HL Deb 24 July 1997 vol 581 cc1516-26

3.38 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill that I bring before you today is distinctly less momentous than others to which your Lordships have given consideration. It is modest but important in its effect. Its origins lay in the Efficiency Scrutiny commissioned in 1994 to examine administrative burdens on operational police officers in the context of the whole of the criminal justice system. The scrutiny team undertook a thorough investigation, encompassing every police force in England and Wales, magistrates' courts, Crown Court centres and the Crown Prosecution Service and examined research and initiatives from a wide range of interested bodies. It reported in June 1995. This is the right approach. There are rarely single culprits when our interconnected justice system fails to deliver as it should. The scrutiny considered, among other areas, fixed penalty offences, summonses and specified proceedings. I should like to describe the current process in a little detail.

At present, provisions in the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 allow defendants on certain charges to be summonsed by post and to submit a guilty plea by post, if they wish. A significant number of those "guilty by post" pleas are for summary traffic offences; for example, exceeding speed limits or failing to comply with traffic light signals. Offenders who are ready to admit their guilt and accept the penalty merited by their crime can do so quickly and efficiently. They save both their own time and the time of the court. There is, of course, no question of the plea-by-post process allowing people to escape the penalty due for their offence. The Efficiency Scrutiny reported that one survey recorded that 38 per cent. of those summonsed in that way submitted guilty pleas by post. From informal consultation, that level appears to be generally representative.

Anyone summonsed in that way who wishes to plead not guilty can do so, and plead his or her case in court in the usual way. The great flaw in the present system which I have just described is that a very significant proportion of defendants simply do not respond to the summons at all. Of these, some do not respond for quite innocent reasons of error, and the law has remedies for them. But the survey to which I referred found that 35 per cent. of defendants made no reply to the summons whatsoever. The obvious truth is that, for a great many of them, ignoring the summons was nothing more than a means of delaying what is their due.

When a summons has produced no response, the court has no choice under our present arrangements but to adjourn the case. The prosecution may, perhaps, decide that there is no point in proceeding and the charge will simply be dropped. Should they proceed to trial, there are options available which seek to ensure that the defendant is in court for his or her trial. But the prosecution must be able, if necessary, to try a case in the complete absence of the defendant.

Under current legislation, a summons will usually include what is known as a "statement of facts", essentially a concise summary of the case details as recorded by the police. That information is sufficient for a defendant to acknowledge his or her guilt by post. But if they do not, the Crown Prosecution Service will take over responsibility for the prosecution. This may require written statements as described by Section 9 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967, which specifies the form for statements admissible in those proceedings; or witnesses may he required to attend court in person. Your Lordships will see that each summons ignored places heavy administrative duties on police, prosecutors and courts, which far outweigh those for processing a "guilty by post" plea.

The Efficiency Scrutiny proposed a solution. to be evaluated through piloting by the relevant criminal justice agencies. Two pilot studies, in Gloucestershire and Lancashire, have recently been completed. Although they have not yet submitted formal reports on the pilot outcomes, both are showing most encouraging results and I hope to be able to report on these in detail at Committee stage. It is, however, worth mentioning that those who undertook the pilot schemes are all continuing to operate the procedures in question, although the actual pilot studies have been completed. At the time of the scrutiny, a comprehensive project was being undertaken in Leeds to test the very same process, and I shall return to that later.

The scrutiny suggested that the police should prepare a witness statement, as specified by Section 9 of the Act, and serve it with each summons. That would ensure that admissible statements were available to the court at the first scheduled hearing, whether or not the defendant had troubled to respond. If a defendant failed to answer the summons, the court could in most instances proceed immediately to trial, since the witness statement as served on the defendant would provide sufficient evidence to prove the case.

That is exactly what Clause 1 of the Bill will allow. It provides for an amendment to Section 12 of the Act, permitting a plea of guilty by post where either statements of fact or Section 9 witness statements have been served with the summons. When a statement of facts is served with the summons, the procedure for a guilty plea or a trial will be exactly the same as at present. When a Section 9 statement is served instead, this may be used equally as a summary of the facts, if a plea of guilty by post is received, or to prove the case, if no response is received to the summons. Further, including a Section 9 witness statement within the Section 12 procedure will not oblige the Crown Prosecution Service to take over prosecution from the police, as at present. The police will be able to continue as the de facto prosecutors and to claim the appropriate administrative costs. The amendment will not affect any other Section 12 provisions for pleas of guilty by post.

