Criminal Justice Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:49 pm on 15th July 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice and Offender Management) 6:49 pm, 15th July 2003

I thank the noble Lord for moving this amendment. I do so because he engages with the debate in terms of what we need to do to respond to the pressure placed on the system by the nature and extent of such cases. Therefore, I commend the noble Lord for attempting to enable us to have a discussion about where the proper boundaries may be.

Having said that, I am afraid I must say to the noble Lord that we do not consider these proposals to be workable. However, I understand that he put them forward very much in the spirit of the Committee stage—that is, to enable us to explore, discuss and hone, although it appears that we may be deprived of that advantage. I shall deal with this issue as quickly as I can.

The proposal put forward by the noble Lord suggests an alternative solution to the problems of dealing with long or complex fraud cases by giving the court the option to try complex and/or lengthy fraud and fraud-related trials before a "special jury" following applications from either the prosecution or the defence. As the noble Lord said, both Roskill and Auld considered, and rejected, that option. Therefore, I feel that I am probably in good company when I say that it is not necessarily attractive to the Government either. Perhaps I may say why.

The noble Lord, Lord Brennan, raised the question of the selection of juries. To the following extent, I empathise with what he said. The idea that the jurors serving on such cases essentially would be self-selected jury enthusiasts involves a significant departure from the principle that jurors are selected randomly from the population local to the Crown Court in question. The Government would need to be sure that the benefits of a special jury would outweigh the undesirability of compromising the principle of random selection. It is not at all clear that that would be the case.

There is no evidence to support the assumptions underlying the proposal that a special jury would be more competent than an "ordinary" jury or deliver better verdicts, or, conversely, that ordinary juries are doing a poor job. However, I very much take on board what the noble Lord said about the attempts that we have made in terms of the questionnaires to ascertain whether jurors have any conflict of interest. I also take on board the fact that the noble Lord said that, on a number of occasions, issues of literacy have been highlighted. That would obviously make some of the trials, which are heavily dependent on the consideration of detailed documents, a challenge for some jurors who may feel that they are thereby disabled from engaging fully in the process. Therefore, I hear what the noble Lord says in relation to that.

What the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, and other noble Lords said in the previous debate was also important inasmuch as the Government argue that all attempts to simplify fraud trials, in particular, and to make them as clear as possible should continue. Therefore, nothing that I said in relation to the previous set of clauses or, indeed, to this amendment should be misunderstood in that we do recognise that attempts to manage the process better must continue.

Although I understand the import of what the noble Lord seeks to do in relation to these amendments, we had come to the conclusion that the choice should be between a full jury and a judge alone. It is hoped that a judge alone would be able to make impartial decisions. Noble Lords will know that historically it was suggested that if interested groups were involved—for example, in relation to insider dealing issues—then it might be thought that, because it was a matter of common practice, it was therefore permissible. But, in fact, the judge must say, "It may be common but it is unlawful". Therefore, having heard from the defence about common practice and from the prosecution about illegality, a judge alone may be able to make such a distinction.

We understand why the noble Lord has tabled the amendments, but, for all the reasons that I gave previously, we do not believe that they meet the required needs. Therefore, we must consider the choice between a full jury and a judge alone.