HL Deb 27 February 1997 vol 578 cc1278-92

3.24 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, I wish to make a Statement about improving the speed of justice in England and Wales. The Home Secretary is making a similar Statement in another place.

Confidence in any criminal justice system relies on its ability to convict the guilty and acquit the innocent and to do so quickly. Over the past three years the Government have taken action to even up the scales of justice. At the same time, we have taken action to speed up our criminal justice process. And progress has been made. In the Crown Court waiting lists fell by one-fifth last year, and the number of cases outstanding has been reduced by a quarter. At magistrates' courts the proportion of summary only cases completed at first appearance reached 76 per cent. last year—10 per cent. more than 1995.

But more needs to be done. Although the number of indictable cases coming before the magistrates' courts fell by 11 per cent. between 1985 and 1995, the average number of days taken to complete a case from the date of offence increased by 36 per cent. from 98 to 132 days and the number of adjournments increased by 44 per cent. Entirely proper safeguards for defendants, such as advance information and the reforms introduced in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, have made the process more complex. But on top of this an adjournment culture has developed.

That is why, last autumn, my right honourable friends the Home Secretary, the Attorney-General and I decided to set up a fundamental review of the speed of justice. The review has now been concluded and today we are publishing its report and placing copies in the Library. The Government see merit in it and propose to invite interested parties to express their views. They will reach decisions in due course having considered those views. The report makes 33 recommendations. One of them is now largely superfluous, the four senior designated judges and I having yesterday approved—subject to certain restrictions—the Law Society application for rights of audience for employed solicitors in the higher courts. This meets the review's proposal that employed solicitors in the CPS should be granted rights of audience for plea and directions hearings at the Crown Court.

The report's remaining recommendations fall into five main areas. The first deals with bringing alleged offenders to court. Considerable improvements have been made in recent years in the relationship between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. Abbreviated files for guilty pleas dramatically reduce police paperwork. Joint performance management and CPS lawyer surgeries in police stations are delivering improvements. But the business of getting cases ready for court still falls into two distinct halves: police preparation of the file and the review of the file by the Crown Prosecution Service. The report recommends that these two halves should be brought together. Some CPS staff should be brought into police stations on a permanent basis to work with the police in what would visibly be a joint effort in bringing offenders to justice. The independence of the CPS would still be preserved, but independence does not require isolation.

The decision to prosecute would still be subject to two tests: whether the evidence was sufficient, and whether prosecution was in the public interest. But the report recommends a change to the CPS public interest test, which currently allows a case to be discontinued if the alleged offence is minor or the likely penalty trivial. This change would assist chief constables to target particular crimes, often of an anti-social nature, which in themselves would not necessarily be regarded as serious but which can make life a misery for innocent people, creating conditions which encourage more serious crime to flourish.

One significant cause of delay at present is that the time taken by defendants to obtain legal aid means that cases cannot be brought to court immediately after charge. The report recommends that all those defendants who intend pleading guilty should obtain legal advice and representation from the duty solicitor at court. This would be free of charge. It would also be extremely prompt, being given on the morning of the day on which the court appearance takes place. This would mean that defendants who pleaded guilty would be dealt with the day after they were charged. The effect would be dramatic: for more than half of all defendants charged the proceedings could now be completed the next day compared with under 3 per cent. now.

Where a defendant pleads not guilty, an application for legal aid would be made in the normal way, but it would have to be made promptly. The report recommends that courts should insist that defendants who fail to take adequate steps to secure representation or legal aid should have to use the duty solicitor in court that day unless they decide not to be represented.

Next, the report recommends that those pleading not guilty should also appear in court the day after charge at an early administrative hearing, to be conducted by the Clerk to the Justices. At this hearing the defendant would be told what the court needs in order to consider eligibility for legal aid and also about the nature of the forthcoming proceedings. These hearings have been shown substantially to reduce adjournments.

The report also recommends that clerks to the justices should hold pre-trial reviews and be given additional administrative powers very similar to those they already have in family proceedings. Pre-trial reviews would focus issues of dispute between the parties, so that cases are fully prepared for trial before they are put to magistrates. The principle should be that a case should not go before magistrates until it is ready to proceed and should then proceed without unnecessary adjournment. No one reading the report could fail to be impressed by the evidence from one pre-trial review, completed in one morning and observed by the reviewer, which obviated the need for no fewer than 15 police officers to attend future hearings. But I want to stress that the intention behind extending clerks' powers would be to reinforce the lay magistracy which has been described, quite rightly, as a cornerstone of our system of justice. There has been some speculation in the press about stripping magistrates of some of their current powers. The reviewer makes no such recommendation and had he done so, we would have rejected it.