This Bill also provides one further refinement to the existing procedures for minor summary motoring offences. At present, where a defendant is convicted of a summary offence under the traffic Acts, previous endorsements on his or her driving licence may be taken into consideration by the court when sentencing. However, Section 104 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 states that, if the offender has not produced his driving licence to the court, previous endorsements on it cannot be considered until the court has served at least seven days' notice on the defendant of its intention to cite those previous summary convictions, by using a print-out of the driver's record from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

That computer print-out, which mirrors the endorsements noted on the licence, is usually available to the court at the time of sentencing. But, again, defendants who fail to respond to their summonses will delay proceedings, since the court is obliged to adjourn and notify them of its intentions. Otherwise, should it wish to pass sentence on the day in question, the court must simply, contrary to the justice of the case, ignore those previous endorsements. That should obviously be changed. The remedy to the problem is set out in Clause 2 of the Bill. It provides simply that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency print-outs may be used by the court to prove any previous summary convictions, but without any requirement to serve notice on the defendant. The remaining two clauses of the Bill are simply administrative, updating a number of references in related legislation and allowing implementation of the Bill to be delayed until the necessary changes to court and police documentation can be effected.

I mentioned earlier the extended project undertaken at Leeds from 1994 to 1996. It involved the co-operation of local police authorities, the Crown Prosecution Service and the magistrates' courts, and it gave the theories later encapsulated in Recommendation 35 as thorough a practical airing as possible without legislation. At the end of the Leeds study, the police estimated that using the new process had saved about 70 per cent. of their costs for the old process over that 18-month period. The Crown Prosecution Service estimated more modest savings of about 18 per cent. For the magistrates' courts, some 50 per cent. of the current process costs were saved. Those savings are well worth making. They are, largely, not realisable in cash terms. They represent an estimate of the manpower and other resources released for use on other work by expediting the processes in minor motoring cases. But they are every bit as valuable to the criminal justice system as new funds would be.

Perhaps the most eloquent evidence of the study's success in Leeds is the average clearance time for the cases concerned. About 13,000 cases were handled using the revised procedures, procedures which will be assisted throughout England and Wales by the Bill. In 1994, before the study began, the average time from summons issue to finalisation in court was 22 weeks. By 1995, that figure had fallen to 12 weeks. By the end of the project in 1996, the average figure for clearance times for those cases was four weeks. The time which this Bill can save in the court process is a benefit to everyone in the process. Those who are guilty receive the due sentence for their crime more promptly, reinforcing the connection between crime and punishment. And the time and resources freed for the courts, for prosecutors and for police by this modest Bill—which it is estimated will affect over 500,000 cases each year—will help to expedite the progress of all cases in the criminal justice system.

I apologise for taking a little time. These are simple and practical procedural reforms which I imagine will be uncontroversial and should therefore receive general acceptance. I commend them to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(The Lord Chancellor.)

3.50 p.m.

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor set out with admirable and customary lucidity the contents of the Bill. His account needs no embellishment from me. It is wholeheartedly supported from the Opposition Benches. Indeed, the Opposition may claim some credit for the Bill's contents. As the noble and learned Lord pointed out, the Efficiency Scrutiny survey was initiated by my right honourable friend Mr. John Major and bore fruit in its publication a year later in the form of many excellent and practical suggestions, of which this measure is only one. I am confident that the noble and learned Lord will be looking at other parts of that report to bring other measures forward in the near future.

It is a sad fact that in the magistrates' courts nowadays it often takes almost as long to bring a guilty plea to court as it does to bring a not guilty plea to court. Your Lordships will agree that in that sense this measure is a positive step forward.

It is also important to emphasise that what has been going wrong in this area is not in any way the fault of the lay magistrates; it is entirely the fault of the legislation itself. I say that because, as the Lord Chancellor will be aware, there has recently been a lot of criticism of the lay magistrature. Indeed, there are some who compare it adversely with the work of stipendiary magistrates and I have even seen it recommended that there should be a massive increase in the number of stipendiary magistrates to take over the work of lay justices.

