Either way offence: choice of written procedure for plea before venue

Prisons and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:00 pm on 18th April 2017.

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Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General 5:00 pm, 18th April 2017

I beg to move amendment 98, in clause 25, page 24, line 7, leave out paragraph (d) and insert—

“(d) explain that, if the person chooses not to give a written indication of plea or fails to do so within 21 days of the date on which the document was sent, the court must proceed under section 17A upon the expiry of the 21 day period;”

This amendment gives greater clarity and certainty about the timeframe in which a court hearing must be held where a person does not give a written indication of plea.

The purpose of the amendment is to give greater clarity and certainty about the timeframe in which a court hearing must be held where a person does not give a written indication of plea. Clause 25 inserts into the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 a section that provides for the defendant charged with a summary, indictable or either way offence to have a choice to engage with the “plea before venue” procedure in writing, without having to attend court, provided that they have been equipped with certain information. Under the section, where the defendant indicates a guilty plea in writing, the offence is treated as if it were a summary offence.

In the case of a guilty plea, the defendant can be convicted without the hearing of any evidence, and the magistrates court can proceed to sentencing or refer the proceedings to the Crown court, if it considers its powers inadequate. Where the defendant indicates a not guilty plea in writing, they are given the choice of agreeing that the court should proceed to decide mode of trial outside court in their absence. Clause 25 also provides that where the defendant fails to give any written indication of plea, the proceedings continue in accordance with existing court-based procedures. There is a concern that that is likely to build in delay, rather than reduce it.

The clause provides a safeguard, in that it allows a defendant who has given an indication of plea in writing to withdraw it in writing at any time before the case is heard. However, it is our view that further safeguards should be added, to ensure that assistance is provided for those who are not able to engage with a written or online procedure. It is well established, as I mentioned in my remarks on clause 23, that high numbers of people in contact with the criminal justice system have multiple needs, many of which are directly related to their ability to interact with Her Majesty’s Courts Service in a meaningful and effective manner using technology. For example, literacy rates among prisoners are low, with about half at or below level 1 in reading, and four fifths at or below level 1 in writing.

It is generally acknowledged that between 5% and 10% of adult offenders have a learning disability of some kind, thus support is required in reading, writing, communication and comprehension. There is also a worry that someone with a learning disability before the justice system may be suggestible. We have to ensure that they are not in a situation where they fail to understand what they are accused of and the implications of decisions they are being asked to make.

There is a worry that someone may plead guilty in order to expedite proceedings in the hope of being allowed, for example, to leave custody and return home quickly, without appreciating the implications of entering a guilty plea.

Many people with mental health problems have conditions that fluctuate. That, of course, means that they may engage well with technology on one occasion but not on another. That can vary, not just day to day, but over the course of a day. It is vital that, where a defendant does indicate a plea, they must be able to choose between using a written, online or court procedure and that that is a legitimate choice, free of pressure or prejudice of any kind.

There are concerns that indirect pressure will be applied to defendants to opt for the written procedures by unduly delaying in-person proceedings. On that basis, I seek assurance that, where a person does not indicate his plea in writing or online, a clear and reasonable timeframe is offered in which a court hearing must be held. That is precisely what the amendment would do. It would make clear in circumstances where a person does not indicate his or her plea in writing or online that the timeframe of 21 days is given in which a court hearing must be held, so as not to discriminate against those who opt for an in-person hearing.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The point underlying the amendment is, again, valid. Clearly, defendants will have to be told that, if they wish to indicate a plea online, they must do so before the date to which they have been bailed to appear at court. The time allowed for that purpose must not be so long as to lead to increased delay. However, the deadline set by reference to the date when documents were sent would not in my view work.

The date to which defendants are bailed after charge, pending their first court appearance, is governed by the criminal practice direction, issued by the Lord Chief Justice. It is significant that the date set for a hearing depends on the circumstances of the case and varies according to whether a guilty or not guilty plea is likely: respectively, 14 days or 28 days after charge.

The 21-day deadline specified in the amendment would expire a week before the hearing date in the case where a not guilty plea was expected or, less practically, a week after the date to which a defendant would be bailed to appear where a guilty plea was anticipated.

There are two conclusions. The first is that a single deadline, set by reference to the date when the documents were sent, would not work. The second conclusion is that, whatever deadlines may be suitable, it is probably not for primary legislation. I know that the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee has started to look at this matter. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman to agree that this could more appropriately be prescribed in the criminal procedure rules and so ask for the amendment to be withdrawn.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General

I hope that something like that will be prescribed in the criminal procedure rules, as indicated by the Minister. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26