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Bilingual Juries (Wales)

Volume 455: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section 10 of the Juries Act 1974 to provide that in certain cases all members of a jury be bilingual in Welsh and English; and for connected purposes.

The Bill’s purpose is clear: to ensure that in respect of some Welsh cases, the jury is bilingual and able to understand the evidence directly, in Welsh or in English, rather than through a translator. To reassure some Members, I emphasise at the start that this provision would apply only to some cases, and not to all cases heard in Wales.

I do not intend to argue today in favour of the principle of hearing evidence in the original language. That principle, I would contend, is already explicit in section 10 of the Juries Act 1974, which includes a requirement that jurors understand English and makes provision for their discharge if they do not. The question therefore is not whether we have a language condition for juries, but whether it is to remain an English-only condition or to be an English and Welsh condition in Wales. The answer is that it is important that both the content and quality of evidence be apprehended as clearly and fully as possible by juries. In cases where Welsh is used, juries should be able to understand Welsh, as well as English.

Much has changed since the 1974 Act. With respect to the demography of the language, there are now more Welsh speakers, and there are more younger speakers than older speakers. The language is getting younger. Many Welsh speakers live outside the traditional heartland areas of the north and the west. Indeed, according to the 2001 census, 40 per cent. of Welsh speakers live in the south and the east, in Cardiff, Newport and the valleys, and in Wrecsam. That has profound significance both for the demand for the use of Welsh in the courts and for the ease with which random selection of bilingual juries outside the heartland areas might be achieved.

Since the 1974 Act, the law on the Welsh language has changed. Historically Welsh was used in the courts both before and after the Acts of Union with the infamous clauses essentially banning the use of Welsh in the official domain. Given that most Welsh people up to the middle of the 19th century spoke only Welsh—they did not speak English—the use of Welsh in the courts was inevitable. Indeed, it was essential for the administration of justice. However, the clauses in the Acts of Union were in force until the position was clarified by the Welsh Courts Act 1942, which provided that Welsh might be used in some circumstances. That position was modified by the Welsh Language Act 1967 introduced by the then Labour Government, which established the principle of equal validity, which means that if something is done in Welsh it is as valid as if it were done in English. However, it also provided that when there was a discrepancy between a Welsh and English text, the English text would prevail. As was noted at the time, if it was said in Welsh that two and two was four and in English that it was five, it would be five. The situation was addressed again by the Welsh Language Act 1993, brought in by the then Conservative Government. The principle of that Act was that Welsh and English were to be treated on the basis of equality where that was reasonably practical and appropriate in the circumstances. And that is the current state of play in respect of the Welsh and English languages. In general and in the courts, Welsh and English are to be treated on the basis of equality.

In respect of Welsh cases, a wide variety of cases, up to and including cases of murder, are heard in Welsh. Sometimes each member of the jury is wholly bilingual, sometimes not, and simultaneous translation is widely used. But even though the standard of English-Welsh simultaneous translation is high, I contend that hearing evidence in translation is not the same as hearing and understanding that evidence, with all its nuances, in the original language. After all, juries are often told to judge a witness not just by what they say, but by how they say it. Much is communicated by other means than directly through language. Needless to say, were this Bill to be enacted, simultaneous translation would still be available for others attending the courts.

The point is that at present there is no guarantee that each member of the jury is able to understand Welsh—only that they understand English. That is simply not just. Welsh and English are not treated on the basis of equality, even though it would be reasonably practical and appropriate in the circumstances for them to be so treated—as the 1993 Act provides.

In Sir Robin Auld’s review of the criminal courts of England and Wales in October 2001, there was a suggestion that bilingual juries should be given further consideration in the interests of ensuring that each defendant has a fair trial. The result was the consultation paper of December 2005 produced by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform. This posed five questions in respect of bilingual juries, which were: would they be justified in principle; could they be reconciled with random selection; how would the power to order a bilingual jury be exercised; what were the wider implications for Crown Court trials in Wales; and what were the preferred options for the summoning of juries?

I do not have time today even to begin to discuss those matters, but I have seen some of the responses to the consultation paper. I want to refer to the opinions of the legal profession, as expressed by the Standing Committee for Legal Wales, which includes the presiding judge for Wales and many other individuals and institutions. I have also seen the responses provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and by Mr. Gwynedd Parry of Gray’s Inn and the university of Swansea.

Those responses provide a comprehensive and compelling set of answers in favour of bilingual juries. However, the problem that we face stems from the Government’s lack of response to the consultation, and their inaction. The action that the Government should take is clear, and I humbly suggest that my Bill would offer a way to ensure that the Juries Act 1974 was properly amended. I trust that the Government will take heed.

In conclusion, I want to refer to the well known story of Dic Penderyn, hanged for his part in the Merthyr uprising. Dic Penderyn, of course, is emblematic to many Welsh people of all that was wrong with our systems of government and justice. On the scaffold, Dic is reputed to have said, “O Lord this is an injustice.” What he actually said was, “O Arglwydd dyma gamwedd.” Penderyn was tried in English but was sent to his death speaking Welsh.

Today, it would not be right for a defendant to face a life sentence unsure that the members of a jury had understood his evidence as perfectly as they might. Neither would it be right, in the case of an acquittal, for the family of a victim not to be wholly confident that the quality of the evidence against the defendant was apprehended in full by the jury. On both those counts, the case for bilingual juries is overriding. My Bill would ensure that neither of those two eventualities need prevail, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Hywel Williams, Dr. Hywel Francis, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Mr. Dai Davis, Mr. Roger Williams, Michael Fabricant, Mr. Angus MacNeil, Andrew George, Nia Griffith, Adam Price and Mr. Dan Rogerson.

Bilingual Juries (Wales)

Hywel Williams accordingly presented a Bill to amend section 10 of the Juries Act 1974 to provide that in certain cases all members of a jury be bilingual in Welsh and English; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 2 March, and to be printed [Bill 46].