The noble and learned Lord has already gone on record as saying that he does not accept such a development. I hope that he will, in future, take every opportunity he can to repeat that wise sentiment. It is true that there are disputes coming before lay magistrates nowadays—for example, environmental measures which flow from the Environment Act 1995—which may prove difficult for lay magistrates to deal with—simply because of their length.

But most of the problems that face the lay magistrates can be solved by better case management. After all, we have an excellent new procedure in the Crown Courts called "pleas and directions"; we have the admirable initiative of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, now enshrined in legislation, trying to do something similar—the task of case management—in civil courts. It is desirable that we pursue exactly the same objective in our magistrates' courts, where, after all, 98 per cent. of the legal business in our nation is done.

If any part of the professional world needs to play a greater role, it is not the stipendiary magistrates but the court clerks who can take away much of the administrative burden from the lay magistrates, leaving them to decide the important questions of bail, custody and sentencing.

The Efficiency Scrutiny survey, to which the noble and learned Lord addressed himself, will sort out those issues which require legislative change from those issues where better case management will improve the work of the magistrates' court. The Opposition are delighted with this piece of legislation and we trust it will be swiftly followed by measures of a similar sort.

3.55 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I welcome this Bill, which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor described as "modest". He also emphasised how important it is to save the time and resources that are available to the magistrates' courts.

In my youth adjournments were the curse of the magistrates' courts. In the courts in which I practised it was customary to spend the time between 10 o'clock and 11.30—the coffee break—in simply dealing with adjournments. It was said that the clerk, a very worthy man, had turned the granting of adjournments into something of an art form. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said a moment ago, it was not the fault of the magistrates nor of the magistrates' clerks that adjournments of that sort were so necessary.

Turning to the contents of the Bill, I hope that the practice of serving written statements—Section 9 statements—is adopted generally and becomes the norm. In most cases where that procedure is followed the statements are in pro forma anyway and the police officers who are reporting the offences which are the subject of the procedure will normally fill out a form which simply complies with the Section 9 statements.

The problem with the summary of facts that is prepared by the police is that the facts are not necessarily properly stated. I recall some years ago that a friend of mine with whom I was fishing in Scotland decided to leave the river on the Thursday and return to Caernarvon to contest a speeding summons. He did that against the very best legal advice that was offered to him—by the ghillie I have to say—and went there on the basis that he had been charged with speeding on a motorcycle when in fact he had been driving a car.

As soon as my friend arrived and pointed out the error and pleaded not guilty, the written statement of facts was immediately amended to the fact that he was driving a car. He pleaded guilty. He lost two or three good fishing days. That is what can happen when the summary of facts is prepared wrongly. I hope that, if the serving of Section 9 statements becomes the norm, copies of those statements will be produced in court by the person who presents the prosecution case and handed to the magistrates' clerk while the prosecutor himself gives a brief summary of the facts to the magistrates so that they can deal with the case.

As to Section 2, dealing with print-outs from the DVLA, I ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor if there is any reason why such a print-out should not be sent out with the summons itself. When a person is stopped for a road traffic offence he is either required to produce a driving licence at that time or to produce it to a police station within a five-day period. At that particular moment in time such endorsements as he has upon his licence are made known to the police and are no doubt one of the reasons why they decide to prosecute rather than to caution.

It seems to me that it would be perfectly possible under the new procedure for the DVLA print-out to be sent out with the summons and for a brief check to be made, perhaps by the prosecutor or his staff, immediately before the court hearing to cover the period between the issue of the summons and the actual hearing itself. That in itself may save money.

Those are some brief points that I make. We accept the need for this Bill and wish it well on its course.

3.59 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, I hope it may come as something of a relief to noble Lords if I say that I only intend to speak on this matter briefly.

The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has already said all there is to say about this short Bill and, in addition, thoughtfully and courteously circulated an explanatory note on its contents. As a serving magistrate—a claim I can make at least for the next three months if not afterwards—and therefore with an interest to declare in this subject, I hope I may be permitted to make a few observations on the contents of the Bill.

