Debates between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames during the 2019 Parliament

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Judicial Review and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar
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That the Bill do now pass.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, I will speak very briefly on this issue. I want to say two things. The first is to express our gratitude to the Minister and the Bill team. The Minister has given all of us a great deal of time, both before Committee and on Report, and that has been used very successfully. I would also like to express my thanks to Opposition and Cross-Bench Peers, particularly those with legal and judicial experience, who have done a great deal of work in improving this Bill. The Bill team also has given us all a great deal of help.

The second point I want to make is that we have made a number of changes to this Bill after really serious consideration in Committee, on Report and following Second Reading. It would be nice to think that, when this Bill now goes back to the Commons, those changes will get some serious consideration, rather than simply being returned to this House after cursory consideration. They are important. We have deployed a great deal of expertise, knowledge and effort in making those changes, and they deserve a proper look from the other place. That said, I give my grateful thanks to everyone.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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My Lords, I echo the thanks of the noble Lord, Lord Marks. I also thank the Minister and his team for their support and the numerous meetings we have had as the Bill has progressed. I would also like to thank the outside organisations that I have found particularly helpful; I mention the Public Law Project, Justice, Inquest, Fair Trials, Transform Justice, Liberty and Amnesty International—I found their support extremely helpful. I would also like to personally thank Catherine Johnson, who has been of great assistance to me as this Bill has passed through this House.

I reinforce the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, about the importance of the amendments we have passed. We have had a different approach from that taken in some other Bills. We have had only a small handful of amendments that have passed for the House of Commons to consider. They have been Cross Bench-led by extremely senior judges and they deserve serious consideration by the other House.

Judicial Review and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, I will add very little to what the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said in moving his amendment. The House has been much assisted and considerably informed, as we frequently are, by his experience as a sitting magistrate and, in particular, by his experience of young people in court.

I do not propose to go through these amendments one by one. I said in Committee, and I repeat, that we are generally supportive of the measures in the Bill, which modernise our criminal procedures, make more use of online access and simplify guilty pleas in low-level cases. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, in what I understand is a series of probing amendments, which he does not propose to put to a vote, spoke of what I might divide into a number of principal themes which we also consider important.

The first is a concern for protections and safeguards for young people in the context of the new procedures. The second is ensuring that all parties understand the new procedures and have full information about the consequences of decisions they have taken, in particular about the effect of guilty pleas, and indeed that they have access to legal advice. The next is a concern that increased sentencing powers for magistrates be monitored and kept under review. I fully endorse what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said in that regard. That is very important. We are entering relatively uncharted territory and, although many of us see those themes as significant, nevertheless it is important that they be monitored.

That said, we await the Minister’s response with interest and hope that the safeguards sought by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, will at least be introduced by the Ministry in considering how we go forward with these new procedures after the enactment of the Bill.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, for putting down these amendments which, as he says, are probing amendments. I am also grateful to him for his time in discussing all of these points, I think, in a number of meetings we have had.

What I will seek to do—and I hope the House will forgive me if I do not go into too much detail—is respond to them point by point. I will try to strike a balance between giving a proper response here and not unduly delaying the House with points of detail. It may be that there will be points on which I might write further, but I will try to get the main points on the record, so to speak, because these are probing amendments.

I will start with Amendment 7 to Clause 3 on the new automatic online conviction procedure. This amendment would limit the application of this procedure to non-recordable offences only. I can assure the House in terms that we have no intention of extending this new procedure to any recordable offences. This is a new approach for dealing with certain minor offences, which is why we have committed to reviewing this procedure before considering whether to extend it to any further offences. Any extension of the procedure to additional offences would have to be both debated in and approved by Parliament.

Amendment 8 would allow the Criminal Procedure Rules to make provision about information that should be made available to the media and public on cases heard under the automatic online procedure. Amendment 13 would make a similar provision to Clause 6 for cases dealt with under the new online indication of plea and allocation procedure. This is already provided for in legislation. In fact, current provision in the Criminal Procedure Rules goes further. Rule 5.7 of the Criminal Procedure Rules sets out the basic open justice principle that courts must—that is a “must”, not a “may” as in the amendment—have regard to the importance of dealing with cases in public and allowing a public hearing to be reported. Rules 5.8 to 5.11 set out the process for providing that information and the types of information that should be provided.

The court will therefore provide the media with information about the outcome of these proceedings via the court media register within 24 hours of the case being dealt with. In the case of the automatic online procedure, this would include the conviction and fine imposed. That extends the arrangements currently in place for the single justice procedure for defendants who choose this new option.

In the case of the online indication of plea and allocation procedures, the information on the register would include the alleged date and details of the offence, the indicated plea and whether the case was being sent for trial. Any subsequent hearings for case management, trial or sentencing would be listed as normal and defendants would still be required to appear at a hearing in open court after they had proceeded with the online indication of plea and allocation procedures in order to confirm and enter their plea. I underline that this is because we are dealing here with an indication of plea.

Amendment 9 to Clause 4 deals with the guilty plea in writing. It seeks to raise the age of eligibility for the Section 12 plea, as it is called, by post procedure from 16 to 18 years. However, in distinction to some of the matters I have just referred to, this is not a new procedure. It has been available as an alternative method of summary-only prosecution for defendants aged 16 and over since 1957. That is rather a long time. As I said in Committee, I am not aware of any particular issues of concern being raised for children. Clause 4 will ensure that prosecutors can also offer this long-established procedure for suitable cases initiated by charge in person at a police station and will, if they do that, maintain the same age criterion that already exists for prosecutions initiated by summons or postal charge. This would provide defendants and prosecutors with the option of resolving more types of less serious, summary-only cases without having to spend time and resources attending a court hearing. It is subject to a range of safeguards, which I think I set out in some detail in Committee; I hope the House will forgive me if I do not repeat them all this afternoon.

Amendment 12 to Clause 6 proposes a new written procedure for indicating a plea to a triable either-way offence online. It would require a written invitation from the court to inform the defendant about the real-world consequences of pleading guilty to a crime and getting a criminal record. So far as that amendment is concerned, Clause 6 already states that the court must provide important information about the written procedure when writing to a defendant, including the consequences of giving or failing to indicate a plea online. Clause 6 will also enable secondary legislation under the Criminal Procedure Rules to require or permit the court to provide additional specified information where it is deemed necessary.

Importantly, any indication of plea provided through the new written procedure will not be binding on a defendant until they appear before the court at a subsequent court hearing to confirm it. They can also change or withdraw their indicated plea and, again importantly, if they do that, the indicated plea of guilty cannot be used against them in the proceedings that follow.

Judicial Review and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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Before I consider our position, can I just ask when the cooling-off period is likely to kick in. In other words, does it start immediately upon the indication of a plea of guilty or will it be following the conviction that is a consequence of the online plea?

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I will give an answer, but I will check it and if I get it wrong I will write to the noble Lord. I think the way it works is that it will be immediately after conviction. The conviction is almost instantaneous with submitting the online form because it is an online procedure. Therefore, the cooling-off procedure would start immediately after conviction and would run from that time. Indeed, I have just received a message to say that that is correct.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for that clarification; I will consider it.

I will of course withdraw the amendment at this stage, but I see the process that we have had today as calling for continuing discussion. Although it is helpful to know from the Minister that the financial consequences will be spelled out precisely in the offer, he did not address the non-financial consequences—the personal consequences—in enough detail. Of course I take his point that, at this stage, this procedure will apply only to travelling on trains without a ticket, what used to be called riding on trams without a ticket or unlicensed fishing. In those circumstances, limited to those three offences, the consequences might not be as serious as they otherwise might be, but since the statute refers to all summary-only, non-imprisonable offences, it potentially goes very much wider. It would be very helpful if, during continuing discussions, we were assured about the criteria that would be applied in much more detail for its application to future offences because one can see the distinction simply from the offences that he mentioned and we cannot be sure what will happen.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, seems to have a great deal to commend it. He raised it as a query to the Minister. If there were an amendment to that effect on Report I rather expect that it would have a lot of support in the House. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, the first two amendments in this group, Amendments 31 and 32 from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, would add requirements that an adult accused should have received legal representation and had a physical and mental health assessment confirming their capacity to understand the meaning and consequences of a guilty plea in order to participate in proceedings before the court seeks an indication of a guilty plea in writing. Amendment 33, also from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, would require information to be given to the accused as to the consequences of a guilty plea. These are similar to some of the issues we have canvassed before this afternoon. But, again, I support the principle of these amendments. They are directed at the proposition that before a court proceeds to accept a guilty plea, it must be satisfied that the accused has full capacity and understands the consequences.

These are complex proposals, and the consequences of a guilty plea are challenging to understand. They may, for example, include the consequence of being committed to the Crown Court for sentencing under new Section 17ZB of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980. It is important to understand how these points are going to be addressed in practice, and I hope the Minister will help us with that.

As for the next amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, I agree with him that taking a guilty plea from children, as proposed by Clause 8, is unacceptable, and I support him in opposing that clause and, consequently, in opposing Clause 14, which would, independently as well as consequently, water down the involvement of parents and guardians in child cases. That involvement is, I suggest, extremely important. There are two principal reasons for my opposition. First, it is extremely difficult to guarantee that a child of whatever age under 18 will fully understand the proceedings or consequences before giving an indication of a guilty plea. Secondly, a criminal charge often brings matters, risks and difficulties that are faced by particular children to the attention of the court when they attend court. That gives the court and other agencies an opportunity to address those difficulties, and that opportunity ought to be available and taken as soon as possible and before any question of indicating a guilty plea arises. For the same reasons, I support Amendment 34 in relation to Clause 9, which would permit allocation hearings in respect of children or young people to proceed in the absence of the accused. That does not seem appropriate.

These are difficult provisions for indicating a guilty plea in writing, and as I have said, it is difficult to see how they will work in practice. While they may prove to be inoffensive if introduced, the sunsetting provisions in Amendment 35 are surely sensible. If our concerns turn out to be groundless, Parliament can revisit the procedures on the basis of evidence of how they have worked out in practice and make them permanent or extend them. Otherwise, they ought to lapse after two years, as is suggested in the amendment.

I turn next to Clause 13, permitting the extension of a magistrate’s sentencing powers. I cannot, at the moment, for the life of me see why the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, are not right to say this is a matter that ought to be considered discretely and independently by Parliament, rather than having delegated powers enable the Secretary of State to increase magistrates’ sentencing powers at a later date by executive action. That does not seem appropriate, and no good reason has been advanced for why that should be right.

As to the threat to jury trial considered by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, I share her belief that increasing sentencing powers is likely to lead to more, rather than fewer, defendants opting for jury trial. The greater sentencing powers of magistrates would lead only to defendants taking their chances with a jury trial rather than staying in a magistrates’ court, and forfeiting what has been traditionally the incentive to stick with the magistrates—that they are likely to impose a shorter sentence and unlikely to commit for sentence.

As a matter of principle, I am instinctively opposed to increasing the sentencing powers of magistrates. At the same time, along with many who have considered the evidence, we are strongly opposed to short prison sentences. Against that, there is a serious risk that a move to permit 12-month sentences, when previously six-month sentences were the maximum that could have been imposed, will increase the use of custodial sentences of a longer period where community sentences would be more appropriate. I find that a difficult issue to face. We should be concentrating on increasing the use of community sentences; and increasing magistrates’ powers to 12 months for a single offence is entirely wrong. But I wait to see how the Minister approaches this change and justifies it.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. It covers a number of different points, but, essentially, it focuses on the procedure for triable either-way cases and the recent announcement that the Government intend to extend magistrates’ courts’ sentencing powers from six months to 12.

Let me start with amendments to Clause 6 —Amendments 31, 32 and 33. They all seek to add further safeguards to Clause 6, but I hope to explain why the Government consider them to be unnecessary. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, to ensure that defendants are able to seek legal representation in criminal proceedings at the earliest opportunity. The central point here is that a defendant is unable to proceed with the new online procedures without the support of a legal representative. That is because the online procedures we are dealing with here are made possible through the common platform, which is currently not accessible by individual defendants. So, as currently, legal representatives would be needed to access the platform, and they will then be able to help identify whether a defendant has particular vulnerabilities or does not understand the process even after explanation.

Defendants, as in a previous group, will be under no obligation to accept an invitation to proceed online. They can choose to discuss these matters at a traditional court hearing if they should so wish. Where a defendant fails to take up the offer of engaging online, the proceedings will simply default back to a normal court-based procedure. Furthermore, the court itself will be able to stop an online proceeding and call an in-court hearing if it has any concern or would like the defendant, for whatever reason, to attend court in a contested case. That would include cases where, for example, the court had concern about a defendant’s mental health or mental capacity, or where, for any other reason, the court considered online proceedings inappropriate.

Amendment 33 would require that defendants are informed about the real-world consequences of pleading guilty to a crime at court and what it could mean to get a criminal record. Of course, getting a criminal record is not something that should ever be taken lightly, but Clause 6 already ensures that the court must provide important information about the consequences of giving or failing to give an online indication of plea.

Where a defendant does decide to proceed with the online procedure, all the communication that would take place between the parties and the court to facilitate effective case management, which would otherwise take place in court, can take place online. A defendant will, for example, still be able to seek an indication of whether a custodial sentence would be likely if they were to plead guilty and were dealt with at the magistrates’ court. Further, any online indication of plea—and that is what we are dealing with, an indication of plea—will remain just that, an indication. A defendant is able to withdraw it at any time before their first appearance at a hearing in court. They will still need to enter a binding formal plea before the court at that hearing and any online indication of plea cannot be admitted as evidence in later proceedings. So I suggest that we have enough safeguards in place to ensure that defendants are appropriately supported.

Given that there has been some recent press coverage of the online procedure, I reiterate the important point I made earlier: the principle of open justice will be maintained for cases dealt with under this new online procedure. Magistrates’ courts will publish the result of these proceedings in the usual way and, and I said earlier, various measures in the Bill will actually mean that the press get more material here than they would from a traditional format.

Amendment 34 to Clause 9 would prevent the courts having a power to proceed with trial allocation decisions for children who fail to appear at their hearing without an acceptable reason and where it would have been in the interests of justice to progress the case. It is important that all cases, but particularly cases involving children, are progressed as expeditiously as possible, so that interventions to tackle offending are not delayed. This provision recognises that with the increased vulnerability of child defendants there will need to be additional safeguards.

Clause 9(5) creates a new, but clearly defined, set of circumstances that would enable a court to allocate a child’s case in their absence. A point to underline is that these conditions are far more stringent than those prescribed for adults, even though children cannot elect for jury trial.

There are essentially five conditions. The first is that the child has been invited, but failed, to provide an online indication of plea and that, in accordance with Clause 14, the court should, where appropriate, have made sure that the child’s parent or guardian was aware of the written proceedings. The second condition is that the child has then also failed to appear at the subsequent allocation hearing. The third is that the court must be satisfied that the child was served with adequate notice of the hearing or had previously appeared at a hearing and was therefore aware of the proceedings. The fourth condition is that the court does not consider that there is an acceptable reason for the child’s failure to appear. The fifth is that the court must be satisfied that it would not be contrary to the interests of justice to proceed to allocate the case in the child’s absence. There are a number of other existing safeguards—I will not go through them all—for example, when a child is arrested, the law requires that a parent or guardian must be notified as soon as possible. For prosecutions initiated by summons or postal requisition, the notice is also sent to the child’s parents or guardian.

