Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. Do you feel confident that the legal system is making rapid enough progress in using information technology?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think we are doing quite well. You would always wish that you could do better. I think we are making good progress, yes.

Mr Malins

  61. Lord Chancellor, a couple of questions about courts. I should declare an interest, as you know, as a part-time member of the judiciary.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Quite.

  62. First on security. I am sure you will have been as shocked as the rest of us to have read recently about the incident involving Judge Ann Goddard at the Old Bailey which highlights that there is a potential problem which will not go away and is going to be around.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes.

  63. I wondered if you had got any general thoughts arising out of that as to perhaps any way forward or any conclusions?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I have a great deal of thoughts about it, as you might imagine. In fact, I spoke to Judge Goddard at her home on the evening of the quite deplorable attack on her. I would like to take the opportunity of this Committee to say how much she really is to be admired.

Mr Winnick

  64. We certainly agree with that sentiment
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) She took a day off work, when many might have taken a lot longer, and was immediately back sitting as a judge. It was a very nasty attack on her indeed. Now the facts of the Judge Goddard attack I would not conceal from you are worrying. In all courts the security of the prisoner in the dock is the responsibility of the Prison Service, you will appreciate, not the Court Service for which I am responsible. Now there were three professional security guards in the dock, still the defendant escaped, still he succeeded in attacking the judge. It was a court clerk who pulled him off but not before injury had been done to the judge, closely followed by a detective constable who was in court. So, unsurprisingly, I have commissioned a departmental security inquiry which, among other things, will have to consider how these three security guards did not react successfully to the emergency. I am looking for, and will receive, a report within a matter of weeks.

Mr Malins

  65. Thank you. Lastly, on courts, locality. It is quite topical. There is an increasing worry, is there not, that some courts in remote areas are being closed and people have to travel quite large distances now for access to civil and criminal justice? Whilst we understand the financial constraints that can be a problem, can it not?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Oh, yes, obviously.

  66. I hope you are aware of that and have your finger on the pulse.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Certainly. Of course you want courts that provide the totality of services that people require, whether they be victims, whether they be witnesses, whether they be women with children. You cannot always keep open the local court which people naturally have love and affection for because it has been there for a long time but I certainly recognise what you say. On the previous subject, we will really, I think, have to think very, very fundamentally about security in courts. There are about 420 guards, they are not responsible for the dock but there are about 420 guards in courts across the country, 160 in the Crown Court, 200 in the combined courts and 60 in the county courts. We are aware that an increasing area of tension, quite obviously, is in the family hearing centres because of the sensitivity of the issues and the deep emotions that they give rise to. I am not ruling out anything here. One fundamental proposal that is around is that either the former routine uniformed police presence should be reinstated or—and this would be a very long term venture—that a new uniformed service should be established by the court service to provide security in courts. I have asked my officials, quite apart from a report into the incident on Judge Goddard, which I am not in the least surprised was the incident with which you started, to report within three months on the adequacy of the existing arrangements around the country and on the feasibility of more fundamental proposals. There is also, I would not conceal from you, a real problem in the county courts where district judges have to administer what is—I must not say summary civil justice because it is not summary in that sense—civil justice robustly and expeditiously and there you have to be concerned about the security of the district judges as well. I am very, very alive to it.

Mr Winnick

  67. Perhaps it would be possible, Lord Chancellor, for either you or Sir Hayden to pass on to Judge Goddard our deep sympathy with what happened but, moreover, her dedication to her duties. It was indeed an example of a judge determined to carry on her responsibilities and duties regardless of what had occurred. We much admired her for that.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) We will certainly pass that on.

  Mr Winnick: I am going to ask Mr Howarth to ask you a few questions on what might be somewhat more controversial, the Human Rights Act.

Mr Howarth

  68. Lord Chancellor, the Human Rights Act, of course, has been in force now for just about three months, coming into force on 2 October last year.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Yes.