I doubt whether the earth will move in legal circles with its passage and, indeed, the attendance here this afternoon would scarcely seem to suggest that it possesses parliamentary "oomph", if I may use a show business phrase, unlike, perhaps not surprisingly, the Nuclear Explosions (Prohibition and Inspections) Bill which is to follow. But, for all that, it is, I suggest, an important step in the right direction.

The provisions have been given a trial run in Gloucestershire and Lancashire, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has already said, and, I think, with great success. Other courts have been fast-tracking as well. For example, I know that north west Hampshire has been committed to this for the past nine months and my own bench, in north east Hampshire, for the past six months. The heavens have not fallen as a result.

I hesitate to suggest that the former over-elaborate procedure dating from a time of considerably fewer minor offences is more honoured in the breach than the observance. But with perhaps 60 per cent. of the lower courts' work being taken up with road traffic offences, enshrining this streamlining procedure in the law must be welcomed by all involved with court work. It may be—I hope this will be the case—that other desirable short cuts will present themselves in a short time. In fact, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, has already mentioned something which seems to me to have considerable merit in this area. For example, can we not go a little further? Perhaps a DVLA print-out can be sufficient to prove the identity of a disqualified driver.

All would acknowledge that there are defects in our legal system at the present time. Thankfully, some have been identified and remedied but others remain to be solved. Perhaps the most pernicious is delay and the time taken between the commission of an offence and the sentence. Clearly, this is particularly important in specifically criminal matters, but motorists and other lesser offenders surely have a right to swift justice as well. The reduction in the administrative burden will bring relief all round.

This Bill will help in these tasks. If it is an acorn of a Bill, we look forward in time to the oaks which will surely spring from the adoption of its principles in the execution of justice in this country. I warmly support its provisions and congratulate the Government on bringing it forward so quickly in the new Session.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, short Bills, however meritorious, deserve short speeches. Noble Lords will have observed that that rule has been carried out by my predecessors who have spoken; I intend to follow it. I am able to report, having inquired of the Law Society, the Magistrates' Association and the Automobile Association, that all those worthy bodies feel that this is an extremely wise and useful Bill.

The Bill, we hope, will save manpower. However, fellow practitioners—those who practise in the magistrates' courts—tell me that it still happens, when guilty pleas have been entered in regard to motoring offences, that a police officer is present waiting for the case to come on and that that officer departs only when the case is over. That officer should not be there at all; there is no need for him. I wonder whether the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor can tell the House that police authorities will be told in good time that the policeman responsible for the case is not required.

I wish to make only one other observation. The magistrates' courts, whether looked after by a lay bench or by a stipendiary—I welcome and concur with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, about lay magistrates—are very largely the courts of little people, working people. Many of them find it difficult, even if they have a case when accused of one of these minor offences, to appear in court during the daytime when so often they are kept waiting for hours and hours and are usually deprived of a day's pay. I wonder whether the question of magistrates' courts sitting in the evening—if only on one day a week—in order to accommodate those who are inconvenienced very considerably if they have to attend during the day can be addressed.

Lay magistrates may often find it more convenient to sit in the evening than during the day time. Stipendiary magistrates, I feel sure, would not mind making that sacrifice for the sake of justice in courts which, as I say, usually look after working class people.

4.6 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am grateful for the general welcome given to this measure. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, said quite rightly that it is something of an acorn lacking "oomph". I did not begin by over-selling it; you can of course often do good without being able to be exciting. I am ready to acknowledge what the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said. All this comes out of the efficiency scrutiny survey initiated by the previous Prime Minister. I shall look at the points the noble Lord made about other recommendations in the survey. However, as I understand it—although I will check—very few, in order to be implemented, require legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, asked why the print-out could not be sent out with the summons itself. There is an answer, but it is probably an insufficient answer. The answer is that it is not usually available at the time the summons is sent out because it is still awaited from the DVLA at Swansea. I shall certainly be asking my officials to advise me whether those working in the DVLA in that part of the Principality could do better and whether it could be automatically requisitioned before the summons is served and so accompany the summons as served.