Amendment 35 would add a sunset clause, which would essentially switch off the provisions in Clauses 6 to 9 two years after Royal Assent, unless Parliament passed a resolution to prevent it. I understand that the intention is to ensure that defendants are not disadvantaged, but I suggest it is unnecessary for three reasons.

First, as the Committee will appreciate, magistrates’ courts already have powers to allocate in the defendant’s absence. The online procedures are already used effectively in magistrates’ courts; we are simply extending the circumstances in which these powers can be used. Secondly, these measures do not replace current tried and tested procedures; they offer more options to defendants to save time and reduce the number of unnecessary appearances at court. If a defendant does not want to go online, the proceedings simply default to the usual court-based proceedings on their allotted hearing date. Thirdly, as I have said, there are safeguards to protect defendants who need protection, particularly children but also others, recognising that we have a distinct youth justice system.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, I will speak first to government Amendment 38, which makes provision for pre-action dispute resolution services and procedures to be taken into the overall procedure within the Online Procedure Rules. In principle, we particularly welcome this recognition of the importance of alternative dispute resolution procedures in the civil justice context. We accept the Government’s point that it is even more important in the context of online procedures, where modernisation and simplicity of approach are at the forefront of the Government’s aims, than it is in the context of conventional procedures to make provision for online alternative dispute resolution procedures to be brought into the overall picture.

However, what is proposed is a power only; it is not even really a template, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, pointed out, although not in those words. We simply stress how important it will be, in the context of the Online Procedure Rules, to integrate the arrangements to facilitate ADR into online procedures in a clear way. The noble and learned Lord pointed out particular areas where the provisions were very unclear about who would be responsible for those procedures and how they would be authorised, but I would welcome clarification from the Government as to how they propose to proceed in that regard.

Amendment 39 on online procedural assistance in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, which was moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, and to which I have added my name, is comprehensive. At its heart is the aim in proposed subsection (1) of introducing a statutory duty to provide assistance to those who need help navigating online procedures. That is an adjunct to the importance attached to them in the Bill itself. We of course accept that the Government intend to ensure the availability of assistance with the new procedures and we welcome the introduction of these online procedures. We were also reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, of the limitations of the procedures that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, promised when he was Advocate-General and we last debated these procedures. Our concern is that what the Bill proposes is very much wider and could, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, pointed out, cover family proceedings, proceedings for injunctive relief—almost any proceedings of whatever magnitude. However that might be, the importance of online assistance becomes greater with the importance of the proceedings to the parties.

The noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, talked about digital exclusion by virtue of skills, but it is not only a question of skills. She is absolutely right that many people are unable to handle digital technology through age, disability or vulnerability, as well as, of course, through lack of education or simply not having kept up with advances in technology. There is also the lack of availability of fast broadband and an inability to access the internet in the way those of us who live in areas of fast broadband are becoming completely used to. There is the availability of technology and computers. The answer might be that people can go to their local library, but for many people in rural areas, local libraries are very distant and lacking in decent equipment. It is not enough to say that anybody can access a computer.

That ties in with the financial abilities and means of people who may be litigants. If they do not have the equipment, as well as not having the skills, they cannot access it. For us, the cardinal principle is that no one, however unable to access digital procedures without help for whatever reason, should be disadvantaged by the new procedures. That can only be answered by a duty upon the Lord Chancellor to provide digital and online assistance. There needs to be assistance to a sufficient level that every litigant understands the procedures and how they are to be implemented and is able to have personal, telephone or remote appointments, whatever is necessary, to enable them to participate in procedures at every stage online. As per our amendment, this also means assistance with language in terms of interpretation or translation for those for whom English is not their first language.

An important part of our amendment is the prescription of an annual evaluation of online procedural assistance and the collection of information about how it is proceeding. I add only this: we are concerned to see that it will remain possible to take all steps in proceedings by paper means. This has been promised by the Government, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, pointed out. I am confident that the number of those requiring step assistance by paper proceedings will reduce as time passes. However, the ability to take all steps on paper, at any stage, must remain. This is essential to honour the fundamental principle of our justice system that we preserve universal access to enable people to enforce and defend their rights.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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I will first say a word about the amendment which I have put before the Committee. Dispute resolution is fundamental, and it is becoming ever more important. Although the noble Lord, Lord Marks, referred to alternative dispute resolution, as he may have heard me say before, we have sought to drop the “A”. We do not call it ADR anymore, we call it DR, because we do not see it as alternative, like alternative medicine. I can see my postbag about to grow, but I am going to say it anyway: alternative medicine is sometimes seen as somewhat outré and whether it actually works is questionable. Dispute resolution is not unusual; it is now a central part of resolving disputes and we know that it works. We want to ensure that people who engage in dispute resolution can do so online and—I will come to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in a moment—that they can also vindicate their legal rights online when it is appropriate to do so. I give the example that I have given before: there is a small trader who has a debt of £13,000 and the hearing is going to last for 90 minutes. Do we expect that person to take a day off work and go to the local county court and hang around when, instead, they could continue their job and—I was going to say “dial in” for the benefit for the mystery person on the Opposition Front Bench—go online, engage in the court hearing and vindicate their legal rights.

I will come back to the safeguards in a moment. Properly used, the online procedures are a way of enabling people to vindicate their legal rights. In justice, like in many other parts of our society, we have been forced to go online more during the pandemic and we have seen that it can work. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, talked about when I was previously at the Bar. Before I joined your Lordships’ House, I had to take a three-week trial entirely online. That trial could not—and probably would not—have taken place five years ago, but it took place online. I accept that it was a commercial case, and I will come to the points about family and other cases a little later. However, these proceedings and the Online Procedure Rule Committee are focused on ensuring that the civil justice system can respond to, and is appropriate for, the sort of world in which we now live.

Having said that, the noble Baroness—

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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I am sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Lord and am grateful for him giving way. May I draw him back to Amendment 38? I completely accept and take on the chin his criticism of my use of the word “alternative”, but I used it as a distinction from procedures by court. I understand his Amendment 38 to be concerned with out of court procedures, with what I used to call “alternative dispute resolution” procedures, but never will again. Nevertheless, it is concerned with integrating, as I understand it, dispute resolution procedures organised by third parties, which are not applicable to the example that he gave of having your rights vindicated by reference to the procedures that are allowed by Clause 19 of having court procedures online, which is slightly different.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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The noble Lord is absolutely right, but I was seeking to make the point more broadly. I will come to the court procedures, but the noble Lord is right: Amendment 38 seeks to ensure that, when people go to pre-court dispute resolution—I think everybody in the Committee wants to encourage that—if the case does not settle in whole or even in part, they can seamlessly transition to the online court procedure. They do not have to repopulate forms or send in new documents. Of course, I emphasise the mediation bit of it remains without prejudice, obviously, that is fundamental to mediation. Amendment 38 is to ensure that there is a set of protocols, essentially, to make sure that we can have that seamless transition. It is part of enabling people to vindicate their legal rights, either by way of an out of court settlement, with which they are satisfied, or by migrating into the online court space.

Judicial Review and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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Yes and no, in the sense that this gets us into the argument about the presumption, because the presumption applies to only these two remedies. To that extent, the point made by the noble and learned Lord is correct: that is the nature of the presumption, which we will get to in the next group. We want the court to specifically consider whether these remedies are appropriate and to use them, as the ending of new subsection (9)(b) says,

“unless it sees good reason not to do so.”

Because these are new remedies, we have set out a list of non-exhaustive factors which the court must consider. These are the factors in new subsection (8)—and it is expressly non-exhaustive in new subsection (8)(f). I agree with the noble and learned Lord that, as he put it, these are important considerations. However, we want to encourage consideration of their use; we are certainly not mandating their use in any case.

The other thing we want to do, by putting these factors in the Bill, is to provide consistency in the jurisprudence from the start as to how the remedies are used in the cases which come before the court. I remind the Committee that we consulted on the sort of factors that should be included in the list. We received some very useful contributions in response to that consultation. However, the “must” in new subsection (8)—which is contrary to the proposal in Amendment 7 before the Committee—requires the court to consider each of the factors in the list. Coming to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, the “must” does not require the court to find that every factor in the list applies. It does not require the court to say that all the factors are relevant in the instant case. The court may consider that some of these factors in the case before it are not relevant at all; some might have very limited weight or only marginal relevance. All the court must do is to consider them. As the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, pointed out, the court may add to its consideration absolutely anything it wants under new paragraph (f).

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way, but is that right in relation to new subsection (8)(c) and (d)? The court must have regard to the interests or expectations of persons who would benefit from the quashing and of persons who have relied on the impugned act. There is nothing voluntary about that. Those interests may be in conflict. Is it right that the court should always need to have regard to those interests?

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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First, they may not apply at all, because there may, in a particular case, not be any person who would benefit from, or has relied on, the quashing. Secondly, the court must have regard to it, but only having regard to it, the court can give it such weight as it deems appropriate. Absolutely, some of these matters may be in conflict. That, as we have heard, is nothing novel in the field of judicial review when the court must consider what remedy to issue in every case. Indeed, it goes beyond judicial review. There is nothing new in principle here at all. What we are doing is setting out factors which the court should have regard to. The court can place such weight as it wants on any of these, and the court can have regard to any other factors as well.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, we support all the amendments in this group. First, I will consider Amendment 104B. As explained by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, this amendment would authorise a special measures direction to enable videorecording of cross-examination of complainants in criminal proceedings for sexual offences or modern slavery offences, in order to enable their evidence to be given remotely.

This is a sensible measure for the protection of witnesses not only from alleged perpetrators but from the trauma of giving evidence in these difficult and painful cases. We have heard many times in debates on this Bill and on the Domestic Abuse Act how painful an ordeal giving evidence is likely to be. In the absence of a special measures direction, complainants who are witnesses have to give evidence before strangers, often in the presence of their assailants or exploiters and often under hostile questioning, to relive some of the most painful experiences of their lives. Nor should we forget how, in these cases, recording the evidence of complainants might well be the very best way of securing truthful and accurate evidence so that courts might be better placed to do justice than if they had to rely on the live oral evidence of very frightened and intimidated witnesses.

We also support Amendment 104C in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, because we have heard that Section 41 applications, if granted, permit the most intrusive and personal questioning of complainants about their previous sexual history. Such questioning might sometimes legitimately be regarded by a court as necessary in the interests of justice, but even when that is the case it nevertheless involves a gross invasion of the privacy, the sense of decency and the perceived rights of the complainant. The noble Lord and the noble Baroness are entirely right to seek the protections for the complainant that the amendment involves: the right to take part in the application or not at her choice, because it is generally a woman’s choice; to be legally represented; and to have a right of appeal against a direction admitting questioning or evidence of previous sexual conduct.

These Section 41 applications and the fear of the questioning they involve have been a reason for the large numbers of sexual offences going unreported or unprosecuted, as complainants are not prepared to go through the hell of facing such cross-examination and they pull out of cases for fear of it. They should be entitled to significant legal protection, just as if they were parties, when such an important issue for their personal integrity is considered by the courts. The protections proposed in the amendment are fully justified.

Finally, we support Amendment 107C on rape and serious sexual offences units—the so-called RASSO units—for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and by my noble friend Lord Paddick. I will try not to repeat the points he made.

Historically, there has been a problem, which we should not seek to deny, in ensuring that police forces treat rape and serious sexual assault with the importance these offences merit. It might be that the situation has improved, and I have no doubt it has. In most forces, victims are treated sympathetically, with tact and care, and derive support from the officers handling their case. However, the public, and women in particular, still lack confidence in the treatment they are likely to and do receive from the police if they are victims of sexual assault. This is one of the factors again driving the low rate of reporting and prosecutions, and the high rate of the withdrawal of complaints. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, gave us the figures, with which we have become familiar.

Specialist units are likely to concentrate expertise and experience of dealing with rape and serious sexual offences in the hands of those who really know about them. This amendment concentrates on the specialist training of the staff in such units. That is critical. Such units have the potential to improve the evidence-gathering process and ultimately, one would hope, the reporting and the prosecutions of offences and the conviction rates, which, as we know, are appallingly low.

All the amendments in this group identify serious issues and propose practical, worthwhile and achievable solutions. In respect of each of them, I suggest it would be helpful for the Government simply to accept them or to come back with alternatives to similar effect at Third Reading.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I recognise that behind all these amendments is a dedication to improving the way in which the criminal justice system handles sexual offences cases and supports victims. On both those points, that dedication is shared by the Government. It is absolutely right that we do as much as we can to support all victims, including those of sexual offences, and help bring to justice those guilty of those very serious crimes. I know that there is no disagreement between us on the need to continue to improve the victims’ experience of the criminal justice system, and of the important role that special measures, such as Section 28, can play in supporting victims and witnesses to provide their best evidence.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, the effect of Amendment 104D would be to increase the maximum sentence for criminal damage with intent to destroy life-saving equipment from 10 years’ imprisonment to life imprisonment. I listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, and her harrowing accounts of the vandalising of life-saving equipment and the damage and consequences of that. I also listened to the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and it is very clearly necessary that the Government make it clear how they will respond to the issue of vandalising life-saving equipment.

The behaviour comprising the offence is extremely serious because it carries the risk that life will be endangered by the damage caused. However, if I may adopt a slightly lawyerly approach to the amendment, I question whether it is necessary. The scheme of the Criminal Damage Act, as amended, is that under Section 4 an offence of criminal damage generally carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. However, Section 1(2)(b) of that legislation states that where the offence is arson or, as stated, is committed by a person

“intending by the destruction or damage to endanger the life of another or being reckless as to whether the life of another would be thereby endangered”,

the maximum sentence is increased to life imprisonment. That is the combined effect of that subsection and subsection (4).

I understand that the intention of the noble Baroness in moving the amendment on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, would be to cover criminal damage to life-saving equipment with the intention of endangering life. However, given that by Section 1(2)(b) the offence is committed where a person commits criminal damage recklessly as well as intentionally in relation to endangering life—which means where the offender deliberately takes a risk that the damage he causes may endanger the life of another—I cannot at the moment see that such behaviour does not cover intentionally destroying or damaging life-saving equipment without lawful excuse. Nor can I at the moment see how, in the absence of such an intention or recklessness as to life being endangered, a maximum sentence in excess of 10 years would be justified on normal principles.

Consequently, I await hearing from the Minister with interest. He may or may not accept the slightly lawyerly approach that I put, but I hope that he will give some reassurance about how the Government propose to respond to the problem of vandalising life-saving equipment.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, this amendment was debated just a few weeks ago when the Government set out why we believed it was unnecessary, given the scope of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. I will come back in a moment to what the noble Lord, Lord Marks, called a lawyerly point.

However, it is right first to remind ourselves, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, did, of the very real consequences of this sort of behaviour. On the death of Sam Haycock in Ulley reservoir, can one begin to imagine what his parents Simon and Gaynor went through and are, no doubt, continuing to go through? One only has to say it to try to grasp to enormity of that. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, used the word “harrowing”. That is spot on. This relates to the appalling behaviour of the people vandalise equipment, which results in the requirement of having to make a telephone call to get hold of a life ring, defibrillator or whatever life-saving equipment it happens to be.

