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Selection Of Jurors

Volume 29: debated on Monday 18 October 1982

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. David Hunt.]

5.35 am

I am particularly pleased to see my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General in his place to respond to my Adjournment debate on the administration of justice in respect of the selection of jurors. He knows that I have now been concerned with the matter of jury service for well over a year. As well as to him, I have been making representations to our hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office about a number of points that I feel are seriously undermining the present system.

The basis of trial by jury in this country is thought to go back nearly a thousand years. It is certainly traceable as far back as the twelfth century. However, as one would expect, the form has changed over the years. Originally, it was intended as trial by one's peers, and subsequently, when voters' lists were introduced, it became trial by those who had a local business interest, either as the owner of a property or as the tenant for premises exceeding a certain rateable value, or were head of the family.

In due course, the list of those eligible was extended to include all voters on the list, which at the time was for those of 21 years and over, but now includes all over 18, unless the person concerned is excluded by virtue of their occupation or has served a prison sentence of three months or more within the past five years. Those who have served 10 years or more are excluded for life.

Undoubtedly the growth in crime and the availability of legal aid, which has risen from less than £½ million per annum 10 years ago to £112 million per annum today, have dramatically increased the number of cases, as is also illustrated by the increase in the number of practising. banisters, which now numbers 10 times the total of 1950. All this means that the burden of jury service has correspondingly increased. However, due account has not been taken of the effect it has had on serving jurors and, as a consequence, conditions have deteriorated and the system has become much more liable to jury rigging.

When the present system was last revised, suspended sentences had not been introduced and therefore it is now possible for a person convicted of an offence today, to be sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment suspended for two years, and, because none of the sentence is served in prison, for that same convicted person to be back in court the following day quite legally sitting on a jury and trying a similar case.

This tends to undermine the whole concept of jury service to such an extent that even those imprisoned do not seem to be fully aware of the rules and have appeared as members of juries. Peter Burden and Tim Miles of theDaily Mailearlier this year reported that a robbery trial was halted when a shocked prison warder recognised Mr. John Warner of Coventry sitting in the jury box. He did not think that his total of 15 years in gaol disqualified him from the job and failed to mention his convictions on the official form. Even after 13 sentences, he said that he saw nothing on the form to disqualify him from jury service because he had been to prison.

Do the forms need revision to make the position clear? If not, are the current penalties adequate? I have a constant stream of letters, and constituents calling at my advice bureau to complain about their jury service at the Snaresbrook Crown court. In the local Ilford (Redbridge) Recorder on 17 January 1982, Bill Stock reported on "The Crooks who Walk Free". He stated that senior policemen had expressed concern at the high percentage of defendants who walk free after trials at Snaresbrook Crown court. More than half the defendants pleading not guilty are acquitted, according to figures kept by court authorities. The figures prompt concern that police time and public money are being wasted because of the attitude of jurors. In 1980, over 54 per cent. of trials there ended with defendants being cleared. The national average is 50 per cent. Many local police officers whose more serious cases go to Snaresbrook have expressed concern about the number of acquittals and fear they are not getting adequate support from the courts.

We might well ask ourselves why the public attitude evinced by these jurors is thought to be anti-police. Is it because the growth of traffic offences causes a greater opportunity for confrontation between the people and the police to the extent that it creates a "Them and Us" attitude, more people these days identifying themselves with the accused than would have been the case in days gone by? Perhaps the fixed-term traffic penalty system will help to reduce this trend, but it must be a top priority for all in authority in the police to ensure a better relationship between their subordinates and the public so that when a policeman gives evidence in court, it will not be coloured by a juryman's personal experiences and prejudices.

Are we treating jurors in a way that will encourage them to give of their best? Frequent complaints I receive include that of jurors being regularly rejected by defence counsel without explanation when wearing a collar and tie one week and being deemed acceptable the following week in sweater and jeans. Is it not time that counsel should be made to give a reason to the judge as to why a juror who has been summoned for jury service is considered unacceptable? Do we pay our jurors enough to compensate them for their du:y? Is £19 a day enough for the first 10 working days? How many self-employed or managerial staff can afford to take time off from their business at that price?

If it is true that many of those called for service cannot adequately read or write, it is surely essential to have the assistance of these business people, who will otherwise do everything they can to claim exemption on hardship grounds because they consider this duty a waste of time and money. These people surely deserve the £38 a day for the whole of their service and not just for the period after the first 10 days. Those in the 18 to 21 age bracket should be entitled to request release from jury service as it is pointless to press into service those who feel that they are not up to the task and who have no interest in what they are doing.

