HL Deb 24 January 1985 vol 459 cc411-26

5.20 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 23 [Power of Secretary of State to set time limits in relation to preliminary stages of criminal proceedings]:

Lord Elton moved amendment No. 68:

Page 23, leave out lines 13 to 16 and insert—

  1. ("(i) in the custody of a magistrates' court; or
  2. (ii) in the custody of the Crown Court;").

The noble Lord said: I rise in rather more subfuse circumstances to move Amendment No. 68, and in so doing I will also speak, with your Lordships' permission, to Amendments Nos. 69, 70, 71, 72, 73 and 74:

Amendment No. 69: Page 24, line 7, leave out from ("person") to ("or") in line 8 and insert— ("escapes from the custody of a magistrates' court or the Crown Court before the expiry of a custody time limit which applies in his case;").

Amendment No. 70: Page 24, line 20, leave out from ("person") to ("or") in line 21 and insert— ("escapes from the custody of a magistrates' court or the Crown Court").

Amendment No. 71: Page 24, line 41, at end insert— (" "custody of the Crown Court" includes custody to which a person is committed in pursuance of—

  1. (a) section 6 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 (magistrates' court committing accused for trial); or
  2. (b) section 43A of that Act (magistrates' court dealing with a person brought before it following his arrest in pursuance of a warrant issued by the Crown Court);
custody of a magistrates' court" means custody to which a person is committed in pursuance of section 128 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 (remand);").

Amendment No. 72: Page 25, line 12, leave out from ("is") to the end of line 14 and insert ("in the custody of a magistrates' court or the Crown Court—").

Amendment No. 73: Page 25, line 15, leave out ("so remanded") and insert ("in the custody of a magistrates' court").

Amendment No. 74: Page 25, line 18, leave out ("so committed in custody") and insert ("in the custody of the Crown Court").

Having moved the amendment I shall, with your Lordships' permission, move the remainder en bloc.

These are technical amendments clarifying the periods of custody to which a time limit may be applied to take account of the voluntary bill procedure which at present the clause does not. Their effect is to ensure that any person who is in the custody of the Crown Court—whether he has come into its custody having been committed by a magistrates' court or having been indicted under the voluntary bill procedure—enjoys the protection of any custody time limit which might apply. The inclusion of a corresponding definition of custody of a magistrates' court simplifies the drafting of the clause.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

Without prejudice to Amendment No. 75, which proposes to leave out Clause 23, the suggestions in the amendments do indeed seem to be sense.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Elton moved Amendment Nos. 69 to 74 en bloc:

[Printed above.]

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Elwyn-Jones moved Amendment No. 75: Leave out Clause 23 and insert the following new clause:

("Limit on custody before summary trial.

—(1) Subject to subsections (2) and (3) below, an accused who is remanded in custody for a summary offence, or for an offence to which the accused consents to summary trial, shall not be detained by virtue of that remand and any further remands for a total period of more than 40 days, unless the summary trial is commenced within that period, which failing, he shall be released forthwith and thereafter he shall be forever free from all question or process for that offence.

(2) A single Judge of the High Court may, on application made to him for the purpose, extend the period mentioned in subsection (1) above, where he is satisfied that delay in the commencement of the trial is due to—

  1. (a) the illness of the accused;
  2. (b) the absence or illness of any necessary witness; or
  3. (c) any other sufficient cause which is not attributable to any fault on the part of the prosecution.

(3) The grant or refusal of any application to extend the period mentioned in subsection (1) above may be appealed against by notice of appeal presented to the High Court; and that court may affirm, reverse or amend the determination made on such application.

(4) For the purpose of this section, a trial shall be taken to commence when the prosecutor opens the case.").

The noble and learned Lord said: I am not sure whether we can discuss this with Amendment No. 76, but perhaps it might be convenient to do so.

Amendment No. 76: After Clause 23, insert the following new clause:

("Limit on custody before trial.

—(1) Subject to subsections (2) and (3) below, an accused who is committed for any offence until released in due course of law shall not be detained in custody for a total period of more than 110 days, unless the trial of the case is commenced within that period, which failing he shall be released forthwith and thereafter he shall be forever free from all question or process for that offence.

(2) A single Judge of the High Court may, on application made to him for the purpose, extend the period mentioned in subsection (1) above, where he is satisfied that delay in the commencement of the trial is due to—

  1. (a) the illness of the accused or of a Judge;
  2. (b) the absence or illness of any necessary witness; or
  3. (c) any other sufficient cause which is not attributable to any fault on the part of the prosecution.