I turn to the legal position, as I am afraid we have to, given that we are considering an amendment to a Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, is correct. I explained that it is already an offence intentionally or recklessly to damage or destroy property, including life-saving equipment. Section 1(2) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 makes a specific provision for an aggravated offence of criminal damage where the defendant intends to endanger life or is reckless about such endangerment. To that extent, it goes beyond the scope of the amendment, which relates only to intention and does not include recklessness. As the noble Lord said, that offence already attracts the possibility of life imprisonment.

Of course, I understand that part of the reason why it is proposed to add a specific offence is to put beyond doubt that the law will punish those who damage and destroy vital life-saving equipment, whether they intend to do so or are reckless as to the risk. The concern was raised in Committee that it is not well known that causing damage to life-saving equipment means that Section 1(2) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 could be in play and therefore carry a potential life sentence. However, if the concern is that that is not well known, I would question whether it would make a real difference if this Bill were amended essentially to repeat that point of law. The ordinary citizen, particularly the people who carry out this appalling behaviour, is still as unlikely to understand or perhaps care about the consequences and penalties associated with the crime. Therefore, I suggest that the ultimate problem here is not a question of a gap in legislation or a lacuna in the criminal law but people knowing what the law is and bringing home to people the likely criminal consequences of their actions.

In response to my noble friend Lord Attlee, as I suggested in Committee, if the law is not enough of a deterrent, we must focus on those responsible for water safety, health and safety, and law enforcement to come together to find out what is not working and identify workable solutions that might include sign- posting more clearly on the equipment the consequences of damaging that equipment. That might be a way forward. However, I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Chapmen, that these are abhorrent acts of criminal damage that should be prosecuted. The sentence must fit the crime. There is a potential maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, put the question: why are the Government making destroying statues a criminal offence if destroying life-saving equipment is not a criminal offence? The problem with that question is that destroying life-saving equipment is a criminal offence. So far as statues are concerned, the next instalment is due on Monday, so I will leave the matter for then.

However, so far as today is concerned, while sharing very much the sympathies behind the amendment, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw it.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, we agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, on the amendments he moved or spoke to on proceedings involving children and health screening, and with the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. We support those amendments, but I will speak to Amendment 97CA from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on the use of live links in jury trials, to which I have put my name.

This amendment raises two important questions about the nature of juries and of jury trial. First, how important is it to the trial process that juries see and hear witnesses give their evidence live? Secondly, how important is it to the trial process that the relationship and balance between judge and jury is live rather than remote? On the first issue, the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, made the point that jury trials depend, more than anything else, upon the ability of jurors to weigh up the evidence of witnesses. They have to assess two things: veracity, or whether the witness is trying to tell the truth, and accuracy, or whether he or she has got it right.

As others, including the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Carlile, have said, after nearly two years of the pandemic we have all become completely familiar with the process of remote discussion and meetings. None of us, I feel, would now argue that remoteness makes no difference. In this vital area of our national life, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, pointed out, we entrust decisions about the guilt or innocence of those charged with serious crimes to juries of 12 who listen to and weigh up the evidence of witnesses, and make decisions about truth or falsehood, reliability or inaccuracy, honesty or dishonesty, and intent, accident or misadventure. Those jurors will certainly consider objective evidence that has the same effect when seen or heard remotely as it has when seen or heard directly. But much of the evidence they will hear, and usually the most critical evidence in jury trial cases, has to be subjectively judged, as the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, said. That is done by references to the witnesses’ demeanour, body language, response to cross-examination and emotional responses.

These are matters on which juries might initially and quite legitimately disagree. Their assessment—the different assessments of all 12 of them—will be the subject of detailed discussion during their deliberations and depend upon impressions. We would be undermining our jury system by depriving jurors of the opportunity, in the case that they decide, to share their experiences of the witnesses and the experiences that they have had live. I do not believe that undermining the jury trial in this way can possibly be justified.

On the second point about the presence of the judge, counsel and jury in the same place, the role of the judge and jury and the relationship between them is a delicate one. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that the judge’s position is to ensure that trials are conducted in a responsible and serious way. I also think there is considerable importance in that relationship that the independence of juries is maintained. A stock sentence that judges quite properly use when summing up is when they tell the jury, “It is a matter for you, members of the jury,” and it is.

However, for juries to make the decisions they are charged with making, they must not feel to be, seem to be or, still less, actually be at a disadvantage compared to the judge who has seen and heard and assessed the witnesses live. When the judge recounts a particular piece of evidence in summing up, juries must not be cowed or persuaded into accepting what they may perceive to be the judge’s view of the evidence. They must be able to say to each other: “He or she may have said that, but I did not believe that witness—did you see how scared they looked?” That is what jury independence means. Jury independence is fundamental to our system and why it is so important. For that reason, I completely support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
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My Lords, this group contains amendments covering the application of live links to children and vulnerable people as well as to remote juries. I will come to the remote juries point separately later.

First, to make sure that we are all on the same page, I remind the House that Clauses 168 and 169 do not mandate remote or video hearings. How a hearing is to be conducted is a matter for judicial decision on a case-by-case basis. These clauses ensure that, if appropriate, observers can watch a hearing taking place to ensure that the principle of open justice can be maintained.

Amendments 97A and 97B seek to prohibit remote observers from being present in all cases in which a child is among the parties. Amendment 97C similarly seeks to remove children from the application of Clause 170. I suggest both these amendments are unnecessary and would inhibit both the principle of open justice—which is a fundamental principle in this jurisdiction—and the principle of judicial discretion. It would inhibit the ability of courts to use audio and video technology where the court sees fit and when it is in the interests of justice to do so.

I turn first to Amendments 97A and 97B. The effect of these amendments would be that all such remote hearings would effectively have to be held in private, including, for example, any multiparty litigation in our civil courts or tribunals in which a single claimant—perhaps one of a number of claimants—is under 18. That would unnecessarily constrain the transparency of our justice system and impede the principle of open justice.

While I accept the sentiment that underpins the amendments, they are unnecessary because we have sufficient tried-and-tested legislation in place to safeguard the privacy of children in these proceedings. That is set out in Section 47(2) of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. We also have existing procedure rules under which the court can hold any hearing in private in order

“to protect the interests of any child or protected party”.

Therefore, I suggest to the House that that statutory provision and the procedure rules provide sufficient protection to safeguard the privacy and well-being of young people in the justice system, whether the hearing takes place in-person or remotely.

Amendment 97C would prevent the court making a direction to enable any participant in a hearing to attend by live link where a child is party to proceedings. Again, it is important to protect the interests of children, but we have clear support and guidance in place which mandates the court to consider and have regard to the welfare of the child, to make sure that each child is fairly assessed and represented, is sufficiently supported, can understand what is happening, and is able to engage and participate in proceedings and be kept safe. That is set out in the Criminal Procedure Rules and criminal practice directions.

I recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, said, that, in the majority of cases, it may well be more appropriate for children to attend a hearing in person, and the Criminal Procedure Rules recognise this. But one must recognise that there may be situations where it is more beneficial for a child, whether as a witness or a defendant, to participate by live link; for example, to protect a child witness from having to be in court with the defendant. Clause 170, as drafted, gives the court that inherent flexibility.

I will come to Amendment 97D in a moment but let me first turn to Amendment 97CA, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, which seeks to exclude juries from the provisions in Clause 170 that would otherwise allow a jury assembled together to take part in a trial through a live video link, where appropriate and where the court has decided that it would be in the interests of justice to do so. I will come to the detail of the amendment in a moment, but let us not lose sight of one important point. This amendment is designed to strengthen and support the jury system. It is designed to ensure that we can continue to hold jury trials in circumstances where it might otherwise be impossible, as we experienced for a certain time in this jurisdiction during the pandemic. I am pleased that we were one of the first jurisdictions in the world to get jury trials back up and running, but we could not do as many as we would normally because of the social distancing constraints.

Why are we so keen to maintain jury trials? The answer is simple and perhaps a little topical. The jury is a fundamental part of our criminal justice system. To adopt the words of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, it is a cornerstone of our liberty. True it is that the cornerstone gets a little defaced with some graffiti from time to time, but it is, none the less, a cornerstone of which we should be proud.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, threw something of a gauntlet down to me. I am very happy to pick it up, briefly. Juries sometimes return verdicts that raise an eyebrow, but I know from bitter experience that it is not unknown for judicial decisions to trouble the eyebrows too. In a proper case, there is a procedure, once the jury has brought in its verdict, to ask the Court of Appeal to consider and determine specific points of law to assist in future cases without disturbing the actual jury verdict in the instant case.

If the noble Baroness wants to have a crack at my right honourable friend the Attorney-General, she can, but she cannot, I am afraid, stand up and have a crack at her while betraying fundamental ignorance of the underlying legal principles. Counsel in the case himself said that his arguments were “new and complex”. Those are precisely the points which would be suitable for reference under Section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1972, a provision with which I am sure the noble Baroness is very familiar. I am also sure that she has read the recent case in the ECHR of Handzhiyski v Bulgaria, decided on 6 April 2021, which discussed in terms whether the provisions of Article 10 of the ECHR did or did not apply to a charge of criminal damage.

I am very happy to respond on the glories of the jury system, but I respectfully suggest that, if the noble Baroness is going to make a point about the conduct of the Attorney-General, she looks at the underlying legal position first. There are certainly points in the Colston case which an Attorney-General might properly decide to, or not to, refer to the Court of Appeal. That is a matter for the Attorney-General.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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As we found in Committee, it is very tempting for Ministers to start parsing or glossing the term “exceptional circumstances”, and I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not do so. That phrase has been used in statute and considered at the very highest level by the judiciary. The application of statute is properly a matter for the judiciary. In these circumstances, it is not helpful for a Minister on his feet to start parsing or glossing what has been said by the Court of Appeal. With genuine respect, I will leave that matter there and leave it for the Court of Appeal to explain what “exceptional circumstances” means. However, I repeat that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said in terms that he found that test not a difficult one to apply—indeed, he found it an easier and more straightforward test to apply than the interests of justice.

Amendment 82A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, with the support of the noble Lord, Lord German, would require a court imposing a custodial sentence of six months or less to state its reasons for being satisfied that neither a fine nor a community sentence could be justified.

The noble Lord, Lord German, reminded us of the Government’s position set out in 2020, which, of course, I stand totally by. There are plainly issues of rehabilitation and reoffending when it comes to short sentences, and that is why, as I explained in Committee, provisions in the Sentencing Code already ensure that custody should be a last resort in all cases, and for the shortest term possible. Even where the custodial threshold is met, courts retain discretion to impose non-custodial sentences after taking into account wider considerations. The code also places a duty on the court to explain its reasons for passing any sentence, and this can include an explanation of the factors the court has taken into account in making its sentencing decision.

This amendment also sets out a series of principles for courts to have regard to when imposing a custodial sentence of six months or less. For the most part, these are included in the independent Sentencing Council’s Imposition of Community and Custodial Sentences guidelines. As courts are already under a statutory duty to follow any sentencing guidelines relevant to the offender’s case, the Government do not consider it necessary to put these principles on a statutory footing.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, said, if an alternative sentence to custody can properly be handed down, it should be. While I do not propose again to gloss the sentencing guidelines, I respectfully agree that that is a useful summary of them. Again, as the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said with his own experience, it is often only when community sentences have failed that a custodial sentence is handed down. That, again, is in accordance with the approach set out in the sentencing guidelines.

Of course, I listened very carefully to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, with whom I have had discussions on this and other issues, and by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester—I was going to say the “campaigning” Bishop of Gloucester, but I will leave out the adjective, although she might like it. I hope that they will each be satisfied with—and certainly understand—what I have said and the reasons for the Government’s position on these amendments. For the reasons that I have set out, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, I am very grateful for the support that I have had for my Amendments 71 to 78 from Members of the House and for all the contributions to this important debate. I am also grateful to the Minister for his response. However, when one analyses it, what he was saying about discretion cannot survive a proper reading of what is meant by “exceptional circumstances”. Certainly, it is the case that authorities have analysed exceptional circumstances, including the Court of Appeal authority of Nancarrow that he mentioned.

Nevertheless, the nub of it is that “exceptional circumstances” means circumstances that are very unusual, and what the Minister did not address was my point that there are many situations which in general experience are commonplace, and the circumstances are common- place, but where it would nevertheless be unjust—contrary both to the judges and to any normal sense of justice—to impose the minimum sentence. Because the circumstances are not exceptional, the judge would be bound to impose that sentence.

In answer to the points of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, of course it is the case that judges are daily addressed on the basis that they should take an exceptional course of leniency, and it is not surprising that, as a recorder, he has been asked to take that course many times. However, that does not mean that he has been asked to find that circumstances are exceptional. It is interesting that the test for the sentencing guidelines and departing from them is “contrary to the interests of justice”, and not a requirement that there should be exceptional circumstances.

On the matter of policy, I respectfully suggest that the answer to the Minister’s point was comprehensively expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier. He used the word “wise”. It may be that the Government are entitled to legislate in this way, but is it wise? The Minister said that there was a difference between “wise” and “constitutionally proper”. The point I am making is simply that, although it may be a matter of policy in the sense that the Government can have the policy and can legislate—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, said, Parliament can do what it likes—the question is: is it bad policy? We say that it is bad policy because it forces judges to do what they would not otherwise do, having regard to the interests of justice.

In respect of the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, of course it is right that it may be easier to apply a test of exceptional circumstances, because the authorities are so clear, but the point about the interests of justice, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, picked up in Committee, is that sentencing decisions are difficult.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, I shall speak briefly to this group of amendments. First, I turn to the minimum sentence for rape of seven years, subject to an exceptional circumstances disregard or permitted departure. We acknowledge and endorse everything that has been said to the effect that rape is the most appalling crime. The terribly low success rate of prosecutions of which the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, spoke is acknowledged by everyone and has been the subject of a great deal of research by parliamentarians, policymakers and the Government. It needs addressing. The problems that she talked of, of low reporting rates and very high withdrawal of support, along with very low conviction rates, all need addressing. However, I am not convinced that a minimum sentence would address any of those things. Furthermore, for all the reasons, which I shall not repeat, I believe that the use of an exceptional circumstances test for the ability of judges to depart from a minimum sentence is simply wrong.

I also agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, when he pointed out that, as anybody who has dealt with rape cases in criminal courts knows, rapes are so very different, the one from another. He was right to point to the very wide range of sentences endorsed in the sentencing guidelines, which mean that courts treat rape very differently, from the milder cases to the very serious cases that merit life imprisonment. I also have some concern that, in some cases, it would make juries even less likely to convict if they knew that there was a minimum sentence of seven years. I cannot support, and I do not think that we cannot support generally, the proposition that this seven-year minimum sentence should be legislated for.

