Criminal Justice Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 15th July 2003.

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Photo of Lord Alexander of Weedon Lord Alexander of Weedon Conservative 5:45 pm, 15th July 2003

My Lords, I have listened to the debate with great interest, with great support for the views that have been expressed on the jury system and with ever-growing puzzlement as to why the Government are putting the suggestions forward.

There is little more that I would want to say on jury tampering than what my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral said two hours ago. If there is jury tampering, it should be dealt with in ways other than deprivation of such an important right, which is vested in the defendant.

As I understand it, there is total acceptance by the Government—this is why I respectfully demur from the approach adopted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington—that, normally, serious offences should be dealt with in this country by the jury system. If that is right, it is nothing to the point that judges are capable of judging cases fairly and well. We have long opted for the jury system.

I looked at the ground for the exception in the case of serious fraud trials. I own that, some years ago, when the Roskill committee reported, I was attracted by the idea of trial by judge and two assessors. Then it was suggested that one of the reasons for that was the need to ensure that a fair verdict was arrived at by a tribunal that understood the evidence. As I understand it, the Government have abandoned the suggestion that the jury cannot understand the case. Now that they have done that, the entire underpinning of their case has gone.

In several respects, dishonesty is at the heart of most such cases. It is desirable that the issue—one of fundamental truth—should be decided by a jury. The reasons have been given by others, and I shall not expand on them. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, mentioned the Justice briefing, which has been supplied to the Minister. It is possible to improve procedures in our jury trials to avoid and lessen the burden on jurors.

I commend to anyone who thinks that it may not happen a splendid book by Mr Trevor Grove, called The Juryman's Tale. He speaks of a long trial that conditioned his experience and led him to become a magistrate and write a subsequent book, The Magistrate's Tale. He comes to the conclusion that the jurors can understand such cases but, my goodness, they could be helped by improvements to the procedures. I agree.

I shall close by taking up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. She made a point about control by the Government. I do so as gently as I can, as I am not an especially party-political person. However, I have, in recent years, become more and more concerned about the attitude of the Government to the value of the rule of law. It began with the attempt—made twice in a short space of time—radically to limit the availability of juries in minor trials. Those plans were kicked out by your Lordships' House, and that was applauded by the public.

I am sorry to say it but, this year, we have seen a Home Secretary who, on occasion, has undoubtedly made disparaging remarks about judgments that were given against him. It is the task of the Home Secretary to decide whether to appeal judgments that go against him: it is not his task to do anything that may bring our independent judiciary into disrespect.

In the Bill, there are certain disclosure requirements relating to the defence, including the requirement relating to expert witnesses, which have led no less fair, courteous, decent and able a judge than our Lord Chief Justice to put a paper in the Library saying that the provisions give unequal treatment—that is, they are not fair to the defendant, as against the prosecution. I would have hoped that no Lord Chief Justice would ever have seen it necessary to make such a charge against a government of our country. All that and the Government ask us to limit trial by jury and to leave the trial to judge alone when we simply do not know at the moment by whom those judges are to be appointed.

The Minister demurs, but perhaps I may remind her of an answer given by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor yesterday. The final decision would be made by a Minister. At present, that Minister is the Lord Chancellor. That Minister is legally qualified. That Minister is insulated from the House of Commons. That Minister and successive holders have a long and honourable tradition of preserving total independence in the appointment of judges. By contrast, the final appointer now, if the consultation paper goes through, is to be a Minister who will be in the Cabinet, contrary to the Government's avowed principles of separation of powers, who may be in the House of Commons and who need not necessarily be legally qualified. We simply do not know what will be the basis of their competence to preserve the independence of the judiciary and to choose the appropriate judges.

I hope that my fears about the ultimate aim of the Government in some of these reforms are unfounded. What I know is that until we actually know the degree of independence which is to go into the appointment of judges, until Parliament, which is the decision-taking body on this, has decided it, I would not go an inch to lessen the role of the jury.