  69. I understand your Department has introduced arrangements to survey cases through data collection systems in the magistrates courts and the courts service to see how it is working. Inevitably you will not be able to give us a full report on the effect so far, but can you tell us whether you have learnt any lessons from this Act to date? In particular perhaps you can tell us about the expenditure of £60 million a year for the costs of implementing it, how that is working out?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Well, I do not recognise that figure at all. What has been set aside for Human Rights Act implementation is £21 million for additional court time plus £39 million against the possibility of an increased Legal Aid bill, and that is where the £60 million comes from. I would say really quite frankly that the implementation of the Human Rights Act has proved to be a triumph and that all the press reports of chaos in the courts are completely misconceived and that, unsurprisingly, our courts, who have had two years to prepare for the implementation of the Human Rights Act, are dealing with the matter with remarkable efficiency. I am looking at a Financial Times editorial of 27 December in which they say—and I can confirm it by the amplus detail—"The Human Rights Act, which became law in October, was condemned by many who claimed it would create a legal nightmare—jamming the courts with worthless cases and rendering centuries old British traditions illegal. But such predictions have proved to be wide of the mark. Judges have shown a commendable willingness to throw out bad cases while expediting more serious claims". Then tribute is paid to the smooth transition to the new rights based culture, which reflected careful preparation in Whitehall over a period of two years, training of all judges right down to every magistrate. The results have been excellent. There is no chaos in the courts and I can give you chapter and verse for it if you wish.

  70. Lord Chancellor, I am sure the Financial Times is daily reading in your household, I am not certain it is daily reading in every household in the country and I am not sure you would be well advised, therefore, to base your case on the editorial writers of the Financial Times.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) What I would say to you, quite clearly, is that since what the Financial Times says is absolutely correct, and I know the full detail to back it up, on this occasion the Financial Times has been both objective and correct.

  71. As you know, Lord Chancellor, the fact is that there are a great many people who believe that this law does represent a very substantial and, indeed, unacceptable shift in power from Parliament to the courts. I would like just to take up two points here, if I may.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I do not agree that many people think that at all. I think that the overwhelming body of opinion in this country, if it was ever to be tested on this single issue, would take the view that the human rights, which every country in Western Europe enjoys, and which are directly enforceable through the ordinary courts of every other major Western European country, should also be enjoyed by people in this country in their own courts without having to beat the lonely and expensive road to Strasbourg. On the contrary, I believe that over time the Human Rights Act will prove to be a much appreciated and highly valued piece of legislation which this Government has passed.

  72. There are also a lot of people in this country who are rightly coming to the conclusion that this Government is an authoritarian government, that it has contempt for Parliament. The Prime Minister, as you know, is seldom here and—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) That point does not, if I may say so, appear to relate to the previous point which was about the popularity or otherwise of the Human Rights Act.

  Mr Winnick: One at a time, please. Let the Lord Chancellor respond, Mr Howarth, and then you can continue your questioning.

  Mr Howarth: I was finishing my point which is that this Human Rights Act in the view of many does represent a shift of power away from Parliament. If I can cite one example—

  Mr Winnick: No. By way of a question, if you please, Mr Howarth, the same way that I would ask any other Member of this Committee, not a statement, by way of a question, please.

Mr Howarth

  73. Chairman, I do not think I need instruction on how to ask a question of the Lord Chancellor. May I put it to the Lord Chancellor that when the Lord Chief Justice stated in an article in The New Statesman—not known to be an impartial organ—that he thought it was wrong for the Home Secretary to have the power to determine the tariff for adult murderers and that if the matter came before the courts it was likely that that power would go, surely that is an example where the Lord Chief Justice should not be seeking to make that sort of policy? These are issues which should be determined by this democratically elected Parliament or certainly by the democratically elected House of Commons.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) Judges have always given public lectures and written articles which have been controversial. This is not the consequence of the Human Rights Act. The real issue is whether the Human Rights Act is good or bad. I have given you the reasons why I think it is good. Ultimately sovereignty remains with Parliament. We have not even had a declaration of incompatibility other than in the planning area under this Act. There will be precious few over time because our laws do generally conform with the European Convention. We were substantially the architects of it. Our laws are substantially compliant. Of course, with any new system of legislation bad arguments are raised from time to time in the courts and they have been dealt with robustly by the higher courts. This will become part of the democratic furniture of this country which people will applaud.

