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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 20th January 2000.

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Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Labour 5:15 pm, 20th January 2000

I agree; that is an important point. The people of this country trust the justice system. To divide it, as the amendment does, and suggest that the magistrates do not provide justice is a dangerous step when 95 per cent of all defendants are dealt with in magistrates' courts.

There is no evidence, as we will hear from the Attorney-General, that there is any discrimination against black defendants. There has been Home Office research which satisfies people on this side of the Chamber of that fact. Often statistics are used in this House rather like a drunk uses a lamp post--more for support than illumination--and I will not go into the range of statistics on the criminal justice system. But for far too long the system has been skewed in favour of guilty defendants, career criminals and repeat offenders and against victims, their relatives, future victims and the law-abiding public.

It is an interesting fact that in the Crown Court there is a risk of receiving a sentence two-and-a-half times longer than in the magistrates' court. That makes one wonder why defendants elect for trial by jury. There must be some other reason. That reason, in my experience as a police officer, is that the longer they can delay the trial, the more likely it is that elderly witnesses will forget evidence or be frightened to give evidence, and it gives them more opportunity to intimidate witnesses. It is not unheard of for jury members to be intimidated. That is something we should certainly bear in mind; juries are "got at".

The truth is that this was a recommendation of the Royal Commission in 1993, with the amendment that there is now a right of appeal, which satisfies most of us that it will provide justice. It is not the magistrates who decide. It can be the Crown Court in the end. It prevents the accused from dictating the venue, as in Scotland and in most other democratic countries. Sixty per cent of defendants, once they arrive at the Crown Court, plead guilty--an absurd waste of money in my judgment. And it is 17 times cheaper to try a case in the magistrates' court.

This provision is backed by the whole of the police service: the Lord Chief Justice supports it, as does the Magistrates' Association and Customs and Excise. Sir Iain Glidewell, who reviewed the CPS, was in little doubt that the right to elect trial was being abused. In my judgment this measure is a sensible, moderate modernisation of the criminal justice system, with fair and proper safeguards for those wrongly accused. The denigration of the magistrates' courts is not in the interests of justice and I ask the Committee to reject the amendment.