(3) The grant or refusal of any application to extend the period mentioned in subsection (1) above may be appealed against by note of appeal presented to the High Court; and that Court may affirm, reverse or amend the determination made on such application.

(4) For the purpose of this section, a trial shall be taken to commence when the oath is administered to the Jury.").

The difference between the two amendments is that Amendment No. 75 deals with a proposed limitation of time when an accused person can be held in custody in regard to summary proceedings, whereas Amendment No. 76 refers to those who are held in custody pending trial before the Crown Court.

One of the matters of great concern in recent years, and certainly until now, is the sense of unfairness that arises in the case of prisoners held awaiting trial for month after month, often in appalling conditions of overcrowding. When one considers those on remand in custody awaiting trial in the Crown Courts, recent statistics show that in 1983 47,496 people were remanded in custody. The important question is: what was the outcome of the proceedings against them? Approximately 4 per cent. were acquitted and 29 per cent. given non-custodial sentences. Those in the 4 per cent. and 29 per cent. categories may well have been in prison for months and months.

In Leeds gaol on 25th October 1983, of the 360 remand prisoners on one wing 130 had been awaiting trial for more than 110 days. In Strangeways on 9th November 1983, 97 remand prisoners from a total of 431 had been waiting for more than 110 days. That means that some, at any rate, of those held for that immense period of time may be found not guilty and a substantial number of them may be dealt with other than by being given a sentence of imprisonment. That is a basic unjustice, especially bearing in mind the length of time about which we are speaking.

As to the amendments tabled, and certainly the amendment limiting the power to hold in detention awaiting trial in proceedings coming before the Crown Court, the inspiration for the proposal is what is happening in Scotland, and has been happening for almost 100 years, where there are specific time limits of 100 days in regard to indictable offences. It is, of course, appreciated that there may be occasions when delays occur through no fault of the prosecution or the police. Perhaps I should deal in turn with what the amendments propose, and I make these submissions with the powerful support of the National Association of Probation Officers.

As regard those awaiting summary trial, the maximum period during which they may be remanded in custody is proposed to be 40 days and no more. In Amendment No. 75 we have the provision that, A single Judge of the High Court"— I am referring to subsection (2)— may, on an application made to him for the purpose, extend the period mentioned in subsection (1)"— that is, the 40 days subsection on summary trials— where he is satisfied that delay in the commencement of the trial is due to—

  1. (a) the illness of the accused;
  2. (b) the absence or illness of any necessary witness: or"—
and this is a fairly wide-embracing provision to prevent abuse by the guilty, or by the accused for that matter, of what is proposed— (c) any other sufficient cause which is not attributable to any fault on the part of the prosecution".

There is then provision in subsection (3) that, The grant or refusal of any application to extend the period"— that is, the 40 days— may be appealed against by notice of appeal presented to the High Court; and that court may affirm, reverse or amend the determination made on such application". Therefore, there will be reasonable provision for the unavoidable time delays in that class of case.

When we come to the trial of indictable offences it is proposed that, an accused who is committed for any offence until released in due course of law shall not be detained in custody for a total period of more than 110 days, unless the trial … is commenced within that period … he shall be released and thereafter … be … free from all question or process for that offence". Again, there are the qualifications in subsection (2) of the kind that I have already indicated in regard to the 40-day limitation. There is the general provision that, any other sufficient cause which is not attributable to any fault on the part of the prosecution", may be called in aid by the Crown, and: The grant or refusal of any application to extend the period [of 100 days] may be appealed against by note of appeal presented to the High Court [which] may affirm, reverse or amend the determination".

5.30 p.m.

It is our view that these amendments and this imposition of a time limit, subject to those relaxations which are provided for in the amendments, would put pressure on prosecutors and courts to prepare and administer cases speedily, and may also lead to a more efficient use of bail. It is the lamentable fact at this time that the number of prisoners in prison is as high as, if not higher than, it ever was. I am not sure what the immediate figures are. That, in turn, means that the conditions of overcrowding in some prisons, and particularly in some of the remand prisons, are appalling. Complaints about Brixton, where large numbers of prisoners are kept, have been raised in your Lordships' House time and again.

It is indeed sad that so little has at any rate been accomplished. It may well be that some efforts have been made to deal with the problems, but still we have conditions in remand prisons which are often far worse than prison conditions of other kinds which a man may suffer when in due course he is sentenced to a term of imprisonment. That is intolerable. I have indicated from the statistics that I mentioned earlier what kind of numbers we are considering.