The next area concerns the Youth Court. The proposals I have already described for joint working between the police and the CPS and for legal aid reform would in themselves bring offenders to justice at the Youth Court much more quickly. In addition, the report makes recommendations specific to the Youth Court. The most important of these is that 17 year-olds should be returned to the jurisdiction of the adult court leaving the Youth Court to deal more promptly with offenders of school-leaving age and below. It was the near unanimous verdict of all those interviewed by the reviewer that 17 year-old offenders are too sophisticated for the Youth Court where they account for about a third of all cases. They tend to be more experienced offenders and are often disruptive and unco-operative. The second recommendation is that the police should make the decision whether to caution or to charge an offender immediately, rather than (as frequently happens now) refer the case for advice to a multi-agency panel. If there is any doubt, the case should go to the Youth Court. If the court decides that a caution might be appropriate it should be able to give one and, where it sees fit, attach conditions to the caution, such as compensation or reparation to the victim. Young offenders would then be in court within days of being caught, rather than, as is frequently the case now, many weeks later.

Finally, the review makes recommendations about cases which go to the Crown Court. About 20 per cent. of all those tried in the Crown Court—about 24,000 defendants each year—insist on being tried there despite magistrates having previously decided the case was more suitable for them to deal with. About two-thirds of those defendants then plead guilty at the Crown Court. About three-quarters are found guilty. The reviewer recommends that it should be for magistrates to take the decision as to which cases triable either in magistrates' courts or the Crown Court, such as theft, handling stolen goods or burglary, need to be committed to the higher court. Those seeking Crown Court trial without good reason, perhaps simply to delay proceedings, would no longer be able to overrule the magistrates' view that they should try the case. On the other hand, defendants with a good reason for jury trial—because of the complexity of the case, because they were defending an unblemished reputation or because of the potential effect of a conviction on the individual—would be able to present those reasons to magistrates who would be free to commit the case. This is not a new idea. It builds on a very similar recommendation made in 1993 by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. It recognised the need for a more rational basis for distributing cases between the courts; and it noted that in Scotland the decision on whether a defendant should be entitled to jury trial is made by the prosecutor.

I recognise that that recommendation is especially sensitive since any proposal to restrict the availability of jury trial is bound to arouse strong feelings. Jury trial is a central feature of our system of justice and one to which the Government are entirely committed. We would not wish to restrict it without very careful thought. On the other hand, the report's recommendation offers substantial advantages. It would divert from the Crown Court cases—often of a petty nature—which do not need to be there. It would also make it easier to pursue another of the report's recommendations, also favoured by the Royal Commission, under which the most serious offences, those triable only at the Crown Court, could be handled more effectively and more speedily, by starting there from the outset rather than spending about half their life in magistrates' courts awaiting committal. We will want to consider both these recommendations particularly carefully in the light of views expressed. If other avenues of approach are suggested, we will of course consider them. There may, for example, need to be a right of appeal against the magistrates' decision not to allow a case to go to the Crown Court. And of course anyone convicted by magistrates would, as now, have a right of appeal against conviction or sentence to a judge (but not a jury) at the Crown Court.

These are important proposals. More work needs to be done on the extent of the financial implications and the Government want to listen to the views of those who work in the criminal justice system on both the principles and the practicality of the recommendations before making decisions. But I am confident that, taken together, they could dramatically speed up the prosecution process, bringing the guilty to justice and acquitting the innocent more quickly and at lower cost.

Let me remind your Lordships what these proposals would achieve if implemented. First, all defendants would appear in court the day after they were charged. Fewer than one in five do so now. Secondly, a pilot study has indicated that at least 50 per cent. of those defendants, those who indicate they would plead guilty, would be convicted the day after they were charged. That happens in only 3 per cent. of cases now. Thirdly, the time taken to bring a young offender to court from the date of his offence, currently 10 weeks, would be no more than a few days. This would save the valuable time of all those engaged in the criminal justice process, including witnesses and victims. It would help to ensure that the energies of police officers could be spent protecting the public, rather than going backwards and forwards to magistrates' courts.