By contrast, Amendment 78B, which would increase the sentence for publishing the identity of sexual offences complainants, is one that we do support. I suspect that it is not often realised quite how serious an offence this is. Sometimes there is a substantial risk of further harm when the identity of a complainant is published. There is very often significant fear on the part of the complainant if her name—as it is usually, although it may be his name—is published. There is almost always really significant distress caused by an unlawful publication. It is of course open to complainants to waive anonymity if they wish. But if they do not wish their identity to be published, to have the law flouted in the way the offence requires seems to me to justify a sentence of imprisonment in some cases. It is important to hear that these are only maximum sentences that we are dealing with.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, that there are other cases of unlawful disclosure that should be considered and reviewed but, that being the case in an ideal world—and we all know that these things do not happen as fast as they should—that is no reason for not doing anything at all. So we support Amendment 78B.

For all the reasons given by my noble friend Lady Brinton and, no doubt, to be given by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby—the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, has already spoken to it—we support Amendment 78D on the duty to inform under the unduly lenient sentencing scheme, as well as the extension of the time limit for complaint in respect of unduly lenient sentences. In Committee we went through the reasons for the whole-life order to be taken as a starting point in cases of abduction, sexual assault and murder, and we do support that—again, because it is only a starting point—and this ranks right up there with the other serious offences for which a whole-life order is appropriate.

We support for the reasons given by my noble friend Lady Brinton her amendment on home detention curfews as well.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, these amendments, introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, include those aimed at increasing penalties for sexual offences, those focused on enabling victims to challenge a sentence perceived to be unduly lenient, and those aimed at restricting additional offenders from release on home detention curfew. We debated these at some length in Committee, and we listened carefully to the arguments put forward by noble Lords in support. There are obviously some emotive and important issues here, and I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position again this evening. But while the sentiment behind the amendments is fully supported by the Government, we do not consider them to be either necessary or the right course of action.

Let me start with a point on which I think there is common ground, as was set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman. Victims must feel that they are put right at the heart of the criminal justice system. They must be supported so that they can engage properly at every step of what can be an incredibly difficult journey. As the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, set out and referred to, last week we launched a package of measures to help achieve this: a consultation on a new victims’ law; a national rollout of provision of pre-recorded cross-examination for sexual and modern slavery victims; national criminal justice and adult rape scorecards; and a progress report on the end-to-end rape review action plan. We believe that those initiatives, individually and collectively, will raise the voice of victims in our criminal justice system and give them the justice they deserve. That especially includes the victims of often horrendous crimes of sexual violence.

I will address first the amendment regarding minimum sentences for rape. There is no dispute across your Lordships’ House that such crimes should be punished with sentences that match the severity of the offence. But the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, is proposing that a court be required to impose a minimum custodial sentence of seven years for a rape offence committed under Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003,

“unless … there are exceptional circumstances … which justify it not doing so.”

Rape offenders already receive very significant sentences. The courts can, and do, pass sentences of life imprisonment. In 2020, of those who received a custodial sentence of less than life for a Section 1 rape offence, the average sentence was almost 10 years—117.5 months—an increase of almost 15% over the last decade. More than two-thirds of adult offenders sentenced for a Section 1 rape offence received a custodial sentence of over seven years, which is the minimum proposed by the amendment.

In this Bill, and in legislation introduced last year, the Government are ensuring that serious violent and sexual offenders, including rape offenders, sentenced to over four years now spend two-thirds of their sentence in prison, as opposed to having automatic release at the halfway point. However, the nature of this offence and the wide range of circumstances which the court may need to take into account are complex, as my noble friend Lord Hailsham pointed out. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, although, while I know what he meant, I am not sure I would use the word “mild” for any case of rape. I know he did not mean it in that way. What we are dealing with here is different degrees of seriousness of an offence, and I know he meant that.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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May I confirm that? It was the wrong word to use, and I apologise.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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I was keen to help the noble Lord out, because I think we all knew what he meant, but it is important in these areas to make sure that the record is really clear. I think we all agree that it is especially important, therefore, because we are dealing with different degrees of seriousness in a complex offence, that we maintain judicial discretion for the courts to consider the full facts of a case before them and decide on the appropriate sentence.

Although the sentence lengths for rape have increased, we have long recognised that the decline in the number of effective trials for rape and serious sexual offences is a cause for significant concern. Let me take a moment to mention some of the wider action we are taking: we have introduced legislation to tackle crimes including stalking, forced marriage, FGM and the those set out in the Domestic Abuse Act; we have committed to more than doubling the number of adult rape cases reaching court; we published the end-to-end rape review on 18 June; and we want to improve the number of rape cases being referred by the police, being charged by the CPS and reaching court. I have already mentioned the victims Bill. In July, we published the tackling violence against women and girls strategy, and we hope that also will help us better target perpetrators and support victims of these crimes, which disproportionately, although not exclusively, affect women and girls.

I turn to Amendment 78B, which would increase the maximum penalty for publishing the identity of sexual assault victims—currently a summary, non-imprisonable offence—to two years in custody. We do not dispute that the current maximum penalty is too low. Our concern, however, is that it would not be right to legislate, as the amendment does, only for the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992.

The naming offence in Section 5 of that Act protects complainants in sexual assault cases and was later extended to cover human trafficking cases as well. The effect of this amendment would be that the penalty for breaching these restrictions would be markedly different from the penalty for other offences also involving the breach of anonymity. Two of these, in relation to female genital mutilation and forced marriage, are modelled on the 1992 Act, and it therefore would be difficult to impossible to justify treating these identical offences differently from the 1992 Act offence.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I first turn to Amendment 223A from the noble Lord, Lord German, which would allow local authorities to “establish and maintain” secure academies and prevent any for-profit corporation doing this.

Dealing with those points in turn, first, we are not aware of any specific legislative barrier to the provision of secure 16 to 19 academies by local authorities. However, it is government policy that academy trusts are not local authority influenced bodies. As a result, no academy in England is operated by a local authority and our position here is to mirror academies’ policies and procedures in secure schools to the greatest extent possible. That said—

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Has he had regard to Section 6 of the Academies Act, which provides that a local authority must cease to maintain a secure school if it becomes an academy? That seems to have the effect of ruling out local authority involvement, even if it operates in a slightly circuitous way.

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My understanding is that the £259 million was announced in the spending review to continue the programme to maintain and expand capacity in both secure and open residential children’s homes. I am not able to say any more than that; it might be a question for my Treasury colleagues to clarify. However, I am also able to clarify it to the noble and learned Lord. Perhaps I can drop him a line on that specific point.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Before the Minister sits down and before I admit to nodding, the point he made is why I referred to the operation of Section 6 as being possibly circuitous. It seems that in certain circumstances it may well apply, and it may well apply more generally.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
- Hansard - -

The reason why I did not say it in terms that I was certain that the noble Lord had got it wrong was precisely that point. It seems that we might be approaching this point from different ends, but I will look at it myself and, if necessary, I will drop noble Lords a note. It may not be necessary given what has now been said.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, we welcome this amendment and the opportunity to discuss restorative justice. We are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for relaying the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who has a long-held commitment to restorative justice that is well known.

We fully support the amendment and are concerned that the Government should take in how important restorative justice is felt to be in this House. This debate has given us the opportunity to make that clear. We were privileged to have the explanation of the reasons for restorative justice and the comprehensive account of its birth and development from my noble friend Lady Harris, who set out, from her experience of police work and as a magistrate, how restorative justice has developed and its value.

The amendment is important because we—some of us, anyway—have concerns that, although there is this commitment around the House, there may be a danger of progress stalling. That is why it is so important that there should be a call for the preparation of an action plan, that it should be laid before Parliament and that there should be a report on the progress on restorative justice.

Members of the House will have been interested to hear the account of the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, on how restorative justice developed in Northern Ireland from a state of great hostility, where real potential enemies were confronting each other, and how restorative justice became reflective of community justice as perpetrators and victims came into contact. He made the point that this was very much not a soft option but was victim based, and that analysis from the circumstances in Northern Ireland was, I felt, reflected by the analysis of my noble friend Lord Paddick, who gave the history of restorative justice in London and dealt with the achievement of victim satisfaction and, interestingly, a greater feeling of safety on the part of victims. He also talked of the benefit for perpetrators in the contact between the victim and the perpetrator; that was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who was one of the signatories to the amendment.

I will be very interested—we will be very interested—to hear the Government’s response, which we hope will give us an indication that the Government take restorative justice as seriously as the speakers this evening do and that their commitment to it will be increasing and continuing.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for proposing the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who is unable to be with us this evening. She spoke eloquently at Second Reading about the benefits of restorative justice, and I am very sorry that she is not in her place this evening. I am sure that I speak for the whole Committee in wishing her well. She did, however, have a meeting with me on this topic, and I record my thanks to her for her time and for the discussion. She expressed concern that the Bill did not include provision for restorative justice. The amendment is trying to fill that perceived gap by requiring the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary to publish an action plan for restorative justice every three years.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, for her support for restorative justice. I agree that, in the right circumstances, it can have far-reaching benefits. I have heard and felt the mood of the Committee on this point, but the truth is that I did not really need any persuading as to the importance of restorative justice. It can bring those harmed by a crime and those responsible for that harm into communication, and it can help everyone affected by the crime to play a part in repairing the harm; that is commendable. The Government support restorative justice where it can be suitably used.

However, with respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, I would draw a distinction between civil cases and criminal cases. We have to remember that in a civil dispute—this is part of the answer to the road traffic point, but I will write to my noble friend as well—there are two parties before the court. I can settle my case on whatever terms I want if the other person agrees. When it comes to crime, there is a public interest; we prosecute in the name of the public. We do not allow victims to determine always whether the offender serves a punishment or not. I am not saying that restorative justice is not applicable, but we have to remember that there is a different set of criteria and principled underpinnings to our civil justice system and our criminal justice system.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, it is important to remember what is in the amendments and what is not. We are not really debating whether short sentences are or are not a good thing; government policy on that has been stated frequently and I will restate it shortly. I am not proposing to make any sort of turn, whether a U-turn or a Z-turn. Instead, I will keep on the straight and narrow, if I can use that phrase in this context.

It is important to remember what the amendments seek to do. They would prevent the court passing a short custodial sentence unless it is satisfied that no other sentence is appropriate. They would also require the court, if imposing a short custodial sentence, to explain why alternative sentences were not considered appropriate. Let me be clear: I understand absolutely the sentiment behind the amendments and appreciate, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made very clear, that this is not saying that there are no circumstances in which a short custodial sentence could be appropriate—I fully take that on board.

I agree that short custodial sentences can, in many cases, be less effective at tackling reoffending than community sentences. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, was very clear about the importance that magistrates attach to community sentencing and how it is important that they have confidence in the community sentence regime. The words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester that were read to us also questioned whether short custodial sentences were, to use her phrase, an effective remedy. I think I have dealt with that point. I listened with real care to the testimony I heard at the event she organised and which I was very happy to attend.

The Government cannot support these proposals because they reflect existing law which is sufficiently robust. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Beith, when it comes to statute, I do not believe that saying something again makes it stronger. If something is already in statute and is not being done, it is critical to investigate why it is not being done, and not simply say the same thing again. I therefore gratefully adopt some of what has already been said to the Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.

Section 230 of the Sentencing Act 2020—let us just see how it works—places important restrictions on the courts imposing discretionary custodial sentences. It starts with a negative:

“The court must not pass a custodial sentence”—


the starting point is that the court cannot pass a custodial sentence; that is the default—and then continues:

“unless it is of the opinion that … the offence, or … the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it, was so serious that neither a fine alone nor a community sentence can be justified for the offence.”

Section 77 of the Act goes further and makes clear that even where the threshold for passing a custodial sentence has been met, the court may still pass a community sentence after taking into account any mitigation. Even then, where a court has formed the view that only a custodial sentence can be justified, even in light of any mitigation, it may still suspend that sentence so that it does not become an immediate custodial sentence, taking into account factors such as realistic prospect of rehabilitation, strong personal mitigation, which would obviously include the effect on dependants, as we discussed in earlier groups, and significant harmful impact on others of immediate custody. We suggest that, taken together, this provides a very robust framework which would ensure that short custodial sentences are passed only where there is really no other alternative for the court.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he take my point that none of those provisions focuses on short custodial sentences in particular, as opposed to custodial sentences in the generality?

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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I accept that they do not refer specifically to short custodial sentences, but when the court is considering a short custodial sentence, the particular factors the court would have to go through before imposing it—and particularly before imposing an immediate short custodial sentence—would be all the starker. It is important that we have a consistent regime. For the reasons I have set out, I do not think it necessary or helpful to have a separate regime for shorter custodial sentences. The position on that, I suggest, is already absolutely clear, as is the requirement for a court to explain its reasons for passing sentence. It is important to recognise that the court has to explain its reasons for passing any sentence, not just a custodial sentence; otherwise, the Court of Appeal will have something to say about it. That is set out in Section 52 of the Sentencing Act.

I hear the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, that when it comes to courts explaining the reasons for their sentences, it is very important that they are bespoke and not off the peg—if I can put it that way. That is very important, not least for the offender to know why that sentence has been passed. I will not say any more about the reasons given by the Supreme Court for refusing permission to appeal, but the noble and learned Lord was certainly right that I was all too familiar with receiving those reasons in my cases.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, goes further because it sets out a list of “principles” the court must take into account. I suggest to the noble Lord, who is very familiar with this area, that those principles are by and large set out very clearly already in the guidelines from the Sentencing Council. I suggest that the principles enshrined in legislation would not take us any further.

As the noble Lord knows, there are five statutory purposes when it comes to sentencing, set out in Section 57 of the Act:

“the punishment of offenders … reduction of crime (including its reduction by deterrence) … reform and rehabilitation … the protection of the public, and … reparation by offenders”.

A sentence can serve one or more of those purposes. The Act also states that, even when the threshold for custody has been passed, that does not mean that a custodial sentence is inevitable—particularly for offenders on the cusp of custody.

Imprisonment should not be imposed where there would be a disproportionate impact on dependants. We touched on that today. We looked at that in a lot more detail in an earlier group, so I hope the Committee will forgive me for not dealing with that in any more detail. I have set out the position in some detail already. It is fair to say that, when this amendment was tabled in the other place, Alex Cunningham MP fairly recognised that the principles are already accepted in the sentencing guidelines, which all courts are required to follow; they are not optional. I suggest that the amendment is unnecessary.

Proposed new subsection (3) of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, concerns the impact of custody on the children of primary carers or the unborn child of a pregnant woman. I think that is almost identical to an amendment we discussed earlier, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton. Again, I have responded to that in some detail already, so I am not proposing to say any more about that.

I will pick up two other points. First, the noble Lord, Lord Bradley, talked about Scotland. The position in Scotland is different. It has a very different sentencing regime from that of England and Wales. The Sentencing Code here, which I have set out, contains the requirements and protections which I have sought to explain. For those reasons, we do not believe that the amendment is necessary; nor, with respect, do we believe we get much assistance in this regard from looking at the Scottish law because there is a very different system for sentencing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked me about the JCHR recommendation. In the time I have had, I have an answer here for her. It is fair to say that it is slightly off-topic. Perhaps she would be happy if I were to write to her on this point, rather than take further time. I will set out the answer in writing; I hope that is acceptable.

For those reasons, we suggest that this is already covered in legislation and in the sentencing guidelines. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, these amendments seek to ensure that the courts depart from imposing a minimum sentence, to use the words of the amendment, only where it would be

“contrary to the interests of justice”

to do so, “having regard”—and then it refers to the particular requirements in the Bill on the offender and on offending. “Interests of justice” is not defined. I do not complain about that, because the phrase is used elsewhere and the courts know what it means. I do not want to go over old ground.

