's end by persuasion than by wielding the big stick; and this I hope to do.

There is only one other point that I think I ought to mention, in view of the interesting leading article in The Times to-day. Your Lordships will remember that on the Committee stage of the Bill the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, tabled a number of Amendments which dealt with three points connected with the issue of insanity: the question of allowing an appeal against a verdict of guilty but insane; the question of allowing the prosecution to raise the issue of insanity where the defence is diminished responsibility; and the procedure for finding an accused person unfit to plead. In the course of the debate I indicated that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary had decided to refer the first of these issues to the Criminal Law Revision Committee, and that he was also considering reference to the Committee of the second question. As regards the procedure for finding an accused person unfit to plead, I indicated that this was a difficult matter and that I should like to consider further with my right honourable friend the question whether it also should be referred to the Criminal Law Revision Committee.

These matters have been under consideration in the meantime, and my right honourable friend has had further correspondence on them with the Lord Chief Justice. It has not, however, yet been possible to come to a final conclusion on the question whether they should be referred to the Committee, and if so, in what terms. Your Lordships will appreciate that the question of unfitness to plead is, in particular, a difficult one, and as some of your Lordships may remember, it has been considered by highly qualified bodies. The Atkin Committee considered it before they reported in 1923, and it was also considered by the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, so far as capital cases were concerned.

I need not go into the conclusions of these bodies, but I want to say this. In view of their conclusions, it is necessary to consider very carefully, first, whether new evidence has come to light and whether the situation has changed in such a way as to make it desirable to have a further inquiry into the subject; and, secondly, if so, what would be the most appropriate way to undertake it. These are questions which need proper investigation and consideration, and I regret that I am not able to-day to let your Lordships know what the answer may be. But in view of the most interesting manner in which this was first raised by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley (I see that he has now returned to the Chamber, and I said this before he did so), and the leading article in The Times to-day in which the noble Lord's points are developed, I wanted to assure him that it is receiving and will receive full consideration.


I am grateful to the noble and learned Viscount.


I am sorry to have taken up this time, but the three points with which I have dealt are points that were raised by noble Lords, and it is only right that I should deal with them on this Third Reading. I beg to move.

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

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, I much regret that, owing to absence at the other end of the world, I was unable to take part in the earlier debates on this Bill, but I hope it is not too late to give it a little long-delayed word of welcome. It is even now less than a year since the Streatfeild Report was signed, and it cannot but be a great satisfaction to myself, as a member of that Committee—not to say a vociferous member—that our recommendations should have made such speedy headway towards the Statute Book. It is true that this Bill does not yet do quite everything that some of us might wish it would do. Some of us were perhaps hoping that further advance might now have been made on the Amendments which were moved by my noble friend Lord Chorley, on which the Lord Chancellor has just now reported. We are very glad to learn that certain of the points raised will be considered by the Criminal Law Revision Committee, and I hope that we may soon hear that the extremely difficult problem of unfitness to plead may be further and fruitfully explored by his own researches.

To the lay mind (and perhaps it is somewhat imprudent for a layman to enter into this extremely difficult field) it appears that in the case of unfitness to plead a distinction is emerging between unfitness to plead, which is apparent before the presentation of the prosecution's case, and unfitness to offer a defence, which is a slightly different matter and might appear at a later stage. I think, also, that some of us had in mind that already in the Mental Health Act a distinction has been drawn between the finding by a court in the form of a conviction and the finding by a court that a person has done the act with which he is charged, but that in that case it merits no conviction. It is possible that in these areas there may lie a hint as to solutions for this very difficult matter that at least deserve consideration. But no doubt a layman should not say more on that topic.

Certainly the Streatfeild Committee hoped that the recommendations embodied in this Bill would do much to rationalise and expedite justice. I should like to refer to the extended jurisdiction of the magistrates, and particularly to the extension which gives them the right to try "breaking" cases. As many of your Lordships are aware, in a great number of these cases the distinction between a charge of larceny and one of "breaking" is hardly more than a technical matter, and there seems no valid reason why both should not be dealt with by the same court. It is reasonable. I think, to hope that this extension of the justices' jurisdiction will greatly relieve the pressure upon quarter sessions, while at the same time perhaps not unduly overworking those willing horses the lay justices.

I see that in the Second Reading debate some of your Lordships expressed surprise that in this extension of jurisdiction breaking into dwellinghouses was excluded, even though often breaking into shops and warehouses involved very much larger sums of money and more damage than housebreaking. Your Lordships may be aware that what was certainly in the mind of the Streatfeild Committee was that the sum of money involved is not always the major consideration, and that what puts housebreaking into a special category is the alarm which is caused to the house-owner. For that reason, they were not prepared to include housebreaking in the extended jurisdiction of the magistrates.

