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The Parliamentary Secretary was asked--

Defamation Victims

33. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): If he will make a statement on the remedies available to the victims of defamers without assets. [101251]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): Criminal libel is available, although it is rarely used, and the Attorney- General's consent to a prosecution is required. Under any other circumstances, the courts are open to everyone, regardless of means. New rules of court for defamation proceedings will be introduced in the new year. They will make it possible for defamation claims to be tackled more quickly and at a lower cost than at present. We also intend to consult in the new year on perceived abuses of defamation procedures.

Dr. Lewis: I thank the Minister for that answer and I declare an interest as a victim of a destitute defamer. I also thank the Minister for the time that he has already spent discussing and corresponding with me about this

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difficult matter. Does he accept that there is currently no civil remedy that is practically available to the victim of a destitute defamer, because it is impossible to sue such a person without incurring irrecoverable costs and having to pay them when the defamer goes bankrupt?

I am glad that the Minister acknowledges that the possibility of criminal libel proceedings continues to exist. In his review, will he consider using the law on harassment to deal with persistent destitute defamers; and will he bear it in mind that, in the age of the internet, anyone without assets can defame someone with impunity on a worldwide basis?

Mr. Lock: The hon. Gentleman has raised many issues. I shall deal first with the internet. I accept his point, although, as he knows, the regulation of the internet involves much wider issues than defamation. We must consider several issues in connection with the review of defamation procedures. The hon. Gentleman has raised one, but complaints have also been made about rich and powerful people using the law of defamation and the law of contempt to attempt to suppress legitimate comment about themselves and their activities. There are complaints from both ends of the spectrum. However, I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxieties, some of which will be addressed in the consultation paper that we intend to issue in the new year.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): On that point, what about people who claim that they have been defamed, but the action that they bring is bankrolled by other people? I am thinking of no particular individual when I ask that question, but if the action subsequently fails, surely the bankrollers should be liable for the costs?

Mr. Lock: My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point and I share his anxiety. Anyone who puts an individual in funds, through a blind trust, to libel or support the prosecution of a libel, approaches the line where the courts might look to that party for costs or damages if the case fails. It would not be right to comment on any particular case, but those who procure or fund others to fight libel cases may find themselves responsible for the consequences of their actions. It is a matter for the courts.


34. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): What plans she has to increase the total number of magistrates. [101252]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor requires his local advisory committees to recommend for appointment sufficient magistrates to enable the courts to operate efficiently. The number of lay magistrates has increased by approximately 8.5 per cent. since 1988, to a total of 30,260 on 1 January 1999.

Mr. Waterson: I thank the Minister for that answer. However, does she accept that one of the consequences of the Government's proposals to abolish trial by jury is that, in most cases, the magistrate can make the ultimate decision about where a defendant has to face trial?

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Does she further accept that that must mean extra pressure on lists in magistrates courts? The direct result of that must be a need to recruit more magistrates.

Jane Kennedy: There has of course been a recent recruitment drive, which resulted in a large number of applications, and some applicants are being appointed at the moment. Local and central recruitment initiatives are being undertaken.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): Is the Minister aware that a number of magistrates in Gravesham have said that they would leave the Bench if the Kent magistrates courts committee goes ahead with its proposal to close Gravesend magistrates court, and that their opposition to the proposal is shared by the local police, the citizens advice bureau, the local authorities and most of my constituents? Is she further aware that the committee has been criticised in a recent inspection report for its failure properly to consult on proposals for closure? Will she therefore make clear to the committee the importance of consulting the local community before going ahead with such plans?

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Kent magistrates courts committee is responsible under statute for the efficient and effective running of the courts in its area. I expect it to respond constructively to the inspectorate's recommendations, and my officials are monitoring the situation in Kent. They and the inspectorate are offering support to the committee, and I have asked my officials to keep me closely informed of developments.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): On 25 November last, we debated in Committee an increase in the number of stipendiary magistrates and Members from all three parties emphasised the continuing importance of the lay magistracy. The Minister informed the Committee that research into the cost of the magistracy was to be commissioned by her Department. Has the tender for the research been accepted, and who has been accepted to conduct it? Will she confirm that no precipitate action will be taken in relation either to the lay or to the stipendiary magistracy without full consultation?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman has asked me a number of questions and I shall write to him on the detail, but I understand that that detail is in the public arena. There is support from both sides of the House for the principle of the lay magistracy and the Government are committed to its continuing to play a significant part in the criminal justice system.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): While my hon. Friend's Department is not responsible for the appointment of magistrates in the county of Lancashire, does she think that enough is being done to ensure that magistrate appointments--not only in number, but in width and scope--are representative of the communities that magistrates serve? Representation should be as wide as in juries for trials.

Jane Kennedy: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that good point, which he made very well. He might like to know that although the Lancashire advisory committee

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has not yet established its recruitment needs for the coming year, its initial feeling is that there is a general shortage of applicants in Lancashire--in particular, of Labour supporters.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does the Minister accept that not only the number of magistrates, but the number of court buildings is at issue? Under the Government's proposals, both in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill, it is likely that there will be far more magistrates courts trials. Does she accept that it may be essential for the Government to reconsider aspects of the closure of magistrates courts and give indications to local magistrates courts committees?

Will the Minister reconsider the undertaking that she gave to the Committee, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett)--that she would either write to me and to other members of the Committee with the details of whether the Government were reconsidering the compliance cost of the 1998 Act in the light of the likelihood of more magistrates courts trials taking place, or would put those details in the Library? I checked with the Library no more than 10 minutes ago and nothing has yet been placed there. The Minister gave her undertaking two weeks ago. I hope that she agrees that she should have written to us all by now.

Jane Kennedy: The answer is being prepared and will be delivered to members of the Committee. I apologise if I have kept them waiting, but I wanted to get the details right. The Government are committed to modernising the service provided by magistrates courts committees. We believe that it is a matter for local determination and that it is better for local magistrates courts committees to decide on the provision for the area. They have the best view of that as they are the local providers. This year we are spending £16 million on improvements to magistrates courts in addition to the on-going court building programme.

Lichfield Courts

35. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): If she will make a statement on the future of the magistrates and county courts in Lichfield. [101253]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Jane Kennedy): The hon. Member will be aware from our meeting on 10 November that on 2 September 1999, Staffordshire magistrates courts committee made its final determination to close the Lichfield magistrates court, with effect from 28 February 2000, and sittings will cease there from 31 December 1999. The appeal process is under way and in September 1998 the Lord Chancellor gave permission to begin a public consultation exercise on the proposal to close the Lichfield county court. That has now concluded. A number of detailed responses were received which I am considering carefully.

Madam Speaker: Mr. Harry Cohen.

Mr. Fabricant: Do I remind you of him, Madam Speaker?

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I thank the Minister for her detailed reply. She said that the matter is still under consideration, but is she aware that the Staffordshire magistrates court committee has decided to refer no more cases to Lichfield magistrates court from the end of this year? Is it not prejudging her decision? When the excellent local newspaper, the Express & Star, questioned Mr. Peter Wooliscroft, chief executive of the Staffordshire magistrates court committee, he said, "The court is not closing. We just won't be using it." Is that not prejudging the Minister's decision, and is it not wrong?

Jane Kennedy: I acknowledge the robust and persistent representations that the hon. Gentleman has made on the proposed closure of the courts at Lichfield. The decision by the magistrates courts committee to cease listing cases at Lichfield does not prejudge the decision on the appeal. The decision on the court building will be made on the merits of the case.

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