Justice delayed is justice denied. These proposals have the potential, by drastically reducing delay and restoring the direct and speedy link between detection and conviction, to afford justice more speedily and in much greater measure to victims, to witnesses and to the general public alike.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.35 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for that Statement. As he said, these are important proposals—well almost. It is clearly an important review, covering areas which have been a matter of public and political concern over a number of years.

What is not clear is the status of the Lord Chancellor's Statement. The noble and learned Lord says—I gather that the Home Secretary has said the same thing—that there will now be a period of consultation, after which and where necessary proposals for primary legislation will be placed before Parliament and, where that is not necessary, the proposals will be implemented by administrative means.

I have to ask why such a document—a review presented in the first person singular by a reviewer who is an official within the Home Office—should be presented to Parliament in such a way and at such a high level by the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary without any clear indication of which parts of the review and which of its many recommendations have the support of the Government and to what extent the Government are prepared to be guided by the consultation process upon which they are now to embark. I have to ask whether it is purely accidental that these Statements are being made to Parliament in the last weeks of this Government and shortly before the dissolution of this Parliament.

The review contains many recommendations. It is a well written and clearly thought out document with which we agree. Many of the matters raised in it have been the subject of intense work by the Labour Party. Indeed, they have been the subject matter of policy documents which we have produced, not least within the past year. The whole issue of youth justice was discussed at length in a document entitled Reforming Youth Justice, which was produced by Jack Straw in June 1996. As I read the section on youth justice and youth courts in the review, I recognise many of its proposals as those which we made in June last year. Again, in April of last year, we published a document entitled Justice Delayed. When I look at the recommendations on the management of cases before they go to the magistrates' court or the Crown Court and on the distribution of responsibility between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police, I recognise many of the recommendations and proposals that we made in our document in April last year.

Clearly, we are not approaching the review in a spirit of antagonism. However, when we come to what the Lord Chancellor admitted was the most controversial issue, the question of election for trial, I have to ask whether what the Government are now proposing, first, coincides with a proper analysis of the need and, secondly, reflects what has been the government position over a number of years.

The Statement says that last year in the Crown Court waiting lists fell by one-fifth and the number of cases reduced by one-quarter. It goes on to say that in magistrates' courts the proportion of summary only cases reached 76 per cent. Is it not the case that in many parts of the country the congestion is greater in magistrates' courts than in Crown Courts? Therefore, proposals that may result in a risk to civil liberties—we will have to consider that in a moment—and a greater number of cases remaining with magistrates' courts rather than going to the Crown Courts would not directly affect delay and congestion in the courts.

In July 1995 in a consultation paper on the mode of trial (Command Paper 2980) the Home Secretary said: Since currently two thirds of committals to the Crown Court are the result of magistrates refusing jurisdiction"— that is a very much larger number than the 20 per cent. quoted by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor— this has the potential to retain a larger amount of business than by limiting the defendants' right to elect for jury trial". Therefore, the Government rejected restricting the right to jury trial in favour of this proposal which is now Section 49 of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996. I remind the House that Section 49 has not yet been brought into force. Should we not try that first before we move on to a different and conflicting recommendation? It is conflicting not only in the light of what the Home Secretary said in July 1995 but in the light of the final response to the Runciman Royal Commission on Criminal Justice made only in July last year. The Secretary of State said in his final response: The Government … consider that such a fundamental change"— I acknowledge that the Royal Commission said very much the same as the noble and learned Lord is saying now— to the right to jury trial … should not be undertaken unless it is clear that would he the only possible way of achieving the objective". The Home Secretary went on to say that the effect of Section 49, will be monitored and the Royal Commission's recommendations reconsidered in the light of that monitoring exercise". Since Section 49 has not been implemented, how can it be said that these proposals are consistent with what the Home Secretary was saying in only July of last year?

The noble and learned Lord has referred to the recommendations about right of audience. He says that he has already implemented the review's proposal that employed solicitors in the CPS should be granted a right of audience for plea and directions hearings at the Crown Court. That is not the same as allowing them representation at the actual trial. Whatever may be the rights and wrongs of that case—I make no judgment on that issue at the moment—the noble and learned Lord will recall that the recommendations of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice were that when plea and directions hearings were introduced, the same counsel and legal representatives should be responsible for the case both at the plea and directions hearing and at the actual trial. If there are different conditions for representation in those two, how can we achieve the recommendations of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice?

