The average waiting time for a Crown court trial has been reduced by about 15 per cent. since May 1979 despite a 33 per cent. increase in the number of cases. However, the enormous increase in work load in the past year has meant that in the immediate future equivalent reductions cannot be expected.
Does that not represent a positive achievement by this Government in the reduction of crime, not only because shorter delays mean less injustice to victims and those who are wrongly accused, but because if trials take place earlier the memories of witnesses are better, more of the guilty are convicted and there is the deterrent effect of being caught and brought to trial?
I wish that I could agree that the figures reveal a reduction in crime, but the true figures are that in 1979 committals for trial were 50,500 and in 1982, 67,000. In 1982, committals increased by over 7,000, or 12–5 per cent., compared with 1981. By constantly increasing the number of Crown courts, and improving their efficiency, we have managed not only to keep up with the ever-increasing load but to reduce the waiting time.
Has the Attorney-General seen the figures produced by the Select Committee in its report on prisons, which show that the average length of time for a trial on the north-east circuit was at least one third of what it was in London? Does he agree that a reason for the delay in London is the practice of reciting every part of the brief to prosecution witnesses because judges have insisted over the years that every item should be put to each prosecution witness?
That has not been my experience. In most of the cases in the last 10 years at the Central Criminal Court in which I have been involved, in either a prosecuting or defending role, the opening has included only those matters that should be put before the jury in the course of the opening. There has been a considerable improvement in judges' attitudes to counsel who put the same question a number of times. Earlier perhaps nothing was done, but they are now asked to move on to their next question.
I do not know the figures for delays in London compared with elsewhere, but I accept the figures given by the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon). They disclose, as one often suspects, that his part of the world is efficient in terms of criminal justice.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the reduction has taken place in both the provinces and London and that the London courts are to be congratulated on their great efforts in the last two years, by prolonging the hours of sitting, to catch up with the backlog?
Do not the figures mask certain regional variations, as was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon)?