Are not jurors entitled to adequate facilities to fulfil their responsibilities? It is all very well removing the jury box from the sight of the public gallery to reduce the risk of jury-rigging. What about jury rooms and refreshment facilities? Are we ensuring that these are brought up to a modern and acceptable standard, which will encourage those serving to believe that they are not being treated in an offhand and cavalier fashion because they are required, by law, to do their duty as conscripted men and women? Will they tell their friends how appalled they are with their experience and encourage others to find any excuse to avoid a similar fate?

Some say that the jury system has had its day and suggest radical alternatives such as professional, full-time jurors who are legally qualified. The present system has much to commend it. It has stood the test of time. With suitable alteration, it can be made to serve as well again. Will my hon. and learned Friend grasp the nettle and take those steps that can rejuvenate the good and root out the bad and breathe new life into a system capable of carrying the criminal law into the twenty-first century?

5.44 am

My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) is to be congratulated on raising this important topic. I do not agree with all the points that he made, but we are at one in our wish to protect and maintain trial by jury in contested cases of serious criminal charges. Anything that reflects adversely on the quality of trial by jury is a threat to the institution itself, and my hon. Friend does us all a service by drawing attention to possible weaknesses.

I shall try to say something specific about the main points raised by my hon. Friend. The first was the disqualification of jurors. That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but my hon. Friend will know that the Government share his view that those with criminal convictions should not, except on minor offences, be eligible to serve as jurors. In March, the Home Secretary announced that he intended to bring forward proposals to extend disqualification to all those convicted of an imprisonable offence in the past 10 years.

We had hoped to do that in the Administration of Justice Bill, but we decided to stay our hand after some Opposition Members had threatened to wreck the Bill if we went ahead. It remains our intention to bring forward proposals on those lines at the earliest opportunity. My hon. Friend will realise that their precise nature requires careful consideration and he will not expect me to be more specific tonight. I assure him that the Government take a serious view of the need to preserve the integrity of the jury system and that we are firm in our intention to take any necessary action to that end.

My hon. Friend referred to the case of a Mr. Warner who served on a jury despite the fact that he had numerous convictions. Two elements contribute to such a circumstance. One is the conditions for disqualification and the other is finding out whether they are satisfied. My hon. Friend will know that two new clauses to the Administration of Justice Bill, which we shall be debating tomorrow, would make a significant contribution on the second of those aspects.

I am not able to agree with my hon. Friend's comments on the Crown court at Snaresbrook. The position can be exaggerated in a misleading way. In general, it is not possible to draw valid conclusions about the administration of justice, whether in the conduct of prosecution and defence, the ability of a judge or the quality of a jury, from statistics relating to the disposal of cases. Circumstances vary too widely from one part of the country to another for comparisons to have any real meaning. Even so, if it were true that in an area the size of London there was one court in which jurors were invariably reluctant to convict, one would suppose that the result could be shown up by comparing the proportion of defendants acquitted in the various centres.

Last year, 52·5 per cent. of defendants who pleaded guilty on all counts were acquitted in London as a whole. The acquittal rate at Snaresbrook was 55 per cent.—not significantly different. In the first seven months of this year the acquittal rate in London as a whole was 51·77 per cent., whereas at Snaresbrook it was 50·14 per cent.—less than the average and less than all but two other centres in London. That appears to be an improvement.

I know that my hon. Friend is aware of the figures, but lest anyone else be misled into thinking that less than half of those who come before the courts are acquitted, I should stress that the 55 per cent. relates to those who plead not guilty. A large percentage at Crown courts plead guilty. Those who are acquitted are about 50 per cent. of those who plead not guilty, which is rather less than 50 per cent. of all who are charged.

My hon. Friend suggested that there is a danger that antipathy towards the police may have a significant effect on the conduct of jurors. His concern is that jurors may be anti-police, not because they have themselves been convicted of serious offences, such as would disqualify them, but because, as he put it, the police are too heavy-handed in their treatment of minor offences. He referred in particular to motoring offences.

I agree that there must be such a danger. It cannot be quantified, and the degree to which it exists must always be uncertain. However, some matters that are relevant to this part of my hon. Friend's argument are certain and on them I am sure we can all agree. I am sure that he would agree that, although some do not, the vast majority of our people rightly hold the police in high regard. That is of great importance in every sphere, not least the one of which my hon. Friend speaks this evening. To function effectively, the police need the active support of the whole community. I assure my hon. Friend that chief officers of police are fully aware of the vital need to gain and carry that support, and that the development of better arrangements for liaison and dialogue with the community they serve play an important part in carrying forward that process.