It is already the case that a court has the discretion not to impose the minimum sentence where there are particular circumstances relating to the offender, the nature of the offence or, in the case of repeat offending, the nature of the previous offence that would make it unjust to do so. I underline the point that whether that exception, however phrased, is met is for the judge to decide, based on the particular facts of the case. It is for Parliament to set the minimum sentence, if it wants to, and to set the “exceptional” provision—whether that is exceptional circumstances or however else it is defined. It is then for the judge to apply what Parliament has said.

As I said on the previous group, concerns have certainly been raised that offenders too often receive sentences below the minimum term. That both fails to provide an appropriate level of punishment that reflects the severity of the offence and undermines any sensible use of the word “mandatory” in this context. Let me give a couple of examples. Among adult offenders in 2020, at least—and I will explain my “at least” in a moment—50% received a sentence below the minimum term for third-strike domestic burglary. I said “at least” because the figures do not indicate whether these cases include early guilty pleas, for which they could get a reduction of up to 20%. Even allowing for that, at least 50% received a sentence below the minimum term. Of adults convicted of repeat possession of a weapon or bladed article, at least 21%—over a fifth—received a sentence below the minimum term.

I heard what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, said and I am not going to beat about the bush, either. I am trying to be clear. There may well be a difference of opinion around the Committee, but at least let us identify it clearly. With this provision, we seek to ensure that courts depart from the minimum sentence only in exceptional circumstances. Those are clear words, and they mean what they say.

We believe that the test of exceptional circumstances is both suitable and important. Not only does it help to address problems that have been escalating in our communities for some years, especially with regard to knife crime, but it will create greater consistency in the statutory provisions on minimum sentences. The change is therefore intended to reduce the circumstances in which the court will depart from the minimum term, ensuring that this important safeguard is used only where the court considers that there are exceptional circumstances, pertaining to the offender or the offence, that would make the minimum sentence unjust.

The changes align the criteria used for these offences with the criteria for passing a sentence below the minimum term in relation to offences involving firearms, where the proviso of exceptional circumstances is already in the law. However, I underline that the judicial discretion for the court to fully consider the facts of the case before it and decide on the appropriate sentence in line with the statutory framework is therefore retained.

I listened carefully, as I know the noble and learned Lord would expect me to, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I think we may stray into almost philosophical areas, albeit very important ones, as to what a sentencer ought to do and perhaps even what we mean by “unjust” and where justice lies.

Parliament sets out the statutory framework. If the Bill is passed, Parliament will say that the minimum sentence is X years and that the proviso is exceptional circumstances. It is then for the judge to apply what Parliament has set out. That is the way our system operates. We can have an interesting debate about whether, if a judge does that, the judge can be doing something that is “unjust”. I fully understand where the noble and learned Lord is coming from, looking at “unjust” in a broader sense, but there is a basic justice in Parliament, which is ultimately where power resides, setting out what the minimum sentence and the exception should be and then leaving it for the judge to apply that exception on the facts of the case.

I heard very clearly the point made by my noble friend Lord Hailsham about whether longer sentences actually help. Again, that takes us into a whole different area. I mean no disrespect by not replying to him at length but we believe the sentences here are appropriate and suitable.

When the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, concluded by saying, “Are we not to require our judges to do justice?”, I do not know whether he was intentionally paraphrasing the famous argument of Abraham to the Almighty. When the Almighty is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah even though there are some righteous people there, Abraham says to the Almighty, “Will the judge of all the earth not do justice?” I hear very strongly that the ultimate requirement is to do justice, but I emphasise that in our system we start with the parliamentary legislation. That is why we collectively, here and in the other place, bear such a heavy burden. It is for us to set out the statutory framework and then for our judges and courts to apply that framework. That is ultimately the way, I suggest, that justice is done in our system.

I do not want to lecture the Committee any further on jurisprudential matters. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am grateful for the speeches that we have heard in this interesting debate, particularly by those who have the most sentencing experience, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Judge and Lord Thomas. I am also grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for his indication of the Labour Party’s support.

While I will withdraw the amendment at this stage, I will return to it on Report. My concern is that the Minister, and I am grateful for the care that he gave to his response, failed to appreciate quite how loyal judges are to the law. Where the law requires a judge to find that exceptional circumstances exist before making a departure from the minimum sentence, he will do so loyally.

The point that both noble and learned Lords made is that it is simply wrong for the law to require judges, where they might have found that the circumstances of an offence or an offender dictate that the just sentence is less than the minimum, to be in the position that they have to say, “I cannot here find that the circumstances are exceptional—that is, completely out of the ordinary—and although I believe that the sentence I am constrained to pass is unjust in the sense that it is the wrong sentence, I nevertheless have to do it.” That is the result of the loyalty judges feel to the law—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, mentioned the judicial oath—and is a weakness of this proposed provision, which puts political dogma above the need to do justice. Although I will withdraw my amendment now, I hope that, given the speeches we have heard, in the next few weeks or months, before Report—depending on when that is—we can talk to the Minister, take this matter further, and see if we can get some movement. Saying that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, this is a drafting amendment to Clause 107. Its purpose, as I hope has been explained, is to prevent a prisoner who is serving a sentence for an offence which, at the time it was imposed, did not carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, having their release date changed retrospectively from the half-way to the two-thirds point.

Such an offender should not be made subject to the two-thirds release provisions of Clause 107 should the maximum penalty for their offence be increased to life at a later date, after they were sentenced. Let me give an example that I hope the Committee will find helpful. An offender is sentenced for an offence that currently carries a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment. They receive an eight-year determinate sentence. That sentence is not caught by the two-thirds release requirements because the offence does not carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, so the offender is given a half-way release point. Now let us assume that, three years later, the Government increase the maximum penalty for that offence to life imprisonment. Without this amendment, the offender would have their release point retrospectively amended from the half-way to the two-thirds point of the sentence.

That was not the intention of Clause 107, and it is important that we correct this now. With this amendment, Clause 107 is future-proofed appropriately and as intended. It applies to those sentenced for offences that are increased to a life maximum in the future, but applies only to those sentenced after that increase in the maximum sentence becomes law. The amendment will ensure a fair and consistent approach to such offences. For those reasons, I beg to move this amendment.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, we support these amendments. It is obviously right to remove the retrospection and we congratulate whoever spotted the anomaly and brought the amendments to the Committee.

Hillsborough: Collapse of Trials

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Monday 14th June 2021

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, Mr Justice Davis held that the offence of perverting the course of justice did not apply to a public inquiry, because it is an administrative function of the Government rather than a process of public justice. If that is the current state of the law, even given the specific offence under the 2005 Act mentioned by the Lord Chancellor, will that not undermine the whole point of public inquiries and destroy public confidence in them? Will the Government urgently amend the Inquiries Act to reverse this decision, particularly in view of the impending inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, where we know there will be significant conflicts of evidence?

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, we will of course keep this point of law under consideration but not for the reasons the noble Lord gives, if I may say so respectfully. The Prime Minister has already confirmed that the Covid inquiry—if I can call it that—will be established on a statutory basis with full formal powers. That means that Section 35 of the Inquiries Act 2005 will apply. That makes it an offence to commit acts that tend

“to have the effect of … distorting … altering … or preventing … evidence”

from being given to a statutory inquiry.

Libel and Defamation Cases: Cost to Public Funds

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Monday 14th June 2021

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very important point. There are, of course, the defences of truth and, in relation to what is said in court, there is of course absolute privilege. As the Minister who played a significant part in taking the Domestic Abuse Act through this House, I will certainly want to ensure that the protections it gave to women are not undermined by people exploiting the law of defamation.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, the Defamation Act 2013 was an important coalition achievement. The pre-legislative committee on which I served was unanimous, so we now have the serious harm threshold, the serious financial loss requirement for companies and the defences of honest opinion and publication in the public interest. To curb libel tourism, as the Minister has just said, Section 9 requires any claimant outside the UK to show that

“England and Wales is clearly the most appropriate place”

for defamation action. It was a test applied strictly by the Court of Appeal last year in Wright v Ver. While we should certainly keep the Act under review, is not the law now restrictive enough?

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that the law is well balanced. We think that the Defamation Act 2013 is working well. I thought I heard the noble Lord say that Section 9 applies where a claimant is domiciled outside the UK, but I think that it is actually where the defendant is so domiciled. With that small correction, I agree with the noble Lord.

Criminal Justice Review: Response to Rape

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Wednesday 26th May 2021

(2 years, 10 months ago)

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
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My Lords, as the Minister in the other place made clear yesterday, the underlying statistics in this area are indeed regrettable. He made it clear that he is taking personal leadership on this matter because rape is a cross-agency issue. We have the police and the CPS, both of which are rightly independent of government, and we have the Courts Service and the judiciary. Everybody must come together to improve the current performance.

The rape review will be published shortly after the Recess. I am afraid I cannot provide advance notice of its details today but I very much hope that, when they read it, the noble Lord and the whole House will welcome it because we intend it to be a transformational document that will lead to transformational change. Supporting victims of rape is an absolute priority for this Government; we have invested significant sums in that.

Let me give the House just one example of a change that can be made and which has real consequences. We have put in £27 million to create more than 700 new posts for independent sexual violence advisers. They stand with victims throughout the process. We have seen what is terribly called victim attrition. People opting out of the system goes down by 50% and more than 50% of people stay in if they have these advisers to help them. We will work, I hope with the noble Lord, to improve the statistics in this area.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, delaying the report to await the Court of Appeal judgment on CPS charging decisions is understandable, but one wonders why the report has taken two years. This is a dangerous crisis. Rape prosecutions were down from more than 5,000 in 2016-17 to fewer than 1,500 in 2019-20, in spite of an increase in reported rapes. In 2020, more than 52,000 rapes were reported but there were only 843 convictions. Potential rapists become ever more confident of impunity, and the lives of women and girls become ever more threatened.

Without second-guessing the report, may I press the Minister on two points? The first concerns ending the culture among young men and boys that condones harassment, even rape, and expresses the arrogantly sexist view that “she was asking for it”. We see it in schools, universities and colleges. Will he pledge substantial extra resources for citizenship education to turn this around and teach respect for women and girls?

The second point concerns that trauma of legal proceedings and probing the sexual history of rape victims. In his report from Northern Ireland, Sir John Gillen recommended that victims have legal representation to oppose the disclosure of their personal data, including mobile phone records, and to oppose them being cross- examined on their sexual history in cases where such issues arise. Will the Government agree to provide that?

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, it is not correct that the review was delayed solely because of the judicial review of the CPS policy. The noble Lord will be aware that the court concluded that there had not been a policy change, although, frankly, I accept that that does not mean that there were no important issues for the CPS to address. The delay was also in part because we wanted more engagement with victims’ groups. We are delighted that Emily Hunt has joined us; she can give us, and has given us, invaluable insight from her position as a victim.

As far as the culture is concerned, the noble Lord is absolutely right. This is a cross-governmental issue. It is fair to say that, in schools and colleges, there is now more understanding of what consent means and, if I can put it this way, of what consent does not mean. If I may be personal for a moment, frankly, I see that in the education my own children get at their schools. They get an education that I do not think people in this House would have got when they were at school.

On legal proceedings, the noble Lord is absolutely right. There are careful rules now over when a claimant’s sexual history is relevant to the case. Often, it is not. We have put in place a number of changes to ensure that complainants are better looked after by the courts system. For example, Section 28 is currently being rolled out. It will enable vulnerable victims and witnesses who are subject to intimidation to give evidence and be cross-examined online and on-screen in advance of the trial.

Independent Review of Administrative Law Update

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Monday 22nd March 2021

(3 years ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and the distinguished panel he chaired, for the hard work and painstaking research they put into producing their independent review. I share the right honourable and learned Lord Chancellor’s expressed view that

“judicial review plays a vital role in upholding the rule of law: it acts as one of the checks on the power of the Executive”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/3/21; col. 504.]

As his right honourable friend Michael Gove put it when he was Lord Chancellor:

“Without the rule of law power can be abused. Judicial review is an essential foundation of the rule of law, ensuring that what may be unlawful administration can be challenged, potentially found wanting and where necessary be remedied by the courts.”


The first of the two steps the Government plan to take now is the ending of the so-called Cart JRs, through which the High Court permits a judicial review although the Upper Tribunal has refused permission to appeal. They say that so few Cart JRs succeed that they are a waste of judicial resources. From the consultation questions, it is clear that this decision has already been taken. Should not the short consultation proposed have been more open on this, given that almost all Cart JRs are immigration cases and so of particular sensitivity?

The Government also propose to permit courts to suspend quashing orders to allow the Government a chance to act to correct the errors that made the original government action unlawful. The reasoning for this change is powerful, and on this issue the consultation seeks views on how to achieve this objective—and rightly so.

However, the rest of this Statement sets loud alarm bells ringing. The Lord Chancellor says that the Government want to

“go further to protect the judiciary from unwanted political entanglements and restore trust in the judicial review process.”

He talks of examining

“the use of ouster clauses”—

as mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton—

“the remedies available in judicial review proceedings, and further procedural reform.”

Bluntly, ouster clauses are clauses in statutes designed to ring-fence government decision-making and administrative action from court challenges by making them non-justiciable.

The panel was broadly opposed to the use of ouster clauses. Paragraph 2.98 of its report states:

“While the Panel understands the government’s concern about recent court defeats, the Panel considers that disappointment with the outcome of a case (or cases) is rarely sufficient reason to legislate more generally.”


Paragraph 2.99 states that

“while the use of such a clause to deal with a specific issue could be justified, it is likely to face a hostile response from the courts and robust scrutiny by Parliament.”

Paragraph 2.100 states:

“The decision to legislate in this area is ultimately a question of political choice. But when deciding whether or not to do so, the Panel considers that Parliament’s approach should reflect a strong presumption in favour of leaving questions of justiciability to the judges.”


We regard ouster clauses as an unacceptable threat by the Executive to insulate their future unlawful action against challenge. Except in certain well-established areas of prerogative action, they spell danger for the rule of law.

The consultation also proposes the introduction of prospective-only remedies. That would mean that past unlawful government action or SIs would continue to have effect, even if struck down for the future, so victims of past unlawfulness who had not had the means or the ability to challenge it would face gross unfairness. The Lord Chancellor says that this would

“create a system that encourages solutions to be found through political will rather than legal dispute, so that policy making as an exercise can be much more collaborative and better informed”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/3/21; col. 505.]


He does not say how or why. Perhaps the Minister can explain that theory to the House.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
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I am grateful to both noble Lords for their questions and comments. I am sure that this is a matter which we will be debating on a number of occasions in this House, so this evening I am going to be relatively brief, not least because the position of the Government is, as we have said, that we would like to consult on a number of matters, and consultation means just that.

Turning first to the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, I join him in paying tribute to work done by the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and the other members of this committee. They have done sterling work under the great pressure of a prevailing pandemic, and I am sure the whole House is grateful to them for the work they have done. I was very pleased to hear the praise given by the noble and learned Lord to the committee. Last August, he was tweeting that the Faulks committee was there to “dismantle judicial review.” I am pleased to see that, while the noble and learned Lord may tweet in haste, he has read the report and repented at leisure.

