§ 3.46 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:
"I wish to make a Statement on the reform of the criminal justice system in England and Wales. We are today publishing a White Paper outlining an end-to-end reform of the service.
"First, however, I pay tribute to all those who have assisted in this tripartite paper. The Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General and I wish to thank in particular Sir Robin Auld for his review of criminal courts and John Halliday for his sentencing review.
"The people of this country deserve a criminal justice service that works in the interests of justice and puts the victim first. The White Paper is designed to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim and deliver justice for all. We are sending the strongest possible message to those who commit crime that action will be effective in detecting, convicting and properly punishing the perpetrator.
"We have a tradition of justice in this country going back centuries. We have embarked on reform of the police and an overhaul of youth justice, including a dramatic drop in the time it takes to bring young offenders to justice. The street crime 1244 initiative has already made a difference by bringing together the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the court administration.
"I can announce today that, following the Chancellor's Statement on Monday, we will invest over £600 million over the next three years in information technology. This will help us join up the criminal justice system.
"But root and branch reform across the board is still required. Delay, inefficiency and repeated adjournments are costing us dear. Through improved police investigation, case management and presentation, conviction of the guilty must be secured and acquittal of the innocent ensured. We seek not simply the process of justice, but the visible evidence that justice has been done. Every time someone on bail offends, or a case collapses or the wrong verdict is revealed later, we compound the harm done to victims and to society as a whole.
"We will ensure that victims and witnesses are protected. We will provide them with separate facilities from the accused. To ensure that their views are heard, we will establish a victims' commissioner, supported by a new advisory panel. Above all we will deliver faster, more effective justice.
"Our actions will be underpinned by the fundamental principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty and that the prosecution must prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.
"However, the one in eight defendants who fail to appear at court will be dealt with swiftly and summarily. We will bring in incentives for early guilty pleas, deal decisively with delays arid improve the use and availability of forensic and technological expertise.
"As soon as practicable, the Crown Prosecution Service will have responsibility for determining the charge in the most serious cases, other than where the police need to make a holding charge. We will allow the police to impose conditions on bail before charge to limit the chances of offending.
"Disclosure of evidence is currently a battleground between defence and the prosecution. This leads to delay and considerable cost. We will rebalance the rules of disclosure. Both the prosecution and defence will be obliged to disclose all the material necessary.
"We will make the rules of evidence simpler and clearer. Relevant previous convictions will be admissible where the judge believes it would be helpful to the jury without prejudicing the defendant's right to a fair trial.
"In time, we will integrate the management of the courts into a single organisation.
"We will extend the sentencing power of magistrates from six months to 12 months and legislate to allow Parliament to extend this to 18 months.
1245 "I can tell the House that the right of defendants to elect for jury trial will remain. However, in order to deliver justice in serious and complex fraud trials, we will seek Parliament's consent that such cases can be tried by a judge sitting alone. We will consult on whether a judge sitting alone should deal with trials where the danger of intimidation makes justice difficult to achieve. In addition, we will explore a similar option for complex financial or organised criminal cases. We have a real problem when in some parts of the country around three quarters of jury trials result in acquittals.
"We will produce in the months ahead a joint paper on long-term prevention for children at risk. We will legislate in the next Session to increase the powers of youth courts to hear more serious offences.
"Currently, no one can be tried more than once for the same offence. This is known as double jeopardy. We will allow for a retrial in cases where compelling new evidence such as DNA has come to light. This will cover murder and very serious offences such as rape.
"As I said last year, we must put the sense back into sentencing. For the first time, we will set out in legislation the purpose of sentencing: to protect the public, to punish the perpetrator and to prevent re-offending. We will establish a guidelines council to ensure greater consistency in sentencing and ensure Parliament has a role in considering and scrutinising draft guidelines.
"We will introduce a new suspended sentence of `custody minus' which will provide automatic imprisonment for offenders who breach their sentence. We will reform short custodial sentences and introduce, once piloted, 'custody plus', requiring offenders to serve the whole of their sentence—partly in custody, and the remainder under strict supervision. A new intermittent custodial sentence will mean that offenders spend part of the week in custody. Reparation, drug and alcohol treatment will help address offending behaviour.
