HL Deb 01 November 1995 vol 566 cc1425-8

3.10 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the proposal of the Minister without Portfolio in his speech at Blackpool on 10th October 1995 that members of the public should let judges know if they are dissatisfied with sentences in individual criminal cases now represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, I consider that, in the passage referred to, my right honourable friend was not seeking to express a policy of Her Majesty's Government. To achieve the appropriate balance, I should point out that my right honourable friend included reference to expressions of praise and not dissatisfaction only. My right honourable friend also cautioned that, before reaching a view, the public should remember that the judge will have heard all the evidence in a particular case.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I welcome the noble and learned Lord's reply and thank him for it. Does he regard it as rather unusual that a Minister made a speech on a matter as sensitive as this which is not, as I understand it, the policy of Her Majesty's Government?

In the light of that, does he not have regard to paragraph 87 of Questions of Procedure for Ministers, a copy of which was placed by the Prime Minister in the Library of the House? It indicates that Ministers making speeches outside their own departmental responsibilities must consult the Minister who is directly responsible. Did the Minister without Portfolio consult the noble and learned Lord before making that speech? Many of us will be interested in his reply.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it is possible for people to make a speech without enunciating a policy. I believe that is what my right honourable friend did on this occasion. It is not my practice to disclose consultations between myself and other Members of the Government.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, while I endorse every word that fell from my noble and learned friend, could he perhaps tactfully suggest to the right honourable gentleman concerned that his suggestion will not be universally approved or welcomed by members of the judiciary?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, it depends on whether the expression is one of praise or dissatisfaction. Not long ago, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, kindly passed on to me his observation of a particular case, saying how well the judge had performed. I was extremely happy to pass his comments on to the judge, and I am sure the judge appreciated them. I am sure that judges, like all others, are very glad to receive appreciations and praise from others. On occasion, I welcome hearing such myself.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, did not Dr. Mawhinney in terms urge the public to, let judges know when you are dissatisfied with their sentence because that does have an effect"? Was he not whipping up write-ins to bring pressure to bear on judges to give tougher sentences, when it is the judges who know all the facts of a particular case and the history of a particular offender? What does the noble and learned Lord advise judges or magistrates to do if, as a result of the exhortations of Dr. Mawhinney, they receive a mail bag attacking a particular sentence as too soft? Does he advise judges to reply with a justification for their decisions or to cause offence by ignoring the letters?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I occasionally receive letters about judicial sentences. My method of dealing with them depends to a good extent on the tone of the letter. Sometimes it appears that the writer is in ignorance of some important fact, often as a result of a rather shortened account of the circumstances in the newspaper. I then write back explaining that position. If, on the other hand, the letter is in the nature of abuse, which sometimes descends on all people holding public office, the appropriate response might be a rather cool acknowledgement.

Lord Irvine of Lairg

My Lords, with respect, my question to the noble and learned Lord did not relate to how he deals with his correspondence. My question was: if Her Majesty's judges receive an avalanche of critical letters as a result of the exhortations of Dr. Mawhinney, how does the noble and learned Lord advise them to deal with them—with a reasoned defence of their sentencing decisions, or not?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I had intended to answer the noble Lord's question by stating what I myself do. I believe that those who hold Her Majesty's commission as judges are well able to decide how to handle their correspondence. I suggested the sort of approach that I take, which might well commend itself to judges who receive some correspondence.

So far as I am concerned, the number of such letters is not very large. Everyone has to realise just what a lonely and responsible job passing sentence is. It is not a light matter. Therefore, the latter part of Dr. Mawhinney's advice should be well taken into account before anyone thinks of writing; namely, they should recollect that the judge has heard all the evidence in the case. If they wish to make observations, they should keep that very firmly in mind. I am sure that Dr. Mawhinney would not support the idea of abusive letters, whether they come in an avalanche or otherwise.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will my noble and learned friend agree that it would be sensible for us all to bear in mind the impact that the powerful air of Blackpool is notorious for having on the balance of certain people's minds?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, my noble friend will have more experience of that than I.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord say whether "judges" in this context includes magistrates? Will he agree that if the public started writing letters to unpaid magistrates, there could be a real difficulty?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, the speech included not only professional judges but also lay judges; that is to say, magistrates. I take it that correspondence addressed to magistrates would be handled on their behalf by court officials. That would he the appropriate way in which a response might be put forward on their behalf. But again, the principles would be the same as I enunciated earlier.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord agree that Parliament has laid down very stringent restrictions on the imposition of imprisonment? They are to be found in Section 1 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, as amended by the Act of 1993. In short, they provide that, the court shall not pass a custodial sentence on the offender unless it is of the opinion… that the offence, or the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it, was so serious that only such a sentence can be justified for the offence; or … where the offence is a violent or sexual offence, that only such a sentence would be adequate to protect the public from serious harm".

Does the noble and learned Lord agree that for observations such as were made by the Minister to go out to the public can only tend to confuse and mislead, the public not knowing of the restrictions that Parliament has imposed?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I do not think that Dr. Mawhinney's speech went into the same level of detail as that in my noble and learned friend's question. It may very well be that, at least in some of the instances, the factors to which my noble and learned friend referred should be taken into account. As I said before, the business of passing sentence is not by any means to be taken lightly. It is full of restrictions, if one cares to look at it in that way. Maxima are usually prescribed; and indeed in cases of driving, minima may also be prescribed in relation to suspension and endorsement. These are complicated matters. I do not believe that my right honourable friend intended to go into that level of detail in his remarks in Blackpool.