As far as publishing the evidence is concerned, we will publish the complete set of non-government submissions received by the panel next week once we have ensured that such publication is GDPR-compliant. That will be followed by a summary of the submissions by government departments to the panel’s call for evidence.

On ouster clauses, the noble and learned Lord used the word sinister. There is nothing sinister about them. There are two questions here: first, should one have an ouster clause at all? That is a matter for Parliament. Secondly, if there is an ouster clause, should it be enforced by the court? That is debated in the report and in the Government’s response to it. It is of central importance, which goes to the heart of the doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament. Perhaps I might say, without being flippant, that on this point public law is too important to be left only to public lawyers; that is why we welcome a broad consultation. I am sure that there will be debates on these matters in the future, in this House and in the other place.

As we have set out in our response, the question is essentially whether ouster clauses are being applied by the courts in the manner in which they are drafted and passed by this House and the other place. As to whether an Act of Parliament would be needed, which I think was the noble and learned Lord’s last question, it may well be, depending on which issues are proceeded with. For example, if we proceed with the proposal for a suspended quashing order, that might well have to be done by primary legislation. The Supreme Court in the case of Ahmed concluded that the common law position was that a suspended quashing order was not available.

I now turn to the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. First, on Cart, the panel’s analysis is, as he says, very thorough on this point. The evidence shows that only a very small percentage of this type of judicial review is ever successful. We do not feel the need to redo the consultation exercise carried out by the panels in that regard; we are focusing our consultation on how best to give effect to the recommendation in the panel’s report.

On suspended quashing orders, I note and broadly welcome the noble Lord’s support for these as a matter of principle. Obviously, there are questions about how they would be implemented; I look forward to discussing that matter with him in due course. I hear what he says on ouster clauses and I have obviously also read the paragraphs to which he referred. I think where he got to was that the position on ouster clauses would be given robust scrutiny by Parliament. I welcome robust scrutiny by the noble Lord and, indeed, by other noble Lords, but the panel said that there are circumstances in which it may be appropriate for Parliament to oust or limit the jurisdiction of the courts if there is sufficient justification for doing so. Given that, we think that it is right to consult on that question.

The noble Lord makes the point that, if one is to have a prospective remedy, it is important in the interests of justice to ensure that people who may have been unfairly affected by the decision are considered. We are clear that there must be a means by which a court can make an order with retrospective effect if the circumstances require it. However, with respect to a court making a suspended quashing order, we would like to consult on whether that should be an available option and, if it is, the circumstances and safeguards that that option would bring with it.

I hope that I have responded to all the points raised by both speakers. I will check the Official Report to ensure that I have done so.

Domestic Abuse Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I apologise for the short intermission while we changed places. The government amendments in this group relate to special measures and the ban on cross-examination in person as they operate in civil proceedings. The Government have taken careful note of the debate in Committee on Clauses 62 and 64, particularly the argument that there should be equivalent protections for the victims of domestic abuse in the civil courts as in family courts. I am personally grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, for our discussions about these issues. As I explained in Committee, while we want to ensure that there is parity between each of the jurisdictions, we also need to build in allowances for the differences. That is why the provisions in respect of cross-examination and special measures in civil proceedings differ from those in family proceedings.

I shall speak first to Amendment 32 in respect of Clause 62. It is worth noting that the original provision in the Bill was based on recommendations made by the Civil Justice Council in its report published last year entitled Vulnerable Witnesses and Parties within Civil Proceedings. However, having reflected on the representations we have received and the cogent arguments put forward in Committee by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, Amendment 32 would extend eligibility for special measures to those at risk of domestic abuse in addition to the existing provisions which provide eligibility for special measures for the victims of specified offences. We see the force of the argument to include this measure so that there will be an equivalent level of protection for domestic abuse victims across the jurisdictions. The Civil Procedure Rules will lay out how this is to work in practice, but the instruction in the Bill is a clear indication that those victims who have not reported their perpetrator to the police will have an opportunity to let the court know where they are at risk of domestic abuse.

As the existing clause provides, judges will still need to consider whether the quality of a person’s evidence or the person’s participation in proceedings is likely to be diminished by reason of vulnerability and, if so, whether it is necessary to make one or more special measures directions. However, we believe that including provision for those at risk of domestic abuse will mean that these victims will be covered and given the ability to avail themselves of special measures.

I shall say a further word on that, which I mentioned in Committee as well. By their nature, civil cases have the potential to cover a much broader range of circumstances where there is no prior connection between the parties; for example, where a victim is suing an alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse, an action against an employer where abuse is alleged, or in a boundary dispute. This amendment is therefore an appropriate step. The breadth of cases in the civil courts means that it may not be appropriate in all cases to grant special measures, although our amendment makes it likely that they will be granted where there is a genuine need.

I turn now to Amendments 33 to 40 to Clause 64. These introduce an automatic ban on cross-examination in person by a litigant in person if the party to proceedings has been convicted or cautioned in relation to a specified offence against a party to the proceedings or where there is a protective injunction between the parties. The witness may also introduce additional evidence to prove that they are a victim of domestic abuse, and this too can give rise to an automatic ban. The evidence would be based on legal aid evidentiary standards and may include a letter from a GP or an employer. This is provided for in family courts through Clause 63. These amendments would therefore move the position in civil courts substantially closer to the provision in family courts on a ban on cross-examination. However, as with the point I made in regard to Clause 62, we have to be mindful of the differences between the two jurisdictions.

The clause, in so far as it relates to banning the cross-examination of vulnerable parties or witnesses, again stems from the report by the Civil Justice Council. The council recommended that the prohibition of cross-examination by a self-represented party should be extended to cover civil proceedings, thereby ensuring some parity with the criminal and family jurisdictions. The council did caution, however, that the ban or prohibition should not be automatic and absolute, bearing in mind the broad range of cases that come before the civil courts.

As I have said previously in our debates on the Bill, we have concerns in relation to the civil jurisdiction that there should be an automatic ban on cross-examination where the position is only that someone is charged with an offence against an individual; that is, where the facts of the case have yet to be proven. In the circumstances where someone is charged with an offence, we believe that it should be left to the discretion of the court to determine whether a ban is appropriate on the facts of a particular case. That is because, as I have said, civil and family jurisdictions are different in type of case they deal with, the civil jurisdiction having a much wider range.

I believe that these amendments will give better protection to victims of domestic abuse and bring closer parity between the civil and family jurisdictions. I beg to move.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, I explained in Committee the reasons for my amendments, which were directed at ensuring that special measures and the prohibition of direct cross-examination should be applied in civil cases on the same or a very similar basis as they are to be in family cases. Our debates highlighted the difficulties, fear and trauma for parties and witnesses in giving evidence and taking part in proceedings where they were victims or at risk of being victims of domestic abuse at the hands of other parties or witnesses. We spoke of the effect of reliving the trauma of abuse in subsequent court proceedings and the fear of the consequences of giving or challenging evidence given by or in the presence of perpetrators.

I argued that in many civil proceedings the risks and effects were the same. I mentioned disputes over property and goods, landlord and tenant disputes, employment disputes, inheritance disputes and business disputes—particularly when partners break up and the separation of their joint business interests gives rise to litigation. It is a truism for litigation lawyers that the disputes giving rise to the most bitterness and unpleasantness are precisely those where the litigants have a close personal connection. However, of course I take the Minister’s point that the range of disputes in civil cases is very much broader than it is in family cases.

The Government have listened to those concerns. I am particularly grateful to the Minister for the time that he and officials in his department made available to consider these issues and for the very useful discussions we had, which have led us to the position that special measures are now to be extended to persons who are or who are at risk of being a victim of domestic abuse, where the original unamended clause required that the person had to be the victim of a specified offence for which the perpetrator would have had to have been convicted, cautioned or charged.

I am delighted that the Government have agreed, no doubt because so many cases of domestic abuse never reach that stage—largely because so much abuse goes unreported or is never the subject of criminal investigation—that victims and those at risk of being victims should be protected in civil proceedings, as they are to be in family proceedings.

Although the amendments on direct cross-examination are complex, as the Minister has explained, they effectively offer broadly equivalent protection to victims of abuse in civil proceedings to that offered in family proceedings, which was the aim of my amendments. In addition to the discretionary protection which the court is to be able to give as a result of new Section 85F of the Courts Act 2003, to be introduced by Clause 64, there is now to be a clear bar on direct cross-examination in cases where the victim is a victim of an offence or protected by an injunction or where there is evidence of domestic abuse against the victim by a party or witness. The nature of the evidence to be required to trigger the mandatory bar will be specified in regulations. It is to be hoped that no undue formality will be required, but I am confident that will be the case.

These amendments achieve what I set out to achieve: to protect witnesses and parties in civil proceedings who have been subject to domestic abuse. I am therefore very pleased to have been able to add my name to the amendments and say—it is not the first time it has been said today—that this process has shown the House at its best. It has been a model of co-operation between some of us on the Opposition Benches and the Government of the day.

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, Amendments 41 and 104 relate to Section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989. Last year we committed to exploring whether an amendment to the Bill was needed to clarify that Section. As noble Lords will be aware, it deals with barring orders, as they are often called, which allow courts to bar individuals from making further applications without permission of the court. Importantly, therefore, the order does not prevent access to the court; it prevents making an application without first obtaining the permission of the court to do so.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and my noble friend Lady Newlove asked for an update on the progress of the work. On responding to an amendment on barring orders put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, I said that I would consider the issue of Section 91(14) carefully ahead of this next stage. I can assure noble Lords that I have done precisely that.

The sad fact is that perpetrators sometimes use the family court as a way to continue their abuse, often bringing their victims back to court repeatedly, which can in itself be a traumatising process. It is an abuse of the victims and also, therefore, an inappropriate use of the court process.

As it is currently formulated, Section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989 does not include any detail as to the circumstances in which such barring orders should be used. Courts have therefore elaborated the principles for when such barring orders may, and should, be made. Last year we heard compelling evidence from the expert panel in its report Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases that, while they can be an effective measure, Section 91(14) barring orders are not being used sufficiently to prevent perpetrators continuing their abuse through the use of court applications under the Children Act 1989.

Before I go further, I want to pay respectful tribute to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who delivered the seminal re P judgment in this area of law back in 1999. For over two decades the guidelines included in that leading judgment have been regarded as the main reference point for judges when they are making the often difficult decision on the use of Section 91(14). It is fair to acknowledge that it is clear from those guidelines that specific cases and types of harm, including harm from domestic abuse, are not excluded from consideration for a barring order. None the less, now is the right time for us to act on the evidence presented by the harm panel about how Section 91(14) is being understood and applied, particularly in domestic abuse circumstances.

As is evident from the many debates we have had on the Bill, we now know far more about the prevalence of domestic abuse and the different forms that it can take than we did in 1999. It is therefore right that as the Bill approaches the end of its parliamentary journey, we use the opportunity to clarify the ambit and application of Section 91(14) to ensure that we are providing greater protection to victims, survivors and their children.

The Government are clear that barring orders are available to protect parents and children where further proceedings would risk causing them harm, and particularly where proceedings could be a form of continuing domestic abuse. To that end, Amendment 41 introduces a new provision into the Children Act 1989: new Section 91A. The new section clarifies that the circumstances in which a court may make a barring order include where the court is satisfied that a further application made by the named person would put the child or another individual—for example, the parent victim—at risk of harm. It is a non-exhaustive example; the discretion is preserved, but an additional statutory indication is provided. As I have mentioned, this amendment responds to recommendations made by the harm panel.

The aim of Amendment 41 is therefore to make it clearer to courts and practitioners that Section 91(14) barring orders are indeed available where a further application would pose a risk of harm to a child or a parent victim, and in particular where that application could constitute further domestic abuse. In that context, I should highlight to noble Lords that while this amendment does not expressly mention domestic abuse, it refers to the concept of “harm” that is already found in the Children Act 1989. This is because the definition in Section 31(9) of the Children Act is already very broad. It already includes coercive control and other forms of domestic abuse, along with many other forms of harm.

We touched on that point in the government response to the Joint Committee’s recommendation to amend the definition of harm. As we said there, we believe that singling out a specific form of harm in any part of the 1989 Act could have unintended negative consequences and risk appearing to give greater weight to one form of harm than another. We do not want to create a hierarchy of harm. We have therefore opted for the wider concept of harm, consistent with the approach in the Children Act.

We have also responded to the harm panel’s report in a further way. The new Section 91A makes it clear that in determining whether to grant permission to make an application to a person who is subject to a barring order under Section 91(14), the court must consider whether there has been a material change of circumstances since the barring order was made. Our intention is to require that courts consider carefully whether the circumstances that gave rise to the barring order have materially changed, such that permission to apply should be granted. The amendment does not draw a red line such that permission can be granted only if there has been a material change of circumstances, but we believe that the inclusion of this provision, which requires the court to consider this question, will offer further protection to domestic abuse victims.

The amendment also makes it clear that courts can make these orders on their own initiative—of their own motion, as it used to be said—for example, without an application being made by the victim for an order to be made. This, too, is a response to the harm panel’s recommendations. We want to put beyond doubt that there need not be an application for a barring order in order for the court to consider making one. Of course, the court will still need to give due consideration to the making of such an order, but the amendment clarifies that the court can make an order on its own initiative.

The Government are therefore confident that the amendment will mean that barring orders are used more often by courts to protect victims of domestic abuse where further applications put them at risk of harm. It will also make sure that permission to apply will be granted only where the court has considered whether there has been a material change of circumstances since the order was made, and also clarify that courts can make these orders on their own initiative. For those reasons, I beg to move.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)
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My Lords, we support this government amendment and the amendment of the Title of the Bill that goes with it. As the Minister has explained, Section 91 of the Children Act permits the court to make a barring order—that is, an order forbidding someone, usually an applicant who has failed to persuade a court to make an order in his or her favour, from making an application for an order of a particular kind; this is usually but not always a repeat application—with respect to a child, importantly, without the leave of the court.

An order under this section still permits a further application for an order to be made if the court decides to permit it, which the court may in its discretion decide to do. This amendment, as the Minister has explained, extends the discretion to make a barring order if a further application would put the child concerned, or another individual, at risk of harm. That is the real purpose and merit of this amendment: it is for the protection from repeated litigation of those who might be victims of domestic abuse, when that repeated litigation often amounts to a particularly unpleasant form of harassment by legal proceedings.

The jurisdiction is similar to the court’s jurisdiction to make civil restraint orders and civil proceedings orders against vexatious and unmeritorious repeat litigants in civil cases. Under this government amendment, a person subject to a barring order may of course seek permission to apply further to the court. That application for permission will be considered, but the court considering whether permission should be given to make a fresh application must consider whether there has been a change of circumstances since the making of the original order. That, I suggest, seems entirely sensible. The amendment therefore strikes a careful and judicious balance between protecting potential applicants and providing a safeguard against people being harassed by unmeritorious repeat litigation.

Domestic Abuse Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Committee stage & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 4th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 3rd February 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 View all Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 124-V Fifth marshalled list for Committee - (3 Feb 2021)
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, explained, these amendments seek to bring the procedure relating to special measures in civil courts in line with the provisions in family courts. We agree with the fundamental aim set out by the noble Lord: to ensure fair proceedings, meaning proceedings that are fair not only to the parties but to witnesses.

