Year 2000 No. 46, March 13, 2000

Government Reintroduces Criminal Justice Bill with Minimal Changes

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Government Reintroduces Criminal Justice Bill with Minimal Changes

Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill:
Some Extracts from the Debate in the House of Commons on March 7

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Government Reintroduces Criminal Justice Bill with Minimal Changes

The government is so eager to get the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill onto the statute book that it reintroduced it into the House of Commons little more than a month after it was defeated in the House of Lords. In this incarnation it is known as the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No 2) Bill.

Little has changed in the Bill, except that the clause has been omitted which specified that a magistrate in dispensing summary justice was able to take into account the defendant’s "reputation". Jack Straw said that he had changed his mind on this point, following concern that it would favour the rich and famous. Some 29 Labour MPs supported a critical amendment, saying that the Bill failed to maintain the right to trial by jury.

It is evident that not openly referring to the "reputation" of the accused does not change the intent or the substance of the Bill, and nor is it meant to, but to soften a little its sharp contours. The Bill comes as a component of New Labour’s "modernising" constitutional agenda, and in this case "modernising" the justice system is said by Jack Straw to mean more efficiency and a saving of £128 million a year. By insisting on the Bill, the government is simply using an argument of expediency to push through its agenda. As the Home Secretary himself said, "Too many defendants have been working the system." In other words, a safeguard put into law in 1855 at a time of parliamentary and social reform, particularly as regards young people who were made "criminals" through their circumstances, is proving too much of a safeguard for the government and must be amended.

To put it into this context underlines precisely how far back the government is wishing to take society in order that its anti-social agenda should not be blocked. All the collectives which are bearing the brunt of the anti-social offensive are being increasingly criminalised. They will not be judged by the values of their peers but by the values of the rich.

The Bar Council and the Law Society have opposed the Bill, and a representative of the Bar Council said: "This is the back door removal of jury trial and will be an unfortunate inroad into something which is being marginalised all the time." The changes would affect about 20% of the cases currently tried before a judge and jury in England and Wales. In 1998, this amounted to 18,500 cases. Jack Straw in the Commons debate on March 7, however, asserted, "The measure threatens no hallowed rights – it is just, fair and proportionate."

All the old arrangements are coming under review by the present government. Every aspect, including the criminal justice system, is being moulded to maintain the class rule of the bourgeoisie in a situation where the neo-liberal agenda is being carried forward by the Labour government, and the people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with its programme. Workers, youth and all democratic sections of society must take a stand against the trend to push society back to medievalism and the attempts to deprive the vulnerable of their rights.

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Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) (No. 2) Bill:

Some Extracts from the Debate in the House of Commons on March 7

Jack Straw (Secretary of State for the Home Department): I understand the concerns in the House about the effect of the Bill on the principles of trial by jury. I understand those concerns not least because, when I first considered the matter, my instincts were similar; I acknowledge that. However, as the House knows, I have changed my mind--there has never been any dubiety about that--because the more I have examined the arguments in favour of the present arrangements, the weaker they appeared to be and the stronger the case for reform.

In no sense does the Bill undermine the availability of trial by jury for appropriate offences. What it does is to ensure that there is a fairer and more objective basis than the decision of the accused for determining which cases involving the middle range of offences should be so tried. In doing so, we bring ourselves into line with the better practice of almost all comparable jurisdictions and come closer to the practice in Scotland.

Often, Scotland is, rightly, held out to be a nation with a more effective criminal justice system than ours. There, the decision on mode of trial has never rested with the defendant, but is made by the prosecutor. The Bill provides greater safeguards for the defendant by having the initial decision made by magistrates and the final one, on appeal, by an experienced Crown court judge.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Home Secretary is being selective in the evidence that he chooses to support his case. Two reports commissioned by the Home Office in the past 10 years have shown overwhelmingly that defendants who elect to go to the Crown court do so for reasons other than simply to stay out on remand or because they think that they can spin out the case. A defendant in the Crown court gets sight of all the evidence against them. That is not available in the magistrates court. They could also be given advice by lawyers to plead guilty on the basis of later evidence at the doors of the Crown court.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): The Home Secretary should be cautious about relying on the support of the judiciary. I exempt the Lord Chief Justice from what I am about to say, but is not it correct that those of us who practise at the criminal Bar know full well that many members of the judiciary--both lay and professional--develop a predisposition in favour of the prosecution because they are exposed to crime over many years? It is precisely for that reason that many of us want to retain the jury system, and precisely for that reason that the Home Secretary should be cautious about relying on the views of the judiciary.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Does not the real unfairness of the Bill rest in who will be allowed to have a trial by jury? Will not it benefit the rich, the powerful and the famous who will have the right to trial by jury? Will the Home Secretary answer the questions he himself asked a few years ago:

