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23 Nov 1999 : Column 578

Supreme Court of England and Wales

10.15 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move,

My hon. Friends and comrades who work through the usual channels--[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Will the House come to order. The hon. Lady is addressing the House.

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friends and comrades who work through the usual channels are keenly interested to find out how quickly I can persuade the House that the draft order should be approved. I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I do not seek to detain the House for too long.

The statutory ceiling for the number of High Court judges in England and Wales was last increased, from 85 to 98, by the Maximum Number of Judges Order 1993. This order will further increase that number to 106.

The High Court faces additional challenges in the coming years. Those will arise principally from the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. It has become clear that in the face of those challenges, even with the relief afforded by the implementation of the civil justice reforms in April this year, the High Court Bench will be under severe pressure unless additional judicial court time can be brought on stream as and when required.

This Administration came to office promising to modernise Government and strike a new--and better--balance between the citizen and the state. Incorporating the European convention on human rights is a part of that promise. The Human Rights Act will create and promote a culture of human rights in Britain. It will make citizens more aware of their rights and make it much easier for them to enforce them. It is the fulfilment of the Government's pledge that the rights enshrined in the European convention should be "brought home".

We must ensure that this important component of our programme of reform works effectively. The higher courts will have a key role in that. In particular, all first instance courts will be looking urgently to the judges in the Crown Office list and in the Court of Appeal for lead cases to inform the way in which they are to take decisions. We need to have enough judges to do that quickly so that cases do not build up in the lower courts awaiting the outcomes of leading cases.

The most significant effect on implementation of the 1998 Act is expected to be felt in the divisional court of the Queen's Bench and the Crown Office list. Those courts are the forums for challenging, through judicial review, the actions or decisions of any person or body charged with the performance of public acts and duties. The Human Rights Act imposes a duty on all public authorities to act in accordance with the European convention on human rights. Both court arenas may expect a substantial increase in work load.

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The assessment of the Lord Chancellor's Department is that applications for leave to move for judicial review in criminal cases may well double from the 300 received in 1998 to 600 per year. It is anticipated that the vast majority will require a hearing before a single judge. It is further thought that as many as one quarter of the applications may be allowed and would then proceed to the full divisional court for determination.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Jane Kennedy: I will, but my speech will be relatively short and there will be plenty of opportunity for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to make a speech of his own.

Mr. Hogg: Will the hon. Lady tell the House how many part-time High Court judges there are? What will be the effect on the number of High Court judges required if the decision on sheriffs in the Scottish courts applies in England?

Jane Kennedy: I do not have the exact figure in front of me, but I will try to get it before the end of the debate. The Lord Chancellor is considering the decision to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred. At this moment, it is not felt that it will have immediate implications, but those are being considered. A response will be forthcoming in due course.

The assessment of the Department is that applications for leave to move in criminal cases may well double, as I said. It is estimated that between 1,000 and 2,000 additional applications for leave to move for judicial review may be made in immigration cases after implementation of the Human Rights Act. Even if only a quarter were to receive it, it would lead to an increase of 65 per cent., or about 250 cases, in the Crown Office list.

Appeals from magistrates courts by way of cases stated may increase by as much as 70 per cent., particularly in the first two years after implementation of the Human Rights Act. Virtually all those appeals would have to be heard by the divisional court rather than a single judge. Other non-criminal applications for judicial review may increase by up to 20 per cent. The majority of those applications for leave will be taken by a single judge and one third may proceed to hearing before the divisional court.

In the family division, it is anticipated that human rights points will be taken in up to 50 per cent. of cases. The division has already determined that all cases raising such points should be heard at the Royal Courts of Justice, placing additional pressures on the High Court Bench in London.

In the criminal division of the Court of Appeal, implementation of the Human Rights Act is expected to lead to an increase of a third in cases coming to the court on points of law relating to the European convention on human rights. In the civil division of the Court of Appeal, pressure is expected to arise both from the Act and, this year, from appeals testing the recent civil justice reforms.

I have already referred to the expected increase in applications for judicial review in immigration cases. The Administration are committed to providing a firmer,

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fairer and faster system for dealing with immigration and asylum cases. The number of asylum applications to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate of the Home Office has already undergone a dramatic increase, from 29,600 in 1996 to the number expected for this year, 85,000. That huge increase will inevitably lead to a dramatic increase in the number of appeals. In 1996-97, there were 23,200 asylum appeals. Next year, about 40,000 are expected, but it could be as many as 67,000.

An integral element of the Immigration and Asylum Act is the provision of speedier initial decision making and appeals. It is therefore essential that the courts are ready to meet that challenge. The criminal division of the Court of Appeal and the Queen's Bench divisional court will require additional sittings, both by the High Court Bench and by lords justices to handle the expected influx of human rights and immigration work. The latter requirement will be met by diverting the time of some lords justices from the civil division of the Court of Appeal. That deficit will have to be made good by a commensurate increase in High Court judges.

It is essential that the courts are well prepared to meet additional pressures. The Lord Chancellor has judged that some increases to the High Court Bench need to be made by the beginning of next year.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Some of us are very concerned about the court system. It appears at one and the same time to be expanding considerably at High Court level while seeking to contract at magistrates court level. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the extra cost of the judges will not be taken from existing budgets? If it is, and many of us are to lose access to magistrates courts because of concentration on the ground of economy, there will be some misunderstanding if at the same time extra people are being appointed at the top of the system.

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. She will forgive me because I am very new to this brief but as I understand it, the reform for which we are seeking approval tonight will enable the higher courts to meet the increased work load that is the inevitable consequence of various Acts that have already been passed. The work load in the lower courts is not expected to decline, so it is not a cost-saving measure.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On the question of work load, I hesitate to intervene, but it was in Linlithgow sheriff court that the crucial judgment was made in relation to the temporary sheriffs. My hon. Friend cannot be expected to do this tonight, but as the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, some reference should be made to the chaotic situation that has been created in Scotland.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that this is an order relating to the Supreme Court of England and Wales.

Jane Kennedy: I am searching for the advice thatI could give to my hon. Friend. The issue is straightforward. The decision in the Scottish court was a decision for the Scottish courts. I cannot answer for decisions in the Scottish courts. However, the

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implications of that decision are being considered by the Lord Chancellor, who will in due course make a response to it.

I am seeking to draw my comments to a conclusion--not in order to avoid further interventions. I hope that the House will forgive my taking these few minutes to explain why the order is necessary. I commend it to the House.

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