We therefore feel that what is proposed will be just and will do a good deal to reduce the daily prison population, and we think that it will be fair for the reason that I have mentioned. Partly it will give protection to the rights of prisoners, who are of course presumed innocent until they are proved guilty. In addition, the speeding up of trials while the evidence is still fresh will greatly improve the quality of the administration of justice, both, if I may say so, for the prosecution and for the defence.

For those reasons, I hope that the noble Lord the Minister who I know has expressed sympathy about this problem, will be able if not to accept the amendments as they stand—and I see a doubtful look on his face when I suggest that he might be willing to do so—at any rate to point to some positive amelioration in what has become a scandalous state of affairs. I beg to move.

Lord Elton

If your Lordships will permit me, I will just say this—and I put in parenthesis at this point that it is Committee stage and I can stand up to speak, I regret to tell your Lordships, as often as I like. The noble and learned Lord has argued the case for his solution to the problem which we agree exists, but his proposal is also to remove the solution which the Government already have in the Bill. I did not hear him adduce reasons why that was not a good solution. Should I wait for one of his comrades in arms to do that, or should I, after the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, has spoken, expect him to speak again?

Lord Elwyn-Jones

Perhaps I may express my objection briefly but brutally. The Government's solution does not go anything like far enough.

Lord Denning

This is an important point. If we refer to the report of the Royal Commission, we find that it went into the practice and experience of other countries—the United States, the Netherlands, and so forth—where they have fixed time limits for the bringing of prosecutions. It found that in nearly every case they did not work satisfactorily, so that report came rather reluctantly to the conclusion that we should not try to introduce time limits at all. It pointed out, quite rightly, that the time when a case comes on depends very much on the volume of business coming into the courts—there may be hundreds or thousands more cases—and then on the number of courts available to deal with them. The reason for much of the delay is that there is a great increase in the volume of cases coming forward and not enough courts to deal with them. That is the problem, which can be dealt with administratively.

The Royal Commission did not think that it would be of much use to put on time limits because there would be these unsatisfactory circumstances. When the man was in custody, the prosecution would rush the case on as quickly as it could so that the man should not get away with it; but, on the other hand, that would mean that all the people on bail would have to wait much longer for their cases to be tried. They might have to wait two or three years on bail waiting for their cases to be tried because the custody cases were given priority. That was the big problem which the Royal Commission had to face. It said that on the whole it did not think that it was practicable or good to put on time limits.

Having seen both the solution put forward by my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones and, indeed, if I may say so, that put forward by my noble friend Lord Elton, I do not know that there is much to choose between them. But I would certainly support an attempt in this country to impose time limits for certain stages of the proceedings. At least that would provide an incentive for all concerned with prosecutions to get on with the cases as quickly as they could within the specified time limits. Of course, there are exceptions. As the amendment suggests, let a High Court judge extend the time, and so forth. But at all events let this be tried. Let time limits now be applied in our jurisdiction.

If that is so, the real contest in principle is which is the better solution. My noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones said that we could not do better than take a leaf out of Scotland's book. We have often found that in our jurisdiction in England. We are taking a leaf out of Scotland's book in some of the prosecution systems that we have now, with the procurator and all that sort of thing. Scotland has had experience of such things.

My great objection to the solution in the Bill itself is that it leaves all this so much to regulations. There are the regulations about specified preliminary stages; the regulations apply only to certain areas and not others; and so forth. It is going to be very complicated, and people will have to go to the regulations to find out what should happen. I myself do not like regulations. I never know where they are, and they have to be put out somewhere. From that point of view, if I may say so, I should prefer the amendment, which is clear and specific. It gives the number of days—how long there should be at each stage—quite clearly. On the whole, I prefer the amendment, but it is such a debatable point that I should very much like to have the Government's specific views in favour of their clause.

Lord Rawlinson of Ewell

I apologise to your Lordships for not being here at the start of this debate. I was defending my conduct over the last amendment to some of my friends. It gave me a great feeling of déjá vu to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, make his speech. I certainly heard the majority of it. I think certainly since the 'sixties, on one side or the other, in one or other House of Parliament, either he, myself or someone close to us has been putting before either House of Parliament the requirement for some time limit for cases to be brought more quickly to trial. It has gone on and on for 25 years.

