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 Dholakia Lord Dholakia Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 5:45 pm, 15th July 2003

Like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, I, too, am concerned that the proposals in the Bill for the limitation of jury trial could be the thin edge of the wedge leading to a more radical assault on the right to jury trial of the kind that the Government have favoured in the past but have been unsuccessful in putting through this Parliament.

I shall concentrate briefly on three areas. The first area is the jury system and ethnic minorities; the second is our international reputation; and the third is tampering with juries. Taking up the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about the issues relating to racial minorities, I shall concentrate on one specific but crucial area of the argument; that is, whether ending the right to trial by jury will disadvantage black and Asian defendants and further dent the confidence of racial minority groups in the criminal justice process. Will the change be to the disadvantage of racial minorities? Will black and Asian people perceive the change to be biased against them and thereby further dent their confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice process?

There appears to be no dispute that black and Asian defendants who appear in the Crown Court are more likely to be acquitted than white defendants. For example, the research by Gordon Barclay—from the Home Office at one time—and Bonny Mhlanga, cited in the Section 95 publication, Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2000, showed that the acquittal rate in contested Crown Court trials was 36 per cent for black defendants and 44 per cent for Asian defendants compared with 30 per cent for white defendants. Many black and Asian defendants are likely to feel—rightly or wrongly—that trials by a single white judge might produce a different result to trial by jury or, more importantly, by a multi-racial jury.

Minority communities would also fear that the moves in the Bill are the beginning of a slippery slope to a greater restriction on the right to elect jury trial. In the past, the Government have argued that black defendants are also more likely to be acquitted by magistrates than white defendants. It has cited figures showing a higher conviction rate for white defendants than black defendants in magistrates' courts. However, a range of research studies indicated that black people are more likely to be prosecuted in cases where the evidence is weaker. That means that there ought to be a higher acquittal rate; it is possible that the acquittal rate should be higher still if justice was done in every case. The bald figures do not provide a solid basis for reassuring black or Asian defendants who fear that if future measures require their cases to stay in the magistrates' court they are less likely to receive justice from what, in many cases, would be an all-white group of magistrates.

If the statistical evidence is complex, the issue of perception is more clear-cut. It is quite clear that many black or Asian people strongly believe that they will get a fairer trial from a multi-racial jury than from an all-white bench of magistrates. They will perceive this even more strongly in those cases where it is proposed that they be tried by a single white Oxbridge-educated judge. It surely is not difficult to understand that feeling.

If the Government were able to produce robust and sophisticated research findings disproving this perception, I would be prepared to play my part in helping to spread those findings among minority communities in order to help boost confidence in the court process. However, as yet we have seen no such findings. In any case, they would not in themselves justify restrictions on jury trial. At a time when the criminal justice system needs to take every step it can to sustain the confidence of minorities, moves towards the restriction of jury trial are a step in precisely the opposite direction.

So what is the basis of my case? In the past, I consulted the very organisation which the Government set up to promote equality and good relations—namely, the Commission for Racial Equality. I was told that it had three objections. First, the proposals were not "race-proofed" before they were introduced and the Government tried to justify them post hoc. Secondly, contrary to the Government's pledge to increase ethnic minority confidence in the criminal justice system, these proposals would further erode it. Thirdly, there is every indication that each year hundreds of defendants who would have been acquitted at the Crown Court will be found guilty if this legislation is passed. A disproportionate number of those people will be from minorities. Those are not my words but the words of the Commission for Racial Equality. It would be helpful to know from the Minister whether this body, set up by the Government, was consulted before the proposals were framed.

Seventeen per cent of the male prison population and 25 per cent of women prisoners are from ethnic minorities, which is a matter of serious concern. We need much more detailed studies on sentencing. I have figures before me but it is too late in the day to go into detail. The case has been made by a number of other speakers. We have evidence from former members of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice about how they view the whole process. The most important aspect to bear in mind is that at a time when the criminal justice system needs to take every step it can to repair the confidence of racial minorities, abolishing the right to elect jury trial is a retrograde step.

Perhaps I may conclude by putting forward two brief arguments. First, I am sure that I shall have the support of the whole House on a point clearly identified by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, which concerns our international reputation and standing. Perhaps I may remind Members of the Committee of the situation in Russia, Nigeria and a number of other countries on the world stage where courts and those who administer justice are bound to be corrupt. Justice is at a premium. The only hope that innocent people have is the jury system. However imperfect it may be, in many cases it is a matter of life and death. Those countries would be entitled to say that if Britain, the mother of democracy, can abolish trial by jury, what is to stop them doing precisely that?

The second point relates to jury tampering. If juries need protection, we must provide it. Let me give an analogy: we do not stop mugging by locking up old ladies, nor should we abolish juries because criminals interfere with them. We should be more robust in protecting the principle which has stood the test of time. The Home Office should look again at the proposal it is advocating.