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Jonathan Djanogly backs Criminal Justice and Courts Bill

24th February 2014

Jonathan Djanogly welcomes the Bill’s proposals to move forward the Government’s position on criminal law reform.

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Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): I am not sure whether I have been described before as a bored, troublesome Back Bencher, but I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill. Its proposals are sensible and move forward the Government’s position on criminal law reform. I congratulate the Lord Chancellor on his earlier presentation, which I note to the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) was very well received on the Government Benches.

Part 3 allows summary trials for non-imprisonable offences “on the papers” only and without the defendant being present. This is an entirely sensible proposal, but it forms just a small part of a wider debate about which case should be going to which court. Of course, all criminal cases start in magistrates courts, and the vast majority of them are disposed of there without ever going to the Crown court. This is important, first because most of us wholly support the ancient British tradition of low-level crimes being judged by magistrates, but secondly because the cases where an election can be made cost about £3,400 in a Crown court compared with the £900 they would cost in a magistrates court. There is the further question of what should be a criminal offence at all. I would be happy to debate, for instance, whether TV licence evasion is suitable for criminal rather than civil trial.

One of the main stumbling blocks to those part 3 proposals in the past has been disagreement between Government Departments, and I congratulate the Lord Chancellor on knocking the right heads together. The other problem has been the magistrates, who have been unwilling to lessen their work load, give that that has already reduced by more than one third during the last five years or so. Furthermore, the moving of traffic cases to a single traffic court in each police force area, which I think is being proposed, will leave some magistrates courts light-handed and more open to a merger proposal with another local court. There is significant volume here. For instance, speeding alone accounts for some 10% of all convictions. So the issues here are slightly more complicated and need to be placed into context.

Magistrates have also felt a bit under attack in recent years owing to the efficiency changes that really had to be made, and my concern here is that we could be reducing their work load further, without giving them the extra quality work that they deserve. Not only do justices of the peace cost less, but cases go through much faster. Sentencing is not for longer periods if a case goes to the Crown court, juries are more likely to acquit than magistrates, and the Crown procedural delays often mean that witnesses are not available. There are three interconnected issues here. The first concerns bulk non-serious cases, which is handled in the Bill. Secondly, there are the magistrates courts that these cases are being dealt in, and, thirdly, as we reduce magistrates input into these bulk areas, there is the question of how to increase their involvement in other areas.

On the first bulk issue, I agree that it is ridiculous that three JPs need to hear a small traffic case in open court with prosecutors involved in reading out case details. I appreciate and agree that defendants should retain the right to a full hearing in open court should they so require, but let us also appreciate that around half of traffic proceedings have no plea entered at all, a point that came up earlier.

On the second issue of magistrates courts being used, will the Minister please confirm that traffic work will be moved to a single court per police area? This is sensible, and I hope that a thorough review of procedure will be undertaken at the same time. I am sure that significant savings and a better service could be provided through better IT and procedures, but this could go yet further and be put into the context of a wider review. Of course, I would maintain that the closure of around 140 courts by the Government was correct, not least because as a result cases are proceeding quicker and at a lower cost. One of the keys to effective court procedure is to have larger court centres where listing and delays can be better managed. If we add to this continued use of technology and more virtual courtrooms in police stations, there is much more we could do. The bulk processing of non-imprisonable cases is part of this, but it would be better placed in the context of the wider whole.

Mr George Howarth (Knowsley) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right to make the point that he does about minor traffic offences, but along with many others no doubt, I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned about where the boundary between a traffic offence that could be dealt with in the way he describes is drawn, and where it spills over into what is, in effect, a criminal offence. Does he agree that if the approach he advocates is adopted, great care needs to be taken to set the boundary?

Mr Djanogly: I certainly agree with that. The Minister may wish to come back to this, but I think that that would be done in discussion with prosecutors, and there would be the ability for someone to request three magistrates if they so wished.

The main possible gap that I see here is on the third issue of wider JP powers, and we should be reviewing part 3 in the context of new summary only offences and an increase of maximum JP sentences to 12 months, not least to give a clear indication to the magistracy of our support. I had heard of some limited Government proposals to make shoplifting a summary only offence where the stolen goods are valued at £200 or less. Perhaps the Minister will advise the House on his proposals in this regard. The Magistrates Association has been advocating new summary only offences for some drugs possession, making off without payment, going equipped for theft, small benefit fraud, some affray and driving offences, some assault charges and failure to surrender to bail. I appreciate that this could result in a rise in the prison population, which the Magistrates Association considers to be about 1,000 people, but on the other side there would be court savings of £30 million to £40 million. Again, I would appreciate the Minister commenting on these proposals.

My second point relates to raising the upper age limit for jury service from 70 to 75. That sounds sensible given the upward age of people in the UK, but will the Minister say a little more about the research that has been done to confirm this? Will the change have any negative implications for younger people not being called? The problem that I found here was the reluctance by the judiciary to allow research to be carried out on jurors. My instinct is that fewer people are now willing to be called than was the case in the past. I would be concerned if the Bill exacerbated that, on the basis that it could allow working people to be let off more easily. My suspicions here are not reduced by a Government note that I saw, mentioning that they expect some savings to result from a reduction in the number of jurors in employment. I do not see that as a good objective for our democratic system.

When I did my own jury service, on the first day a man rushed in shouting at the court staff that he had 2,500 chickens being delivered that day and who would look after them. He was let off service on the spot, despite presumably having had long notice of his jury date, although perhaps not of his chicken delivery. The point I am making is that jury service is an important part of citizenship; so much so that I think we should be putting as much effort into educating the young in school about its benefits to society, and ensuring that people serve when called, as we are into pushing up the service age. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.

My third issue relates to the new contempt of court provisions on jury misconduct. That is important not only for ensuring a fair trial and saving costs, but for retaining confidence in the jury system. If a whole trail needs to be started again because of, say, internet research carried out by one juror, that is hugely frustrating for the other jurors on the case, who could be put off doing service again. My wider point is that access to technology is having such a huge effect on so many areas of our lives, and across all Departments, that perhaps we need a cross-departmental review of its impact on existing legislation.

Clauses 29 to 31 relate to criminals paying their own court costs, as was mentioned earlier. That sounds sensible, and it is something I support, but I note that the payment is made by the criminal after money penalties, after compensation to victims, after the victim surcharge and after prosecution costs. I would not confuse that with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on prior debts, but will the Minister please provide more information on what proportion of those costs are likely to be recovered and whether administration recovery charges make the proposal cost-effective?

Finally, on judicial review, I recall that as a young law student in the 1980s we had to learn about administrative law, but the striking thing then was how rarely it was used, and then only for very serious abuses of power. We have since seen a huge growth industry in which a willing judiciary has now opened up three or four courts across the country to hear those applications, which increasingly resemble appeals, rather than judicial review, or cheaper alternatives to proper cases, often funded by third-party organisations, some of which stay anonymous. That must change, and I am pleased, without addressing the detail, to see those provisions in part 4 of the Bill.

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