Clause 46 - Criminal procedure: written guilty pleas

Deregulation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 18th March 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

This is another in this group of clauses which allows the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee to relieve courts of the duty to do things which are unnecessary. The clause will relieve courts of the duty to read aloud prosecution and defence documents where the defendant pleads guilty and does not attend court. Parliament began the process of relieving magistrates courts of inefficient obligations to read aloud information which the court is considering or to read aloud the court’s decision when no one apart from the magistrates and their staff are there to hear it. That happens often when the court is dealing with cases where the defence has sent in a written guilty plea or has simply not turned up.

Section 64 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 changed section 174 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to give the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee the power to make rules about situations where the court need not announce out loud its sentencing reasons or the effect of its sentence. Rules have been made, however, that require the court to announce the  reasons for deciding on a sentence, unless neither the defendant nor any member of the public is present. They require the court to announce the effect of the sentence unless the defendant is absent or their ill health or disorderly conduct makes such an explanation impractical.

However, it is important to have open justice. If reporters or other members of the public who did not attend want information about a case, the rules allow for that. Clause 46 allows the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee to make rules such as those for other circumstances. Apart from the general law that gives journalists special rights, the criminal procedure rules already acknowledge the importance of allowing what happens at a hearing that is open to the public to be reported to the public, even if no one attends. That does not mean that documents should be read out solemnly and announcements made out loud if no one is there. Removing such a requirement does not interfere with open justice and should result in greater efficiency. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

I will try to be brief. As the Solicitor-General has said, the amendment dispenses with the requirement for certain items to be read aloud in court. I think the cases that the Government have referred to involve minor road traffic matters or perhaps TV licence evasion—I expected the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire, who is not in his place, to get terribly excited at the mention of TV licence evasion.

In my experience, it can be frustrating to have to listen when cases are proven in absence, particularly when defendants have failed to plead guilty by post and simply do not attend court. Statements and other documents have to be read out, and formal convictions must be formally stated by the bench of magistrates. However, we have some slight reservations about the removal of the requirement to read statements out.

First, when statements are being read out, everyone can be assured that the relevant evidence in the case is being heard and acknowledged by the tribunal. It would be far too easy for a court to read statements, rather than the prosecutor reading them into the record. In my humble opinion, the bench of magistrates may soon tire of absorbing the evidence. It is less clear to the public that the evidence has been properly considered. Justice must not simply be done; it must be seen to be done.

Secondly, on occasion it becomes clear as the case is being read out and outlined by the prosecutor to the court that the evidence may not be sufficient to reach the satisfactory standard to convict—this is an experience I have witnessed directly. That is often pointed out by the court clerk or the legal adviser to the lay bench of magistrates, or by canvassing issues between, say, the prosecution and the court clerk and, very rarely in such instances, the defence—the defendant paying for a solicitor to be there in their absence is very rare.

The removal of the requirement to read cases out might increase the number of wrongful convictions for what, prima facie, might be minor offences. An example might be where a defendant is at risk of “totting”. That is where he or she has 12 penalty points on their driving licence and they have been photographed exceeding 30 mph, which means they might “tot”, which can have significant life-changing effects, including the loss of one’s livelihood.

Thirdly, there has been a recent increase in large road traffic courts listing 70 or 80 cases in one road traffic session. Again, I am concerned that if cases are no longer formally read out, evidence will not be properly considered. As a practising criminal lawyer, I am not one to suggest that the police—now responsible for prosecuting road traffic offences, by the way—are anything but completely honest, but my reservations need to be placed on the record.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

Speaking as a former court clerk myself, I want to ask the hon. Gentleman whether he would accept that some of the concerns he raises could be allayed by the fact that there would not be a wrongful conviction, because we are dealing with written pleas of guilt. If there are concerns about totting, the magistrate would simply adjourn the matter for the defendant to attend court and give reasons why they should not be disqualified from driving.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Opposition Assistant Whip (Commons)

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but on my reading of the clause there would not necessarily be written guilty pleas. There may be a situation where there has been no response whatever. The Solicitor-General will correct me if I am wrong, but that is my reading of the effect of the clause.

I wonder whether the Minister could briefly answer one or two questions. Will there be a new procedure for dealing with cases proven in absence, to ensure that evidence is properly considered? Will the number of cases listed be monitored, to ensure sufficient court time to consider evidence properly? Will magistrates have the opportunity to retire and read statements themselves? Will requirements under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 be complied with, for example in cases where a member of the magistrates bench is visually impaired? Is it correct that in practice Braille or audio will be required? Finally, what provisions will be made to assist magistrates who have such disabilities?

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Solicitor-General

Let me start by saying that what we are trying to do—or rather, what the Government are trying to do with the assistance of the courts and the judiciary—is have a system where a full trial occurs when necessary and a serious matter is dealt with to the very high standards we have in this country. However, if someone is guilty, they should plead guilty as soon as possible, and cases should be triaged, so that the right amount of resource and judicial effort is there for the right sort of case.

It is right that there are proposals in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to commence proceedings by written charge and requisition. Certain prosecutors will be able to commence proceedings by way of written charge and the single justice procedure notice. Under this new procedure, the defendant will be required to respond in writing to the allegation, and the case may be tried before a single justice rather than in an open court, without the parties being present. In deciding the case, the single justice will rely solely on the document served on the accused and any written submission provided by the accused. Obviously, this is suitable only for particular minor cases, but it will make a big difference to the overall efficiency of the courts because there are a very large number of such cases.

Yes, justice must be seen to be done, and I have already described the procedures that will be in place to ensure that reporters and the public can access the decisions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford made clear, it is of course the duty of the clerk of the court to ensure that there are not cases where a legal point or a particular concern about totting goes unremarked. Our system also has a well established route of appeal.

My submission to the Committee would be that the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee will be in charge of the process of writing rules to adjust and, where necessary, discard these requirements. The members of that committee are most expert in what they do. There is a considerable improvement in efficiency for the Courts Service in these proposals. Yes, of course adjustments will need to be made for particular disabilities, and they will be. On that basis, I would advise the Committee to agree to the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 46accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.