Criminal Justice

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 27th February 1997.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:32 pm, 27th February 1997

Thank you, Madam Speaker. With permission, I want to make a statement about improving the speed of justice in England and Wales.

Confidence in any criminal justice system relies on its ability to convict the guilty and acquit the innocent and to do so quickly. Over the past three years, the Government have taken action to even up the scales of justice. At the same time, we have taken action to speed up our criminal justice process.

Progress has been made: in the Crown court, waiting lists fell by a fifth last year, and the number of cases outstanding has been reduced by a quarter. At magistrates courts, the proportion of summary only cases completed at first appearance reached 76 per cent. last year—10 per cent. more than in 1995.

However, more needs to be done. Although the number of indictable cases coming before the magistrates courts fell by 11 per cent. between 1985 and 1995, the average number of days taken to complete a case from the date of the offence increased by 36 per cent., from 98 to 132 days, and the number of adjournments increased by 44 per cent. Entirely proper safeguards for defendants, such as advance information and the reforms introduced in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, have made the process more complex; but on top of that, an adjournment culture has developed. That is why, last autumn, my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I decided to set up a fundamental review of the speed of justice. The review has now been concluded and today I am publishing its report and placing copies in the Library.

The Government see merit in the report and propose to invite interested parties to express their views. We shall reach decisions in due course, having considered those views. The report makes 33 recommendations. One of them, recommendation 23, is now largely superfluous as the Lord Chancellor and the four senior designated judges yesterday approved—subject to certain restrictions—the Law Society's application for rights of audience for employed solicitors in the higher courts. That meets the review's proposal that employed solicitors in the Crown Prosecution Service should be granted rights of audience for plea and directions hearings at the Crown court.

The report's remaining recommendations fall into five main areas. The first deals with bringing alleged offenders to court. Considerable improvements have been made in recent years in the relationship between the police and the CPS. Abbreviated files for guilty pleas dramatically reduce police paperwork. Joint performance management and CPS lawyer surgeries in police stations are delivering improvements. However, the business of getting cases ready for court still falls into two distinct halves: police preparation of the file, and the review of the file by the CPS. The report recommends that the two halves should be brought together. Some CPS staff should be brought into police stations on a permanent basis, to work with the police in what would visibly be a joint effort in bringing offenders to justice. The independence of the CPS would still be preserved, but independence does not require isolation.

The decision to prosecute would still be subject to two tests: whether the evidence was sufficient, and whether prosecution was in the public interest. However, the report recommends a change to the CPS public interest test, which currently allows a case to be discontinued if the alleged offence is minor, or the likely penalty trivial. That change would assist chief constables to target particular crimes, often of an anti-social nature, which in themselves would not necessarily be regarded as serious, but which can make life a misery for innocent people, creating conditions in which more serious crime can flourish.

One significant cause of delay at present is that the time taken by defendants to obtain legal aid means that cases cannot be brought to court immediately after charge. The report recommends that all defendants who intend to plead guilty should obtain legal advice and representation from the duty solicitor at court. That would be free of charge. It would also be extremely prompt, being given on the morning of the day on which the court appearance took place. That would mean that defendants who pleaded guilty would be dealt with the day after they were charged. The effect would be dramatic: for more than half of all defendants charged, the proceedings could be completed the next day—compared with under 3 per cent. now.

When a defendant pleaded not guilty, an application for legal aid would be made in the normal way, but it would have to be made promptly. The report recommends that courts should insist that defendants who fail to take adequate steps to secure representation or legal aid have to use the duty solicitor in court that day unless they decide not to be represented.

Next, the report recommends that those pleading not guilty should also appear in court the day after charge at an early administrative hearing, to be conducted by the clerk to the justices. At that hearing, the defendant would be told what the court needed in order to consider eligibility for legal aid, and also about the nature of the forthcoming proceedings. Those hearings have been shown substantially to reduce adjournments.

The report also recommends that clerks to the justices should hold pre-trial reviews and be given additional administrative powers very similar to those that they already have in family proceedings. Pre-trial reviews will focus issues of dispute between the parties, so that cases are fully prepared for trial before they are put to magistrates. The principle should be that a case should not go before magistrates until it is ready to proceed and should then proceed without unnecessary adjournment. No one reading the report could fail to be impressed by the evidence from one pre-trial review, completed in one morning and observed by the reviewer, which obviated the need for no fewer than 15 police officers to attend future hearings.

