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Court Hearings

Volume 163: debated on Monday 4 December 1989

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To ask the Attorney-General what percentage of court hearings in 1988 were unable to proceed on the day for which they were listed as a result of (a) prisoners not delivered to the court, (b) police officers not in court to give evidence, (c) probation service reports not available and (d) Crown prosecution service delays.

The Crown prosecution service and the Home Office have carried out a number of surveys into causes of delay in the criminal justice system. While the precise statistics sought by my hon. Friend are not available, responsibility for adjournments is spread amongst a variety of agencies in the system and the Crown prosecution service is certainly not the major cause of such requests.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that there is considerable concern among lawyers and lay people at the delays taking place in hearing cases, and the fact that the administration of justice is being hindered as a result? What action are the Government taking to try to speed up hearings?

The Crown prosecution service tries to liaise with the different agencies—my hon. Friend referred to the police, the probation service and the courts—to ensure that the system speeds ahead as much as possible. Inevitably, its review duties cause some extra time, but the interests of justice make this well worth while.

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern following last Thursday's publication of a report into the operation of the duty solicitor scheme? Does he accept that the scheme's operation is just as important as the operation of the Crown prosecution service and court delays in terms of the proper administration of justice? What additional resources are the Government prepared to put into the operation of the duty solicitor scheme? Are they prepared to step back and allow the scheme to be destroyed?

My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is studying the report with great care. We attach great importance to the proper working of the duty solicitor scheme which, among other things, puts great pressure on solicitors. My right hon. and learned Friend will keep the matter closely under review.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware of the case of Mr. Lorrain Osman who has been awaiting extradition proceedings while in custody for the past four years? Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that this is a great strain on our British justice system? Will he look into the matter with a view to involving the official solicitor so that this man may be released pending proceedings?

I have had the opportunity to look in some considerable detail at the background to Mr. Osman's case. My hon. Friend will wish to bear in mind that Mr. Osman, who is an extremely wealthy man, is entitled to exhaust every one of his legal remedies in this country before my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary can take the decision on whether to extradite him to Hong Kong. Inevitably, those legal remedies take time to pursue, but my hon. Friend should also bear in mind that the question of bail in the interim is a matter for the independent judiciary and has been before it on several occasions.

To revert to the original question, is it not false economy to leave these services under-resourced? Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that delays involve loss of time for the judiciary, the court service, defence witnesses and the other services involved? Would it not be sensible to fund a proper legal system in the first place?

It can be false economy to leave services under-resourced. The problem faced by the criminal justice system is by no means solely, if indeed largely, due to financial resources. It is also a question of human resources. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know, at the moment the pool of lawyers is seriously overfished by a number of different agencies, such as the City and large firms of solicitors. As I emphasised earlier, it is important that the different agencies work carefully together to make the best use of resources and that we should seek to recruit to bring the Crown prosecution service up to strength.

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that the big company firms do not recruit people who are involved in criminal law? Does he accept that the Crown prosecution service is under-resourced in human and financial terms? Does he agree that it is quite unacceptable that simple shoplifting trials in Merseyside should take between six and nine months to come before the courts? That cannot be right for the law or for the people who are being charged. I am not a great public expenditure man, but it is clear to me that we have to get the proper people in the Crown prosecution service and that they must be properly rewarded and have a proper career structure in a properly funded service.

My hon. Friend has great knowledge of the scene on Merseyside. I urge him to look carefully at the statistics on who is asking for adjournments. In a significant proportion of cases it is the defence that asks for repeated adjournments.