The written information procedure

Part of Prisons and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 4:30 pm ar 18 Ebrill 2017.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 4:30, 18 Ebrill 2017

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again on such a momentous day, Mr Stringer. I put on the record my gratitude to the Ministry of Justice officials who have put so much work into briefing me and helping me with this Bill. I thank them all very much indeed.

I commend the hon. Member for Torfaen and his hon. Friends for seeking to ensure, in proposing amendments 92 and 91, that our planned reforms to pre-trial criminal procedures are fair, transparent and as straightforward as possible. I share the concerns about protecting the principles of justice. I hope that I can reassure them that the safeguards they seek are to be provided and are catered for by the Bill.

The first thing to say is that engaging with the written information procedure will always be entirely optional: defendants will always be free to opt out for a court hearing if that is their wish. The court will always retain the discretion to hold a hearing if it thinks that is necessary. Every defendant will be given a hearing date at the same time as they are invited to engage online. They will be provided with enough information to make an informed choice. If they choose not to engage online, they can simply attend the hearing that they have been notified about.

Clause 23(4), mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, states that the criminal procedure rules may specify what information is to be given to defendants about the nature of the written information procedure and the consequences of following it as well as about seeking legal representation. It states that this information can also be given to a parent or guardian where a defendant is under 18.

The Criminal Procedure Rule Committee, independent of the Government, is chaired by the Lord Chief Justice and is full of expertise, given that it has representation from other judges, magistrates, justices’ clerks, barristers, people from voluntary organisations and so on. It will have the power to stipulate the information that it considers to be pertinent to the defendant’s ability to make an informed choice. We believe that it is appropriate to give that committee the power because it has that expertise, and also because it will be able to refine the rules once it sees how the written information procedure works in practice. Section 69(4) of the Courts Act 2003 already requires that the rules be accessible, fair, simple and efficient. Those rules, of course, come before Parliament as secondary legislation.

In terms of accessibility, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is determined that the written information procedure shall be straightforward and comply with government digital service accessibility standards. User research has been at the heart of developing the technology. There will also be assisted digital provision for those, mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, who are unable to use digital services; they will be able to get help either over the phone or in person if they need it. I commend the hon. Gentleman for seeking reassurance and hope that I have provided it. On that basis, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.