HL Deb 11 April 1978 vol 390 cc448-50

2.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether it is their intention to divert to the magistrates' courts some of the categories of crime which can at present lead to trial by jury; and if so which categories; and at what date they anticipate the changes will be made.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, when Part III of the Criminal Law Act 1977 is brought into force in the summer, certain offences which can at present be tried at the Crown Court will become triable only in the magistrates' courts; and some other offences formerly triable only on indictment will also become triable in the magistrates' courts if the accused and the court consent.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply, but I should like to ask whether he is aware that the magistrates are quite agreeable to exercise duties in respect of suggested matters to be submitted to them. Is he aware that the necessary steps for adequate staffing would have to be taken—that is all that stands in the way at present—particularly in view of the fact that the Crown Courts are very heavily loaded and there is considerable delay in the trial of cases?


My Lords, I am very grateful for what my noble friend has said. As he rightly said, the Crown Courts are working at present under very great pressure. As a result of this new procedure, about 6,000 cases a year will be transferred from the Crown Courts to the magistrates' courts. I very much welcome what my noble friend has said about the attitude of the magistrates.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that, as the noble Lord, Lord Janner, has said, the magistrates' courts are very much overworked and also desperately understaffed. Until there are more clerks and perhaps bigger buildings, I do not think that there is any way in which the magistrates' courts, however willing, will be able to cope with the extra workload.


My Lords, I am well aware of the fact that magistrates' courts are working under very great pressure at present. I should not seek to deny that for a moment. On the other hand, I believe that the situation is as stated by my noble friend; namely, that the magistrates, notwith-standing all their very substantial difficulties at present, will, in fact, deal with the matter with their customary efficiency when the commencement order is made.


My Lords, while I accept, of course, what has been said about the magistrates, may I ask whether the noble Lord will remember that there is a body of opinion which believes that nothing will really go right with the magistrates' courts until they are transferred to the Lord Chancellor's Department?


My Lords, that raises a number of quite interesting questions which I should prefer not to deal with at the moment.


My Lords, although I do not want to involve myself in the somewhat complicated and arguable matter that has been referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, may I ask my noble friend to ensure—particularly in view of the heavy burden that has been placed upon the clerks and their staffs in the magistrates' courts—that he will supplement the numbers of those staffs as quickly as possible? Moreover, in view of the dedicated services which are rendered by the magistrates and which they are anxious to continue to perform for the benefit of the country, will he see to it that the matter is dealt with as speedily as possible?


My Lords, as I have indicated, I am well aware of the point and I shall gladly, given the fact that it has been raised on both sides of the House, mention the matter to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that any proposal to deprive people of their right to trial by jury, where their general reputation, character and integrity are at issue, will meet with fearsome widespread opposition?


My Lords, the noble Lord's question tends to take us back to some of the interesting debates that we had last year. I think that we all stated our position very clearly at that time.