HL Deb 20 May 1980 vol 409 cc725-8

2.43 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 what steps are taken to ensure that members of a jury dan read and also understand the language of the court.

The LORD CHANCELLOR (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, the summons for jury service clearly states that a person may be excused from jury service if his understanding of English is insufficient. If it appears to the officer of the court that a person reporting for jury service has language difficulties, the judge will be informed and has power to discharge him if, on account of his insufficient understanding of English, there is doubt of his capacity to act effectively as a juror. The Juries Act 1974 does not provide that jurors must be able to read and no test of literacy is imposed. In a case where it is essential to be able to understand documentary evidence and it appears that a potential juror may be unable to do so, the judge may exercise his discretion to stand him down or either party may challenge him.


My Lords, while thanking my noble and learned friend for that very helpful reply, may I ask whether he would think it right that a man who was completely illiterate and therefore could not understand the plan which was put before him in, for example, a murder trial, should be sitting next to a man who came originally from another country and could not understand a word that the judge, any of the witnesses or the defendants said? Would my noble and learned friend consider that to be in the best interests of British justice?


My Lords, I do not know whether my noble friend has a particular case in mind. If so, if she will write to me I will look into it. As for somebody who is unable to understand English, I should have thought it quite inappropriate that such a person should sit on an English-speaking jury, either in this country or anywhere else where the witnesses were talking English. Illiteracy is a slightly different matter, but normally one would doubt whether a person who was unable to read, whether a plan or a document, should not disclose the fact or it should not be the subject of a challenge.


My Lords, is it not possible to devise some system by which, when a juryman is actually called, such frailties, if I may so describe them, do not exist? Is it not a fact that otherwise the system entails the man coming before a judge before a decision is arrived at, which means that he may, in doing that, waste the judge's time?


As a matter of fact, my Lords, this was considered rather carefully in 1965 by a departmental committee under the late Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, and I think it will answer the noble Lord's question if I quote what that committee said in paragraph 79 of their report: If the unfortunate summoning officer is not to be left with the invidious task of telling large numbers of people that they have failed to pass whatever test might be devised, the test itself would have to be of such a simple character as to be practically useless ".


My Lords, would the noble and learned Lord look again at the situation by which jurors' names get on to the panel in the first place? Would he consider it right that those who are manifestly unfit to serve, for the reasons he has indicated, or indeed who are disqualified from service because of recent previous convictions, nevertheless find their names without any restriction on the jury panel? If that situation could be avoided, would it not remove much of the controversy out of the whole issue of jury-vetting?


My Lords, jury-vetting is a very different problem and perhaps I had better not embark upon that stormy sea in reply to this Question. A recent disqualification, if it is known, stops the juror coming on to the panel. As the noble Lord will be aware, my officers are under an obligation under the Juries Act of taking, apart from disqualifications, jurors names at random off the voters' list, and I do not think therefore that I have any power to exclude jurors who may be inadequately equipped to try a particular case. I think one has to leave that to the parties. As I say, I think vetting had better be left out of this Question, unless there is something more directly relevant to it that the noble Lord has in mind.


My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord consider that the language of the court, as referred to in the Question and as given in The Times legal reports, is always such as can be understood even by those who consider they have a good knowledge of the English language?


My Lords, I think that, except in Wales, where the situation is somewhat different, the language of the court is intelligible English, known as the Queen's English.


My Lords, perhaps that is the explanation of the fact that it is falsely alleged that Welsh juries are against crime but are not dogmatic about it!


That is the whole value of the jury system, my Lords.


My Lords, may I ask my noble and learned friend to consider whether members of the jury should take the oath in public and individually? It could then be seen whether they do understand the language of the court.


My Lords, if members of a jury showed difficulty in reading when they came to be sworn, it was always my practice to challenge, and I always found that that worked.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Lord whether the test of reading applies only to English, and not to Welsh?


My Lords, in Wales the Welsh language has equivalent validity to English. There are four court centres in Wales where simultaneous translation is available. I could give the noble Viscount further detail if I were to look up the matter, but I should rather not go further than that at the moment.