As usual, my noble friend Lord Mishcon makes an important point. There is no legal requirement on police officers to attend court where a plea of guilty by post has been entered under the Section 12 procedure. I am sure—and I know he would agree—that most police forces must be very keen to keep officers' attendance at court to a minimum. They have much better things to do than to hang around court when nothing is required of them. In some instances, of course, they are genuinely needed in court to explain technical or other obscure aspects of the evidence before the magistrates. Clearly, however, it is preferable for all concerned that attendances are confined to those occasions which are strictly merited.

I agree with my noble friend that there may be many instances where there is a failure to notify police officers that they will not be required to attend court for guilty by post pleas. Therefore, it will be helpful to consider how to secure the necessary notification; that is to say, who will "de-warn" the police. It has to be examined administratively. Should it be the police themselves, the CPS or the court? Clearly, better communication among all the agencies involved (police, prosecutors and courts) is required. I therefore undertake to make inquiries about how to achieve the necessary changes in practice in order to give an answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, which will satisfy him.

The point to which he called attention links to one of more general application across the whole of the criminal justice system. In a major speech I made this morning to the council of the Magistrates' Association, which I intended should deal with all the current concerns of the magistracy and in particular delays in the youth justice system, I said this: I am conscious that real improvements can only be achieved if all the agencies—the police, the CPS, Probation Services, Social Services and the defence—play their full part. There is no one culprit. The Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord. Lord Bingham, in a recent speech to the Prison Reform Trust called for the active collaboration of all the agencies involved directly or indirectly in the causes and consequences of juvenile offending. He said, and I entirely agree, that it was vital that 'lines of functional demarcation do not impede effective and harmonious co-operation"'. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, well appreciates how these observations are in line with the necessary solution to the problem to which he rightly calls attention.

The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, will be pleased to hear that in the same speech this morning I nailed the false story which appeared in the Observer—followed by the story run the next day by the Daily Mail—that the Government plan to substantially destroy our 700 year-old system of lay justices. There are 30,374 of them in the country, according to the latest count. The story was that they were to be substantially replaced by stipendiary magistrates, of whom there are a mere 90 across the country. Where that crackpot idea came from I know not, but it is without any substance whatever.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, who spoke of what, I dare say, was a very early experience when at the Bar and of appearing at a magistrates' court, that there is of course a culture of adjournments and that it is one of the things that afflicts the youth justice system. One of my very first actions in the office which I now occupy was to send a letter to magistrates across the country urging them to think very hard before granting adjournments in these cases.

Of course, even above the elimination of delay there is a value which is higher, and that is to ensure that justice is done in these cases. But spree-offending by young offenders is one of the afflictions of our times. It is often desirable not to wait until perhaps the many offences committed by these young people can be dealt with on a single occasion by the courts. In the interests of the protection of the public and of bringing such young people to their senses at an early stage it is often wiser to deal with a single offence early in order to impose the very necessary, timely connection between the commission of crime and punishment.

I believe—I certainly hope—that I have responded to all the points raised in this short and interesting debate. As I make that large claim I realise that I have not because the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, raised the question of evening magistrates' courts. A further gain from this short debate today is that I will ask my officials to report to me on that possibility.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, perhaps I may say that I do not want to mislead the House. I said that the Automobile Association thoroughly approved of the Bill. After I had sat down a note was passed to me. I propose only to read the paragraph and I do not ask the noble and learned Lord to reply to it, although I know that he would courteously if he wanted to and still will if he wants to. I am told that there is a problem in regard to Clause 2. The note states: DVLC records may be incorrect and if the defendants are not shown what is produced, it could all go badly wrong, [for example] if the print out from the DVLC shows more than I name, the wrong person may get the endorsement". The note adds: DVLC's records are quite often incorrect".

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I shall certainly seek the advice of officials on that point. At first sight it goes only to support the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. If the print-out accompanied the summons and it was seen to be inaccurate by the defendant, then he would have the opportunity, from the procedure suggested by the noble Lord, to contest the matter if he so chose.

Lord Torphichen

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, perhaps I may say that if the DVLA print-out was in front of the court, it might not be considered as evidence and, therefore, it would be immensely prejudicial before a verdict. That would not be allowed in any other court proceedings. You could not say, for instance, that there were three previous convictions for murder before a murderer came to trial.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am not sure from where the noble Lord gets that idea. Having sat for many years as a recorder, I can assure him that judges quite often know about the previous convictions of defendants.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.