HC Deb 04 March 1994 vol 238 cc12-3W
Mr. Duncan

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what changes are proposed to the requirement in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 relating to pre-sentence reports.

Mr. Howard

The Criminal Justice Act 1991 placed on the courts a requirement to obtain and consider a pre-sentence report in all cases involving an offence triable either way before passing a custodial or major community sentence. This requirement has yielded a number of benefits in terms of consistency and availability of relevant information, but I have concluded that it is too inflexible and imposes unnecessary fetters on the courts and costs for the criminal justice system as a whole in its present form. My conclusion takes account both of the views of judges and magistrates and of the results of a review of the way in which the present arrangements work in practice undertaken by Her Majesty's inspectorate of probation. Although all probation services were asked last year to guarantee a same-day service for reports where a custodial remand would otherwise be needed, despite good work in some areas it is clear that such remands are taking place in circumstances where the courts are satisfied that the delay adds little of value to the sentencing process or outcome.

I have therefore decided to bring foreward an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill which will give the courts a discretion to dispense with the requirement to obtain a report where they are satisfied that they can properly sentence without one. This is the same discretion as now applies in the case of offences triable only on indictment, which has not proved problematic. I am sure that the courts will wish to exercise an enlarged discretion with care, bearing in mind the potential value of good pre-sentence reports in bringing out relevant information about the offender and offence, including aggravating as well as mitigating circumstances.

The Government recognise that special considerations apply in the case of juvenile offenders, to whose welfare requirements the courts must have proper regard. We therefore propose that in their case the discretion to dispense with a report will be subject to the court concerned concluding, having had regard to a previous report on the offender concerned, that a further report is unnecessary.

I believe that the change in the law which I propose will retain the benefits of the 1991 Act changes while avoiding unnecessary delays and costs, but I shall naturally want to keep the operation of new arrangements under review.