When my hon. and learned Friend meets the Lord Justice General will he discuss with him the number of criminal legal aid cases where pleas of not guilty are adhered to either until just before the trial commences or until just after the start of the trial? Does he not consider this to be an abuse of the legal aid system?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for that question. This is a matter which is causing us very serious concern. Legal aid is limited in quantity and it is essential that the best use should be made of it. Furthermore, it puts a great strain on inconvenience on witnesses, juries and others who have to turn up, if trials are settled at the last minute. My noble Friend the Lord Advocate and myself are looking at every possible means of ensuring that pleas of guilty are tendered early. If my hon. Friend, or any other person, has any suggestions as to how that can be achieved, we shall be more than ready to consider them.
When my hon. and learned Friend next meets the Lord Justice General, will he raise with him the unsatisfactory way in which many cases of incest are being reported in the press, leading to easy identification of the child or children involved? Does he not agree that this is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs and will he consider including a tightening-up of provisions in any future criminal justice Bill?
Yes. My noble Friend and I are concerned to protect the interests of children involved in incest proceedings and to prevent their identification. To that end, prior to bringing any case to court, procurators fiscal are instructed not to release information which might lead to the identification of a child or family. Once the case is in court—if it is a solemn matter in terms of section 169 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1975—the court may direct that no report of the proceeding shall be made. In the absence of such a direction, it is a matter for the discretion of the press. I think that the press uses that discretion with great responsibility. However, in summary proceeding under section 374 of the Act the prohibition is absolute unless it is lifted. In any future criminal justice Bill we hope to tighten up procedures to ensure that children are not identified.
Will the Solicitor-General for Scotland revert to the abuse of the legal aid scheme? Does not he agree that the vast majority of members of the legal profession certainly do not abuse the scheme, which is an essential bulwark of individual liberty? Will the hon. and learned Gentleman take this opportunity of dissociating himself from the generalised smears of the profession which, sadly, have come, from among others, the retiring chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland who suggested that there is widespread abuse of the scheme by the legal profession?
I am not responsible for the remarks of the retiring chief inspector of constabulary in Scotland, but I know that the hon. Member is as keen as I am that the legal aid system should be properly used. In a way he is in a position to help, in ensuring that where a plea of guilty will be the proper and final resolution of a criminal matter, it is given earlier rather than later.
Will the Solicitor-General for Scotland make sure that his colleagues at the Scottish Office are informed of the inquiry which is to take place into the abuse of the legal aid scheme? This matter was debated extensively this morning in the Committee considering a statutory instrument, when the Under-Secretary did not seem to be aware that an inquiry was going on.
I think that what the hon. Gentleman says is somewhat unlikely. Legal aid is presently restricted and we are anxious that more people should be able to take advantage of it in litigation. Any abuse of it reduces the rights of other people. That is a deplorable situation.
When my hon. and learned Friend next meets the Lord Justice General will he be in a position to indicate to him that the long-awaited criminal procedure reforms recommended by the Committee sitting under the late Lord Thompson will be legislated upon in the near future?
When the Solicitor-General for Scotland meets the Lord Justice General, will he follow the excellent example of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in suspending an obnoxious law? Will he inform the Lord Justice General that he intends to suspend the forthcoming criminal justice Bill, with its obnoxious provisions for stop, search and arrest?
No, I will not make any such recommendation. When the forthcoming criminal justice Bill is available to the House and the public I think that it will get a warm welcome. I know very few people who would rather be stabbed than be searched for a weapon so as to ensure that they are not stabbed.