I rise to oppose this amendment not as a lawyer, liberal or otherwise, and certainly not from Hampstead, as the Committee will tell from my accent.
The majority of cases are tried in the magistrates' courts, as we have heard. Some criminal cases must be tried locally. Those to which I wish to draw attention are the quite serious offences for the victim which would be tried in the lower courts--some assaults, taking without consent high-value cars, and serious drinking and driving offences, as we heard from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice. Those are not minor offences and they may have a very serious effect on the reputation of the accused if he is convicted. For example, a police officer who is charged with a drink-driving offence would lose his job, and quite rightly so. David Beckham recently lost his driving licence. That was extremely serious for him. Of course, it was restored to him on appeal. Had the policeman accused of careless driving in the accident involving Sheena McDonald been convicted, that would have had serious consequences for him. So let us not run away with the idea that minor offences only are dealt with in the lower courts.
A small minority of cases must be tried by judge and jury, and we have heard the examples of murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery.
This Bill is concerned with those middle-ranking offences, either-way offences. We have heard examples of a bar of chocolate valued at £1 or, indeed, a fraud involving several thousands of pounds from a pension fund. The idea that there is some absolute principle that both cases must be dealt with in the same way because they are offences against Section 1 of the Theft Act in my view is fanciful.
I have not changed my mind. I have always been of the view that there was a good case for reducing the right to trial by jury in those either-way cases. We provide a justice system as a service for the victims of crime. If we focus on victims and on the witnesses--the innocent parties--involved in the criminal justice system, then we shall be persuaded of the correctness of these provisions.
It is right that we should reform the justice system in order to speed up justice, provided--and noble Lords have already addressed this--it maintains the perfectly proper safeguards for those who are wrongly accused. Efficiency and effectiveness should be radically improved so as to enable magistrates and judges to deal with those accused in a more timely fashion. I am sure that no one would disagree with that.
Certainly it is in the interests of victims to speed up justice. I declare an interest as a patron of the North East Victims Association and also as a patron of Kidscape, the children's charity which looks after the interests of abused children.
To castigate these modest proposals as a fundamental attack on civil liberties is totally wrong. Some of the misinformation I have heard on this subject would have done justice to Goebbels. Opponents of these moderate measures are chanting slogans such as, "Jury trial is good but magistrates' trial is bad", which are totally erroneous. Let us kill that fallacy from the outset. The magistrates' system has been with us for some 700 years. As far as I am aware there has been no case before the European Court alleging that it is not a fair tribunal. There is certainly no lack of possible cases because 1.8 million cases are heard annually before magistrates' courts. Only a small proportion of those exercise the right to a rehearing in the Crown Court.
The jury as we know it today does not go back to Magna Carta. It was handed down by that ancient and much-loved British leader Edward Heath in 1972. It was then that the ancient property qualification for sitting on a jury was abolished so that it no longer confined those eligible to sit on a jury to one-quarter of the population who held land above a certain value. Even the modern jury is not a cross-section of society. For example, it is unlikely to include the judiciary, lawyers, CPS staff, court staff, prison staff, police staff, forensic scientists, the clergy, Members and staff of both Houses of Parliament, devolved assemblies as in Wales, members of the Armed Forces, doctors, dentists, nurses, midwives, vets and chemists. All those are examples of good citizens who are either ineligible or may be excused from sitting on a jury as of right. By contrast, a large number of criminal convictions is no bar in many cases.
The jury does have potential disadvantages. Findings of fact cannot be appealed by the Crown, however perverse. Juries never give reasons for their decisions, unlike magistrates. Rulings in favour of the accused, however wrong in law, cannot be appealed by the prosecution. I remind the Committee that it was a jury of his peers who acquitted O. J. Simpson of murder.
Magistrates' courts are doubtless far from perfect. Every sensible Member of this Committee would agree with that. But at least the magistrates are checked for good character and undergo initial training and refresher courses. It is an illusion that magistrates are prosecution-minded. It is a myth; an absurd calumny that no objective observer sitting in a court would conceivably support. Magistrates are justice minded.
Several appeals from the magistrates' court can be made. One can have a complete re-hearing in the Crown Court. There is also an appeal against sentence. One can state a case to the High Court on a point of law, and of course reasons must be given before decisions. I hope I am never mistakenly charged with an offence, but if it was an either-way case, then I would choose a speedy hearing before a local bench, with all the safeguards outlined.