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Clause 46 - Power to transfer criminal cases

Courts Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:30 pm on 1st July 2003.

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 3:30 pm, 1st July 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 58, in

clause 46, page 22, line 10, at end insert

'after hearing representations from all parties, including those representing the interests of the victim, lay and professional witnesses and defendants'.

This is an important amendment. When there is talk of criminal proceedings being transferred, we say from the Conservative Benches that it is extremely important not to allow the transfer without hearing representations from all parties, including in particular those who are representing the interests of the victims of the crime.

For many years, I have been involved with the organisation Victim Support. I have spoken to groups in various parts of the country, before joining the Front Bench of my party and since. I know that hon. Members on all sides of the House have had great involvement with Victim Support. Clause 46 inserts a new section 27A in the 1980 Act, but a statement should be clearly inserted in the Bill to the effect that, before a case is transferred, the victims have the right to be heard. That is because there is nothing worse for a victim of a crime—I have met victims of the most serious crimes, as have MPs from all parties—than to be told suddenly that the whole matter is being transferred, perhaps for good reasons, to a court in a different location that is much less convenient for them to get to. I am sure that many hon. Members have received harrowing letters from constituents who have been the victims of crime, or met such people in their surgeries, as I have.

We should not miss the opportunity to put into law provisions that say that the victims have a right to be heard before the case is moved. Even if there are good reasons for the transfer and there is a chance that it will go through in the end without any difficulty, as long as the victims feel that they have had an opportunity to make their point of view heard, they will at least feel that something relevant has happened, despite their probable concern if it is inconvenient for

them to get to the new venue. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to that suggestion.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 12:00 pm, 1st July 2003

Amendment No. 58, tabled by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, would require a magistrates court to hear representations from all parties, including those representing the interests of the victim, lay and professional witnesses and defendants, before transferring a matter. The hon. Gentleman raised an important issue, and I would even go so far as to say that I am attracted to the sentiments behind the amendment. Nevertheless, I need to set out the fact that if a magistrates court decides of its own volition to transfer a case, the parties would have a right to be heard. Moreover, there would be practical difficulties with the amendment were it to be adopted.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I am grateful to the Minister for the helpful way in which he began his response. Does he accept that in some situations, someone might be regarded as being within the general category of a victim of a crime, without necessarily being automatically regarded as a party to criminal proceedings? Parties to criminal proceedings are the prosecution and the defence. I hope that, as part of his his sympathetic response, the hon. Gentleman will consider the fact that one of the difficulties is that often the victim of a crime may be a witness, but not a party to the proceedings. I am sure that he will understand the significance of that argument.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

Indeed. I was about to say that we have set out where courts should sit, and their location. Clause 30(5) covers several such considerations. We must have regard to victims, witnesses and defendants when deciding whether to transfer a matter. Directions will, in particular, require a court to take account of where the offence was committed and where the majority of witnesses and the person charged with the offence reside. That applies also to transferred matters. We consider that many issues are already covered by clause 30.

Given its wording about representation and the representatives of various parties, an additional difficulty with the amendment is that it does not make clear whether it would require the relevant individuals' views to be ascertained before a case could be transferred. If that meant the views of all the individuals, a lot of work could be involved, which would cause significant delays. It could make the transfer of cases less convenient for everyone, rather than more convenient, which must be our objective.

We do not want additional costs to be incurred. To insist on separate legal representation for each witness, as well as the parties, would be a strange route to go down. We accept that occasional difficulties may be involved about where a case should be heard, but it would not be desirable to impose requirements that may not be necessary in ordinary cases and which may cause delay, extra complexity or cost.

That said, I reiterate the fact that the protections in clause 30(5) ensure that consideration will be given to the location of witnesses and others involved in proceedings. Although I sympathise with the aims behind the amendment, in practical terms it would not be the best measure to take.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I detect that the Minister is coming to the end of his remarks, and, given the sympathetic way in which he has responded, I shall not press the matter to a Division. However, is he prepared to continue considering the issue as the Bill wends its way through Parliament? We could all try to come up with a formulation that would avoid the problems that he identifies; I do not suggest that my wording is perfect. I hope that the Minister and his officials are prepared to continue to look into the matter, perhaps with a view to introducing a Government amendment. We genuinely want to be constructive; we want to find a way to ensure that victims are consulted in some way, without that causing delays. It would be helpful if the Minister were prepared to agree to that.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