The second major issue to which the noble and learned Lord has referred is the bringing of offenders to court. Clearly, the recommendations about the Crown Prosecution Service must be considered with great care. But the abolition of the public interest test which allows a case to be discontinued if the alleged offence is minor, or if the likely penalty is trivial, is perhaps a suitable response to any initiatives for zero tolerance policing which may be a proper policing objective. However, that returns power to the police and raises again the possibility of conflict between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service and thus the possibility of power being in two places, with the consequent danger of confusion, disagreement and delay.

We welcome what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has said about the availability of legal representation from the duty solicitor at court free of charge and the possibility of a very large increase in the number of cases that will be dealt with within 24 hours. Perhaps we should be a little more cautious about the suggested role of justices' clerks. I am not instinctively opposed to that. I welcome the assurances of the Lord Chancellor that such a change will not be at the expense of magistrates' powers. But these issues require far greater consultation than has taken place so far. I have already referred to the issue of youth courts and the fact that many of the recommendations reflect those that the Labour Party made in the course of last year.

I return to the issue of election for trial by jury and the distribution of cases between magistrates' courts and Crown Courts. I repeat that although 20 per cent. of all cases tried in the Crown Courts result from defendants' elections, two-thirds of all referrals are by magistrates themselves. We must be sure that there is no possibility of two standards of justice: one for those with previously unblemished reputations, and another for those who have criminal convictions. The Statement is quite open about it. It speaks about the complexity of cases or the defence of an unblemished reputation. We must ask ourselves what we in the position of a defendant faced with this choice would do. Would we make that choice in the interests of justice, or in the interests of a fair trial, or in the interests of a lighter sentence or avoiding delay? It is by no means certain that those with resources and good legal advice would make the same decision as those who did not find themselves in that fortunate position. It is that which we must consider before we come to a final conclusion. My instinct is in favour of retaining election for trial by jury unless much better reasons to the contrary are produced than have been produced so far.

I end as I began. These are important proposals. It is not clear whether they are the Government's proposals or the proposals of the official in the Home Office who produced this important and valuable review. But when we come to implement these matters, we will ensure that there is a proper division of responsibility between making recommendations and making decisions on which we shall ask Parliament to act.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his introduction to this review. Like the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, I welcome the reference in the conclusion of the Statement to the Government seeking consultation and wishing to listen to the views of those who work in the criminal justice system. I also share the cynicism displayed by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, as to the reasons why the Statement is made at this particular point in the Parliament. I refer to what the noble Lord said a moment ago. If it should ever fall to the noble Lord to implement these proposals, or anything like them, we shall be as critical of his proposals as we are of these.

The beginning of the Statement refers to the fall in the Crown Court waiting list. That is true. I noted on Friday last in Birmingham Crown Court that some five courts out of 12 were empty. I also noted the long faces of junior counsel who were standing around at the time. But that has been achieved because of the plea and directions hearings implemented over a number of months which have proved successful. It is easier to get into the Crown Court today to have a case heard than it is to get into the magistrates' court and have the matter completed.

Some parts of the report are much to be welcomed. I welcome the concept of CPS staff being involved with the police at a very early stage. It is enormously helpful to the police to have the guidance and assistance of the CPS in the preparation of the case. If that means that CPS staff work in a police station, so be it. I am sure that the CPS will not lose its independence when it does so.

However, the proposal that employed solicitors in the CPS should be granted anything more than rights of audience for plea and directions hearings in the Crown Court would not be a useful addition to the powers of the CPS. It is important that we maintain an independent Bar to prosecute and to defend. It is important and desirable that those who prosecute should also have experience of defending. If the day comes that the prosecution is represented by professional prosecutors who do nothing other than prosecute and people are defended by people who do nothing more than defend, then the quality of criminal justice in this country will suffer.

The concept that the duty solicitor should be accessible to give instant and early advice, and that the person who appears in the magistrates' court should have the benefit of that service, is to be welcomed. One hopes that the necessary funds will be put into the system to pay for the additional work that will be involved.

