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Lady Hermon: Could the Minister explain why the disqualification of someone who has a criminal conviction from sitting as a lay magistrate is not justified, when someone who is bankrupt or who has made an arrangement with his trustee or creditors would be ineligible to sit as a lay magistrate? That seems extraordinary.
Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady will see from the terms of the clause that all those situations would provide reasons to remove a magistrate, but would not require his removal. The earlier part of my argument suggested the need for flexibility, not the imposition of an absolute bar. I do not accept amendments Nos. 71 to 74 because they would mean that an otherwise excellent appointee who had been convicted of a minor motoring offence would have to be removed from office. That would not be in the best interests of the administration of justice. I do not encourage magistrates or judgesor anybody elseto collect minor road traffic offence convictions, but if they were to acquire one it would not be an appropriate reason to remove them from office. That includes the offence of careless driving, the mens rea for which is carelessness, not deliberate action.
Lady Hermon: I noted the comparative treatment of those of an equivalent status in the rest of the United Kingdom. I obtained the latest copy of the directions for advisory committees on justices of the peace from the Libraryit is from July 1991, so it may have been updatedand it makes it clear that in the case of serious offences the Lord Chancellor must be informed immediately. The justice must not sit to adjudicate from the time of arrest to first appearance, and there is an expectation that the justice would resign after any further conviction for a serious offence. We can therefore make a comparative analysis with the position elsewhere.
Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady is right, and I have prayed in aid references to jurisdictions other than that of Northern Ireland. She is also right to say that the repeated commission of serious offences should lead to the consideration of the appropriateness and suitability of a person for judicial office, even if only as justice of the peace. However, for the very reasons that the hon. Lady is able to cite documents on the position in England and
My objection to the removal provision and the potential bar that the hon. Lady seeks is that it would be absolute and apply at the level of a very minor road traffic offence. I argue, with some merit, that that would not be in the best interests of the administration of justice.
Mr. Gregory Campbell: We had a similar debate in Committee on the issue of court security officers and whether any offence, perhaps relatively insignificant, should debar a person from employment. Could the Minister confirm that if the amendments were passed they would mean that a person could be debarred from being a lay magistrate but could, for example, be in charge of education in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman seeks to widen the debate, which is not about education or the structure of the Executive in Northern Ireland. My points are relevant to the Bill. I have addressed the issues raised by the amendments and it would not be in order to expand the debate into the qualifications necessary to be the Minister of Education or any other Minister in Northern Ireland. The Bill as drafted provides sufficient powers for the Lord Chancellor to exclude persons who have been convicted of prescribed offences, and I ask that the amendments be withdrawn.
Amendments Nos. 113 to 130 and 156 to 162 are of a technical nature and are consequential on clauses 10 to 12, dealing with justices of the peace and lay magistrates. They make specific textual amendments to a wide range of current legislation to ensure that the existing powers of justices of the peace are transferred either to lay magistrates or to resident magistrates. I do not think that the House would thank me for going into further detail.
We do not of course intend to remove the office of justice of the peace. Justices of the peace will continue in office and perform several important civic and ceremonial functions, which are also included in clause 4.
Mr. Blunt: This may not be a debate about education, but it could be, because the issues are technical and difficult. The Minister complains that he might repeat arguments that he made in Committee about which issues devolve and which do not, but those hon. Members not privileged to have served on the Committee would benefit from his instruction and education on the matter. One or two issues are still outstanding in relation to the surviving role of the Lord Chancellor, if any.
I invite the Minister's explanation on one of the areas of complication, which I shall illustrate for him. Schedule 3, paragraph 41(1), would amend section 10 by substituting for the phrase "Lord Chancellor" the words
The Minister did not deal with amendments Nos. 31 and 32, which concern the requirement for training courses to be completed before the appointment of lay magistrates. The Bill simply requires those appointed to have given an undertaking that they will attend such a course. I am not sure that is good enough: I think that those appointed should have completed the course, because that would show not just that they were committed to becoming lay magistrates by undertaking the necessary training but that there was no danger of their adopting the role of lay magistrate before being properly trained. The very undertaking of the course will show up any inherent problems.
I do not intend to press the matter to a Division, but I invite the Government to consider it. If the Minister cannot respond now, perhaps he will table amendments in another place if he thinks it appropriate for people to be trained before becoming lay magistrates.
The Minister has, I think, dealt with amendment No. 36, and the issue of funding. I accept his arguments about amendment No.43, although I may wish to discuss them further, but I want him to clarify what he said about amendment No. 37. This is a technical matter. Will the Minister confirm that, following the devolution of justice, it will be the Lord Chief Justice who can remove lay magistrates from office rather than the Lord Chancellor? I understand that to be the case, but I should be grateful for confirmation. Similarly, I should like confirmation, in the context of amendment No. 42, that the Lord Chancellor's role will not remain after the devolution of justice.
This is a difficult and technical area, and I freely admit that I have struggled to understand it precisely. The Minister may feel a trifle impatient at having to explain it again, but if we are to undertake this role in an area in which there appear to be innate contradictions, we as legislators should surely understand the issues before passing the proposals.
I am very unhappy with the Minister's response to interventionsespecially after hearing him explain Government amendment No. 112, which involves a considerable increase in the powers and functions of lay magistrates. I must say that we had not anticipated such a proposal. The functions concerned include
The present position is ludicrous. Someone who would have advisory and consultative powers in a DPP cannot become an independent member of a DPP if he has committed a criminal offence. We are told by the Minister, however, that a lay magistrate will not be disqualified for minor criminal offences.
Mr. Browne: The offence specified in the 2000 Act is far more serious than the sort of offence that the hon. Lady seeks to incorporate in the Bill. It attracts either a suspended sentence or a prison sentence.