In my view, the problem cannot be solved by the amendment which is set out by the noble and learned Lord. Of course, in some ways it prescribes, as it were, a perfect solution but it just is not realistic and practical. Over the past 25 years there just have not been the resources allocated to all the matters that are required to obtain much speedier trials. There have not been the courts built by any Administration for 25, 35 or more years. There are not the staff, there are not the services, and there are not the judges. It can never be done unless you do all these things and have all these resources made available so that then you could have cases brought on for trial more swiftly.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, has said, when he referred to the Royal Commission with the reference to the experience of overseas jurisdictions, it is true that some jurisdictions think we are much too swift, that we bring on cases too quickly. They say they are much more sure. In fact, compared with many countries, our present administration of justice especially in bringing cases to trial is very much superior in the field of common law jurisdiction. I think that the aim of the noble and learned Lord is right, and it is right to have the debate about it, which is the traditional debate which we always have had about this matter. We all ask and hope that things can be improved, but everybody secretly knows that until you can get all the resources together and until you can get the provision for them all you will not make a serious inroad into the time awaiting trial. Therefore I personally much prefer the amendment proposed by my noble friend the Minister to that put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

I must say that I am a little disappointed that the noble and learned Lord is already showing signs of backsliding. I should like to support the amendment because it is not complacent. I have just listened to the noble and learned Lord saying how for 25 years we have wanted this and we have wanted that and we all know secretly there will never be an improvement. That has led to the situation in which we are now. I support this amendment because drastic measures have to be taken with the situation with which we are now so familiar, although there will be practical difficulties about the 110 days and the 40 days. Of course all of us know there will be practical problems which will have to be resolved.

Over four years ago I initiated a debate in this House on the plight of the remand prisoner. Since then, in debate after debate, in Question after Question, that plight has been referred to. Now the position of the remand prisoner in local prisons is absolutely no better than it was four years or more ago. Something radical has to be done to get those people out of those prisons and to prevent their being there for anything up to 12 months or 18 months before their trials come on in the Crown Courts and in the magistrates' courts.

It is a scandal. The only way to deal with it now is to bring in some kind of sanction such as is put forward in this amendment. Every effort has been made to try to improve the situation. All kinds of suggestions have been put forward to the Lord Chancellor's department, by the Criminal Bar Association and by the Law Society, to improve matters. Nothing is done except to build more and more courts and to make more and more judges. With the greatest respect, that is not the solution. Somehow—and here I include lawyers—the sloth of lawyers and other persons who are waiting to deal with cases must be got rid of. People must have some kind of incentive to get on with their cases, to have cases heard. It is this amendment which, if I may say so, my noble friend Lord Donaldson, has long supported. Indeed four years ago, he was supporting this idea and I was pointing out to him the difficulties of it. However, I think now most of us have come to the same conclusion: that this is the only path forward.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

I should just like to associate myself, in part, with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson. He was on a committee for which I produced a report in 1958, which I think referred to this. If it did not, as my noble friend Lord Hutchinson, says, we have from these Benches moved, I think in every Criminal Justice Bill for the last 10 years, an amendment to this effect.

It used to be laughted at: "Don't talk such absolute rot. It cannot possibly be done". Now there has been a marvellous change of heart on the part of the Home Secretary. I wrote to him congratulating him on it with enthusiasm. It is now in the Bill. It is perfectly reasonable to try to set a time limit. But, alas, the Home Secretary is doing what the Home Office always does, which is having lengthy experiments—pilot schemes, as they are often called. Judging by the report on drunkenness in 1972, if it is going to take as long to do this as to do what that report recommended—which has not been done anywhere yet; it is still in the very early stages of discussion—this means that this is going to be put off for another 20 years.

I give the Home Secretary and the noble Lord on the Front Bench total credit for being sincere in their belief that this ought to be done. We want to make it more difficult for their very cautious advisers to see that it is not done. I believe that an awful lot of people among these advisers believe that it should be done but they are nervous of the effect it will have.

The effect is a perfectly simple one. It will be a choice between two evils: would you rather have a large number of people kept in prison when they should not be there, or would you rather have an approximately similar number of people out on bail for longer than they would otherwise be? It is as simple as that. You can do one or the other. My view is that the evil of keeping in prison people who should not be there is worse than the acknowledged evil of putting people back on bail in order to bring other cases forward.

However, I repeat my satisfaction that it is now in a Bill and will become an Act. This is the right thing to try to do. I hope that my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones' amendment will stir the Government to pressing on and doing something of a drastic kind about the situation.