With regard to pre-trial reviews and administrative powers being given to clerks to the justices, I consider that that is potentially an excellent reform, but it needs to be looked at with considerable care because in certain magistrates' courts half the morning can be taken up by adjournments. If that is replaced by hours and hours spent in unnecessary pre-trial reviews which are not conducted with the rigour that is required, then the system will suffer. As I say, today the delays are more in the magistrates' court than in the Crown Court.

I welcome the recommendations in relation to the youth court. It would be a considerable reform that if cautions are introduced for young offenders it should be possible to attach conditions such as compensation and reparation to the victims. A caution is not enough. If compensation can be given as well, that is highly desirable.

Where I look with great askance, however, is at the proposal to restrict, because that is what it amounts to, the right to trial by jury. The Statement says that 20 per cent. of those tried in the Crown Court insist on being tried there. It would be better phrasing to say that they exercised their right. It is an important part of the freedom of the people of this country to be tried in the Crown Court. The circumstances in which people seek trial in the Crown Court vary enormously. It is not appropriate that magistrates should make the decision as to which way the sheep go and which way the goats go. It is a person's right to have a trial by jury. It is that right which he, and no one else, should exercise. I do not believe that it leads to abuse on a large scale; it leads these days to the swift dispatch of cases.

The matter is in the hands of the professional judges of the Crown Court who ensure that trials are brought on speedily—within weeks, as they are at present. I think that I have said enough to indicate that we consider that the Statement contains many good things, but we look at any suggestion that the right to trial by jury should be restricted with considerable reserve.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh of Haringey and Lord Thomas of Gresford, for what they said about the report. The report was commissioned, as I said, in the autumn of last year. For my part—my colleagues share this point of view—I believe it right that both Houses of Parliament should have the report put before them at the earliest opportunity. It would not be right for the Government to take a concluded view on these matters at this stage; rather we should set out the proposals, indicate the basis upon which they have been made, and their possible effect, and then invite consultation on them. That is what we are seeking to do.

I do not know that I should go into the detail much more at present. I know that proposals have been made by the Labour Party to deal with some of these matters. There are concerns which have been expressed from time to time. This is the reviewer's work, as a result of the task that he was set.

There are important distinctions between what the reviewer has proposed and what is proposed in the document to which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, referred; for example, about the lay magistrates' jurisdiction to try cases in the youth court and other such differences. This is an important document upon which it is right that we should make full disclosure as soon as possible to your Lordships and to the other place, and then consult upon it.

A good deal has been said, in particular by the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh of Haringey and Lord Thomas of Gresford, about the present right in either-way cases, which I think was introduced when such a class of case was introduced for the first time in 1855, or so, to elect for trial at the Crown Court.

The reviewer's proposal is that the decision in that connection should be made by the magistrates with the possibility, as we say in the Statement—I do not believe that the reviewer raises this possibility—of an appeal. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said that that should not be committed to the magistrates. That is an important question, but the magistrates do have the responsibility of deciding guilt or innocence in a large number of important cases. Those who are qualified to decide guilt or innocence would, I think, have a claim at least to be able to distinguish a good case for going to the Crown Court from a case that was not a good one for going to the Crown Court.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, referred to the Government's response to the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice which made a proposal similar to the one the reviewer has proposed. This report of course followed from that. It is right for the Government to be prepared to reconsider those matters in the light of this further report. As has been said, this is an important report, which is well written. I am glad to accept that compliment on behalf of the reviewer. It is one with which I happen to agree. It is clear and well written. It forms a good basis for consultation upon these matters, all of which are vitally important in the desire which we all share, I think, to make our system of criminal justice as good as we possibly can make it, not only in achieving justice but in achieving justice with reasonable expedition.

4 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, when this House is asked to consider radical proposals, should it not be informed whether there is significant material in existence which points the other way, why the Government have sought to go contrary to that material and whether it is based on research, investigation or what?

Without repeating it, we have raised the point on the Crime (Sentences) Bill that the Government White Paper of 1990 was totally inconsistent with the philosophy put forward in support of the Bill. We have drawn attention to how 20 years ago the Home Office committee under Lord Butler produced proposals for reviewable sentences and turned down the suggestion of life sentences.