My hon. Friend was critical of the present allowances for loss of earnings and other expenses. I know that he is aware of the facts and figures, but perhaps they bear repeating. The most important allowance is that for financial loss, usually loss of earnings, incurred in the course of jury service. As he rightly said, the maximum allowance is at present £19 a day for the first 10 days, and thereafter £38 a day. Naturally, one would like that allowance to be increased so that people who lose more than that are recompensed. However, it is worth noting that those allowances are tax-free, and thus represent a more generous compensation because the juryman is being recompensed for loss of taxable income a tax-free allowance. Jurors are also entitled to receive a subsistence allowance, which has recently been increased to £2·15. If a juryman has to remain overnight, there is a night subsistence allowance of £37·85 in London and £32·65 elsewhere. Jurors also receive travelling expenses. The full cost of travelling by public transport is paid, and if they travel by motor car there is payment at the public service rate of 12·7p per mile.

The rates are reviewed every year. The financial loss allowance, which is settled in consultation with the TUC, is based on the national average earnings. The subsistence allowances are reviewed in accordance with costs shown in the retail price index of meals bought and consumed outside the home and with increases in hotel expenses. The travelling allowances for motor cars are based on the Automobile Association's report of running costs and the fares element in the retail price index.

In addition, it is worth noting that the allowances are paid not only to jurors but to all those who perform unpaid public duties, such as justices of the peace and witnesses in criminal trials. One would wish to pay more handsome expenses, but a limit must be set on payments from public funds. As the allowances are tax-free, they are more generous than at first appears.

It is fair to pray in aid the fact that jury service is an important public duty and that it falls relatively infrequently on the individual. Where jury service would, despite the allowances, lead to serious financial hardship, the courts will always regard sympathetically an application to be excused. I recall the case of a self-employed man who could not look to his employer to make up any loss, as many employers do. A greengrocer came to me about 10 days before Christmas and said that he had been called for jury service the next week, which would be disastrous because it was one of the busiest weeks of the year. His service was postponed without difficulty and I found that the under-sheriff was easily persuaded that it would cause serious hardship to that man.

There is no evidence that the present allowances operate as a serious disincentive to performing jury service. They are not a cause of frequent complaint, which is a tribute to those called to be jurors, who recognise that they are performing a public service. But a check shows that the Lord Chancellor received no more than seven letters during the past year, four of them from Members of the House, expressing dissatisfaction about the allowances. I hope that, in the light of those facts, my hon. Friend will accept that there are adequate arrangements for reviewing the allowances on a more sensible and practical basis, that the rates are set at a level that enables the majority of jurors to perform an important service without undue financial hardship and that those who have the task of fixing the allowances are doing their best to balance the relevant interests.

My hon. Friend raised detailed points about the person called for jury service who cannot read or write. There may be short cases with no documents where it does not matter, but where there are many documents in a case, I assure my hon. Friend that it is common for a judge to be on the alert to see whether a jury member cannot read the oath. If it came to his attention that a person could not read or write, that would be a reason for such a person being asked to stand down.

I agree with my hon. Friend's comment on the need to provide adequate facilities, such as jury rooms and refreshment areas. It is important that adequate provision is made for all those who take part in trials—witnesses as well as jurors. Al .l too often, those who become involved in a case find themselves in a dim and dingy building with nowhere to sit arid no refreshment facilities. It has been realised for a long time that that can be detrimental to the administration of justice. Once bitten, twice shy. People subjected to such conditions say that they will never again become involved

I can assure my hon. Friend that I have seen conditions from the other side. The need to do as he suggests is recognised, not simply to make conditions better, but because the proper administration of justice demands that we provide proper facilities. That takes time and is expensive. We have some old court houses, I am happy to say that the Lord Chancellor frequently opens new buildings and considerable strides are being made in improving the old buildings.

Because of the hour and the limit on my time I have hurried through 1:he various aspects to say something specific about as many points as possible. I am pleased that the subject has been raised. I hope that the public will be reassured by my hon. Friend's interest and persistence and by the Government sharing his concern. We are determined to do all that is necessary to protect and maintain the integrity of trial by jury.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly al two minutes past Six o'clock am.