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Solicitor-General

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 15 March 2007

The Solicitor-General was asked—

Youth Matters

Although I have not specifically discussed with the Home Secretary the document “Youth Matters”, I am aware of the programme and I meet him regularly at the National Criminal Justice Board meetings, where youth issues and wider issues are often discussed. The last meeting was on 27 February and the next is on 27 March.

Does the Solicitor-General share my concern at the growing antisocial behaviour in market towns such as Thirsk and the fact that few prosecutions are taken, especially in cases of the breach of an order or contract under the new antisocial behaviour regulations? Does he agree that rather than seek to prosecute, it would be better to intervene to take the children off the street earlier? What are the Government doing to stop truancy in schools, which can lead to antisocial behaviour? Why are there no prosecutions for breaches of those contracts, and what value do they have in the circumstances?

The aim is to change behaviour and therefore the approach taken is to prosecute where necessary. Some prosecutions do take place, but not unless they are necessary to change the behaviour. The Government’s approach is to ensure, through “Youth Matters”, the document that set out the youth strategy, that we put £115 million into developing youth activities, and also identify those young people who need to be diverted from what may well be antisocial behaviour. I know that in my own area in the village of Gouldon, the local community has got together to put in place packages of assistance for young people by creating pods and developing youth activities, and ensuring a greater police presence and CCTV cameras. It is possible for local people to put together packages to reduce the level of antisocial behaviour and ensure that young people are diverted away from criminal activity and directed towards more useful activities.

Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the successes and failures of the intensive supervision and surveillance programme, which is very effectively managed in Staffordshire? If he has, what implications does that have for youth sentencing at the end of court cases?

Intensive supervision has been shown to have considerable merits in dealing with particular individuals who need that level of intervention. We are likely to see increasing use of that measure. The response by the criminal justice system to antisocial behaviour by young people will increasingly be directed to dealing with particular problems that they have. The more that we can tailor the intervention by the criminal justice system to the particular problems that individuals have, to divert them away from activities that cause difficulties, the better will be our opportunities to reduce the amount of antisocial behaviour.

Expert Witnesses

The straight answer is yes. A number of reviews are being carried out of the role of expert witnesses and some have already been published. There have also been several initiatives recently to improve the use of expert witnesses in criminal cases.

Does the Solicitor-General agree that the judicial system, in particular the Crown Prosecution Service, has a duty of care to ensure that expert witnesses are who they say they are? If so, what are his comments in the light of the recent bogus Dr. Morrison case, which has led to the need to review more than 700 cases? Many people may be in prison as a result of his so-called expert evidence, so what new measures will the Government put in place to ensure that expert witnesses have the qualifications they claim to have?

The hon. Gentleman is right. The Gene Morrison case is of serious concern. The police investigation into any miscarriages of justice is under way and my office is being kept informed about it. I think that case was exceptional, but it is one that underlines the importance to all parties of ensuring that they look critically at the evidence of expert opinion. A number of reforms are being made. New criminal justice procedure rules put in place last November are now coming into play; the post of forensic science regulator has been set up; and the Attorney-General’s review of shaken baby syndrome cases is under way and will have important recommendations. In accord with the view of the Court of Appeal—the recommendations of his honour Sir Igor Judge—new CPS guidance on the use of expert evidence will ensure that, whereas expert evidence has been wholly relied on in the past, it should not be in the future, and that corroborative evidence which is independent of the experts should be sought. That new approach will help to deal with some of the problems with expert evidence we have experienced in a number of cases in recent years.

At a time when criminal legal aid costs are under close scrutiny, will my hon. and learned Friend consider looking closely at the joint instruction of experts in criminal cases? Huge expenditure is incurred on expert witnesses and it is increasing at a rapid rate.

My hon. Friend is right; there is considerable expenditure in relation to expert witnesses. We need to ensure that cases are properly decided and experts are able to give their view, but that it is done in a sensible and cost-effective way. Following the recommendations, part of the guidance on expert witnesses is that they should be prepared to have peer review of their findings and that there should be exchanges between experts on either side of the case about the evidence they bring forward. We should attempt to ensure that, where possible, there is as much consensus as possible about the expert evidence that goes before a court and a jury. In that way, it is to be hoped that we will reduce the amount of time needed for expert witness evidence in court cases.

Is the Solicitor-General aware that real concern remains among both judiciary and practitioners about the length of time it frequently takes to obtain authorisation from the legal aid authorities to commission expert reports; about the delays in commissioning that often occur once authorisation has been obtained; about delays in disclosure of reports between the parties; and then about the Crown being able to instruct its own experts? Will the Solicitor-General discuss with the appropriate Departments and agencies what can be done to speed up the process of obtaining expert evidence, which, as he knows, also has an impact on the listing and expedition of trials?

It is the case that we need to ensure that court proceedings are speeded up more generally, not just in relation to experts. When we came into office it was clear that the courts system was struggling and unable to cope with the sheer volume of cases before the courts. Things have improved, but there is still a lot more work to be done. There are issues in relation to legal aid. We have to ensure that expert evidence is really needed before legal aid is granted and that there are proper exchanges and disclosure. The new guidance will enable the sharing of expert evidence, and exchanges between experts to take place, and I hope that that approach will result in less delay in the future.

Victim Treatment

21. What assessment he has made of the impact of the prosecutors’ pledge on the treatment of victims and their families by the Crown Prosecution Service; and if he will make a statement. (127492)

The prosecutors’ pledge introduced in October 2006 makes a series of commitments about how prosecutors communicate with victims, with the aim of improving performance. At this stage, it is too early to assess the full impact of the pledge. The CPS has implemented management controls to seek to ensure compliance and the witness and victim experience will also provide some feedback on key elements of the pledge.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. He will know that the question was prompted by the experience of a friend of mine whose nephew was assaulted in a street in Slough. The case took more than a year to come to court and the prosecution eventually failed, in part because of a lack of confirmatory identification evidence. That showed me how devastating it is for the families of the victims of violent crime not to know what is going on. Can my hon. and learned Friend assure me that the prosecutors’ pledge will include better information for victims and their families while a case is being pursued and that lessons, such as that about identity parades, are learned and promulgated as a result?

I have had a similar case in my constituency recently. In a manslaughter case the family were not properly informed. There is a need to ensure that the CPS and other agencies deal with victims and families more effectively than they have done. The prosecutors’ pledge has only recently been introduced and it is about changing attitudes and behaviour and improving the way in which the criminal justice system operates by putting victims and witnesses at its heart.

My hon. Friend has let me know of the circumstances of the case that she mentioned. There are lessons to be learned on the identification issues, but the initial charging advice was provided by a Crown prosecutor who advised the police that, given the issues in the case, there was no requirement for a video identification procedure. However, subsequently that advice had to be looked at again. Lessons must be learned when the system has failed victims or their families, and it is necessary that the prosecutors’ pledge be delivered on. It is about changing and improving the whole way in which our criminal justice system operates.

Fraud Review

A national strategy to tackle fraud has been published today. We will create a national fraud strategic authority to help co-ordinate efforts to combat fraud. It will include a unit to measure the extent of large-scale and smaller frauds; a working party will develop a costed case for a national fraud reporting centre to take reports from victims and to co-ordinate information and advice on tackling fraud; and it will work closely with the police and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

I am grateful for that reply. My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that many businesses and trade organisations are concerned about fraud and, in particular, about the growth of internet fraud. Can he tell the House how those businesses and trade organisations can take part in the review with the organisations that he has just announced?

It is important that the private sector and, indeed, the public sector work much more carefully, and with the police, at not just seeking to catch criminals after they have committed an offence, but seeking to prevent crime and fraud from taking place. The fraud review sets out ways in which we can get the private and public sectors to work together with the police and the other agencies in developing a strategy to tackle fraud. The national fraud strategic authority will raise awareness among the public and seek to promote best practice in fraud detection and prevention. Individual institutions need to design systems that make fraud much more difficult to commit. There is a growing body of good practice in fraud management strategies and we have encouraged the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission to look at the strength of anti-fraud controls in the organisations that they audit.

I welcome the fraud review. I hope very much that issues such as plea bargaining and better management of fraud trials can all be looked at very carefully in the course of it. However, in view of the fact that the review is taking place and that it is likely that by next week the Bill that would remove the right to trial by jury in certain fraud cases will be defeated in the House of Lords, can I urge the Solicitor-General to use the fraud review to reconsider the position of wanting to get rid of the right of trial by jury in certain fraud cases? If this fraud review is properly carried out it will make such a measure even less necessary, despite the Government’s attempts at justifying it.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman to this extent. We need to tackle fraud and we have put in place a programme of three key areas that we need to deal with. We have put in place the fraud review and he has welcomed that. I assure him that we will look with care at issues such as plea bargaining. We have also put in place the new Fraud Act 2006, which he and I took through this House. That Act means that we are in position to have a modern legal framework to deal with fraud, but we also need to ensure that the procedures are right and that we get fraud trials right. That is why the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill is necessary. It is about ensuring that we get the courts into a position in which they can deal most effectively with fraud. This is a package in which we want all three measures—the fraud review, the Fraud Act and the Bill—put in place. His failure to support the Bill is regrettable, because it is part of the package that we need to deal with fraud.

The Liberal Democrats understand why the Law Officers may resist the request to reconsider the strategy on the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill this week, but will the Solicitor-General undertake that the specific proposal in the fraud review to have a financial court with dedicated judges who are experts will be seriously considered? That may be the answer to the question of how we get the right court and maximise the chance of success. Then I hope that he will respond to the request that the Bill be dropped and that the other proposals, which are much more effective and thought-through, be implemented.

The idea of a financial court needs to be looked at. We need to see how the court system as a whole would respond to that sort of proposal. On the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill, we need to have a court system that can more effectively deal with fraud. Our view remains that the Bill is something to which the Government are committed. We need to have a criminal justice system that is not only fit for purpose, but delivers effectively. I regret the hon. Gentleman’s failure to support that position. I understand his arguments, but I believe that the Bill is necessary.