Baroness Scotland of Asthal (Minister of State, Home Office; Labour)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 12. In relation to this group of amendments, the government amendments made in the other place seek to reinstate provisions removed at Third Reading in this House, which would streamline the court process for vulnerable defendants who may be unfit to stand trial. The change provides that the decision on whether a defendant is fit to plead to a charge should be taken by the judge alone, and not by a jury.
We understand the fears of those who have argued that the change reduces the protection of jury trial, but, with respect, we do not agree that it has that effect. A finding of unfitness does not enable any court disposal. It leads to a trial of the facts further to which there is a jury decision on whether the defendant did the act as charged. If the jury is not so satisfied, the court must acquit. Only if the jury finds that the defendant did the act is there a court disposal, and that disposal cannot be punitive. The court may order admission to hospital for treatment if medical evidence justifies that. If it does not, it may order supervision in the community or make an absolute discharge.
The proposal was made by Lord Justice Auld in his review of the criminal justice process. Its intent is to spare vulnerable defendants the lengthy process involving two separate juries, the first having to hear evidence from at least two medical practitioners. A jury is unlikely to be as well qualified as a judge to interpret complex evidence of a professional nature. Moreover, if the defendant subsequently wishes to challenge the finding, he will have a judge's reasons for the conclusion under the new clause. Under the 1964 Act provision, which this amendment would restore, the jury has to give no reasons for its finding.
The amendments tabled by the noble Baroness and the noble Viscount would remove the benefits of the judge's greater expertise, and need to give reasons, from precisely those cases in which the defendant might wish to challenge the decision. We know that the decision on fitness is not challenged in the great majority of cases.
The proposed amendment would leave the Government's intentions intact when there was no challenge. But the defendant stands to gain most when there is dissent, and we should not seek to exclude those benefits.
Lord Justice Auld's proposal is now four years old. We believe that it is too important both to the courts and to vulnerable defendants to be delayed further. It must, at best, be subject to considerable further delay if removed from this Bill. We commend the amendment to your Lordships.
Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 12.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)