If . . . a Member of Parliament or even a Secretary of State were charged with an offence of dishonesty, would they not insist on being tried by a jury? If that is the case, why should others be denied that right of election?--[Official Report, 27 February 1997; Vol. 291, c. 434.]

Mr. Straw: I have answered those questions, because I have said that I have changed my mind on that point.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): I declare an interest in the debate. I have been a member of the Bar for 33 years and recorder of the Crown court with full powers of a Crown court judge for 18 years. In that time I have presided over many criminal trials, sitting together with magistrates in appeals from magistrates and committals for sentence. I have represented many defendants. I have represented the police, serious crime squads and regional crime squads. I have met a lot of coppers, a lot of victims and a lot of witnesses.

I have one abiding and passionate interest in the Bill: that it should preserve the integrity, reputation and fairness of the system in which I have served. With that experience and interest, I have no hesitation in saying that this is one of the worst Bills to come before the House for many years. It will cause real and perceived injustice; it was cause immense delay and anxiety to victims, defendants and witnesses and their families; and it will create vast expense. I hold that view in common with every institution and organisation that is concerned with civil liberties.

I have three preliminary points, the first of which has already been made several times. The Bill is a total volte-face for the Home Secretary. I shall not repeat again the quotation that has been given several times, when he asked whether any Member of Parliament, if charged with an offence that would have a serious effect on their well-being if convicted, would not choose trial by jury. That rhetorical question is as relevant today as it was then. I have heard nothing from him to explain that apostasy. I am not against apostasy. St. Paul had his change of mind on the road to Damascus, where he was going to carry out a bit of public prosecution on behalf of the Romans without a jury. I commend to my right hon. Friend the fact that that example of apostasy was in favour of civil liberty and religious tolerance.

My second preliminary point is that this is not a manifesto commitment of the Labour party or any other party. It has never received careful consideration and control through conference or any forum--policy or otherwise--in my party. It has never been placed before the electorate. The proposal has been brought from its huts in the Home Office, where it has been lingering for the past 25 years, rejected repeatedly by respective Home Secretaries and Home Office Ministers, among whom it is not possible to find a single Hampstead liberal.

It is surely wrong that the Government should use their massive and quiescent majority without the issue ever being put before the electorate, particularly as a review commission is sitting and will report by the end of the year. Its finding may then be properly considered by the electorate.

My third preliminary point is that much use has been made of statistics that were described in the House of Lords as a heap of guesses. That was charitable. Many of the statistics that have been used to reinforce the Bill turn out on close examination to be misleading to the point of deceit. I shall give one example. The number of appeals likely to be generated as a result of magistrates in 14,000 cases denying to people who have pleaded not guilty the right to go to trial by jury has been arbitrarily calculated by the Government at 25 per cent. There is no reason to suppose that that is an accurate assessment. Anyone who practises in the courts will know that there is likely to be a much more significant number of appeals--let us say 10,000. How many days do the Government say will be lost on these appeals? The answer is 148. If 10,000 appeals are to be heard in 148 days in the Crown court, that allows four minutes and eight seconds for each appeal.

Some in the Home Office may think that such a decision can be taken in the time that it takes to boil an egg, but that will not appeal to Crown court judges. If judges hear 10 or 12 of these cases a day, 1,000 days of Crown court time will be lost. The answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) is that if hon. Members want to clog up the Crown court system, pass this Bill.

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