Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 20th January 2000.

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Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 4:15 pm, 20th January 2000

I cannot begin to match the depth of expertise with which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, addressed the Committee. In part I rise for that reason. I am not a lawyer. I became interested in this subject only when I read the Second Reading debate and noted the degree to which it had been dominated by the perspective of the lawyer. Lawyers are enormously wise, learned and important people and bring a huge amount of expertise to the deliberations of this Chamber. However, theirs is not the only perspective in these matters. When I decided to become involved I amassed the largest pile of papers on the subject and went into my room at home. I asked myself what view I would take if, with a towel round my head, I sought to write a leader for a serious newspaper, assuming any still exist. Would I believe that the Government were right or wrong in this matter? As far as I could, I dismissed from my mind the fact that I supported the Government. When I have written leaders in the past I have found the ratio to be 51:49. However, in this case I believe that the case for the Government's proposal is overwhelming, not from the perspective of loyalty but from the wider perspective which I intend to place before the Committee.

I spent many hours of joyful discussion with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, in his Royal Commission on Electoral Reform. Following his wise lead, we were in agreement perhaps 95 per cent of time. I agree with the noble Lord that there is no exact analogy between the changes to the jury system under this Bill and those made in the past, particularly those related to majority verdicts. But the point goes wider than that. We all agree that jury trial is the jewel in the crown of the British judicial system, but like all jewels it can become battered and require repolishing from time to time. There have been changes. The introduction of this right in 1855 was itself a change. In addition, there were changes to remove the right to peremptory challenge and to allow majority verdicts. Once upon a time, if one was prosecuted under the breathalyser law one would go off to court and, with any luck, find other boozers on the jury who would acquit. We stopped the right to jury trial on that charge. Therefore, while this is the jewel in the crown, can we make it shine still more brightly?

The second perspective that I bring to the debate is that I am an economist. The noble Lord, Lord Roll, may agree that economists do not tend to see life in terms of absolute good and absolute bad. We tend to look at trade-offs, for better or for ill. Justice is an extraordinarily important matter but it is not the only one to be embraced at any price. We could quite easily spend the whole of our national income on justice. Everybody could have the right to trial by jury for anything. Everybody's reputation is affected. For some reason I have never committed a parking offence, and I should be deeply disturbed by the effect on my reputation if I found myself in that position. I am proud of that record. However, there is no right to jury trial for that matter. We could all have George Carman to represent us. We could reward the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, and his learned friends more richly for their skills; we could provide legal aid to everyone, irrespective of wealth, so that people who were unfairly charged did not take a hit in their pocket, rather than, as now, provide it just to poor people like the Maxwell brothers. We could spend the whole of our national income on justice. But the money comes from somewhere and a balance must be struck. Whether we think it is better to spend more on other things is a matter of judgment.

The savings that we would forgo by this amendment--I have studied the matter in some detail--are not small beer. The Government's estimate is £100 million. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, believes that that is an over-estimate. I believe it is more likely that the Government's figure is an under-estimate because it leaves out a number of matters; for example, the cost to jurors. Jurors have to sit round for days and are not properly paid or compensated for their loss of earnings. There is also the cost to witnesses who turn up for hearings. Their product is lost thereby. The estimate takes no account of private expenditure and so is a very partial figure. Most importantly, the figure takes no account of non-monetary costs. A rape victim waiting for the hearing of a case may be forced to sit about because other cases have been put down for hearing in that court and may have to spend extra months anxiously wondering about going through the ordeal of giving evidence. That is also a cost.

If we did not have this right would we invent it? It costs us as much as 4,000 nurses or 4,000 teachers. What happens in reality? Ninety per cent of those who take up this option already have a criminal record. They are assumed to be not guilty but they already have a criminal record. Sixty per cent plead guilty at the door of the court. It is striking that after the event one-third say that they regret having done it. It may be that in some cases they are put up to it by their lawyers, who obviously enjoy the process of preparing for the case and no doubt believe that they are doing the best for their clients. However, afterwards some of their clients wish that they had not gone down that path. Obviously, they do not think much of the right either.

Finally, I should like to make a point about the black community. It seems to me that that is the basis of the most powerful argument put forward by opponents of the Bill. It is said that black people do not trust magistrates and that if they cannot opt for jury trial, they will lose confidence in justice. I make two points. First, at least some of them may opt for jury trial in the hope that they will get an "O J Simpson". They hope that there will be enough black jurors who are fundamentally hostile to the criminal justice system.