I should also like to refer, with pleasure, to Clause 15 of this Bill. Her Majesty's judges often say in private conversation that it is their custom, in passing sentence, to take into account any period that an accused person has already spent in custody and they sometimes say this in particular cases publicly, when they are passing sentence. But they have hitherto been under no obligation either to take this period into account or to say that they have done so when they have. This new provision, I think your Lordships will agree, is yet another step towards the principle that justice must not only be clone, but must be visibly done.

As has been implied, this Bill deals with nearly all the recommendations in the first part of the Streatfeild Committee's Report. One minor, incidental consequence of this rapid acceptance of Part I of the Report has been that Part II has had very little discussion in your Lordships' House. The Lord Chancellor has told us that, with one exception, practically all the recommendations in Part II are matters for administrative action rather than for legislation, and therefore they do not come within the purview of this Bill. We are glad to hear that serious consideration is being given to the administrative steps necessary to give effect to them, for I am sure that those of your Lordships who have studied this Report will share the view that many of the recommendations in Part II are at least as important as those to which effect is given by this Bill.

I hope I shall not be deemed to be out of order if, in the debate upon the Third Reading of this Bill, I make a brief reference to some of the most important of those recommendations. In Part II of the Streatfeild Committee's Report, your Lordships will find a fairly exhaustive analysis of the factors which need to be taken into consideration in this day and age in determining the appropriate sentence to be passed upon an offender. I think it is implicit in this analysis that passing sentence is not only an extremely complex matter, but that it is also a matter of which knowledge is being accumulated by research, and in which skill can be acquired by appropriate professional training. In this implication there may lie far-reaching consequences for the future of legal education. Lawyers are notoriously conservative, though a few distinguished exceptions are to be found among my noble friends on these Benches. I think it is remarkable that, in spite of the conservatism of the legal profession, this Report was signed by two Queen's Counsel, and that the Chairman of the Committee who signed it was himself a High Court Judge.

This Report has gone very far in indicating the large part which actual research and new knowledge now means to play in the determination of sentences. The Report went so far as to state that sentencing is in a sense an emergent branch of the law, and that the accummulated knowledge and experience of this branch may in time be expected to reach the stage of development at which a new text book on the subject will be required. They state, too, that no amount of paper information—I paraphrase the exact words—fully compensates for visits to penal institutions in enabling one who has to pass sentence to grasp what that sentence implies. These are developments which, as I have suggested, may have very far-reaching consequences, and it is a particular pleasure to see that they have been accepted by the distinguished representatives of the law who were members of this Committee and with whom I had the privilege to serve on it.

In the meantime, I hope that we shall hear soon from the Lord Chancellor what steps are being taken to see that the new knowledge which is now becoming available about the effect of sentences as a result of scientific research is brought to the attention of those upon whom devolves the onerous duty of passing sentence in criminal cases. In principle, I think we on these Benches welcome this Bill very much; and I am glad that the opportunity has been given to me, though late, to say a word in support of it.

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the whole House is very glad that the opportunity has presented itself to enable the noble Baroness to speak upon this Bill. It also gives me a further opportunity of thanking her, in particular, and her colleagues in the Streatfeild Committee in general, for the most valuable work they did. I was glad that she could give the Bill her general blessing and that she should call attention to-day to two particular aspects of the Bill itself. As the noble Baroness is aware, one question which the Committee considered before making their proposals which now form the basis of the Bill, was that of local criminal courts on the pattern of the Liverpool and Manchester Crown courts. This question has been one which, I know from the Report, gave them a lot of thought, and, of course, there has been some discussion upon it.

Two of my main objectives since I have been Lord Chancellor have been, first of all, to make the various courts, by their jurisdiction and location, available and convenient to the people who are likely to have to use them, either voluntarily or involuntarily. The second point is to give access for these people to the civil courts and, indeed, to the magistrates' courts, by the extension of legal aid. On the first point, I am glad that the noble Baroness has given her approval, because I feel it was necessary for us to deal with the nation-wide problem first: that is, to get Assizes into the form which would be more convenient and to extend the operation of quarter sessions and the jurisdiction of petty sessions, because they deal with the country as a whole. As I said on Second Reading—and I think the noble Baroness will again support me in this—if, after we have dealt with the nation-wide problem, we find certain local problems are even more pressing than we thought and not dealt with by a nation-wide remedy, then we can consider them again. I want to make that clear.

I am glad again that reference was made to Part II of the Report, because the first of the questions—the information which is to be provided before courts decide which is the best method of treatment—is one that I can assure the noble Lady is very near the heart of my right honourable friend Mr. Butler, because he considers it so important a part of the general operation in dealing with crime to-day. I also think that what has been said in the Report and to-day about sentencing is again valuable, and will receive wide consideration. I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in the discussions on this Bill, and I hope your Lordships will now give it a Third Reading.

On Question, Bill read 3a: an Amendment (privilege) made; Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.