In that context, the Government’s starting point when considering the experience of vulnerable witnesses in the civil courts stems from the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, which published its interim report and recommendations in April 2018. The inquiry recommended

“that the Ministry of Justice provides in primary legislation that victims and survivors of child sexual abuse in civil court cases, where they are claiming compensation in relation to the abuse they suffered, are afforded the same protections as vulnerable witnesses in criminal court cases.”

As the inquiry put it, this was to ensure that victims and survivors of child sex abuse can provide the best evidence in civil court cases.

While the Government had some sympathy with the recommendation, we also agreed that the issues raised by this recommendation needed further consideration, including whether it was right in principle to extend the protections to other vulnerable witnesses. The Government therefore sought expert help from the Civil Justice Council, which was asked to consider the vulnerability of parties and witnesses in civil actions, not just in relation to claims arising from sexual assault or abuse but more widely. The Committee will be aware that, after extensive consultation and expert input, the Civil Justice Council published its report in February last year. It conceded that there was no single or coherent set of rules in the Civil Procedure Rules dealing with vulnerability in the same way as there was in the Family Procedure Rules.

In this context, we must remember an important point, to which the noble Lord, Lord Marks, alluded. Civil cases, by their nature, have the potential to cover a much broader range of circumstances where there is no prior close connection between the parties; for example, where a victim is suing an alleged perpetrator of sexual abuse or in an action against the police or an employer where abuse is alleged. Of course, I take on board the noble Lord’s examples of cases where the parties may be corporate but, none the less, there are individual witnesses who are victims.

Having considered the matter, and in relation to special measures, the Civil Justice Council report did not go as far as recommending that it should be enshrined in primary legislation. Rather, it was felt that it was best left to the flexibility of court rules since—this is an important point—judges in civil proceedings already have inherent powers to order the provision of special measures under the Civil Procedure Rules when it is considered necessary. However, the Government took a slightly different view, taking the recommendations that came from the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, which I have already mentioned.

As the Civil Justice Council report highlighted, vulnerability in the civil courts is not limited only to victims of domestic abuse. Some people may have mental or physical conditions that render them vulnerable and hamper their access to justice. Others, as with victims or survivors of abuse, may be vulnerable solely by reason of the subject matter of the proceedings before the court. This, as the report suggested, may affect their ability to participate in proceedings or give their best evidence.

We want to avoid—this is a risk—unnecessarily prolonging cases because of satellite litigation which revolves around the granting of special measures where the case is not contingent on vulnerability. At the same time, as I said, we need to ensure that the justice system is fair—that is, fair for all. Therefore, we must be careful to focus this provision on only the circumstances in which it is needed.

Even though the approach is different in civil courts, judges in civil proceedings already have inherent powers to order the provision of some special measures under the Civil Procedure Rules when it is considered necessary. I hope that this goes some way towards addressing the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Marks, which was shared by the other two speakers in this short debate; I acknowledge their contributions, of course, but I think it is fair to say that they largely agreed with the approach taken by the noble Lord. In that context, the Civil Procedures Rule Committee continues to examine the issues faced by vulnerable witnesses in civil courts.

While we want to ensure parity between each jurisdiction, we also need to build in allowances for the differences—and there are differences—between them. This is why the provisions in respect of cross-examination and special measures in civil cases differ from those in family proceedings.

In the light of my discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and others, and in the light of all the contributions in this short debate, let me say—in clear terms, I hope—that we very much appreciate the arguments raised in relation to fairness and the concerns around availability of special measures for those who will need them in the civil courts. We will consider this issue carefully ahead of Report and continue to listen to arguments. Of course, I remain open to discussion with both the noble Lord, Lord Marks, and others.

In the light of that confirmation and undertaking, I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) [V]
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My Lords, first, let me say how grateful I am to the noble Lords who spoke.

It was interesting to hear my rather dry opening supplemented by the personal experience of the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, in courts in Australia. She made the valuable point that, generally speaking, litigants and witnesses are not used to being in court—it is a new experience for them and this adds to their concern, which is of course amplified in the case of vulnerable witnesses and parties. She also gave the interesting and important example of family farms giving rise to very personal disputes, where there is often a background of abuse. I am bound to say that, in my years of practice on the Western Circuit before doing more of what I do now, disputes about family farms were endless. They are to be taken into account. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, for his support as well.

The Minister has given a considered response and ultimately made an undertaking to me and others. I am grateful for the way he has dealt with the amendments. However, I am bound to say that nothing I heard from him justifies the distinction to be drawn between the protection afforded in family proceedings and the protection available in civil proceedings. I got the impression that he understands the reasons why we have disputed that distinction.

I do not accept that a system based on the Civil Procedure Rules for protection in civil proceedings is anything like as good as a system based on statute, as the arrangements in family proceedings will be following this Bill. If a statutory arrangement is good enough for family proceedings and is applicable as appropriate for those, I would suggest that it is appropriate for civil proceedings as well. Nor do I accept that there is a realistic prospect of satellite litigation arising regarding the availability or withholding of special measures. That seems most unrealistic and, in any event, even if it were realistic, it would be no more realistic in a set of measures based on legislation than it would be presently in a set of measures based on the uncertain application of the rules of court. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to further engagement. I regard this as a very important issue, and I will of course speak to him, as no doubt will others, between now and Report in the hope of achieving agreement. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) [V]
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My Lords, we support this amendment for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, as amplified by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, my noble friend Baroness Hamwee and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale.

This amendment recognises that in cases involving domestic abuse, just as in any litigation, engagement between the parties is not limited to conducting the case, giving evidence, cross-examining witnesses and making submissions to the judge. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out that the inadequacy of arrangements that govern cross-examination alone make such arrangements difficult to justify.

There is often a need for the parties to consider and discuss the conduct and progress of the case, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out. That is usually done through their advocates. Yet when the parties are perpetrator and victim of domestic abuse, and are unrepresented, the need for engagement can become an occasion for intimidating behaviour or bullying of the victim by the perpetrator. That need not even be deliberate, though it often is. Even if intimidation is not explicit in court, it may be effected by implied threats of what might happen later, or even by fear on the victim’s part—even if without justification —of what might happen later.

As discussed in earlier groups, the mere presence of the parties together in court can cause distress, intimidation, or trauma to victims. The outcome can be that victims are deterred from bringing proceedings at all. The experience of the proceedings can be grossly traumatic, to the extent of causing lasting harm, and just outcomes can be made that much more difficult to achieve. So, it is completely right that the court should be able to prohibit engagement by a party that unduly distresses the victim in the way set out in this amendment, whether that engagement be direct by the perpetrator or indirect through others. Yet, if the parties have no means to engage at all, there may be opportunities missed for resolving conflict or, at least, for making the issues clearer and enabling the court to achieve safer outcomes.

In cases where the parties are not represented, it is obviously sensible for there to be provision for representation to be arranged. As the amendment proposes, that should involve, in appropriate cases, the instruction of a court-appointed lawyer—not just for the perpetrator but for the victim as well. That is what the amendment proposes and I firmly believe it is right to do so. For my part, I believe that justice would be best done by ensuring that full legal aid is available for both parties to domestic abuse proceedings throughout those proceedings, which often last through several hearings, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, my noble friend Baroness Hamwee and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, have said. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, also highlighted the real risk of deterring litigants from bringing or pursuing proceedings once they are under way, by the absence of arrangements for representation.

This amendment does not go as far as we would like, but I know many noble Lords believe that full legal aid for both parties should be the outcome. Meanwhile, it would fill an important gap by preventing intimidation of victims by perpetrators during the course of proceedings, while keeping the door open to engagement between lawyers, which may smooth a path to resolution.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has explained, this amendment —to which my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern has added his, if I may respectfully say, very weighty name—seeks to expand the scope of the prohibition of cross-examination provided for in Clause 63 by prohibiting the perpetrator from engaging directly or indirectly with the victim during proceedings where that engagement would cause them significant distress. It goes on ultimately to provide for the potential appointment of a legal representative, chosen by the court, to represent both parties to ensure a fair process in the interests of justice in such cases. I can assure the Committee, in particular in response to the points made by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and others, that because this amendment has been supported by the Magistrates’ Association, we have given it very careful consideration.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, explained, I am as every bit as concerned as her, and indeed the noble Lord who is proposing the amendment, to ensure that domestic abuse victims are adequately protected in the family courts. It is for that reason that the Government are already taking decisive steps to act on the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Harm in the Family Courts, in response to which we published our implementation plan in June 2020.

The Bill contains various measures designed to protect domestic abuse victims in family proceedings and across the other jurisdictions. In that context, I bear in mind the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale: the human impact that domestic abuse has, and that it can require some bravery to go to and appear in court in those circumstances, a point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Marks. Therefore, within the court environment, our provisions on special measures made it clear that the victims of domestic abuse and other parties or witnesses are eligible for special measures such as a screen during proceedings, where the court is satisfied that the quality of their evidence is likely to be diminished due to their vulnerability. In that context, on the point put to me by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, regarding the position of children, Clause 3(2) provides that any reference in the Bill to a victim of domestic abuse

“includes a reference to a child who … sees or hears, or experiences the effects of, the abuse, and … is related to A or B.”

Therefore, the Bill is structured very much with victims of domestic abuse, who may include children, firmly in mind.

It is not entirely clear from the noble Lord’s amendment whether the intention is that “direct or indirect engagement” during proceedings be confined to the court setting, by which I mean what goes on in the courtroom itself, or extend more widely for their duration, as set out in debate by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and repeated by the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames. There is often a need for what my noble and learned friend called personal and direct contact between parties in such proceedings. In that regard, one must bear in mind that under Part 3 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010, the court can make a participation direction. That can include the use of special measures, which are a series of provisions to help a party or witness to participate or give evidence in court proceedings. That is a range of measures available both to parties and witnesses to enable them to participate in an appropriate manner.

Beyond that, the courts have a range of protective orders, such as non-molestation orders and restraining orders, that can be made to protect victims when they are not within the confines of the court building. In addition, when introduced by the Bill, domestic abuse protection orders can be used to protect victims of domestic abuse outside the courtroom during proceedings. That is because the DAPO brings together the strongest elements of the existing protective orders into a single comprehensive and very flexible order that we believe will provide more effective and longer-term protection than the existing protective orders for victims of domestic abuse and their children. I underline the point that there may be circumstances in which children are also victims. So, for example, if children are giving evidence inside court, special measures may well be applicable and the prohibition on cross-examination may also apply.

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, for setting out the rationale for these amendments. As he said, I deferred my comments on the particular point of an advocate’s duty to this group because his amendments directly raise that issue. I am grateful to him for the discussions we had about this matter, as indeed we have had about several matters arising from the Bill.

Amendments 122 and 127 would have the same effect in relation to a qualified legal representative appointed by the court to conduct cross-examination in family and civil proceedings respectively. It is the Government’s intention that such a court-appointed representative is not responsible to any party. They are, in effect, appointed by and responsible to the court in relation to their conduct of the cross-examination, having regard to guidance issued by the Lord Chancellor in connection with this role under what we intend should become Section 31Y(1) of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984.

As I think the noble Lord, Lord Marks, accepts, the amendments would alter fundamentally the representative’s role by making them responsible to the party who has been prohibited from carrying out such cross-examination. While the tabled amendments contain safeguards to counter the resulting tension between being responsible to the prohibited party on the one hand and needing to protect domestic abuse victims on the other by requiring the representative to have regard to protective directions issued by the judge, this does not affect the Government’s view that, as a matter of principle, the representative who has been appointed by the court should not be responsible to the party. That is particularly the case when that party could have, but has not, appointed his own lawyer. Had he done so, a court-appointed lawyer would not have been required and the lawyer appointed by him would have owed him a duty.

Therefore, the Government do not want this to become a client-lawyer relationship. The advocate is appointed for only one function: to ensure that the best evidence is obtained fairly from the witness in cases where the party is prohibited from conducting the cross-examination by themselves. Altering this and introducing such a relationship between the party and the advocate would, in the Government’s view, be a mistake.

The rules pertaining to the advocate scheme will be set out in statutory guidance and relevant procedural rules. Consistent with what I have been explaining to the Committee, the focus will be on ensuring that the function of a cross-examination is carried out—that the witness is questioned on the evidence that they have provided. Before these provisions are commenced, we will work with relevant stakeholders to develop and finalise statutory guidance, to be issued by the Lord Chancellor, for the appointed legal representatives to assist them in discharging this role. We will work with the appropriate rule committees to develop suitable court rules and practice directions to provide a clear structure and process for the operation of these provisions.

For those reasons, we take issue with the proposal in the amendment. Although I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Marks, said about SIAC and court-appointed advocates there, those are completely different circumstances and there is no read-across from SIAC to these provisions. The way that the Bill is set out reflects the Government’s deliberate intention and the clauses have been designed with this in mind.

The framework for the provision of publicly funded legal representation is set out in the LASPO Act. While I have listened carefully to the arguments made on this point, both today and in previous discussions, I do not agree that we should mix the different purposes of LASPO and these clauses as has been proposed. As anticipated by the noble Lord, Lord Marks, I refer to the review that I mentioned in the last debate.

Amendments 123 and 128 relate to the provision of legal aid. Legal aid is available for family cases where there is evidence of abuse, subject to domestic violence, or child abuse evidence requirements, and the relevant means and merits tests. We have expanded the acceptable forms of evidence and removed all time limits on providing that evidence. As I have said, we are also reviewing the means test. The Government are clear that victims of domestic abuse must have access to the help that they need, including to legal aid. The review of the means test is assessing the effectiveness with which that test protects access to justice. As I said in the last debate, we are specifically considering the experience of victims of domestic abuse. I will not repeat the other points I made in that context in the previous debate.

However, legal aid may also be available through the exceptional case funding scheme, where a failure to provide legal aid would breach or risk breaching the ECHR or retained enforceable EU rights. As I have explained, the Bill includes provisions that give the court a power, in specified circumstances, to appoint a publicly funded legal representative to conduct cross-examination. Where a prohibition on cross-examination applies, the court would first consider whether there are alternatives to cross-examination and invite the party to appoint a legal representative to conduct the cross-examination. In circumstances where the party does not, the court considers whether it is in the interests of justice so to appoint. Therefore, publicly funded legal representation is intended to conduct the cross-examination, but not to go beyond it. That is the sole reason why the advocate is appointed.

In that context, we must appreciate the need to protect against unnecessary expenditure of public funds or alteration of the legal aid regime without a wholesale and proper examination of the ramifications of doing so. In circumstances where this provision for a publicly funded advocate is put in the Bill for a limited and specific—if I can still use that phrase—purpose, it would be wrong in principle for us to conduct a review of legal aid provisions in Committee.

I fear that I may not have been able to persuade the noble Lord, as I was not able to persuade him earlier, of the merits of the Government’s approach. I am sure he will tell me that I have not, but I hope that I have been able to explain the Government’s approach and thinking on this issue. In those circumstances, I invite him to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) [V]
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My Lords, unquestionably the Minister—to whom I am very grateful, for both his engagement and his considered and careful response—is right about one thing, which is that he has not convinced me of the difference in responsibility to the client between court-appointed advocates and normal lawyers. I accept that the role of legal representative would be altered by my amendments, and that is all to the good.

