The written information procedure

Part of Prisons and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 5:00 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 5:00, 18 Ebrill 2017

I will speak to Government amendments 51 and 50, but amendment 95 raises the important issue of whether the written information procedure in the Bill should apply to young defendants. Government amendment 51 clarifies how the court might proceed if a youth is on the cusp of turning 18, and Government amendment 50 looks at how the expanded power to remit cases from the youth court should apply when a defendant turns 18.

The written information procedure means that a person charged with offences may choose to give specified information to the court, including an indication of a guilty or not guilty plea. The plan is that that will usually occur online through the Government’s digital channel, which is a unified digital case management system that is currently being developed by HMCTS. Although young defendants may therefore indicate a plea earlier than now, amendment 51 makes sure that the court will retain discretion in relation to those on the cusp of turning 18 so that it can still treat them as youths, because they will no longer have to wait until the first courtroom hearing. Therefore when a defendant turns 18 having previously indicated a plea online, the youth court may still treat them as a youth and deal with them using the powers under the Children and Young Persons Act 1963.

Amendment 50 clarifies how the expanded power to remit cases from the youth court to another criminal court will apply when a defendant turns 18 between charge and trial. If a defendant turns 18 post-charge and the youth court decides pre-trial to remit the youth to the mainstream magistrate’s court, the receiving court will not be able to continue to treat them as a youth, and for example use the more extensive custodial powers of a youth court. As a result, defendants will have greater certainty about what will happen as a result of the youth court’s decision to remit. They will therefore be in a better position to decide whether at the time of remittal they want to elect for jury trial. From time to time the age of a defendant may be unclear, and there are young defendants who, for example, are also victims of human trafficking. In some such cases, fresh information may arise later on that allows the court to more accurately determine age. Amendment 50 caters for those scenarios and allows a case to be remitted back to the youth court.

Turning to Opposition amendment 95, the purpose of clause 23, combined with clause 30 and schedule 3, is to reduce the number of times young defendants and their parents or guardians need to travel to court. That is part of the distinct service model that is being developed for young persons. For example, when a case must be sent to the Crown court because it can be tried only with an indictment, young defendants will no longer have to travel to a youth court to allow that simple process to occur.

That is important, because there has been a 70% decline in the number of proceedings against young people in the criminal courts since 2006-07. Although that reduction is welcome, its scale does pose logistical challenges. In some areas, sittings of the youth court are in fewer locations and are already occurring less frequently, causing delays. Allowing case management at the pre-trial stages of cases to take place outside the courtroom means that young defendants ought only have to travel to court for a trial or for a sentencing hearing. Through its six-year reform programme, HMCTS is developing a specific service model for young defendants, including those who provide information in writing. It is a distinct youth justice system for children and young persons. Young defendants will therefore continue to be subject to procedures and processes that are different from those for adults.

The Bill provides a number of safeguards applicable to young defendants who choose to provide information in writing. I will not say more about those at this stage, as we have clause 30 to come. In the light of those safeguards and the distinct service model that is being developed, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw amendment 95.