Lord Elton

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, gave an apt description of the evils which he, the Government and his noble friends all over the place wish to remedy. It is one of the odd and I think agreeable experiences of service at this Dispatch Box that I spend so much of my time striving after the same objects as the noble and learned Lord and his friends on the other Benches. Then I have to spend part of my time persuading them that that is what I am doing and a great deal more of my energy persuading them that I am doing it in a better way than they are. That is just to inform the Committee that in some senses this is a familiar tune that I am playing but I have good reason for playing it.

I hope that I shall persuade the noble and learned Lord—my noble and learned friend, if I may return the compliment—Lord Denning, that there is indeed quite a bit to choose between the two paths and that ours is the preferable one. Of course we recognise the example that the Scots have set. One has only to see the number 110 written anywhere in the past two years for me immediately to think of this particular rule because it has been put before me so often in so many various contexts.

The noble Lords would adopt, in place of the enabling power that we propose in Clause 23 and essential elements for the scheme that we propose, a ready-made scheme complete in its procedure and with specified limits. We also have been much influenced by practice north of the Border. I hesitate to criticise the amendments, but they fail to take account of the significantly different procedures and circumstances in the two jurisdictions we are looking at. I fear that the simple graft of the Scottish scion on to the English stock will not therefore take. Nonetheless, I suspect that the noble and learned Lord would like me to explain why the Government have not simply followed the Scottish model, taking these differences into account, which he has not.

I should first make clear that the Scots do not have committal for trial in the English sense to the Crown Court by decision of a magistrates' court. The prosecutor there can, in effect, determine the mode of trial in most cases by choosing the court in which to proceed. It makes sense, therefore, to have a single time limit, where the accused is in custody, of 110 days from committal in the Scottish sense to the commencement of the trial. In England and Wales we judge that it would be preferable to have separate time limits for each stage, before and after committal, in order to establish with certainty how long might be available for each.

Secondly, delays to trial in the Crown Court in the most hard-pressed parts of the country—London and the South-East—are still very long; this is, I should add, despite the Government's actions to reduce them, in spite of the provision of more resources, and in spite of efforts to improve efficiency. A limit of 110 days on periods in custody awaiting trial on indictment in London and the South-East would mean either that a great number of extensions would be granted—that would draw the resources of both prosecutors and courts from other tasks and so be self-defeating—or that a considerable proportion of accused persons would go free without trial. Elsewhere a 110-day limit would not have these consequences.

Similar considerations apply to the magistrates' courts. To fix in statute single limits to apply nationally in summary or in indictable cases respectively would have the consequence that the limits in some parts of the country would be either unrealistically tight, with the damaging consequences that I have mentioned, or incapable of being implemented, while in other parts of the country they would be both realistic and helpful. That is why we have decided to mount field trials before settling the details of the scheme, including the choice of time limits.

I notice that two reflex actions have been triggered in your Lordships' Chamber by the Bill. One is the reflex action against the power to make regulations. The other is a reflex action against the proposal to have field trials. I hope that what I have said has begun to show your Lordships' Committee that both are necessary. We cannot put on the face of the statute a fixed limit in any part of the country until we are certain what is appropriate. We cannot in any case put on the face of the statute a single limit to apply to every kind of case in every part of the country or, indeed, to two kinds of cases, as the noble and learned Lord's amendment suggests.

This is not merely the view of the Government. When the Select Committee in another place recommended statutory time limits they said that there should be experiments to test what limits might be feasible and that they should take account of the special difficulties faced by the courts in London and the South-East. So that reflex has been overcome in another place. That is why the Government thought it right to proceed cautiously towards establishing a full system of limits. The Bill gives the Secretary of State power by regulation to define the preliminary stages of criminal proceedings which are to be made subject to a time limit and then to apply limits to them, if necessary making different provision in different parts of the country.

Another important difference between our proposals and those of the noble Lords is this. Theirs would bite on far fewer trials than ours. This is because they have only one set of limits of 40 or 110 days which apply only when the defendant is held in custody. If the defendant is not held in custody, no time limit applies. In this the noble Lords have not borrowed parts of the Scottish provisions, which apply a limit to bail provisions. Our view is that the principle of limits is a good one and that it should be applicable in all cases, not just in some of them. So we go further than noble Lords opposite. Plainly there is a more obvious need for them and a more obvious need for expedition altogether where the defendent is being held until trial in a prison. But the defendant on bail has a Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, too. And justice delayed is justice denied to him as well. We, therefore, propose eventually to bring in the limits in these cases too, though they will be longer than in custodial cases.