One point made by the Minister can be considered in a way that he did not. It is a precondition to the appointment of a legal representative by the court that the client or party who would have conducted the cross-examination, but for the prohibition, should have been given the opportunity to instruct his own lawyer. That lawyer would have had full responsibility to the client in the normal way—full duty of care, answerable in negligence and everything else. Generally, Members of the House will appreciate that the reason that that condition is not often met—in other words, the client does not appoint a lawyer—is lack of funds, not that he or she, usually he, does not wish for the lawyer to have a responsibility to the client. There is very little distinction to draw between the two cases, apart from the fact that the rich client gets the lawyer and the poor client has a court-appointed lawyer.

The Minister referred to the safeguards that I built into the amendments in their directions to the judge—

“such directions as the Court may give to protect the witness from significant distress or to prevent the quality of the witness’s evidence from being diminished.”

There may be further room for discussion about those directions and the guidelines within which cross-examination by a lawyer with a responsibility to the client could take place. I will carefully read the guidance that he mentions by which court-appointed lawyers will conduct their cross-examinations.

I completely reject the Minister’s explanation that SIAC involves different issues, as a justification for removing the responsibility. It is precisely because SIAC special advocates and their appointment involve different issues that the responsibility is removed. I explained that in opening. That point does not seem to have been treated with full understanding.

Of course I will withdraw this amendment to enable further review. The point about legal aid is one of accessibility. We know that there is a review under way and I accept that we should not be reviewing this question in Committee, but the problem is one of evidential and financial accessibility. Until both parties can be represented in domestic abuse proceedings, it is difficult to see that proper representation will be achieved. With those points, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, has explained, these amendments intend to bring the provisions relating to prohibition of cross-examination in civil courts into line with the provisions on the same measure in family courts. As the noble Lord explained, we have covered some of the questions of principle already in earlier groups. He indicated that he was therefore going to be brief—as he indeed was—and I hope that both he and the Committee will not take it as any disrespect if I am equally brief in response, given that we have canvassed the points of principle already.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, described herself as a “support act”, an appellation with which I respectfully but firmly disagree. She spoke eloquently in an earlier group of her personal experience of seeing how court procedures operate in cases involving domestic abuse, and her contribution to this short debate has been equally valuable. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, will forgive me if I gently point out to her that she should not apologise for not being a lawyer. What is apparently, based on my short time here, a repeated cause for apology in this House is generally regarded as a badge of honour everywhere else.

Turning to the substance, let me explain that the approach we have taken in civil cases differs from that taken in family proceedings for good reasons. The clause dealing with banning cross-examination of vulnerable parties or witnesses stems from the report by the Civil Justice Council, to which the noble Lord, Lord Marks, also referred, and which I spoke about when commenting on the amendments to Clause 62.

The council recommended that the prohibition of cross-examination by a self-represented party should be extended to cover civil proceedings, thereby ensuring some parity with the criminal and family jurisdictions. Importantly, however, the Civil Justice Council cautioned that the ban or prohibition should not be absolute: rather, it should be left to the court’s discretion, given that, as I explained in an earlier group, the civil and family jurisdictions are very different as regards the types of cases, with the civil jurisdiction having a much wider range. As I also said earlier, those cases can have a much broader range of circumstances, where there is no prior close connection between the parties, as there would generally be in the family courts. We have therefore tailored our approach to allow for those differences, which is why the provisions in respect of cross-examination in the civil jurisdiction differ from those in family proceedings. I hope that that explains my thinking to the noble Lord, Lord Marks.

In response to points made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle and Lady Fox of Buckley, I say it is important that two things are fundamental. First, it is important that protection is available to all witnesses who need it—this was the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett. In response to the point of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, the court will of course look at all circumstances in that regard. The overriding concern is to ensure that justice is done in the particular case, which is why leaving it to the discretion of the judge in an individual case to decide when a ban is necessary is based on an unlimited range of factors, including, obviously, the views of parties to the proceedings, any past convictions or the behaviour of parties during the trial. That is how we suggest this matter is best resolved.

Having said all that, I respectfully say that the noble Lord, Lord Marks, has put forward, as one would expect from him, a cogent and well-argued case for his amendment. As such, while we consider that the approach taken in the Bill in relation to the civil courts is well founded, and certainly not—to use a word adopted earlier in this debate—illogical, I hear the arguments he put forward and undertake to consider these amendments further ahead of Report. I will continue to listen with interest to any arguments made by him or others in this regard. Therefore, given this undertaking, I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) [V]
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My Lords, once again, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I certainly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has proved herself much more than a support act. I say to her and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, that there is a crying need in these legal debates for experience from outside the law to inform our debates and bring the lawyers down to earth.

Many noble Lords may well have formed the view that the differences between the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, and me are arcane legal arguments, in some senses—but we can only have those arcane arguments in a relevant way if we have real-world experiences to back them up. Some of these will be ours, but the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, not only clearly demonstrated how the principles that apply to cross-examination in civil proceedings also apply in family proceedings; she also graphically described the personal experience of witnesses in court proceedings. I challenge anyone to explain why that experience differs between the two types of proceeding, where witnesses are, or are liable to be, victims of domestic abuse and are vulnerable.

Although I greatly valued the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, I do not agree with her that this legislation or these and other amendments overstate the significance of vulnerability or trauma, when the evidence is serious and extensive of how deep vulnerability can go, how serious the trauma can be and how long-lasting it can be as a result of domestic abuse. That is the reason why the Government have brought this Bill; it is why it is widely welcomed around the House and the reason for the protections that are afforded to witnesses and parties in court proceedings.

I come to the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, who frankly accepts the differences and parallels between us in respect of cross-examination in cases of special measures. I do not accept that a discretionary system in relation to the prohibition of cross-examination is an acceptable substitute. One of the principal reasons for this is that a party or witness has no assurance that there will be a prohibition in a discretionary case. She—or, in some cases, he—is totally reliant on judicial discretion having regard, as the Minister says, to all sorts of other factors, including previous convictions and all the circumstances of the case, in relation to knowing whether a prohibition of cross-examination will be extended. This means that such a witness or party is exposed to the risk that there will be direct cross- examination, which they may well be unable to face.

I am very grateful to the Minister for his undertaking that he will consider these amendments further; I know that that undertaking is given with every intention that he will do so. I and others remain completely open to discussing these amendments with him and refining them if necessary, but we hold the basic belief that vulnerable witnesses need protection from direct cross-examination on exactly the same basis in civil cases as is to be extended in family cases. Saying that, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 124.

Serious Criminal Cases Backlog

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Tuesday 26th January 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
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My Lords, the noble and learned Lord fails to put this information in context. In the Crown Court, prior to the Covid pandemic hitting in March last year, the outstanding caseload was 39,000, which was well within the range of 33,000 to 55,000 over the last decade. Immediately before the pandemic hit, we had increased the number of sitting days in response to an incoming demand on the courts. He will be aware that we have taken various steps to ensure that delays are minimised. However, I agree with him on one point: that we should pay tribute to the judges, magistrates, jurors, witnesses, victims, lawyers, court staff, CPS staff and, if I may say so, MoJ officials who have made a monumental effort to deliver justice in very challenging times.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) [V]
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With respect to the answer just given by the noble Lord, the Secretary of State’s response last week was complacent and lacked urgency. The four chief inspectors of probation, police, prisons and the CPS came together to produce a joint crisis report, expressing their grave concern about the “unprecedented and very serious” backlog of Crown Court trials—54,000-odd cases with trials scheduled into 2022—and the disastrous effects of these delays on victims, witnesses, youth offending teams, defendants and prosecutors. As long ago as July last year Caroline Goodwin, then chair of the Criminal Bar Association, pleaded with the Government to

“get serious and open up 50 more buildings and focus on criminal trials.”

Now many more are needed, along with much more funding to stave off collapse. Yes, efforts have been made and in difficult circumstances, but why the self-congratulation? Where is the urgency? What are the Government now going to do?

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that there is no complacency whatever. In fact, in September we published a crime recovery plan to which members from all groups involved in the criminal courts contributed. That plan was put together after significant consultation and collaboration. It is now being implemented. We now have more rooms for jury trials. We have plexiglass to enable social distancing and are using Nightingale courts including, I am pleased to say, St George’s Hall in Liverpool, where I first saw justice in action. We are exceeding the goals in the plan. The target was 250 courts safe for jury trials by October; we have exceeded that number and are improving the position yet further.

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill

Debate between Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames
Committee stage & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 1st sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Tuesday 26th January 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill 2019-21 View all Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill 2019-21 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 129-I Marshalled list for Committee - (21 Jan 2021)
Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, explained, this amendment seeks to amend and change the circumstances in which a sentencing court could impose less than the 14-year minimum term for a discretionary life sentence imposed in a serious terrorism case by changing the circumstances from “exceptional” to “significant”. I respectfully agree with the noble Lord that the logic of his amendment would also apply to Clause 4. However, I respectfully disagree over whether such an amendment is appropriate.

The purpose of Clause 11 is to ensure a consistency of approach when sentencing those convicted of serious terrorism offences. It would not be appropriate for a court to be able to impose a life sentence with a lower minimum term for a serious terrorism offence other than where there are exceptional circumstances. If the circumstances of the offence and offending are such that the court imposes a life sentence, and unless there are exceptional circumstances, there should be no possibility of the offender being released earlier than someone given a serious terrorism sentence. That is what Clause 11 achieves.

By contrast, the amendment would remove that consistency, so that the court could consider a wider range of circumstances when setting the minimum term in a discretionary life sentence than when doing so for a serious terrorism sentence, although all other circumstances would be the same. While I accept that there is a distinction, in that the prisoner serving a life sentence may be considered for release only after the minimum term is served, it would be unprincipled for him or her to be released earlier than a counterpart serving a serious terrorism sentence.

A number of questions were asked about “exceptional circumstances”. That is a principle already established in sentencing legislation. It is used, for example, in connection with minimum terms that can apply to certain firearm offences. I must respectfully decline the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for a Minister to gloss from the Dispatch Box what “exceptional circumstances” might or might not be. It is a phrase used elsewhere in statute and known in law. Those are straightforward English words and it would not be appropriate or even helpful for me to gloss them on my feet at the Dispatch Box.

By contrast, I respectfully point out to the noble Lord, Lord Marks, that as far as my research has indicated—I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong—there is no existing “significant circumstances” principle in sentencing legislation. Therefore, if accepted, the amendment would create an entirely new test, which in our view is unwarranted and likely to lead to litigation, which cannot be in our interests as parliamentarians in passing this Bill.

As far as the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, is concerned on judicial discretion, we are really talking about the extent of the judicial discretion and whether the test should be “exceptional” or “significant” circumstances. The question is not to the existence but to the extent of judicial discretion. As part of the Government’s recent White Paper, A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, we have committed to changing the criteria for other minimum terms for repeat offences to reduce the occasions on which the court may depart from the minimum custodial length.

For those reasons, I do not consider the amendment to be necessary or appropriate, and I respectfully invite the noble Lord to withdraw it.

Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I am grateful to those who have spoken, and to the Minister for his response. However, I am bound to say that I found it disappointing. He is absolutely right to state that “exceptional” has a clear meaning in law and is used elsewhere. It was to that meaning that I alluded when I said that the use of “exceptional” puts the judge in a straitjacket. It is for that reason that my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford is right to seek a little more latitude, because the sentence is so long and the circumstances may be very varied.

The Minister did not deal with the point that the circumstances can relate not only to the offence but to the offender. They may cover a very wide range. Therefore, it is our position that more discretion is called for. He is right that it is the ambit of the discretion with which this amendment is concerned. I invite him to reconsider it. While he does, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Portrait Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, about the benefits of pre-sentence reports. They are, and always have been, when available, important in the context of sentencing generally. They are a sophisticated tool, bringing before a court matters that may not be known to the sentencing judge in the absence of a detailed report on the background and motivation of an offender, and their potential to be rehabilitated in future. In not requiring such a report, which covers all the matters mentioned in this amendment, Parliament would be taking a retrograde step and excluding elements that may be important in determining the length of any sentence or extension period.

The amendment complements Amendment 6 that I introduced earlier, by giving the judge not only increased discretion in passing sentence, but also the material on which he can correctly and sensibly exercise that discretion. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who described such a report as a very healthy safeguard. I urge the Government to accept the amendment for that reason. It is a question of giving the sentencing court the material upon which to make an informed and sensible decision from everybody’s point of view.

Finally, I commend the words in the amendment that provide for a review of the workings of the clause, including the amendment. I fear that we are legislating in some haste in relation to the Bill, and a review of how it is working, particularly this clause, would be extremely helpful.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait Lord Wolfson of Tredegar (Con)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for introducing this amendment, although I hope to persuade him that it is in fact misconceived.

The amendment deals with Clause 16, which relates to an increase in the extension period for terrorism offenders aged under 18. As my noble and learned friend Lord Stewart of Dirleton said a few moments ago, I am sure it is common ground across the Committee that when dealing with such young adults one has to have the greatest care and consideration. Having said that, as my noble friend Lord Robathan reminded us, this is a matter of public safety. I respectfully endorse nearly all the comments that he made; I say “nearly all” because, in a debate where so many lawyers are speaking, I understand the temptation for someone who is not a lawyer to say that they are “only a layman”, but my noble friend is not “only” anything. With that slight quibble, I respectfully take on board everything that he said.

The amendment would require the pre-sentence report to take account of the offender’s age and consider whether options other than an extension period of eight to 10 years might be more suitable than an extended sentence of detention. The amendment would also require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament each year on the effectiveness of increasing the maximum extension period of the extended sentence of detention from eight to 10 years.

The nature of an extended sentence is that it comprises a custodial term and an extension period for the purposes of public protection, as defined in Section 256 of the Sentencing Code. The effect of the amendment would be fundamentally to alter the nature of the sentence by proposing an alternative to that extension period.

The amendment is also not necessary and, I say with respect, perhaps misunderstands the provision. I assure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that the clause simply provides for a new maximum licence period of 10 years in serious terrorism cases rather than the current eight. This is not mandatory; it is available for use at the court’s discretion, and it will remain possible to apply a licence period of any length between 12 months and 10 years.

For a youth offender to receive an extended sentence for a serious terrorism offence, the court will be required to consider a pre-sentence report. I therefore agree to that extent with the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, about the utility of such reports. In preparing the pre-sentence report, the youth offending team officer will always consider the offender’s age and circumstances in order to recommend an appropriate sentence. The Bill does not change the way in which pre-sentence reports are done.

However, time spent on licence is crucial for both monitoring and managing offenders in the community as well as giving them the opportunity to change their behaviour. Therefore, providing the courts with the option of imposing a longer period of supervision on licence for the most serious terrorist offenders is an important element and component of the Government’s efforts to protect the public from the risks that terrorist offenders pose while enabling a longer period to support rehabilitation.

In that context, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that I am not in the business of throwing red meat to anyone or anything, be it dangerous dogs or the tabloids. This, however, is a proper and proportionate response to the very significant danger that some offenders present. I therefore invite the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, to withdraw the amendment.