"However, in protecting the public we are placing emphasis on dealing with dangerous violent and sexual offenders. Those not sentenced to life imprisonment, but who are nevertheless a danger to society, will remain in custody until they are considered safe for release. An indeterminate sentence will ensure they will be released under strict supervision only when they are no longer assessed to be a threat to the public. This House takes seriously its duty to protect the public, and we wish to ensure that democratically elected representatives retain the right to protect those we serve. A whole life tariff should mean life.
"The proposals we have set out are far-reaching, radical and require a culture change. To achieve this, we will need the support of those working in the service and of the wider public. We will need a balanced and sensible debate which I hope will be 1246 led by this House today. We need to reinforce trust and confidence in the criminal justice system as we seek to deliver justice for all.
"I commend this Statement to the House".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 3.53 p.m.
§ Lord Kingsland
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement. I hope that he will forgive me for not exhibiting complete mastery of the contents of the White Paper; it arrived on my desk only this morning and will require considerable study before we can return to the subject. However, I hope that, when that study is complete, the noble and learned Lord will agree to a much more extensive debate in your Lordships' House about its contents.
Crime in all its evil manifestations—violent crime, sexual crime, drug-driven crime, organised crime—is, I suppose, the greatest single domestic threat to the wellbeing of our society. The Opposition welcome this White Paper, animated by—as the noble and learned Lord said—the reports of Sir Robin and Mr Halliday. I think that all political parties in your Lordships' House must recognise that the onward march of crime has outmanoeuvred even the most adroit of modern Home Secretaries.
As I understand it, the organising theme of the White Paper is to marshal all the component parts of the criminal justice system into a successful integrated force. I think that that is a wholly admirable objective. Indeed, it is only common sense. If the police do not successfully do their job of detecting crime, the courts will not have any prisoners to try. If the CPS is not properly resourced and does not do its job of bringing the right charges in relation to the right people, prosecutions will fail in the courts. If the courts are too biased towards the accused, many victims will not get justice. Equally, if they are too biased against the accused, we will find ourselves living in a totalitarian society. If we do not get our sentencing policy right, we will never rehabilitate criminals.
So all these parts are crucially linked together. If one of these links in the chain fails, all the others will be mortally wounded. So the philosophy behind this White Paper has to be the right one.
I am also impressed by the "oil" that the noble and learned Lord has provided to lubricate this co-ordinated system: substantial investment in IT communications. As I understand it, the noble and learned Lord has set the target, to be achieved by 2005, of allowing every victim to follow by means of IT facilities the progress of the trial affecting his alleged wrongdoer. That must improve the relationship between victims and our criminal justice system.
I can, in the time available to me, and on the information that I have at my disposal, touch on only a few of the details of the White Paper. I should like, first, to comment on the features that I wholly endorse. First, I am delighted and relieved that the courageous proposals of Sir Robin about a middle tier of courts do 1247 not feature in the White Paper. Secondly, I applaud the decision to increase the power of magistrates' courts to sentence for a period of up to 12 months.
Thirdly—this is one of the most imaginative proposals in my view—I endorse entirely what I understand to be the intention of the noble and learned Lord: to take the existing pleas and directions hearings in criminal trials and extend them to a proper interlocutory procedure; so that, by a process of successive approximation, what is ultimately heard by the trial jury are the issues germane to the offence, and nothing more. That objective seems wholly admirable.
The most controversial points about the proposals are going to be those affecting double jeopardy, the right to opt for trial by jury and, perhaps most of all, the suggestion that a previous criminal record can be put to the jury before it considers the allegations. I shall reserve any comment on these individual matters until I see the Government's detailed proposals. I am partially reassured by what the Minister said early in his Statement; namely:Through improved police investigation, case management and presentation, conviction of the guilty must be secured and acquittal of the innocent ensured".That is a crucial addition to the earlier expression— that acquittal of the innocent is ensured.
I am sure that the noble and learned Lord needs no reminding from me of perhaps the most famous domestic policy utterance of Mr Churchill when he said that the hallmark of a civilised society is the protection it affords to the criminal accused. That should feature prominently on the desk of every official who is responsible for making any proposals in relation to questions of double jeopardy and the other matters to which I referred a minute ago.