  74. May I just ask you a further question about a case which took place in Scotland where, of course, the Act has been in operation for, I think, two years longer than it has been here. You will know that there was a case there involving the Proceeds of Crime Act where drug traffickers had their assets seized, as Parliament had ruled should happen, and, indeed, that has been in force since 1986, and the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh ruled that confiscated assets of convicted drug traffickers breached European Human Rights law. May I put it to you, Lord Chancellor, people in this country generally see drugs as being a major problem and drug traffickers as being the most odious people that there are in this country. They find it astonishing -let me put it that way—that the courts should place the rights of the trafficker over the democratically determined view of Parliament. Surely that is the way these issues should be judged? Are we not going to see more cases like that which appeared in Scotland as the Act progresses in England?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) You seem to be unaware that in a similar case in England the Court of Appeal Criminal Division has ruled that the legislation concerning confiscation orders is not incompatible. The case may or may not go to the House of Lords. I have to say that if you look at it over the whole sphere, if you look at it over, so far, confiscation orders, breach of bail, any of the range of cases that have come up, the courts are reacting sensibly and proportionately. Let me quote from Lord Bingham, the senior Law Lord, when addressing magistrates: "You will hear many arguments based on the Human Rights Act. Some of those arguments no doubt will be good. Many will be bad. You must of course listen to the argument, take advice from your clerk and make up your own minds. But I would, if I may, recommend a measure of suspicion. Do not be too ready to accept that we have been doing everything wrong all these years. As a society we have on the whole been very respectful of Human Rights. We developed many of them. We have taken steps since the Act was passed to rectify some obvious deficiencies. So I would commend a measure of caution. If you conclude there is no breach, it will always be open to a higher court to review your decision and reach a different conclusion". I can tell you that you can take it that the senior judiciary from the senior Law Lord, the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls, right down have all these considerations well in mind.

  75. How would you react, Lord Chancellor, if the Countryside Alliance were to claim their rights to go hunting and not to be criminalised, as is the plan of the overwhelming number of members of your party, if they were to seek to exercise their human right and if the court upheld it was their right along with those of anglers and shooters?
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) The Human Rights Act will apply to all future legislation of whatever character. If anyone invokes the Human Rights Act successfully then what they are doing is their right. I have to remind you that the Human Rights Act was passed by Parliament. It is now part of the law of the land and people have their rights under the Human Rights Act until it is changed.

  76. Of course there are a number of Acts passed by this Government which do not enjoy the wholehearted consent of Parliament, as you will appreciate, as many Acts passed by the Conservative Government did not enjoy the same unanimous support. Let me put this point to you further, Lord Chancellor. The Prime Minister's wife who, you know, is a partner in a special firm of barristers set up specifically—
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) She is a member of a set of chambers called Matrix Chambers.

  77.—in order to exploit the new body of law that is likely to come in, said in an article that it is not enough for public authorities to refrain from violating rights themselves. Of course the other thing is we are looking at establishing an investigation into racism at the moment, effectively. What Martin Myers, the former President of the Law Society, pointed out—a very great man he is indeed—is one has to co-operate to investigate effectively.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I am not going to comment on a straight quote which I am quite unable to verify from Miss Booth—

  78. It was in The Daily Telegraph.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg)—be it in The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper which I read avidly every day, or whatever, I am not going to comment on that, but of course there are people who practise in judicial review, as Miss Booth does, who will now be practising in the human rights' area as well. One of the most interesting things about the Human Rights Act, you know, is that it has scarcely generated any new cases. The prophets of doom who are progressively being proved wrong said there will be an enormous influx of new business into the courts and the courts will grind to a halt. In fact, the truth is that almost all the Human Rights Act points are being raised in existing cases so it is just an added dimension to an existing case and there is no evidence whatsoever of the courts being overwhelmed, on the contrary.

  79. If I could just put it to you, Lord Chancellor, the jury is still out in the sense that I am sure you will accept this is a new development. I do not wish to challenge that point which has just been made. Can I just come back to the figure you mentioned about the £39 million being set aside for Legal Aid.
  (Lord Irvine of Lairg) I think that is the right figure. I said that off the top of my head.

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