HL Deb 31 March 2003 vol 646 cc90-2WA
Baroness Hilton of Eggardon

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What decision has been made on the future of statutory time limits in the youth court. [HL2331]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced statutory time limits under which cases must be brought to court and dealt with 'within certain prescribed time limits. These have been piloted in youth courts in six areas in England and Wales and evaluated by independent researchers.

Sections 43–45 of the 1998 Act amended Section 22 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 to provide for the introduction of three sorts of statutory time limit (in addition to the statutory custody time limits which are already in force). The limits are an initial time limit of 36 days from arrest to first listing; an overall time limit of 99 days from first listing to start of trial; and a sentencing time limit of 29 days from conviction to sentence.

The limits apply to all offences and start at the point of arrest. Whether the decision in a youth ease is to reprimand, finally warn or charge, this has to be achieved within the 36-day period; after that time, the case cannot be prosecuted without an extension from the court. Once in court, the case must reach the point of trial within 99 days.

The police or the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) can seek extensions of the initial or overall time limit but must satisfy the court that they have good and sufficient cause and that they have acted with due diligence. If these time limits are exceeded without an extension being granted, then the case must be discontinued and cannot be reinstituted unless fresh evidence comes to light. There is an appeal mechanism in relation to refusals of applications for the overall time limit but not the initial time limit.

The evaluators recommended that statutory time limits should be implemented from a human rights perspective. They argued that delays in the youth court need to be curbed in terms of time limits rather than time targets because limits apply to each individual case rather than an average.

The report recommends that before implementation there should be a right of appeal by the police against a refusal to extend the initial time limit pre-charge. This is in order to avoid victims and witnesses of crime falling foul of the system if the police fail to prepare a case on time. Primary legislation would be needed to implement this change. In addition, the report suggests removing the sentencing time limit altogether.

The report also expresses the view that national rollout would require significant funding, training and a review of courtroom and staff availability.

We have carefully considered the final evaluation report and have consulted the agencies involved at national level.

We have also given careful consideration to the priorities for the criminal justice system (CJS) following the spending review and the new national targets for the CJS. We have reviewed measures and targets which impact on performance across the board to ensure a cohesive approach.

Although statutory time limits have been made to work in the pilot areas, concerns have been expressed by the criminal justice agencies at the burden which the limits impose on the system.

The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Crown Prosecution Service consider that the limits have increased the administrative burden for the police and CPS in dealing with youth cases. They are also concerned that the limits might conflict with the priority being given to improving the quality and effectiveness of case preparation to reduce the number of ineffective trials.

The overall view is that the process adds to bureaucracy—if extensions are needed, applications have to be made to the court and notice served on the defence; and the time limit has to be recalculated for periods unlawfully at large. While only a few cases were lost because extensions were not applied for or were refused, this would be much more of a problem nationally and the potential for loss of public confidence in the system would be that much greater. The impact on victims is of particular concern, especially if the case was perceived as being dropped because of a procedural technicality.

We also consider that it is not necessary to have rigid statutory time limits in each and every case in order to deliver our aim of speedy and efficient preparation for trials or sentencing. In our view, custody time limits and the power of the courts to stay cases where delay amounts to an abuse of process are adequate legal safeguards against undue delay in bringing cases to trial.

On balance, we consider that the benefits outlined by the final report are outweighed by the arguments put forward by the various agencies.

Taken together with the many other measures that are being taken to improve case management in the criminal justice system, we have decided not to extend statutory time limits across England and Wales.

Accordingly, regulations have been made to revoke statutory time limits in the pilot areas; these will be laid before the House shortly, to come into force on 22 April 2003.

The focus on timeliness will continue. All CJS areas will be expected to work towards meeting and maintaining the Government's objective to halve the average time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders—a target which has been achieved nationally for 15 consecutive months. And timeliness targets have been extended to encompass all youth court cases and other cases in the adult magistrates' courts and Crown Courts.

The key to successful case management is inter-agency co-operation, with the police, prosecution and courts all playing their part as cases move through the system. We have given the youth courts the tools to monitor live cases and have provided funding for case progression officers. The local criminal justice board will monitor performance on timeliness and will report to the national board.

The evaluation report is available to Members on the Home Office research website: www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds. Copies have been placed in the Library.