We must also be cautious, when we look at rates of acquittal, not just to look at the trial procedure but also to look at the resources available to, and indeed the competence of, the CPS responsible for the particular area where the acquittal statistics are garnered. It is true that there are big differences throughout the country; but that may well reflect big differences in the standards met by the CPS. Here is an area where I think that the noble and learned Lord ought to proceed with great caution. But I take his general point that, in so far as our trial procedures now appear to be biased too much against the victim, he has to take the issue of criminal court proceedings very seriously.
I have just three other matters to mention before I subside. The first of these is about victims and magistrates' courts. If the noble and learned Lord is really serious about victim-driven reforms, he must stop closing down magistrates' courts—because there is nothing more detrimental to a victim than to have to travel long distances for his trial to be heard. That is equally true of witnesses. Given the large number of occasions on which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, have extolled local justice locally delivered, I simply cannot understand why this programme of closures of magistrates' courts is 1248 continuing. It may well be that the volume of cases in some of them is lower than whatever statistical test the Home Office applies; but in my submission that is a small price to pay for what we are seeking to achieve on behalf of the victim.
The second point concerns the Probation Service. I applaud the noble and learned Lord's imaginative approach to community penalties. That is one of the most successful features of the White Paper. But that policy will not succeed unless really substantial investment is made in the Probation Service. That is an absolutely crucial component and corollary of successful community penalties.
Finally, I should like to say something about the proposed committee for criminal procedure. I am second to none in my admiration for the Horne Office. It has a long tradition of integrity and the quality of its staff is extremely high. If I have one criticism, it is that the Home Office is perhaps a touch too excessively possessive about its powers. It took all the skilful diplomacy of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to expropriate just a small portion of these about a year ago. I should like to suggest to the noble and learned Lord that the journey upon which he is about to embark would be vastly more comfortable and immensely more successful if he gave the criminal law procedure committee that he is about to set up its head and allowed the judges to play a full part in designing these reforms which are so urgently needed for our country.
§ 4.4 p.m.
§ Lord Thomas of Gresford
My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I declare an interest as a practising barrister who both prosecutes and defends, a recorder of the Crown Court for 28 years and the son of a policeman. That covers a fair field.
I congratulate the Government as much on what the Statement does not say as on what it does. We welcome the abandonment of many of the proposals contained in the Auld report to restrict jury trial. Jury trial puts the citizen at the heart of the decision-making process. The jury represents the public interest in a democratic sense and is a vital safeguard against oppressive laws and oppressive prosecutions. Hence, we welcome the abandonment of the misconceived idea of appeals by the prosecution against so-called "perverse" verdicts.
We also welcome the proposals to prevent avoidance of jury service. It is wrong in a multicultural society that juries in long trials should not be representative in age, employment, gender and ethnic and religious background. Does the Minister envisage the reintroduction of the right of challenge on the basis that the jury called is not representative? Such matters are in the pipeline at the moment.
As regards fraud trials by judge alone, we shall examine the proposals with care. Experience shows that the simple issue in all fraud trials is whether dishonesty is proved. The standards of honesty should be set by the ordinary citizens on a jury. We are pleased that the Government have rejected the Auld proposal 1249 that experts or assessors should be called in to judge the defendant in accordance with the current practices and mores of the City or the commercial world. However, it is up to the prosecution to present a case in such a way that it is clear and can be understood by the jury. It is wrong in principle for a defendant to be convicted by a judge sitting alone and be sent to prison for criminal conduct that only an elite and not the general public can understand.
The proposals to end committal for sentence in the magistrates' court will do much to reduce Crown Court work: a positive encouragement will exist to elect for trial by magistrates. The extension of the sentencing powers of magistrates contained in the White Paper is therefore acceptable. However, it is important that magistrates should be encouraged to regard imprisonment as the last resort. The rhetoric of successive Home Secretaries has led to an unhealthy culture in which imprisonment is seen as the first resort. Fortunately, now both the Government and Her Majesty's Opposition seem to be moving to more liberal and more sensible policies of rehabilitation and reform. We welcome the restoration of the suspended sentence where prison would otherwise be imposed.
