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Volume 35: debated on Monday 17 January 1983

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Legal Aid


asked the Attorney-General if the Lord Chancellor is satisfied with the working of the legal aid scheme.

The Lord Chancellor is continually taking steps to improve the working of the three schemes for which he is responsible.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the discrepancies in granting legal aid to defendants charged with indictable offences in magistrates' courts? Is he further aware that the discrepancies may be two or three times greater in one court than in another? Will he suggest ways in which such unfairness to defendents can be dealt with, possibly by a system of appeal against refusal to grant legal aid?

The Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General and I are aware of that problem, and share the hon. Gentleman's concern. The Lord Chancellor is anxious to promote consistency of approach towards legal aid in magistrates' courts. To that end he is pursuing two separate lines of action. His officials recently carried out a survey of about 60 courts and the information ascertained is being analysed. In addition, the power included in the Legal Aid Act 1982 to introduce a power of recourse after a refusal is under active consideration. There are several alternatives. I assure the hon. Gentleman that a final decision will not be long delayed, but will not be taken before consultation is complete.

Is not the legal aid scheme vastly expensive, and becoming more so every day? Is it not liable to abuse? Will my right hon. and learned Friend order a thorough inquiry into the whole scheme?

I can put my hon. Friend's concern at rest. The main purpose of the 1982 Act was to ensure more economy, better contributions where they could be afforded and generally to seek more consistency and less abuse.

Will the Solicitor-General urge the magistrates' courts rules committee to go ahead with drawing up appropriate rules so that the provision of legal aid for parents in care proceedings—which was announced by the Lord Chancellor in July last year—can be put into effect as soon as possible?

I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that that matter is also the subject of active consideration. We must get it right before regulations are made, but preparations have reached an advanced stage.

Prosecution Policy


asked the Attorney-General if he will make it his practice to seek from the Director of Public Prosecutions the reasons why, in answer to complaints referred to him, he concludes that the evidence is insufficient to take proceedings.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that, following what has become known as the Burngreave incident in Sheffield, five youths who made a complaint against the police for assault were told by the Director of Public Prosecutions—as always—that there was insufficient evidence to take proceedings? Is he further aware that film taken of the incident showed that the police evidence was untrue and, in subsequent legal proceedings, the youths were awarded £2,000 plus costs in compensation? Do not such cases invite cynicism? In the absence of the discipline of having to provide reasons for rejecting complaints—on request, even if not automatically—even such cut and dried cases will never receive a fair hearing from the DPP. Will there not continue to be a yawning credibility gap among the public about the complaints procedure?

The question was whether the DPP should refer to me the cases that he had turned down. About 14,000 cases a year are referred to him. It would be impossible for me to consider each one. In cases about which he has some doubt or where he experiences difficulty, he consults me.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that it is absolutely fundamental that the DPP—whoever holds that office—should be largely independent of the Executive or any pressure group if we are to live in the sort of democracy that we currently enjoy?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his knighthood.

It is absolutely essential that the office of Director of Public Prosecutions remains free from any pressure from the Executive. Although I have the right of superintendence over him, during the three and a half years that I have held this office I have never had to tell him to do anything. We have always reached agreement about the proper course to be adopted.

As the all-party Home Affairs Select Committee has twice unanimously recommended that the DPP should give his reasons for refusing to proceed against police officers, is it not time that he and the Attorney-General seriously considered whether they may be wrong in their present attitude?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the matter has been considered at great length. We believe that we have reached the proper result, especially in view of the circular issued on 4 January.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one objection to the proposal of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) is that if the DPP was obliged to state his reasons they may amount to no more than that the witnesses were not credible? It would be hard to make that statement, and could be damaging to witnesses.

That is certainly one reason for the present policy. Another is that there is often a public retrial of someone who would not have the protection of the courts. Thirdly, in a number of cases witnesses come forward to give their evidence in confidence. If they thought that that evidence would be disclosed outside a court of law, they would be reluctant to come forward.



asked the Attorney-General how many prosecutions he has conducted personally since May 1979.

Six. I am also expecting to conduct the prosecution in a seventh case tomorrow.

Because of the reluctance of the DPP to prosecute policemen, will the Attorney-General himself prosecute those responsible for the incident last Friday when the police gunned down an innocent man in the street? If Sir Kenneth Newman is responsible for the regulations governing the use of firearms by members of his force, should not he be one of the policemen in the dock?

The papers relating to that case are being sent to the DPP tomorrow morning, as a preliminary report. He will consider them, and if he has any difficulty he will no doubt consult me.

At the risk of causing my right hon. and learned Friend to blush, may I ask whether he is aware that those who heard his devastatingly effective cross-examination of the spy Professor Hambleton hope that he will prosecute in many important national cases,?

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. However, I cannot claim credit in many cases as the defendants pleaded guilty.

Tape Recorders


asked the Attorney-General on how many occasions tape recorders have been allowed to be used in judicial proceedings since the coming into force of the Contempt of Court Act 1981; and on how many occasions their use has been forbidden.

No records are kept of the number of occasions on which the use of tape recorders has been allowed or refused by the courts.

Does not the Attorney-General think that he should keep records on such an important issue? As it looks as if the House of Lords Judicial Committee will soon be considering another transport case that is to be brought in London, and as it refused to let me bring a tape recorder into its court last time, will the Attorney-General have a word with Lord Wilberforce and get him to change his mind?

There has been only one complaint since the Bill became an Act. As the hon. Gentleman knows, because he discussed them with me first, sympathetic guidelines have been issued. However, if he is dissatisfied with a court's refusal to grant him, or anyone else, the right to bring in a tape recorder, he should bear in mind that the proper person to speak to is not me, but my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor.