Criminal Justice Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 15th July 2003.

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Photo of Lord Maclennan of Rogart Lord Maclennan of Rogart Liberal Democrat 4:45 pm, 15th July 2003

This debate has been largely dominated by the lawyers among us. Although I am in a formal sense a lawyer, having qualified and briefly practised at the Bar, I do not claim any expertise in the field of criminal law. Indeed, in the last case in which I was involved, I unsuccessfully defended the distinguished historian CV Wedgwood from a charge of driving without due care and attention. That certainly cannot be said to qualify me to speak as a lawyer but, nonetheless, I speak in support of what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said about there being cause for pause.

It is not the first time that we in Parliament have had before us proposals to do away with jury trial in long and complex cases. I remember the debate on the Roskill report on serious fraud cases. In another place, of 12 Back-Bench Members who spoke, 11 spoke against the proposal to accept the Roskill commission's recommendation that serious fraud cases should be tried by a judge and two assessors. Periodically, Home Office Ministers return to that proposition but, once again, it is right that the Minister should pause.

I do not apply the arguments that have been so eloquently advanced in this debate, especially by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, about whether justice is more or less likely to be done with or without a jury trial in the circumstances described in Clause 42. I found what she had to say on the subject enormously convincing.

What I found surprising is that the argument about justice being done is not what appears to lie behind Clause 42. It is not about the greater or lesser likelihood of convictions being wrongly obtained—innocent people facing conviction or people who are guilty being found innocent. Strangely, if the Bill's language is to be believed, it is about the burden to be placed on a juror faced with such a case. Non-lawyers have every bit as much right to speak about that justification as anyone else. Few responsibilities or rights of citizenship are so widely understood and accepted as is the duty to serve on the jury. The right to vote in an election is perhaps the other attribute of citizenship that the wider public understands.

I am not among those who would argue that the only system of fair and just tribunal that falls under the scope of the rubric of the European convention is the jury trial. How could I? I am a Scot and it is rather less frequently used there. Nor am I inclined to invoke arguments that any criminal justice system is perfect—certainly none that has passed through as many transitions as has ours since jury trials were invented.

Indeed, I went so far as to write the libretto of an opera about a Scottish jury trial in which Thomas Muir, a great radical reformer, was wrongly convicted of the Scottish equivalent of sedition. Of the 15 jurors, 11 of them were paid servants of the Crown. But we do not live in those times and the public does not have that sort of attitude today to jury trials.

I think that people accept that it is an obligation of citizenship which, if they are invited to discharge it, may be burdensome but not so burdensome that they should not assume it with pride and willingness. As a Member of another place, I of course was never called on to do that, but many of my family have been, to their great inconvenience. I have never heard serious suggestions that that was an obligation that they would not be prepared to meet.

If there are better arguments for Clause 42, I hope that the Minister will deploy them in answering the debate. The reasons in the Bill are wholly inadequate to cause us to change the law in an area in which, it must be said, the reputation of the law may be fragile, to the detriment of the fabric of our society.