We support proposals for early guilty pleas and plea bargaining. Open plea bargaining is far better than the nudge and the wink. If there were not at the moment discussions between prosecution and defence as to what the issues are in a trial and how they can best be resolved, the whole system would break down now. That is why so many cases that reach the Crown Court crack on the day. The involvement of the judge is not usually necessary now that sentencing guidelines have been introduced and there is a recognised percentage reduction for a guilty plea. I am pleased to see that in the White Paper those practices are commended. In the old days it was the most vital function of the judge's clerk at assizes—totally unknown to the general public—to convey what his Lordship had in mind by way of sentence. Now, open plea bargaining is the way ahead. I hope that the Minister will confirm that discussions on a plea in a closed court should be entirely without prejudice to the defence at a subsequent trial if no accommodation is reached.
There is a greater emphasis on victims. Victims and witnesses frequently require protection and support. We welcome the proposals but there must be a balance. The public must remember that witnesses are frequently mistaken and sometimes lie. It is necessary to challenge them robustly if the truth is to be established. There is no point asking a witness, "Do you mind if I suggest to you that you are telling a lie"? if the witness replies, "No, I am not" and the interrogator then says, "Thank you very much. I apologise for asking the question". Obviously, defence counsel must do their job. ACPO and other police associations that make wild allegations about devious defence lawyers and their tricks are living in a world of fantasy. That is not surprising as one never sees a senior officer in court unless the High Sheriff is throwing lunch.
1250 The section of the White Paper on pre-trial openness and transparency is balanced. There have been spectacular miscarriages of justice due to the withholding by the police and prosecution of relevant material; hence, the defence has had to adopt the practice of demanding to see everything that it can. It has been necessary for the court to take over control in relation to the decision about whether material should be held on public interest immunity grounds. Scientific evidence has in the past regrettably been faked. Accordingly, it has been necessary for the defence to make its own inquiries in that regard.
The White Paper calls for more detailed defence statements. That may be desirable but it should not be assumed that defendants always tell their lawyers the complete truth at the beginning. They sometimes have a perfectly good and truthful defence but finding out what that is is like extracting teeth. I should be extremely wary of drawing adverse inferences impinging on a privileged area involving the instructions that have been given by a defendant to his legal team at an early stage.
There are many other points in relation to the White Paper which will require detailed attention. We approve of and welcome many points about the White Paper but others will be subject to scrutiny and criticism in due course.
§ 4.11 p.m.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for the welcome that they have given the White Paper. I also say on behalf of my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith that he regrets not being here today. He is unavoidably detained appearing in court on behalf of the Government. He would have wished to have been here today.
The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said that this is an issue for a much more extensive debate. I could not agree more with that, although I should be unwise to make any sort of commitments about having a debate in the House. That must be a matter for the business managers, as he well knows.
The noble Lord described crime as the single greatest threat to people's lives and livelihood. I agree. He welcomed the White Paper, for which I am grateful. He said that the philosophy underlying the White Paper, which he described as right, was marshalling all of the component parts of the criminal justice system into an effective fighting force. I would not quarrel with that description of one of the very important foundations of the White Paper.
The noble Lord congratulated us on the IT announcement and on particular parts of the White Paper. I need not go through that. He indicated what he considered the most controversial parts of the White Paper but I note that he did so without indicating whether he supported or opposed them and said that further debate was required. I await that further debate with interest.
1251 The noble Lord concluded with three particular points. First, he emphasised the importance of local justice. We thoroughly endorse the importance of local justice. That point is made specifically in the White Paper. Secondly, he referred to the importance of the probation service. He was absolutely right to underline its importance. It will have an increasingly vital role in the important supervision proposals that are made in relation to the correctional and sentencing parts of the White Paper. Thirdly, he emphasised the importance of the committee for criminal procedure. I thoroughly endorse its importance. As he knows, the White Paper proposes that that should be put on a statutory basis.
Similarly, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford—who speaks with particular experience on this issue, as he indicated at the start of his speech—for his support for significant parts of the White Paper. He raised various issues, with which I shall deal very quickly. First, he said that he hoped that prison would be regarded as a last resort in relation to sentencing. As he made clear, prison must be required for dangerous sexual and violent offenders: those who threaten society. We thoroughly endorse the idea that short prison sentences are very often not appropriate and sentencers should look for alternatives where appropriate.
The noble Lord raised the point that any indication by the judge about what the sentence might be if there is a plea of guilty at the point at which the judge is indicating which sentence will be passed would be without prejudice to any subsequent defence. I give him that assurance.