Mention of this difference leads me to direct the Committee's attention to another. The effect of the single limit proposed by noble Lords would be that once the original or the extended deadline had been breached, the accused goes scot-free—an appropriate phrase, given the noble Lord's source—the very next day. It offers no distinction in this respect between those held in custody pending trial and those who have been bailed. Our own view is that there may be important differences between the consideration of public protection in these two kinds of cases.

We therefore propose that the overall time limit within which any case must be commenced should be longer than the custodial limit within which a person may be held in custody pending trial. If the accused is in custody and has not been brought to trial by the end of the custodial limit, he must then be released from custody, but he will still be liable to trial, though only until the end of the overall limit. This seems to us a proper balance between the public interest and interest of the alleged offender. It seems to me a further reason for preferring the system that we propose to that proposed by noble Lords opposite.

A further point that I might draw to your Lordships' attention—and I think I must be full because I detect that the noble Lord wishes me to produce the philosophy of our scheme—is that the amendments would provide for extensions to be granted by a single judge of the High Court, if certain conditions were satisfied. The Bill provides for extensions by the court having charge of the case; that is, the magistrates' court in summary cases and in the period before committal in cases to be tried on indictment; and the Crown Court in indictable cases after committal. This seems to us a practical and sensible arrangement. If the amendment was accepted, I invite your Lordships to consider what would happen if, on the last day allowed for a trial to begin, the accused fell ill. The prosecution could not make its application for an extension in the court that would have heard the case, but would have to go to a High Court judge who would not, incidentally, have been involved in any earlier proceedings. This seems unnecessary and undesirable.

It seems that we have covered, in our view, the circumstances in which extension may be granted more suitably from the point of view of England and Wales—I intend no criticism of the Scots—in the Bill than in the amendments. Illness or absence would be covered by the test of good and sufficient cause, provided, of course, that the prosecution could show that it had acted with all due expedition. We think it better to set a duty upon the prosecution in these terms, instead of relying on the concept of fault on the prosecution's part. Other of your Lordships will be able to judge better than I, but it seems to me that the word "fault", although well-established and understood by the Scottish courts, might create difficulties of interpretation south of the Border. The requirement of due expedition, on the other hand, is clear and strict.

Finally, the amendments would provide for a right of appeal against the grant or refusal of an extension. The terms of the amendments seem to us unsatisfactory in making the decision of a single judge of the High Court subject to review by the High Court; but that is not the most serious point. The Government are willing—I invite the noble and learned Lord to pay close attention to this—to consider whether an appeal should lie against a decision to extend, or not to extend, a time limit by a magistrates' court, but any provision should have regard to both the burden on the court to which an appeal would lie and the appropriateness of the route. I hope that your Lordships will allow us to give this aspect of the matter some further thought because from that I think that we can profit from the noble Lords' recorded advice.

6 p.m.

To sum up, I would say that we have here a means of establishing in this country a system which can take account of the different requirements, not only of different sorts of cases but of different parts of the country. It can also take account of the different requirements at different stages of the progress to trial. I hope I have shown that to do this it is necessary to have, as the House of Commons Select Committee advised, an experimental period, and in order to get this into the Bill it is therefore necessary to make a regulation-making power.

We hope to start the field trials in the course of this year—I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, who felt that the phrase "field trials" spelt indefinite delay; I may have misheard him. We have not yet worked out with the judges and others to be consulted how long they should last, and the other details, but we have no intention of dragging our feet. We have an interest in this even stronger than that of your Lordships opposite. We all share the interest of justice, but I have the rather dolorous responsibility for the prisons and I have every interest, as has my right honourable friend, in seeing that we get any alleviation of that as soon as may be.

Lord Denning

May I just say that, having heard what my noble friend the Minister has said, I much prefer the clause as it is and should be against the amendment?

Lord Elwyn-Jones

In spite of that active discouragement from my old and noble friend, I should like to say that of course we sympathise with the Home Office in the appalling responsibility which faces it. The bald fact is that there are more individuals in prison in this country, per head of the population, than in any other country in Western Europe. Whose fault is that? It is partly the fault—

Lord Elton

The noble and learned Lord invites an answer. If it was a rhetorical question, I apologise for responding to it. We are a service industry. We are given duties by the courts. I should not wag a finger at the courts. I suppose it is the fault of the offenders themselves for committing their crimes.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

I doubt whether there is greater perversity in the British population as a whole—and I will not specify the foreign countries I have in mind, in case it might add to international discomity rather than harmony—but the fault is partly in the law which we are enforcing, partly in the administration, partly in the limited responsibilities which at the present time we place upon the prosecuting wing of government. That is why we think it of value that these time limits should be imposed.

