Motion to Consider
My Lords, the purpose of this order is to bring into force a revised code of practice under the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, setting out the manner in which police officers are to record, retain and reveal to the prosecutor material obtained in a criminal investigation.
The revised code that this order will bring into force replaces the current one that was introduced in 2005. The changes to the code are not extensive but they are a crucial element in an initiative that is designed to make summary justice more efficient. This is the transforming summary justice programme—TSJ for short.
The objective of TSJ is to enable guilty plea cases to be dealt with wherever possible in one hearing, and contested cases to be properly managed at the first hearing and actively progressed and disposed of at the second. One of the elements of TSJ is that summary cases that are likely to be guilty pleas and those that are expected to be contested should be treated differently, the former being listed for a hearing after 14 days, the latter after 28 days.
Last May, the senior presiding judge received the report of a review that he had asked His Honour Judge Kinch and the chief magistrate, Senior District Judge Riddle, to carry out into disclosure of unused material in summary cases. This magistrates’ court disclosure review made several recommendations that complement TSJ, including that the relevant code of practice should be amended to enable a streamlined but proportionate procedure to be used in disclosing unused material in summary cases.
The review endorsed the separate treatment of likely guilty and not guilty cases. It recommended that the code should be amended to remove any implication that a guilty plea might be expected simply on the basis of the defendant not having denied the offence. However, where a guilty plea was expected with good reason—typically because the defendant had admitted the offence—then a schedule of unused material need not be served.
Even in these cases, however, there remains a duty on the prosecution at common law to disclose any material that might assist the defendant in a bail application or in preparing his case. This is often referred to as “ex parte Lee disclosure”, after the case in which the principle was set out. It is perhaps unlikely to be required in a straightforward summary case, but the review recommended that in the rare cases where the need for such disclosure arises, the police must draw the material to the attention of the prosecutor. Where on the other hand there is nothing to disclose, as will ordinarily be the position, that fact should be declared.
These recommendations are reflected in the revised code. Annexed to the code are three forms, the first of which is for use in cases where a guilty plea is anticipated, declaring that there is nothing to disclose at common law.
The review noted the intention of the CPS,
“to replace the unused schedule with a short disclosure report in anticipated not guilty plea summary cases”,
which it observed would require an amendment to the code of practice. This, too, is reflected in the new code and in the second and third forms annexed to it. These are streamlined certificates for use in anticipated not guilty cases, one certifying that there is nothing to disclose under the 1996 Act or at common law, the other certifying that there is disclosable material and specifying what it is. These forms are quicker, simpler and less bureaucratic than the ones they replace.
The amendments incorporated in the revised code were drafted in consultation with the national police lead on unused material, as well as with representatives of the Law Society, HM Courts and Tribunals Service and the office of the senior presiding judge. In accordance with the process set out in the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, the revised code was published in draft for consultation in October last year. Six responses were received, and the draft was further slightly revised in the light of them.
The resulting revised code was laid on 28 January and the draft order to bring it into force, which your Lordships are considering today, was laid the following day. This slightly unusual process is in accordance with Section 77(5) of the 1996 Act. The order was subject to scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and has been amended slightly in the light of it. The code will come into force on the day after the day on which the order has been approved by whichever House approves it last.
The revised code introduced by the order under consideration today does not alter the criteria for disclosure. Rather, it seeks to help to ensure that defendants receive the disclosure to which they are entitled earlier than at present, including an assurance that the prosecution’s obligations at common law have been met. As the review observes, late compliance with disclosure obligations, or failure to comply with them,
“frequently leads to ineffective trials, delay and the incumbent costs in both financial and human terms … Many practitioners observe that there is a procedural rather than substance difficulty in most cases. The material listed on the unused schedule (and often any items disclosed) frequently has limited, if any, bearing on the outcome of cases tried summarily. With that in mind, it is all the more frustrating for procedural failures in the disclosure process to lead to a case collapsing, or suffering delay”.
The purpose of the revised code is to prevent such procedural failures and to reinforce the effect of the TSJ programme in speeding up summary justice. I beg to move.
My Lords, the order before us today replaces the code of practice issued in 2005 under the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996. I understand it is being brought forward following the Magistrates’ Court Disclosure Review in 2014, which recommended the adoption of a streamlined procedure in summary cases and, I think, in those either-way cases that are likely to remain in the magistrates’ court, so that a schedule of unused material need not be served in such cases, when it is anticipated that a guilty plea is going to be entered.
The present procedure is outlined in the magistrates’ court review, which I have looked at, with particular reference to paragraph 49. The recommendation that this order is seeking to bring into effect is listed as point 220 in the summary of recommendations. It would be helpful if the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, could just set out for us how we get to this position of an anticipated guilty plea. Clearly, someone can admit, at the first opportunity, that they have committed the offence and are guilty, but what about other cases? What sort of assessment will actually take place? Is there an expectation or assumption that, on the evidence already there, they will be getting legal advice from their own solicitor that the wisest course of action for them would be to submit a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity? I just want to be clear on the process that will be followed.
It would also be helpful if the noble Lord could just outline for us what will happen if the anticipated guilty plea does not materialise after all that. As the noble Lord said, I have served as a magistrate. I was on the Coventry bench for many years, and most cases that come before you, especially summary offences, result in a guilty plea and there are very few trials. However, things do not always go to plan, and it would be useful for that to be outlined for the Grand Committee.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for confirming when he spoke earlier that material that is of assistance to the defence and that meets the appropriate tests must be disclosed to the defence. As he said, that is the rule of common law disclosure. He referred to the ex parte Lee case, which is helpful in this respect. With those few points, I am very happy to support the order.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for his careful consideration of the order, informed of course by his own experience as a magistrate. He is quite right that the question of a plea is not simply a binary one or an automatic process at a particular juncture. People change their minds, and it is important that their right to do that is respected by the procedure rules and that we do not become too much a servant of process, at the risk of in any way jeopardising the important choice that a defendant has. Of course, it is important to stress in that context that defendants, whatever their intended plea, are entitled to know the case against them. They receive that in the form of the initial details of the prosecution case. Under the proposed arrangements they will receive that information earlier.
This is about disclosure of unused material. However, as I have endeavoured to stress, defendants are still entitled through the ex parte Lee case to the disclosure of material by common law which might potentially assist them. If, for example, a witness had a previous relevant conviction or had refused to give a statement, the police would have to reveal that before or at the first hearing. Such information is vital for the defence in making a bail application—quite apart from anything else—and the amended code reminds the police of the importance of making such disclosures even in a guilty plea case.
The noble Lord asked what would happen if an expected guilty plea did not materialise. In those circumstances the appropriate certificate must be prepared and served as soon as possible. The procedure is outlined in paragraph 6.4 of the code, which embraces the possibility quite reasonably and sensibly suggested by the noble Lord. Experience tells him that defendants sometimes get cold feet for one reason or another.
The importance of the order is that the defendant will be protected by this process. Important material which may assist will still be disclosed, but not a considerable amount of unused material which would have no relevance to a decision or to the outcome or strength of a case. Such material would simply slow up the process, causing additional expense and inconvenience, not only to the court but, importantly, to the defendant.
This order meets the desire to streamline the process —the transforming summary justice programme. It means that there will be fewer hearings but none the less protects the defendant and his or her freedom to choose whether to plead guilty or not guilty.