The noble Lord emphasised the point that there needs to he a balance between victims and witnesses on the one hand and the defence on the other. He said that in certain trials it is of course important that there should be robust testing of the evidence of the victim and witnesses. I thoroughly endorse that but we believe that there must be a rebalancing under the present system without in any way compromising the justice to which the defendant is entitled. He described our proposals in relation to pre-trial disclosure, which make impositions on both the prosecution and the defence, as balanced. I am grateful for that.
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, I have two questions for my noble and learned friend, which arise from his comments. The first point concerns delays. The White Paper says that the Government, or whoever the relevant body is, will deal decisively with delays. Can I take it that the prosecution will also be dealt with when it delays? I have not had an opportunity to read the White Paper any more than my noble friend—I mean the noble Lord, who is also a friend. How decisively will they deal with delays that are caused by the prosecution?
My second point involves the fact that disclosure of relevant previous convictions will be admissible where the judge believes that that would be helpful to the jury. Does my noble and learned friend agree that different judges behave differently and have different 1252 attitudes? Would it not be a good idea to have a guidelines council in this regard, as is envisaged elsewhere?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I shall deal first with the point about delays. Delays would have to be dealt with from whichever side in a case they come, whether the prosecution or the defence. An important element in dealing with delay will be the proposal set out in the White Paper for much more proactive judicial case management. Judges will ensure by the orders that they make and the steps that they take that both sides in a criminal trial meet sensible but pressing timetables.
On relevant previous convictions, we say in the White Paper that previous convictions should go in when they are relevant and when the judge, exercising his discretion, considers that the prejudicial value does not exceed the probity value. I do not believe that it is possible to indicate precisely which previous convictions will go in and which will not. The examples given in the White Paper are of help in that regard. My noble friend suggests that perhaps there should be guidelines in that regard. We should develop the arrangement as time goes on through the judiciary.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord completely satisfied that a single administrative structure supporting the Crown Court and magistrates' courts will lead to greater efficiency? Who currently says that Crown Courts are better run than magistrates' courts? I have never heard that said. Is it really suggested that local project managers will be more responsive to local needs than the magistrates' courts committees? If one looks at chapter 7 of the Auld report, does one not find that Sir Robin himself was forced to the conclusion that there had to be a single administrative structure because that would be an inevitable result of there being a third tier? If we are no longer going to have a third tier, is it not very much better to stay where we currently are so far as administration is concerned?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, on administration, a unified system means that very many anomalies that presently exist can be ironed out. For example, it means that a Crown Court judge in the Crown Court can deal with the indictable offence before him and with that which is triable only summarily; he does not have to refer that back to a magistrates' court. That arrangement is inconvenient and wearisome for defendant, victim and witnesses. Equally, it means that the geographical place at which a trial can be heard can be set more easily so far as victims and witnesses are concerned. We are very keen to ensure that any changes bring administrative savings and preserve the arrangement concerning the importance of local justice, which the noble Lord discussed. In developing those ideas, we will ensure that there is extensive consultation with the magistracy to ensure that both those principles are preserved.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, I venture to think that the House will have noted with considerable pleasure that those who spoke from the Front Benches opposite were broadly in agreement with the White Paper. I say that because, if ever there was a matter that should be taken out of the political arena, it is the fight against crime.
The other point I want to raise is that the fight against crime must be a fight against recidivism as well. I did not notice very much in the White Paper or in the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, about rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is very much a weapon in our armoury which we dare not forget. Will more money be spent on rehabilitation by education in the prisons? Are more people to be enlisted? Is there to be a means by which those who leave prison are helped to find a job?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I endorse what my noble friend said about the welcome nature of the cross-party support for these proposals. The proposals are explicitly described in the White Paper as both radical reform and root and branch reform of the criminal justice system. I welcome the support for the radical measures that we propose.
So far as concerns recidivism, the White Paper explicitly acknowledges the importance of fighting the reconviction rate. Whether one is referring to those coming out of prison or talking of community sentences, more than 50 per cent of people are reconvicted within two years. A concerted effort is required to attack that. The White Paper deals with the specific points to which my noble friend referred. In particular, it deals with the importance of equipping people who come out of prison with a skill. It also refers to the need to ensure that housing, alcohol or drug problems do not overwhelm people when they come out and cause them to offend again.