There has been no mention in the context of the abolition of the right of election—I am dealing only with that—of a report of the interdepartmental committee under the right honourable Lord Justice James, again some 20-odd years ago. It relates to the distribution of criminal business between the Crown Court and the magistrates' court and it dealt in considerable depth with the question with which we are dealing. I refer only to one observation which appears at the end of paragraph 61. It states: The existing right to elect trial by jury is so long established in our criminal justice system and valued so highly that its total abrogation requires very compelling reasons. We doubt whether such a radical change would be sufficiently acceptable to public and professional opinion to enable it to be implemented. We would go further. In our view there is a real danger that the total removal of the present right of election would undermine the trust and support which the criminal justice system at present commands among the general public. However that may be, on the evidence submitted to us we have reached the firm conclusion that the defendant's present right of election should not he replaced by a decision either by the prosecution or by the court". The report deals in great detail with why it would be wrong for the court to make the decision. It opted for what the Royal Commission referred to in the course of its consideration of the subject; namely, altering the categories of cases which might feature in the either-way lists. Paragraph 16 of the Royal Commission's report states: One way of removing cases from the ambit of the Crown Court would be to reclassify the less serious offences as triable summarily only. We have not regarded the task of identifying the offences concerned as falling within our remit". There is a footnote which states: Allowing relatively minor offences to be tried by magistrates would have a considerable impact on the workflow of the Crown Court. The major burden is caused by minor offences of theft (including shoplifting) and handling stolen goods". Thus it goes on. I therefore ask that particular consideration should be given to re-evaluating that very detailed report of the interdepartmental committee presided over by Lord Justice James.

I wish to raise only one other matter on which I should like my noble and learned friend to comment. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, referred to rights of audience and expressed his anxiety about those rights being given to the Crown Prosecution Service in trials. I understand that the Law Society, under the Courts and Legal Services Act, put in an application for such rights to be achieved by employed solicitors. Of course, that will rub off on to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Approximately 18 months ago, the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee delivered its decision, which was adverse to granting those increased rights of audience on the ground that it would be against the public interest. I have asked in Written Questions, "When is the Lord Chancellor going to decide one way or another whether he accepts that report?". If he accepts the report, that is the end of the matter. If he does not accept the report, it will then go before the designated judges. It may be that I am out of date and that that has already occurred, but since rights of audience have been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, I thought that I ought to raise the matter.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as regards the second matter, yesterday I intimated a decision on the point with the concurrence of the designated judges; that is, the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, the President of the Family Division and the Vice-Chancellor. Without going into detail, it would be fair to say that we agreed the application of the Law Society in part, with considerable conditions attached. The principle condition is that in substantial hearings the employed solicitor could not be the sole or leading advocate.

As regards the James Committee Report, my noble and learned friend will find that in the review by Mr. Narey the James Committee Report is dealt with and referred to in detail. Therefore, the report deals with the matter and indicates the situation in which the James Report was given. Of course, the Royal Commission, which also considered the issue most carefully, had full regard to the detailed work of the committee chaired by Lord Justice James. However, as my noble and learned friend said, that was some considerable time ago and there have been a number of changes in the criminal justice system since then.

There has been a good deal of support for reclassification of some offences, but it has always been difficult to see how that can be done. For example, my noble and learned friend Lord Lane forcefully supported an amendment to take petty theft out of the either-way category on the very day that I was invited to become the Lord Chancellor. Therefore, it is engraved on my memory by that particular coincidence. That issue has been raised a number of times and has been found difficult. It has the disadvantage that everyone knows is attached to such an offence. If you make it summary you will not land in the Crown Court, whereas if the judgment is with the magistrates and they consider that the case is sufficiently serious, it could arrive in the Crown Court if the proposal made by Mr. Narey were accepted. Those disadvantages must be considered, but I agree that this is a most important matter and it is right that it should be carefully considered. This is the opportunity to do that and I hope to do so without any cynicism whatever.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, perhaps I may ask a very short question in the context of the appeal to which the noble and learned Lord referred as regards the right to elect being removed in favour of the decision to be taken. In circumstances in which identity or the rectitude of a confession or the conduct of the police or Crown witnesses is in issue and is in some way to be challenged, it would be, would it not, assuredly wrong to deprive the subject of a right to trial by jury?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, one cannot enumerate all the circumstances one way or the other. That is why it seems reasonable to consider the proposal that it should be decided by a judicial tribunal; namely, the magistrates who are charged with deciding guilt or innocence in a very high proportion of the total number of cases decided in England and Wales.