I want to stress, however, that the intention behind extending clerks' powers would be to reinforce the lay magistracy, which has been described, quite rightly, as a cornerstone of our system of justice. There has been some speculation in the press about stripping magistrates of some of their current powers. The reviewer makes no such recommendation and, had he done so, I would have rejected it.

The next area concerns the youth court. The proposals that I have already described for joint working between the police and the CPS and for legal aid reform would, in themselves, bring offenders to justice at the youth court much more quickly. In addition, the report makes recommendations specific to the youth court. The most important is that 17-year-olds should be returned to the jurisdiction of the adult court, leaving the youth court to deal more promptly with offenders of school-leaving age and below. It was the near-unanimous verdict of all those interviewed by the reviewer that 17-year-old offenders are too sophisticated for the youth court, where they account for about a third of all cases. They tend to be more experienced offenders and are often disruptive and unco-operative.

The second recommendation is that the police should make the decision whether to caution or to charge an offender immediately, rather than—as frequently happens now—refer the case for advice to a multi-agency panel. If there is any doubt, the case should go to the youth court. If the court decides that a caution might be appropriate, it should be able to give one and, when it sees fit, attach conditions to the caution, such as compensation or reparation to the victim. Young offenders would then be in court within days of being caught, rather than, as is frequently the case now, many weeks later.

Finally, the review makes recommendations about cases that go to the Crown court. About 20 per cent. of all those tried in the Crown court—about 24,000 defendants each year—insist on being tried there, despite magistrates having previously decided that the case was more suitable for them to deal with. About two thirds of those defendants then plead guilty at the Crown court. About three quarters are found guilty.

The reviewer recommends that it should be for magistrates to take the decision as to which cases triable either in magistrates courts or the Crown court, such as theft, handling stolen goods or burglary, need to be committed to the higher court. Those seeking Crown court trial without good reason, perhaps simply to delay proceedings, would no longer be able to overrule the magistrates' view that they should try the case. On the other hand, defendants with a good reason for jury trial—perhaps because of the complexity of the case, because they are defending an unblemished reputation or because of the potential effect of a conviction on the individual—would be able to present those reasons to magistrates, who would be free to commit the case.

That is not a new idea. It builds on a very similar recommendation made in 1993 by the royal commission on criminal justice. It recognised the need for a more rational basis for distributing cases between the courts and it noted that, in Scotland, the decision on whether a defendant should be entitled to jury trial is made by the prosecutor.

I recognise that this recommendation is extremely sensitive, as any proposal to restrict the availability of jury trial is bound to arouse strong feelings. Jury trial is a central feature of our system of justice and one to which the Government are entirely committed. We would not wish to restrict it without very careful thought. On the other hand, the report's recommendation offers substantial advantages. It would divert from the Crown court cases—often of a petty nature—which do not need to be there. It might also make it easier to pursue another of the report's recommendations, also favoured by the royal commission, under which the most serious offences, those triable only at the Crown court, could be handled more effectively and more speedily by starting there from the outset, rather than spending about half their life in magistrates courts awaiting committal.

We shall want to consider both those recommendations particularly carefully in the light of views expressed. If other avenues of approach are suggested, we shall of course consider them. There may also need to be a right of appeal against the magistrates' decision not to allow a case to go to the Crown court and, of course, anyone convicted by magistrates would, as now, have a right of appeal against conviction or sentence to a judge—but not a jury—at the Crown court.

Those are important proposals. More work needs to be done on the extent of the financial implications, and the Government want to listen to the views of those who work in the criminal justice system, on both the principles and the practicality of the recommendations, before making decisions. However, I am confident that, taken together, they could dramatically speed up the prosecution process, bringing the guilty to justice and acquitting the innocent more quickly and at lower cost.

Madam Speaker, let me remind you what the proposals would achieve if implemented. First, all defendants would appear in court the day after they were charged. Fewer than one in five do so now. Secondly, a pilot study has indicated that at least 50 per cent. of those defendants—those who indicate that they would plead guilty—would be convicted the day after they were charged. That happens in only 3 per cent. of cases now. Thirdly, the time taken to bring a young offender to court from the date of his offence—which is currently 10 weeks—would be no more than a few days. That would save the valuable time of all those engaged in the criminal justice process, including witnesses and victims. It would help to ensure that the energies of police officers could be spent protecting the public, rather than going backwards and forwards to magistrates courts.

Justice delayed is justice denied. The proposals have the potential, by drastically reducing delay and restoring the direct and speedy link between detection and conviction, to afford justice more speedily and in much greater measure to victims, to witnesses and to the general public alike.