Report (1st Day)
Coroners and Justice Bill
Lord Hunt of Wirral (Shadow Minister, Business; Conservative)
My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord Thomas and Lord Alderdice, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, have brought us now to debate Clause 7 on whether a jury is required. I declare my interests as set out in the Register, in particular as a partner in the national commercial firm Beachcroft LLP.
I am proud this week to be able to add to those interests the fact that I have just been elected a vice-chairman of JUSTICE, a post which my late colleague Lord Kingsland held with great distinction. He is sorely missed in many ways—for example, when we discuss juries. I share his belief that the jury system is fundamental and must remain, despite the Government's efforts from time to time to abolish trial by jury in certain instances. Having a jury sit with a coroner is always the exception rather than the rule because the logistical and cost implications render such a move impractical. That is a reasonable line to take. However, the noble Lords' amendments seek to extend the cases in which a jury is assembled. Although I have just said some cautionary words, we have consistently argued that inquests must be as transparent as possible. The jury system is an important feature of our coronial system; it is long established and well known. The presence of a jury in certain cases is a principle which we defend. For that reason we support some of the noble Lords' amendments in this group. We see the merits of Amendment 6, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, Amendment 7, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and those in the name of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig.
As has been explained, Amendment 6 would remove the qualification that an inquest be heard with a jury if a death took place in the custody of the state only if the death was violent or unnatural or the causes of death were unexplained. Amendment 7 includes deaths resulting from the act or omission of a member of the security services. The Government may well point out that these are unnecessary additions, as Clause 7(3) states:
"An inquest into a death may be held with a jury if the senior coroner thinks that there is sufficient reason for doing so".
However, the important point remains that the state bears a grave responsibility for the welfare of its citizens and of those who are supposed to enjoy—and who have every right to expect to enjoy—its protection. When something goes wrong as a result of an act or omission by an agent or institution of the state, public confidence is undermined. Juries are one way to help restore public confidence.
As my honourable friend Henry Bellingham said in another place, we worry that jury inquests will become ever fewer in number. That is why we want to see fairness and transparency enshrined in the system. The more narrowly Clause 7 is drawn, the less frequently, we fear, it will be used. By widening it, we indicate that juries should not become a vanishingly rare phenomenon. For us, that is the greatest attraction of the noble Lords' amendments.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, referred to troops who are killed in training. We endorse his amendments. When we debate amendments to Clause 12, we will again touch on that issue, but we support his Amendment 11 as an important step in raising confidence that troops are being treated openly and fairly. The noble and gallant Lord points out that to differentiate between soldiers who are training and those on the front line is spurious, as all our troops are training for active service. We hope that the Government will find a form of words that recognises the importance of the points which he made.