Earl Russell

My Lords, first, I thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement. He will have listened many times to the case developed in this House by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Simon of Glaisdale and Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, and most particularly developed by the late Lord Rippon of Hexham in his Hansard Society report Making the Law, against bringing forward too much legislation. Can the noble and learned Lord tell the House how many Bills within the area of the Home Office's departmental responsibilities are at present before Parliament? Should we come back and find another major Bill from the Home Office before us, is he aware that there is a risk that someone may say that its rash, fierce blaze of riot cannot last?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I think, technically, I made the Statement as well as the Home Secretary. As regards the situation of legislation, there are certainly a number of Home Office Bills presently before both Houses of Parliament. Quite a lot of people think that, for example, the Offences Against the Person Bill, which the Law Commission prepared some time ago, would be extremely suitable for legislation.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

The Lord Chancellor

I think I pick up some assent to that. The mere fact that there are a number of Bills before Parliament does not mean that it would not be wise to have any more such Bills. I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, would agree that it is right that we should do everything we can to promote as efficient and rapid a system of justice as possible. This review makes proposals and, subject to whatever views emerge, it may be necessary to take legislative action. Surely that is a wise way in which to act. The decision whether or not to promote legislation must be taken in the light of all the circumstances and is certainly not to be taken at this moment.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, I am sure rightly, pointed out the implications as regards the changes in the way that it is decided whether a case should be tried in the magistrates' court or the Crown Court. He said that that would mean an increase in the number of cases tried in the magistrates' court. That is a matter of interest to lay people. What effect will that have on the workload of solicitors and barristers?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, judging from the reaction which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, found in Birmingham on Friday, it looks as though perhaps the barristers would welcome more work. I am not sure. I am not in the business of creating that work but where the work exists, I am in favour of it being done economically and efficiently.

The primary problem in the magistrates' courts is bringing cases to trial. It is not that the trials take a long time. That is where I differ quite fundamentally on a proposal in the youth justice paper to which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, referred. Once a case comes to trial, it is disposed of extremely expeditiously. In the magistrates' courts the difficulty is the number of adjournments before a case is ready for trial. When speaking to magistrates from time to time, as I have pleasure in doing, they tell me that many cases are adjourned and there is not enough work to do. That is a real and serious problem.

The report makes proposals to deal with that. If those proposals work, then the scope for bringing more cases to trial would thereby be increased. Obviously, the review believes that the magistrates' courts could well accommodate such cases. As was pointed out, a high proportion of those cases are resolved ultimately by pleas of guilty and such pleas of guilty might come earlier if it were not for the remit to the Crown Court.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor aware of the widespread disappointment expressed today within the government legal services and the Crown Prosecution Service about the restrictions on rights of audience that are implicit in the Statement which he made? Is the noble and learned Lord able to tell the House how much taxpayers' money is spent each year in instructing barristers from private practice?

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, obviously the amount spent is important but the question is whether the interests of justice are served in the circumstances. As my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner mentioned, the committee set up by statute to advise me on those matters considered that issue and came down by a majority of one against the grant of any right of audience on these matters in the higher courts to employed solicitors beyond what they have at present. That was based on the view that their relationship of employment had an effect prejudicial to justice.

Having considered those matters with my colleagues—the designated judges—we took the view that the problem could be dealt with in the way that we have proposed. That is quite a considerable enlargement of the rights of audience of employed solicitors in the Crown Prosecution Service. A way has been found to avoid the possibility of the kind of damage to justice which has been suggested. Obviously, such matters do not stand still completely. As my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner said, we have not rushed the matter. I have discussed it very fully with the designated judges. We thought that that was the best balance, and I believe that it is a good decision.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that some of us are rather concerned about the use of the term "petty crime"? A woman charged with shoplifting, who has a blameless reputation, does not regard the charge against her as a petty matter. Many of us would fight very rigorously any possible deprivation of the right to a jury trial for such a person.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I feel certain that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, would have confidence that the magistrates share the values he has expressed. A number of magistrates do so expressly on their declarations on becoming magistrates when we try to preserve a balance in those matters on appointment. Surely, if people are trusted to decide the issue of guilt or innocence, they should be able to decide whether or not a particular case is one in which the right to go to the Crown Court should be affirmed.