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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Maximum Number of Stipendiary Magistrates Order 1999

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 25 November 1999

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Draft Maximum Number of Stipendiary Magistrates Order 1999

4.30 pm

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

    ``That the Committee has considered the draft Maximum Number of Stipendiary Magistrates Order 1999.''

It is a privilege for me to appear in my first Standing Committee as a Minister with you as Chairman, Mr. Olner. I am grateful that we can rely on your guidance during our proceedings.

Section 11(4) of the Justices of the Peace Act 1997 sets the number of stipendiary magistrates outside the inner London and City of London commission areas at 50. The draft order before the Committee increases the maximum number to 56.

When bringing this order to the Committee, we must remember the important role of the lay magistracy. On 9 November, I took the opportunity in the House to pay tribute to lay magistrates and I am pleased to have an early opportunity of doing so again. The Government believe that the lay magistracy is central to the administration of justice in this country. Earlier this year, my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, in an effort to raise the profile of the lay magistracy, launched a national advertising campaign. It is important that people from all walks of life are encouraged to apply to become magistrates. Part of the purpose of the national campaign was to raise awareness that the qualities necessary to make someone suitable to be a magistrate are not extraordinary. They are possessed by people from all walks of life. Fifteen thousand inquiries were received and we are eager to see how many turn into applications and appointments.

I want to take the opportunity to correct misleading reports in the press recently about the future of the lay magistracy. The Government are committed to the principle of the lay magistracy continuing to play a significant part in our system of justice. There are no plans to replace them with stipendiary magistrates.

Stipendiary appointments are made to support the lay bench. Before a decision is taken to create a stipendiary post, my noble and learned Friend's local advisory committees will consult the local magistrates' courts committee, bench chairmen and justices' clerks. In addition, my noble and learned Friend has recently decided that the Magistrates Association must also be included in any consultation. Assessment of the need for a new post is made against criteria which are set out in the Lord Chancellor's directions for advisory committees on justices of the peace. There are three main criteria: too many sittings by lay volunteers, bench or benches becoming too large, and excessive delays in dealing with cases.

Before bringing the order before the Committee, the Lord Chancellor consulted interested parties on a proposal to increase the maximum number of stipendiaries to 60. He received general support, except from the Magistrates Association, which was concerned that with the imminent changes in the Access to Justice Act 1999 to establish a unified stipendiary bench, it was not—

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): I am not being critical, but the order increases the number of stipendiaries from 50 to 56. I approve of and support that, but has any account been taken of the proposals in the mode of trial provisions, which will increase the number of cases dealt with in magistrates courts by some 20,000 a year? Surely, amateur lay magistrates are in no position to cope with such a work load and an increase of six in the provision of professional magistrates is nowhere near adequate.

Jane Kennedy: The order increases the maximum number of stipendiaries to 56 to deal with the work load that is being experienced by the courts as they currently stand. The proposal to increase the maximum ceiling to 60 was considered by the Lord Chancellor. However, the Magistrates Association felt that, given the other changes that were taking place—especially the unification of the stipendiary benches—it was not the right time to seek an increase in the maximum number for provincial stipendiaries to 60. Such consultation will continue. I know that that my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is keen to ensure that one of the benefits of unification is that the unified bench of district judges (magistrates courts) that will replace the existing metropolitan and provincial stipendiaries is deployed effectively. That will require greater flexibility in their use.

Much remains to be done before the provisions of the 1999 Act can be brought into force. We must increase the statutory maximum now if the areas that urgently need stipendiary assistance are to receive it. However, having considered carefully the views of the Magistrates Association, my noble and learned Friend has—as I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham)—decided to seek an increase to the minimum required that is sufficient only for new posts that have already been identified as essential to the smooth running of the criminal justice system. That is why the Government are today seeking approval for an increase to 56 posts only.

Those extra posts will complement the existing 48 provincial stipendiary magistrates. The strength of the lay magistracy has been increasing year by year since 1988, and it is now some 30,000 strong. Areas with stipendiary magistrates have found that they support the lay bench well. I am sure that if the Committee accepts the order, the supportive role of stipendiary magistrates will continue to develop and improvements in the delivery of justice will be apparent.

The Government are keen to ensure that the increase is not seen, in any way, as casting doubts over the future of the lay magistracy. My noble and learned Friend, in particular, has confirmed his support for the lay magistracy on numerous occasions. The appointment of a stipendiary must always be seen as complementary to the lay bench, rather than displacing it.

The effect of the order will be to support the lay magistracy and benefit the administration of justice, and I commend it to the Committee.

4.37 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I join the Minister in welcoming you as Chairman of our proceedings, Mr. Olner. I also welcome the Minister to her first Committee. I congratulated her on her appointment as a Minister during a previous occasion in the Chamber.

The official Opposition are happy to agree with the provisions of the order. I echo the Minister's tribute to the work done by the many thousands of lay magistrates and existing stipendiaries. I am sure that the Minister agrees that the introduction of stipendiary magistrates has been a welcome addition to this country's judicial strength. The fact that the Government are again increasing their number demonstrates the valuable role that they play in addition to the work that has been done for many generations by lay magistrates.

Mr. Bermingham: I am sorry to be a nuisance, Mr. Olner.

The Chairman: I assure the hon. Gentleman that if he is a nuisance there will be trouble.

Mr. Bermingham: As a practising member of the Bar—as is, or was, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins)—I have an interest in the matter. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, while the growth of the stipendiary magistrates across provincial areas is welcome and worthwhile, an increase of merely six is a trifle in the light of what is required? As we change the concept of trial—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman's contribution is turning into a speech rather than an intervention.

Mr. Bermingham: I apologise, Mr. Olner. I accept your strictures, temporarily. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is a de minimus increase, and that we should be considering the whole concept in a much broader context?

Mr. Hawkins: I do agree with that. However, I also recognise that the Minister was right to say that, pending the introduction of the provisions of the Access to Justice Act 1999, which will change the title from stipendiary magistrates to district judges (magistrates courts), the Government face a problem in that the Magistrates Association—a powerful body whose views have to be taken seriously—is saying ``Please don't increase the number of stipendiaries yet''. It would be extraordinary if the Government—recognising that the nature of the work load is bound to change if their proposals in this year's legislative programme are accepted by the House, which remains a matter for debate—did not acknowledge that there would have to be further changes. Opposition parties would then have an opportunity to criticise a Government that had decided to ignore the strongly expressed view of the Magistrates Association in their consultation.

On this occasion, I understand why the Minister and her noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor have taken the view that they have. However, the intervention by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) gives me the opportunity once again to stress that when the Government bring forward the proposals announced in the Queen's Speech to change the arrangements relating to mode of trial, the Conservative party—and, I think, also the Liberal Democrats, as the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) made clear at Solicitor General's Questions today—will oppose them. If the Government's proposals to change mode of trial and to restrict the right to trial by jury are defeated—

 
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