New Clause 5 - Application to magistrates' court

Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 pm on 6th March 2001.

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`—If a person to whom a penalty notice is alleged to have been given in accordance with sections 2 and 3, but who for whatever reason has failed to ask for this alleged offence to be tried in accordance with section 4 nonetheless thereafter shall make application to the relevant magistrates' court in writing for the penalty notice to be set aside the court shall consider the application and if in all the circumstances it is right in the interests of justice to do so shall either set the notice aside or shall order the matter to be tried.'.—[Sir Nicholas Lyell.]

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second Time.

The Minister is inclined to think that this matter is of no importance. However, I remain concerned that people will be given a penalty notice, but, for whatever reason, will not appreciate it. They may not realise exactly what they should do, even though it would have been adequately explained to them had they read the document that was given to them. I was concerned that there should be an opportunity for such matters to be tried if a court felt it just to do so, which is why my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and I tabled new clause 5.

We are taking a considerable step in enabling the police to give these penalty notices in a wide variety of cases. In many cases, it is a sensible step, but if there is a genuine desire to contest the matter it is important that that desire should not be frustrated by the complicated system that surrounds penalty notices. I have dealt with the issue before in the context of penalty notices for motor vehicles and parking, which we know can lead to confusion. This is a simple clause, which enables somebody to whom a penalty notice has been given none the less to seek to bring the matter before a court.

I am aware that a stop point is provided in clause 12(5), which means that an enforcement court may order a matter to be tried. However, that process would come unnecessarily late. A citizen who has been given a penalty notice may fail to understand or exercise the methods at his disposal. He may be the victim of some mistake that is difficult to prove. For example, he may not have been handed the notice in its correct form, although it is down in the administrative records that he has received one. The new clause would allow for a fallback provision in those cases. Such a person would be able to ask the court in writing to reopen the matter and order it to be tried.

I have asked myself whether such a provision might be abused by being used too frequently, which would make nonsense of the sensible intention behind penalty notices to short-cut court proceedings. However, I do not believe that it would be abused; it would be used comparatively rarely, but it would enable justice to be done and would give people greater confidence in a system that might otherwise be in danger of falling into disrepute.

The system for parking offences might have fallen into disrepute if it were not for the mechanism by which one may write to the parking office. Some lady or gentleman in an administrative position in that office is entitled to reduce or abrogate the fine. That system is not built into the Bill, but the amendment would enable the matter to be brought back before the court.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

If an error comes to light before a fine is registered, the chief officer of police has the power to take no further action. I can reassure hon. Members that the Bill caters for the situations that they have in mind. A person named as the recipient of a penalty notice may have a number of reasons for not asking for a trial. First, he may have paid the penalty. Second, he may believe that he has an explanation for his behaviour not evident to the constable issuing the notice, which may provide an excuse. Thirdly, if he has failed to respond to the notice, a fine will probably be registered against him.

Arrangements are provided in the Bill for such circumstances. For example, a person may acknowledge receipt of the notice but still want to be tried. Under clause 12, the court will have the residual power in the interests of justice to set aside any fine arising from a penalty notice. If the defaulter claims that he was not the recipient of the notice and that his name appeared in error, the court may adjourn the case for an investigation to be made.

The Bill contains substantial safeguards; they are well established, and we debated them under clause 12. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Lyell Sir Nicholas Lyell Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

I have listened carefully to the Minister. I suspect that the matter will arise again in the other place. I ask the Minister to continue to reflect on it, so that we may have a fair and workable system. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.