I shall certainly talk again with officials; I would be happy to do so. Obviously, in transferring criminal proceedings from one court to another, we have to balance the virtues of increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the proceedings with those of not jeopardising the legitimate need of witnesses, victims and others taking part in court proceedings to have easy access. We have discussed that in debate on several other clauses already. I am not entirely persuaded that we have not already adequately covered many of the matters set out in the amendment, but I am happy to keep the matter constantly under review. It is fair and laudable for hon. Members to be concerned about this issue, but I do not think that the amendment is the right one to put in the Bill.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I can foresee many cases in which, early in the proceedings, only the prosecutor, the defendant and the defence solicitor, and none of the witnesses and victims, are present. The court will consider whether it should transfer the case to another court, because it is more convenient or whatever. Under clause 30(3), which relates to the direction that may be given by the Lord Chancellor, the magistrates could be asked to bear in mind the interests of those who are not there, such as the witnesses and victims, and to consider whether, in particularly serious cases, they ought to adjourn to get the views of such people. There is no requirement to do so in every case, but at least the matter would be in the magistrates' minds in every case.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Indeed, much of what is in clause 30 and elsewhere suggests that such issues should be considered by those forming judgments on the transfer of cases. Having focused on the amendment—as we are properly bound to do in Committee—I must say that I do not believe that, as framed, it is targeted in the right direct manner, and I therefore hope that it will be withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

The Minister has given a helpful reassurance, and has confirmed that he will carry on talking to officials. If we can come up with a better

form of words that avoids the difficulties to which he has drawn attention, we will do so, and we will send it to him and his officials. The Government clearly recognise that we are talking about a serious issue, as the Minister has said, and as he understands the spirit behind our attempt to amend the Bill, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Under suggested new section 27A(3), there is rightly a provision that if once proceedings have started the hearing is transferred to another court, it must begin hearing the evidence and the parties again. How would that apply to the admissibility of evidence, where the first court had decided that evidence was not admissible? Would it be a requirement for that process to happen a second time? That would seem foolish if a court had ruled that on a matter of law evidence was inadmissible, given that that inadmissible evidence might prejudice the views of the magistrates hearing the case.

We talked at length about that danger in the proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill: because the magistrates are finding on both fact and law, they have to hear evidence of, for instance, bad character, which might then prove to be inadmissible. It is odd to require a second court to be prejudiced by that inadmissible evidence if the hearing is then transferred.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that when he and I served on the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill—which has not yet completed its passage through Parliament—there was a new possibility of magistrates making binding directions ahead of the trial? I presume that if that is enacted in that form, those will become binding, even if the case is transferred somewhere else.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is right. That was part of what I was trying to elicit from the Minister. Do such actions form part of the proceedings, or are they prior to the proceedings? In other words, once the case is transferred, does it have to happen again with a new set of magistrates hearing the same matters in a different place? It would be better if it did not. The original ruling should stand, and the evidence should not have to be considered again, in so far as it dealt purely with the admissibility of the evidence that might be produced before the court. As things currently stand, I think that it would have to be considered anew, and the whole of the proceedings would have to be repeated, including the consideration as to whether in law a piece of evidence was admissible.

My question may be complicated, and I hope that I have expressed, at least broadly, my meaning in a way that the Minister can make sense of. If he has no answer to my question today, he might like to consider it further.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Part of clause 46 touches on what happens when deciding whether to transfer a case, and

the fact that the court should take account of the directions made by the Lord Chancellor under clause 30, and that cases can be transferred before or after the beginning of a trial or inquiry,

''But if the court transfers the matter after it has begun to hear the evidence and the parties, the court to which the matter is transferred must begin hearing the evidence and the parties again.''

The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about pre-trial hearings, the admissibility of evidence and so forth. I do not want to prejudice a point that I do not want to be too definite about at present, but my initial advice suggests that those matters would have to be heard afresh should a case be transferred. However, if a ruling had already been made by one court about admissibility of evidence, that would seem a good reason for not transferring a particular case or matter. That is the advice that I have at present. If there is any change to that, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and the other Committee members to correct it. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It is helpful in that the Minister has set out what he believes the position to be—but it is unhelpful in that I am not sure that that is what the position ought to be, in terms of common sense, let alone anything else.

If material is adduced in a pre-trial hearing, or during the initial stages of a hearing, and is held to be inadmissible and prejudicial to the interests of justice, it seems odd that it might be considered anew at the next hearing. Perhaps there ought to be some rules of court to deal with such a situation.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs) 4:15 pm, 1st July 2003

I stand by what I said previously. If, on reflection, there is a different interpretation of the hon. Gentleman's question, I shall be the first to bring it to the attention of hon. Members. There is a need to allow easier transfer of criminal cases between magistrates courts. Most Committee members would want that principle to be used, given the need to improve and enhance the flexible and efficient administration of justice. That is the purpose of the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 47 and 48 ordered to stand part of the Bill.