We need to address those issues in a long-term programme for fighting recidivism. The White Paper is a programme for the next five to 10 years fundamentally to transform the criminal justice system not only in relation to the court process but also in relation to sentencing, which is the important point raised by my noble friend.
§ Lord Carlisle of Bucklow
My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, I have no current interest to declare, having retired. However, like him, I believe that I can claim to have had a similar experience of working in the criminal courts. I welcome much of the contents of what the Minister said and, in particular, the tone of the Statement.
Nevertheless, does he agree that we shall have to be very careful to ensure that, in drafting the changes in criminal procedure which he has recommended, we do so without undermining the fundamental principles of the rules of justice to which the Statement refers?
Secondly, perhaps I may ask the noble and learned Lord a question about sentencing. Does he agree that the answer to overcrowding in prisons is not only to give to the courts more alternatives to imprisonment as 1254 punishment but also to ensure that non-custodial sentences are used more widely? Does he not find it disturbing that the proportion of non-custodial sentences and community service orders has apparently been reducing over recent years? Do the Government have any plans to encourage the wider use of non-custodial sentences?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I agree with the first part of the noble Lord's question. We must be careful at all times to ensure that the changes that we make are consistent with our fundamental notions of justice and, in particular, with the fundamental notion that a person is presumed innocent and should be convicted of a criminal offence only when evidence shows that beyond reasonable doubt. However, ensuring that the changes are consistent with that fundamental principle is not the same as saying that we should do nothing. Everyone agrees that fundamental and radical change is required.
As to the second proposition raised by the noble Lord, again I agree with the two sub-points made. First, there need to be more alternatives to prison, and, secondly, sentencers need to be encouraged to consider those where appropriate. I make it clear that all too many short sentences are now passed where an alternative to custody would be better.
§ Viscount Tenby
My Lords, of course I have no authority to speak for these Benches but, on my own behalf, I echo the welcome accorded the Minister's Statement. I want to raise one small point. As one of the very few noble Lords in this House who supported the ill-fated Bills in respect of election of choice in each-way cases on which, sadly, the Government appear to have thrown in the towel this afternoon, perhaps I may ask the noble and learned Lord whether there are any plans to bring some kind of logic into the list of offences which carry automatic right to choice and those which do not.
While the proposed raising of magistrates' powers in the matter of sentencing is a welcome step in reducing the pressures on Crown Courts, the fact remains that the anomalies which exist at present and which are jealously guarded in some legal circles should have no place in a modern legal system. As part of these welcome measures, will the Government look at those anachronisms?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, there are no current plans to look again to see which are either-way offences, which are summary only and which are indictable only. But, by increasing the sentencing power of magistrates to 12 months and by taking away the power to commit to sentence, we are seeking in the White Paper to ensure that cases which should properly be dealt with by magistrates' courts stay there far more in the normal course of events. That is the way in which we seek to address the problem of the anomalies where cases which should stay in magistrates' courts are heard in the Crown Court.
§ Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract
My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for repeating the Statement made in another place. Like most other noble Lords, I have had no time to digest the White Paper. However, I noted that it says:in time, we will integrate the management of the courts into a single organisation".Can my noble and learned friend reassure your Lordships that, within the suggested new arrangements, local people rather than civil servants based in the regions will continue to be able actively to participate in, and be responsible for, the management of the criminal courts?
Further, does my noble and learned friend agree that to lose this stake in the system in favour of notional consultation would be a retrograde step and further inhibit the promotion of confidence in the rule of law, which is itself one of the Government's overarching objectives for the criminal justice system?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, again, I underline what I said to the noble Lord. Lord Kingsland. Locally delivered justice is very important. Paragraph 9.20 of the White Paper says:In an integrated system, local managers will have much greater freedom to balance workloads across the civil, criminal and family jurisdictions, making it easier to sustain court services in local areas. This will support our aim to provide the widest possible network of viable local venues".My noble friend also referred to the importance of local consultation. We thoroughly endorse that.