I should like, less I be thought to be churlish, to join with the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, in noting with gratitude the fact that now there is a commitment, however qualified and limited, to make some attempt to impose limits on the holding of people in custody pending trial. What is lacking, however, in the proposals in the Bill is any precision, even a hint, first of all as to when these regulations will be made. I know the old answer will be, "Whenever it is possible", or some other avoidance phrase like that. If we could get a little help about that, it would be at least encouraging.

Clause 23 (1) provides: The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision, with respect to any specified preliminary stage of proceedings for an offence, as to the maximum period". Can the noble Lord perhaps give the slightest hint of what maximum period the Home Office has in mind? We have suggested 100 days for indictable offences. Is thinking moving in that direction, or is there so much caution and awaiting the field trials that there can be no indication yet as to what sort of periods of limitation the Home Office has in mind? There is now common ground that there ought to be a period of limitation, and that is a very important thing which has been accomplished by the pressures over the years in this field, from all sides of the House. If we could be given guidance about that, it would be helpful.

In spite of his discouragement, I share the concern expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, about the complexity of the regulations which are proposed. The noble and learned Lord referred to regulations which may, be made … to apply … in relation to proceedings … in specified areas", and, make different provision with respect to proceedings instituted in different areas". Is that degree of differentation and particularity so really necessary? It looks as if we are going to be enmeshed into a terrible bureaucratic jungle if we have to go down that road. Perhaps I may be oversimplifying. I have an open mind about this. I shall not announce my decision. The Committee will not be surprised that I shall not be seeking the views of the Committee on this matter, but before I say farewell I should like to hear the response of the Minister to what I have said.

Lord Elton

May the day when the noble and learned Lord says farewell be distant. If he means that he suspends his judgment as to whether to take the opinion of the Committee until he has heard me speak further, I should like to say that I have not a great deal more that I can say of comfort to him. I have offered to consider the concept of an appeal from a time limit and to embody that in what we propose. Whether consideration will lead to that resort is of course something which I cannot tell your Lordships before Report.

As to the extent of the period, I think it would be wrong to lead your Lordships to think that we had already picked on a time limit for either the South-East or anywhere else. But I think I can say that we would expect the result of the field trials to be comparable to what is provided in Scotland. They are of course intended in part to illuminate what those limits should be and also what the areas should be.

The noble and learned Lord directed our attention to Clause 23(2). The first two paragraphs of that subsection are relevant to this because different areas have different caseloads, proportionate to the capacity of the courts. The purpose of the field trials is to establish what are the time limits appropriate to those proportions. It seems to me that I cannot say much more to the noble and learned Lord. We shall do it as quickly as is prudent, and prudence involves the considerations which my noble and learned friend Lord Rawlinson mentioned to us. It also involves the question of what the courts can deal with as they stand.

I have said that we are anxious to do it as quickly as possible, that our general expectation is that what we come up with will not be radically different from that in Scotland, and that we are prepared to consider the principle of an appeal. I hope the noble and learned Lord will feel that this will keep him content until the Report stage.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

I am most grateful for that further elucidation. I forgot to note, with regard to the intervention by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson, that it is to be hoped there will be a saving of resources and money if people are kept in prison for a shorter time. This is one of the factors. However, in the light of what has been said by the noble Lord the Minister, I ask leave to withdraw the amendment, with the possibility of returning to the matter again before this Bill has reached its ultimate destination and, in view of the fact that there are some good provisions in the Bill, receives Royal assent.

Lord Elton

I hope that particular phrase will not escape the Official Report.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, whether Clause 23, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

I have one very small point which is really almost the same one as was made by my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones, relating to subsection (2) and particularly the early paragraphs. It is a point which I made earlier and concerns the relationship of that type of provision to Clause 29(2). Clause 29(2) is a formula much cherished in the draftmen's office and I confess that I do not share their enthusiasm for it. But so long as we have it, it seems to me that one can economise on the type of provisions that are in Clause 23(2). Will the noble Lord the Minister consider the matter at this point along with the point at which I raised it earlier?

Lord Elton

The noble and learned Lord is gradually accumulating for me quite a weighty little portfolio to take to the draftsmen. I certainly undertake to add that point to it and shall write to him on all these matters when I am in a position to do so.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

I am much obliged.

Clause 23, as amended, agreed to.

[Amendment No. 76 not moved.]

Clause 24 agreed to.

