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Attorney-General

Volume 77: debated on Monday 15 April 1985

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Coal Industry Dispute

20.

asked the Attorney-General if he will update the figures given to the hon. Member for Leicester, East on 18 March, Official Report, column 629, regarding cases heard by the courts and cases outstanding in connection with the recent coal mining dispute to the latest available date.

My reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) on 18 March was based upon statistics compiled by the national reporting centre, which has now closed down. I am therefore unable to say exactly how many cases outstanding at the conclusion of the dispute have yet to be heard. The available figures, although not covering all courts, show that a very substantial number of cases have been dealt with, and I would like to congratulate the magistrates and the court officials on the magnificent way in which they have dealt with this extra burden.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer and join him in congratulating the magistrates who have handled that shocking catalogue of outstanding cases. May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to find out how many cases are still awaiting charge and trial? Victimisation is now occurring again at pits between working miners who never went on strike and miners who returned to work, and there is a need for a deterrent in future.

Where cases of harassment have occurred since the end of the strike, police inquiries are under way. In the case of Mrs. Watson, the Director of Public Prosecutions has advised that certain charges be preferred. If there is any continuing harassment, I do not want those who perpetrate it to feel that they will escape justice.

The latest available figures—those made available before the closure of the national reporting centre — show that out of 9,808 persons arrested only 7,917 have been charged to date, and that of those 1,335 have so far been acquitted. At least 1,000 cases remain to be heard. The overwhelming majority of the cases involve trivial charges against previously law-abiding persons. That being so, I urge the Attorney-General to think again about the answer that he gave me on the last occasion when the matter was raised at Question Time, and to make a general statement, which could provide guidance for those pursuing such prosecutions, at considerable expense to the taxpayer, and to the detriment of respect for the law in mining constituencies. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman issue a general statement telling those people to ease off?

The grant of an amnesty is not within my powers, as in most cases the chief constable is responsible. Even if it were within my powers, it would be highly inappropriate, and not conducive to the preservation of the peace during industrial disputes, for me to give such guidance. It would also be unfair to those already convicted. There must be a number of borderline cases. One saw that recently in Nottingham, when a number of cases were dropped.

Might I ask my right hon. and learned Friend—did you say "Jester", Mr. Speaker.

I should like to ask my right hon. and learned Friend, without jesting, whether he agrees that incidents during the miners' strike rather tarnished the good name of the country? That being so, is it not important that justice is seen to be done and to be dispatched quickly? Was that not the very reason why our Prime Minister thought it necessary to assure our friends in the middle east that we had come to grips with this problem?

I also misheard you, Mr. Speaker, when you called my hon. Friend. I shall not discuss anything that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said abroad. There is no doubt that what happened during the picketing and the harassment during the strike did nothing for the good name of Britain. However, many people have been prosecuted — the conviction rate overall is about 75 per cent.

Order. May I simply say to the hon. Member that if I did say that, it was a term of endearment.

Administration Of Justice

22.

asked the Attorney-General if he is satisfied with the speed of the administration of justice in relation to civil cases; and if he will make a statement.

Although I am satisfied that cases are heard as quickly as possible given the resources at present available and the existing procedural rules, the Lord Chancellor, with the full co-operation of the judges, is always seeking ways in which to improve procedure and administration and has recently set up the major inquiry known as the civil justice review. The speed with which a case comes to trial depends to a very substantial extent on the efforts made by the parties.

I thank the Attorney-General for that answer and information. Is he aware that the legal procedures relating to the original collapse of Ronan Point in 1968 are still moving through the courts and have some way to run? Might the review that he has mentioned be of assistance in this matter, and does its ambit extend to the Official Referee, with whom I understand the case now stands?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling me what he would follow his original question with, as I have been able to do a careful inquiry to give the detailed reply which I think he should have. In this case, as in all civil proceedings, the responsibility for carrying the action forward rests with the parties. Although the writ was issued in 1970, the case was not ready for trial for many years and, as late as November 1978, the defendants obtained leave to amend their defence. The trial took place on 25 February 1980–10 years after the writ. The judgment was appealed against, unsuccessfully, on 9 July 1981. The question of quantum was referred to an official referee. A preliminary issue raised by the defendant was dealt with by the official referee, but, here again, the decision was appealed against. Bundles of documents for the appeal were not approved until March this year. It is plain that the complexity and importance of the issues and the amount of documentation have made preparation a lengthy task. One explanation might be that an affidavit lodged by the defendants refers to the disclosure of more than 100,000 documents.

All of those matters are within the control of the parties, but procedure generally will be part of the civil justice review, and I hope that such matters will be looked into. There is a remedy for the plaintiff. No plaintiff needed to let this take 10 years to get to trial. He has certain remedies which could force the case on much earlier.

Following the original question, might I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that there is a delay of about two years in settling a date for trial for commercial cases in the commercial court? Bearing in mind the significance to our international trade of the availability of British justice, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider devoting more resources to this area of activity so that the trial process can be speeded up?

In a sense, the problem is rather ironic as it is a testament to the court's popularity that many contracts, parties to which—[Interruption.]It will be seen that that is right. Many entirely overseas contracts, neither party to which has any connection with Britain, have written into them a provision that any dispute is to be settled in accordance with English law. That is a great tribute to our commercial court, but it has led to an enormous increase in the court's work. The Lord Chancellor is well aware of this, and he and the commercial court committee are considering the question of delay with a view to reducing it.

Uninsured Defendants

23.

asked the Attorney-General why it is intended by the proposed amendments to the Supreme Court rules submitted to the Supreme Court rule committee by the Lord Chancellor's Department to exclude from the operation of section 6 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982 plaintiffs taking action against uninsured defendants other than public authorities.

This restriction follows the recommendation in paragraph 240 of the report of the Law Commission, No. 56, which led to the enactment of section 6. A similar restriction applies in Scotland. The matter is now one for the Supreme Court rule committee, which is now considering it.

Surely the issue is that some defendants may be able to pay compensation even though they are not insured. There does not seem to be any good reason for securing the position of such people, because if it is secured they are better off than they would have been had they followed the law and got themselves insured.

The rule committee is looking at that and all the other attendant problems which follow —for example, who is to be exempted, should it be just those recommended by the Law Commission, or should we widen the scope? The probable thinking behind the Law Commission's recommendation is that there must be some finality, particularly for the uninsured defendant who has the possibility of an enormous claim hanging over him for perhaps the rest of his life. That is one of the matters which obviously caused the Law Commission to make that recommendation.