Criminal Justice Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 15th July 2003.

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Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench 3:45 pm, 15th July 2003

I put my name down with those who wish to oppose the jury proposals standing part of the Bill. I know that there is a great danger that one will make a Second Reading speech rather than confine oneself as one should in Committee. If I err in that direction, the Government are to blame to some extent because we should have had two days for making speeches on Second Reading, in which case we could have done more than choose one point out of 200 pages of clauses, and another 200 pages of schedules.

I shall try not to repeat the philosophy and the points already made. In October 1998, the Fraud Advisory Panel submitted proposals to the Lord Chancellor's Department for procedural reform in cases of serious fraud following the establishment of a review of pre-trial procedures in such cases. A short while before, the Home Office had also published a consultation document entitled Juries In Serious Fraud Trials, in which a number of different options for the trial of serious fraud were canvassed. The Government have taken no action on those proposals, which has caused members of the fraud prosecution very sensibly to take the view that, before the question of dispensing with trial by jury is contemplated, we should first put forward procedural amendments. Such amendments would substantially shorten the process, reduce the cost and reduce the burden placed on juries. Then we can reconsider the wisdom of managing without juries. A number of those suggestions are conveniently set out in one of the briefing papers from Justice, on which I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, may expand. I found it extremely helpful.

The suggestion has been made that long cases are simply not appropriate for juries. I have read an article on the Wickes case, which took 10 months to try. It took the jury less than eight hours to reach unanimous verdicts, finding all three of the accused not guilty. In the course of his summing up to the jury, the trial judge said:

"The care and attention which you have devoted to this case has been obvious to me throughout from almost the very first moment you started to try this case. Those who may hereafter criticise juries' appreciation of lengthy and complex fraud cases would have done well to see the care and attention that, as I say, you have given to this case throughout".

Those observations may well have incited the Early Day Motion recently signed by 58 Members in another place, which reads as follows:

"That this House reaffirms its faith in jury trial for serious criminal cases as an essential cornerstone in British liberty; recognises that it provides a unique example of the responsibilities of citizenship; rejects the unfounded and unsubstantiated allegation that jury men and women cannot comprehend complex factual issues; and recognises that procedures and powers already exist to distil issues and shorten trials in serious fraud cases and to guard against rare attempts to tamper with the jury".

I wish to make a brief comment on the suggestion that the accused, or the prosecution, should have the option to choose trial by judge alone. That is the beginning of creating exceptions that will ultimately do the whole jury system down. It will result in suspicion when members of the jury come to hear the case where the accused is content to have the advantage and the disadvantage of a jury trial. They will wonder why that person has not chosen to be tried by judge alone. They will wonder whether he thinks that he can pull the wool over their eyes more easily and they will ask themselves whether that is why he has chosen trial by jury. This will give rise to a potential distortion, which is a cause of considerable anxiety.

At the back of the matter is the Treasury approach of value for money. The Treasury does not believe that a jury trial in long cases gives value for money because it takes longer and is more expensive. The Treasury concept of value for money is not the same as the consideration as to whether a system is delivering a better justice.

The only other point that I want to make is on the question of public perception, which I believe to be very important. A large proportion of the public, particularly the ethnic minority groups, looks upon trial by jury as giving a better quality of justice. They suspect that a judge has become case-hardened, which would not be surprising because the same sort of defence may be served up time and time again. That has often been the criticism levelled against stipendiary magistrates who are now district judges.

I believe that in the majority of fair-minded judges there can be a subconscious bias towards the prosecution. Although it is not in any way meant to be an unjust approach to the case, there is a feeling that the case would not have been brought if intense investigation had not shown that there was a strong case to answer. That perception is terribly important. If the minority feel that they are being done out of what they consider to be the only truly just and dispassionate way of getting justice, then a real sense of injustice will pervade a part of that population which already views the establishment, so to speak, with deep suspicion. Even though most of us may disagree with it, we must allow the perception to be satisfied. We do not do that by this objective approach to which system sounds and seems the most likely to give the best value for money. Accordingly, I subscribe to the amendments.