Clause 25 agreed to.

Clause 26 [Consents to be admissible in evidence]:

On Question, Whether Clause 26 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Rawlinson of Ewell

I want to raise one very short, small cheer that at last this provision has been incorporated into an Act of Parliament and that the consent of a law officer: shall be admissible as prima facie evidence without further proof". It is obviously clearly necessary and I am very glad that the Government have taken the opportunity of putting this minor clause into the Bill.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

I share that enthusiasm. I did not know that there was that limitation.

Lord Elton

Out of courtesy I should thank my noble and learned friend for his intervention. I do not doubt that he has fought over the ground in the past and that he deserves the satisfaction that he now gets.

Clause 26 agreed to.

Clauses 27 to 30 agreed to.

Schedule 1 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Lord Elton moved Amendment No. 77: Schedule 1, page 29, line 12, at end insert— ("1A.—(1) Section 12 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 (pleading guilty by post etc.) shall be amended as follows. (2) In subsection (4) (notification of accused's desire to plead guilty without appearing before court to be read out) the words "by the clerk of the court" shall be added at the end.

(3) At the end there shall be added the following subsection— (9) Where the clerk of the court has received such a notification as is mentioned in subsection (2) above but the accused nevertheless appears before the court at the time and place appointed for the trial or adjourned trial the court may, if the accused consents, proceed under this section as if he were absent".").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 77 and speak to Amendment No. 78. Amendment No. 78: page 29, line 13, leave out ("the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980") and insert ("that Act").

These amendments seek to effect two changes in the guilty plea by letter procedure established under Section 12 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980. The first amendment, which will, subject to your Lordship's approval, be brought about by the insertion of the words "clerk of the court" in subsection 12(4) of the 1980 Act, is to provide for the clerk of the court in future to read out the statement of facts. As your Lordships will know, this statement of facts will already have been agreed between the defence and the prosecutor.

As your Lordships may be aware, the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure advised that the proposed prosecution service should provide advocates in all cases where criminal proceedings are instituted by the police, other than those covered by the Section 12 procedure. Such cases, the Royal Commission said, only required someone to read out the already agreed statement of facts. It clearly would not be cost-effective for a trained lawyer of the new service to have to be present to perform this task. On the contrary, it would be an inefficient and wasteful use of resources. As the clerk of the court already reads out the plea in mitigation by the defence, the change proposed cannot be thought to identify the clerk (and by implication the court) with one party rather than the other.

6.15 p.m.

We are also taking this opportunity to rectify a minor defect in the guilty plea by letter procedure. This is the second change that would be effected by these amendments, by virtue of the insertion, if your Lordships approve the amendments, of a new subsection (9) into the 1980 Act. As your Lordships will know, Section 12 is designed to work in the absence of the accused. He will have formally notified the court beforehand of his intention to be absent, but notwithstanding this, in a significant number of cases the accused unexpectedly turns up. I would imagine he does so usually for the understandable reason that he wants to know as soon as possible what sentence is imposed in response to his plea of guilty. Unfortunately the court cannot, in such cases, proceed under the Section 12 procedure. Furthermore, as in future we envisage that the prosecutor will be absent in such cases, the court will be precluded by Section 15 of the 1980 Act from taking the defendant's guilty plea and proceeding anyway. The inevitable result is an adjournment, adding to delay and expense—exactly the type of problems Section 12 is designed to minimise. It would also be somewhat frustrating for the defendant, who has already taken the trouble of notifying his acceptance of the statement of facts and his intention to plead guilty by post. This amendment avoids these difficulties by allowing the court to proceed under Section 12 provided that the defendant continues with his plea of guilty and consents to the court so proceeding. Of course, if the accused has had a change of mind and now wants to contest the case, an adjournment is the right course and will have to be accepted.

The second amendment replacing "the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980" by "that Act" is a minor drafting amendment consequential on the first one. I hope that your Lordships will be content with these amendments.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Elton moved Amendment No. 78:

[Printed above: col. 425.]

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 1, as amended, agreed to.

Schedule 2 [Repeals]:

Lord Elton moved Amendment No. 79: Schedule 2, page 32, line 50, at end insert—

("1983 c. 2. The Representation of the People Act 1983. In section 181, subsections (4) and (8).").

The noble Lord said: This is a minor drafting amendment consequent upon the repeal of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1979 effected by Schedule 2. It is also the last amendment on the Marshalled List. I should like to thank the Committee for taking many important and mostly wise decisions on this Bill. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.