My Lords, as major legislation will need to be passed as soon as possible in order to implement the Government's proposals, can the noble and learned Lord say whether there is any hope of introducing it within the present Session or shall we have to deal with it early in the forthcoming Session? Perhaps I may make the suggestion that, if we are to get this Bill through in its best form and as soon as possible after it is introduced, it should be introduced, first, in your Lordships' House, where there is far more experience—judicial and otherwise—needed to deal with this legislation than can be found in another place.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, there is no prospect whatever of a Bill relating to the White Paper being introduced this Session. The noble Lord, with his experience, has identified that a fairly significant Bill will be required to implement the measures in the White Paper. We hope to be able to introduce one as quickly as possible. The noble Lord suggested that it be introduced in this House rather than in another place. For the same reason I gave the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, I would not dream of giving such an indication. That is a matter for the business managers.
§ Baroness Hanham
My Lords, as I am one of the few magistrates in your Lordships' House I can tell noble Lords that broadly magistrates will welcome the increase in sentencing powers. However, I heard with some anxiety the word "reorganisation". I am 1256 conscious that at the present time the magistrates' court system is in the middle of quite a considerable upheaval. Is the intention to build on what has al ready been achieved through the changes or is the intention to start all over again?
When reorganisations are carried out the impact upon the staff and the people who work within the system tend to be forgotten. As reorganisations take place, they cause difficulties and basic inconvenience and they undermine the system. Will the magistrates' court system continue under the proposals currently being adopted, or will the cards be thrown up in the air again?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, we do not envisage throwing the cards up in the air. Unifying the court system into one organisation will be a significant change, but it will be carried out in a manner that builds upon the strengths of what is already in place. I thoroughly endorse the point made by the noble Baroness that too much change can have a detrimental effect on an organisation. Change must be carried out in a highly consultative and careful way to ensure that the system continues to run while the changes take place.
§ Lord Ackner
My Lords, like many noble Lords I have had no time to study the White Paper. Therefore, the few words that I offer are subject to further and better particulars later. From what I have heard, I would welcome a Bill. I am a little concerned by the ringing cries that the interests of the victims must be put first. I am not sure that I understand what is meant by "victims". I understand the word "complainant", but a complainant has yet to establish that he has a justifiable case for the prosecution to support. To me, a victim is one who has, without doubt, been wrongly, unlawfully, illegally treated. Surely, that can only be established after there has been either an admission of guilt by the defendant or a finding that the complainant is justified in coming forth with his complaint.
A large area of law establishes that previous convictions are, in limited circumstances, already admissible. I should like to hear in detail what is inadequate about the existing provisions. If judges are to be relied upon to add to those exceptions to the rule that previous convictions are not admissible, they will find themselves reluctant to do so. When I was a judge I followed the usual tradition of cautioning counsel before he overstepped the mark, for example, by over-attacking the conduct of the prosecution. One did that because one did not want previous convictions to determine a case.
I believe that the reluctance to allow previous convictions in evidence will continue. Unless the judiciary is to be bullied into doing something that it does not believe is just—I do not see that succeeding—I would not place too much store on widening the exceptions that exist at the moment.
There is no doubt that a relevant conviction can be highly prejudicial. As a generalisation, in a case of rape it would be wrong to allow previous convictions of 1257 rape unless they were admissible under the exceptions that already exist. One of the reasons for the high acquittal rate in rape cases is that as a member of a jury one has to evaluate whether one believes X or Y, while bearing in mind the obligation to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt. In that situation one can understand reasonable doubt arising in a large proportion of cases. That is a good example of a case in which reasonable doubt would immediately vanish if the jury learned that the accused had been previously convicted of such an offence. Those are "off the seat of one's pants" observations. I look forward to the further debate.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
My Lords, I shall deal shortly with those questions. I believe that many people would take issue with the definition of "victim" stated by the noble and learned Lord. For 77 per cent of crimes committed in this country no criminal is detected. I do not believe that that makes those who suffer crimes any the less victims of crime.
On whether judges may be reluctant to extend the circumstances in which previous convictions are admissible, we propose that such circumstances should be extended to where they are relevant and be subject to the judicial discretion to which I referred. Sir Robin Auld, in his report, in reference to the work of Professor John Spencer, put forward a proposal that involved a very expanded increase in the circumstances that we do not adopt; so too did the Law Commission, presided over by Sir Robert Carnworth. So other judges who have considered this issue are willing to entertain increased circumstances in which previous convictions are admissible. The current circumstances are difficult to follow and are not necessarily consistent. In many circumstances they are not fair to the prosecution.