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Session 2000-01
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Maximum Number of Judges (Northern Ireland) Order 2001

Sixth Standing Committee

on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 1 February 2001(Afternoon)

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Draft Maximum Number of Judges

(Northern Ireland) Order 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department (Mr. David Lock): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Maximum Number of Judges (Northern Ireland) Order 2001.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Olner. I do not anticipate that our proceedings will take long.

The order is solely about the number of High Court judges in Northern Ireland, not about their method of appointment, terms of office or any decisions that they reach when discharging their judicial office. The maximum number of High Court judges in Northern Ireland is prescribed in section 2 of the Judicature (Northern Ireland) Act 1978. That statutory maximum was set originally at six and increased from six to seven in 1993. The purpose of the present order is to increase it from seven to nine.

The need for the increase arises primarily from the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998. The Lord Chancellor has considered carefully, in consultation with the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, the likely increase in the volume and length of proceedings in consequence of the incorporation into domestic law of the European convention on human rights. It is considered that the anticipated additional work load in the High Court in Northern Ireland will be such as to give rise to the need for extra judicial support.

Towards the end of 1999, the House approved an increase in the maximum number of High Court judges in England and Wales from 98 to 106, which also took account of anticipated work load pressures as a consequences of the Human Rights Act. However, I am pleased to be able to tell the Committee that work loads for High Court judges in England and Wales are stable. I am sure that hon. Members will recognise that provision to enable an increase in the High Court judicial complement is also required in Northern Ireland if the benefits of the Act are to be given effect in that jurisdiction.

If Parliament approves the order and it is made at Privy Council, it will come into force on 2 April allowing for the appointment at that stage of an additional High Court judge. There are no immediate plans to make a second appointment to the High Court Bench up to the proposed new statutory maximum of nine. However, that will be kept under review. It is considered important that the facility should be there to allow for a second additional appointment, should experience demonstrate that to be necessary.

The Human Rights Act is the fulfilment of the Government's promise to bring home the fundamental rights enshrined in the European convention on human rights. We are building a culture where citizens of this country will be aware of their rights, and we will have an accessible mechanism for enforcing them. Having put that central reform in place through the Human Rights Act, it is essential that we do whatever else is necessary to ensure that the new arrangements will work efficiently. One aspect is having enough senior judges to hear the anticipated increase in the number and length of cases. Approval of the order will enable the High Court in Northern Ireland to meet those challenges and to ensure the efficient and timely disposal of court business. I trust that the Committee will see fit to approve it.

4.33 pm

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Olner, and agree with him in that I do not anticipate that our proceedings will be lengthy. You and I have many cross-party interests in common but this is first time that I have been on the Front Bench under your Chairmanship, and I am particularly pleased to be so this afternoon.

I wish to raise a couple of points with the Minister. He is aware that one of the continuing issues between those on the two Front Benches in relation to such a policy is the cost of implementing the Human Rights Act. As I have raised the issue with him many times in Question Time in the Chamber and in various Committees, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Opposition believe that the Government woefully underestimated the cost of implementing the Human Rights Act. Funnily enough, I do not recall the Government telling us anything about the fact that there would be an increased salary burden and an extra administrative burden when the Act came into force, or that we would have to have two more judges in Northern Ireland. Increasing their number from seven to nine may be good, but it should be done for reasons more connected with the efficient disposal of the existing work load. I should like to hear from the Minister about that.—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. Mr. Pound, you should not be eating or drinking in Committee.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): I beg your pardon, Mr. Olner. What should I do with this food?

The Chairman: Take it outside.

Mr. Hawkins: Not for the first time, the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) is guaranteed an appearance in ``Black Dog'' and other such columns.

The Minister says that the Government are building a culture in which people are aware of their rights. I carefully wrote down the phrase that the Minister used. My view is that the Government have spent the past four years destroying British culture. Most judges whom I know in Northern Ireland and on the mainland are more concerned that people are told about their responsibilities rather than just their rights. We now have a society, encouraged by the Labour Government, in which people are vastly more aware of their rights but are encouraged to ignore their responsibilities. I suspect that Government will rue the consequences of that when they face the electorate in two or three months' time.

I should like the Minister to answer a specific question. Although he said that the order will not affect the way in which judges are appointed, I and many other colleagues in my party—as well as those in the Liberal Democrats and those not represented in the Committee, especially the Ulster parties—would like a specific assurance that the Government, when they make further changes to the position of High Court judges in the Province, have no plans to allow judges from the Republic of Ireland any jurisdiction north of the border. I should like to hear the Minister say that for the record. I am in favour of cross-border co-operation for security reasons.

For a long time, I have been an associate member of the Anglo-Irish parliamentary body. I have many friends in the various different parties in the Dail, the Parliament of the Republic of Ireland. There is huge sensitivity about that issue, and there are many people in the Province who are suspicious of the Government's concessions. People fear that the Government may be thinking of giving judges from the Republic of Ireland court jurisdiction in the Province. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government have no such plans, so that we have confirmation in Hansard.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): Is not what the hon. Gentleman just said sheer and utter claptrap, particularly when one considers that people such as me are members of the Irish and English Bars and some people are members of the Northern Bar, Southern Irish Bar and the English Bar and we all happily get on and work in each other's countries and jurisdictions? We all just get on with it. Why cannot judges be the same? Or has the hon. Gentleman some horrible fear that Irishmen might be intelligent enough to judge him?

Mr. Hawkins: I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that some, including him, are members of the English and Irish Bars. However, I am sure that he will recognise that for the Government to give judges from another sovereign state jurisdiction in a part of the United Kingdom would have profound constitutional significance. He knows that perfectly well.

I have asked questions that I should like the Minister to answer for the record. It is important that the courts of Northern Ireland should have the right number of High Court judges. I only wish that, in passing the order, we were approving an increase because of existing responsibilities in relation to the law, and not because of some of the more malign consequences of the incorporation into British law of an Act that may have worthwhile aims but has costs and implications far beyond what the Government have admitted.

4.39 pm

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): This is an uncontroversial order. Nevertheless, I have one or two points to make to which I feel sure that the Minister will be able to respond. I agree that, with the incorporation of the European convention on human rights, it is likely that there will be additional litigation and it is wise to anticipate that. The Liberal Democrats therefore support the order.

First, will the Minister tell us the cost of an appointment of that nature? Is it merely the salary and benefits of the judge, or are additional costs involved? Will other staff have to be involved? Will judges be entitled to cars and other benefits?

Secondly, how are judges to be appointed? I presume that they are to be appointed by the Lord Chancellor. I also presume that they are to be drawn from the ranks of the Bar or the Law Society of Northern Ireland. If not, will the Minister tell the Committee whether they will be drawn from the wider ambit of the rest of the United Kingdom?

Finally, I want to make a little cri de coeur. The Lord Chancellor appoints puisne judges and High Court judges. It is the view of Liberal Democrat Members—and of Labour Members and some Conservative Members—that it is time that the Government introduced proposals, as they have done in Scotland, to set up a judicial appointments commission.

4.40 pm


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